Naturally dyed textiles may be central to creating a sustainable fashion industry

Sustainable Fashion: Words Fail Us

Sustainable fashion has become something of a buzzword in recent years. While many fashion brands use the phrase with genuine commitment and conviction, others pay little more than lip service to the ideals behind it. But for those of use who are not experts in the field, it can sometimes be difficult to work out exactly who’s who.

Worse still, even those with a genuine desire to produce sustainable clothing don’t always have a totally clear idea themselves of what this actually means in practice.

How can consumers tell when a product is authentically sustainable, rather than just made by a company cashing-in on this topical issue with opportunist marketing? By what criteria should we measure a brand’s claims to sustainability? And how can ecologically concerned brands do better in this area?

In short, what does the term sustainable fashion really mean, and when can an item of clothing be considered truly sustainable? Conversely, when is “sustainable fashion” not actually sustainable at all?

This article attempts to provide a more precise definition of the term sustainable fashion, in the hope of setting out a clearer set of goals for those wishing to become more sustainable themselves: either in the production of fashion items or in their habits as a consumer.

As I found out though, the topic of sustainable fashion is by no means as straightforward as it might at first seem. In fact, digging deeper into the issue has raised just as many questions as it’s answered. So be warned: if you’re at all idealistic in outlook, and care about sustainability, like me you’ll likely discover that ignorance was bliss!

Who is This Article For?

Firstly I have to be honest that this article was written just as much for the purpose of defining the term sustainable fashion for myself as it was in order to help you, the reader, make better buying choices. Promoting sustainability is at the core of this blog’s mission, so before going any further it’s essential that we (i.e. both interested readers and myself) arrive at a clearer understanding of what sustainable fashion really means.

Equally though, this article is intended to be useful for any clothing manufacturers who wish to gain a clearer idea of precisely what is involved in the production of truly sustainable fashion – so that they might come out with a product that better fits this description.

Overall, I look on this blog as a collaborative learning opportunity that will evolve over time. However I think that in the long term this article in particular will likely turn out to be a true work-in-progress. Consequently it will no doubt be regularly updated as I learn more about the subject; both from readers and from other sources.

Sustainable fashion producers are dependent upon the availability of appropriate primary materials

Exactly Which Kind of Sustainable Fashion Are We Talking About Here?

The first problem we encounter is that different people seem to use the phrase sustainable fashion in quite different ways. And with no clearly agreed definition of the term, it can be difficult to tell whether we are in fact all talking about the same thing.

To make matters worse, for many clothing manufacturers today, the term sustainable fashion is little more than sales jargon. A cynical way of tapping into a new and potentially lucrative market of ecologically concerned shoppers.

Meanwhile, for consumers, the phrase sustainable fashion is often just a shortcut to feeling good about ourselves, removing the responsibility to look into things any deeper: if an item of clothing comes with a “sustainable fashion” tag, we might feel that we don’t need to think too much about the consequences of buying it. It has the “sustainable” seal of approval, and that’s good enough for most of us. We can go on with our lives guilt-free.

I don’t really want to get into laying blame at anybody’s doorstep here though. As consumers we certainly should try our best to make intelligent and informed purchases, but the reality is that our decisions are often based on misleading information provided by manufacturers: whether this information is deliberately deceptive, or just unintentionally ambiguous and confusing.

Indeed, rather than all being unscrupulous and manipulative opportunists, when it comes to sustainability, fashion brands too can simply just be misinformed, or not have fully thought things through – as pointed out by this report from The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Not only this, but even if manufacturers have a clearer idea of what is actually involved in producing a genuinely sustainable product, they usually have to buy their raw materials from others: suppliers who themselves may either be dishonest or merely unaware of sustainability issues.

Of course, the higher up the chain we move – and certainly the greater the degree of financial gain vs risk of negative environmental and/or social impact involved – the greater the degree of responsibility companies should be expected to shoulder for their actions.

Simply put, if you are at the top of the supply chain and making a lot of money by selling enormous quantities of clothing (or the materials that are used to make those clothes), then you better have your shit together on this front. In fact I’d argue that because those at the start of the production process have the most control over the sustainability of the final product, they should be held to much greater account than the little people further down the chain. I.e. we should expect more stringent adherence to sustainable practices from the Levi Strauss brand than we would of a small store merely selling a few hundred Levi’s items per year, or indeed someone simply purchasing one of these garments to wear themselves.

As it happens though, most of the environmental and social damage caused by the fashion industry occurs upstream. So while it’s all very well saying that the upper echelons should be held to account, this is clearly not how things are currently playing out in practice.

Mountains in Colombia

What Does it Mean for Something to Be Sustainable?

People often shoot fast and loose with words. And in everyday use, a word will inevitably come to be closely associated with other words and concepts; words that are in turn associated with yet more words and more concepts. Due to these complex chains of association, in time the original word can become almost shorthand for those other things. This can lead to problems.

“Sustainable” is a particularly clear example of such a word.

Indeed, it’s a very short jump in our minds from the word sustainable to other ideas such as “green,” “environmentally friendly,” “conservation,” “harmony,” “natural,” “development,” “ecological,” “balance” etc.

In fact we’re now so accustomed to hearing that sustainability is a positive thing (as it surely is), that taken to an extreme of abstraction, the word sustainable is now almost synonymous with “virtuous” or “good.” We hear “sustainable;” our minds say “positive thing.”

But while there’s sometimes a certain amount of overlap between terms, words such as “good,” “ecological,” “natural” etc. clearly have their own individual meanings. Yet in daily use we can loose sight of those meanings and start to treat these words as if they were almost entirely interchangeable. They are not, and in my opinion should not be treated as such.

For example, at Pitti Uomo 95 I heard a couple of brands using the term “sustainable” in conversation about their products, but with little regard for what the word really means. In one case it was purely because the collection was produced using natural fibers. I’ll be generous and say that I don’t think that these brands were being dishonest with me any more than they were simply being dishonest with themselves. To them, “sustainable” probably seemed like a good word to describe what they were doing, and so they used it unthinkingly.

It’s a bit like describing something as “natural.” This has become shorthand for “healthy”. But it’s a term that is effectively meaningless: I mean, why would I buy a product purely because it’s natural? Is that the best thing you can think to say about it? Mercury is “natural” too, but there’s no way I’m putting that in my body. Hell, even cancer is “natural”!

So before we can understand what sustainable fashion might be, we need to be sure we’ve truly understood the concept of sustainability itself – freed from any related, but nonetheless quite distinct, terms.

In music, sustain refers to the drawing out of a note for as long as possible (or, at least, as long as desired). Prolonging it, perhaps to infinity. On permanent loop, without decay. The ability to indefinitely sustain a note is the elusive quality of a great guitarist.

The word also has other meanings and connotations: to nourish; to support.

Linking these concepts is the idea of maintaining something in the same state. A condition of continuing good health.

Heavy rain clouds

Thus something that is sustainable can be continued indefinitely without risk of damage to itself or others. For example, rain is sustainable because, when it falls, it collects in streams, rivers, and lakes, and then the sun’s heat causes evaporation, replenishing the supply of water in the atmosphere. And so the cycle begins all over again.

Unless this process is upset in some way (say by harmful human practices), it can continue infinitely without the water ever running out.

What is Truly Sustainable Fashion?

It seems pretty straightforward then: an article of clothing that can be considered truly sustainable is one that has been made by means of processes that cause no irreparable damage to either our environment or the lifeforms that inhabit it. Sustainable fashion does not consume resources that cannot easily be replenished, but instead maintains the healthy equilibrium of the organism – planet earth – in a “closed loop” process that resembles the cycle of rain and evaporation mentioned above.

As a definition of sustainability this seems pretty simple to get to grips with, right?

So far so good. But the problems begin when we try to put theory into practice: fashion ain’t rain.

The Obstacles to Sustainable Fashion

If the goal is sustainability – a closed-loop – how are we currently going wrong? Where are the “leaks” in the circuit? Can we identify all the fissures hemorrhaging precious energy and resources, or producing nasty byproducts?

In order to answer this question we need a clearer diagnosis of the problem. While it’s indisputable that the fashion industry is doing terrible things to the planet and its inhabitants, it doesn’t help matters that some of the much cited statistics regarding this environmental damage turn out to be rather unclear once we look beyond the shocking headlines.

We might react to this criticism by saying “well, whatever the exact figures, the fashion industry needs to change.” I totally agree. However, if we don’t know precisely where the most important problems lie, it makes it a lot harder to prioritize areas of focus in our search for solutions.

The production of clothing can be divided up into several separate stages, each presenting its own unique set of challenges to those hoping to achieve a truly sustainable fashion manufacturing process. Whether it’s the growing of raw plant-based materials; or the production of synthetics; the supplying of energy to high-powered machinery; or the coloring of garments with dyes; each step of the procedure is a minefield of unsustainable and unethical practices.

And to make matters worse, invariably the unsustainable options are far greater in number, easier to achieve, and much cheaper to pay for, than the few processes that are truly sustainable.

Nor do the difficulties of achieving sustainability end here: even once a garment has been made, it still needs to get to consumers; be used and washed regularly without side-effects; and then be disposed of once the owner has worn it out. These steps, too, introduce further obstacles to sustainability.

In order to begin to identify where potential barriers to sustainable fashion production lie, let’s take a look in turn at each phase in the life cycle of a fashion product.

– Research

Designers don’t just pull the pattern for an item of clothing out of thin air. First they research: for example by trawling fleamarkets for long-lost sartorial gems that they can use as models; or studiously digging through heavy academic tomes on ancient folk costumes in a specialized library in the hope of finding inspiration.

These aren’t obviously environmentally damaging activities. But if there’s air travel involved (as there so often is when we’re talking about big budget luxury brands), then even this apparently innocuous stage of the fashion production process may, at the very least, come with a sizable carbon footprint.

I spent a couple of years of my life flying almost weekly for work, so I’m hardly in a position to point the finger. But part of the design process often involves jetting off to distant destinations in the hope of unearthing unusual influences that will help the brand stand out from competitors. Hell, even just lazily googling some photos of David Bowie as inspiration for your next collection requires electricity.

This may seem a totally insignificant and petty issue compared to the much more serious environmental damage caused at other stages of the clothing production process. But the purpose of this article is to try to understand where all potential problems lie. Not just to identify the most obvious ones.

Regardless as to whether you’re a fashion designer, or instead searching for a cure for cancer, consumption of resources to a certain degree is of course an unavoidable feature of contemporary life. Nobody is suggesting we go back to living in caves. Yet this consumption needs to be taken into account before a brand can truthfully declare its products to be “sustainable.”

How many brands touting “sustainable fashion” even know how much energy their business consumes? Or even what would constitute a sustainable level of consumption? Before a brand can state that its products are sustainable, it needs to know precisely what resources it is consuming, and in all areas of the process, not just the obvious ones consumed in the manufacturing process itself.

– Design

When we think of unsustainable fashion, what first comes to mind are things like the harmful effects of chemical processes, the depletion of natural resources, the cheap production methods of fast fashion. At a glance though, the actual design of the non-sustainable product itself might appear totally identical to a sustainable fashion item.

But in reality sustainable fashion must be designed to be sustainable right from the outset. This doesn’t mean designing clothes that look like a 17th Century potato farmer’s manure-raking smock (see my rant about old school ethical menswear here). Instead it’s a question of designing not only for style, but also for practical considerations. And above all, designing a product for longevity.

When it comes to technology, we’re accustomed to speaking of built-in obsolescence. Take Apple’s decision not to permit users to replace the batteries in the brand’s products themselves. The motives are clear: Apple makes more money by forcing us to pay their in-house technicians to do the job for us; or throw away an otherwise perfectly functioning device and buy a new one.

Obstructing sustainability may not be Apple’s intention here, but if the result is an iPhone going in the trash long before its time – merely because the battery no longer works – then obstruction of sustainability is nonetheless the outcome.

In the clothing world, we might make a comparison between Apple’s behavior and the common practice of cheaper brands (and even some quite expensive ones) leaving insufficient extra fabric in the seams of garments for alterations to be made. A pair of pants with good seam margins can easily be let out by an alterations tailor if the owner puts on weight. Assuming that the cloth is still good and the style hasn’t gone out of fashion, this would allow the item to be worn and enjoyed for many more years to come.

Many brands don’t like to do this, because even a slim strip of extra fabric will cause a significant increase in production expenses when calculated over thousands of identical garments. But we can also imagine that some manufacturers would in any case prefer it if your clothes became unwearable after just a few seasons: this way you’re obliged to spend money on new clothes. Ideally their clothes.

Even if this latter theory strikes you as a purely paranoid conspiracy, the fact still stands: clothes designed to save the manufacturer money, rather than to be worn for as long as possible, are not clothes that have been designed for sustainability.

Sustainable fashion must be designed with longevity in mind right from the outset. Aside from leaving room for alterations (and simply using good quality cloth), this may also mean strengthening certain areas of a garment with a double layer of fabric, reinforcing the stitching – or whatever it takes to make an item of clothing more hardwearing.

Tempted by the novelty of being able to purchase lots of new clothes for relatively little money, I’ve previously bought plenty of fast fashion items. Only to discover that most of them looked like dogshit after just a few washes; to the point that it became embarrassing to wear them.

Meanwhile, there are clothes in my closet that I bought almost 20 years ago which still look better today than any of the fast fashion trash did even at the moment it was purchased. Admittedly, in the last couple of years a couple of these older items have needed elastic replacing or other minor alterations and repairs doing to them. Otherwise though, they still look great and I wear them regularly.

Twenty years of consistent use? That’s sustainably designed fashion.

– Sampling and Production

Sustainable fashion requires using non-harmful production methods such as the use of plant dyes

This stage in the manufacturing process is the most obvious cause of environmental damage: washing, bleaching, dyeing, sand-blasting, the application of chemical finishes.

Then there are the raw materials themselves: the cloth, leather, buttons, zippers, trims. These materials are usually procured by the brand from third parties; and often with no real way of knowing precisely how they were made. Many stages of the industrial textile production process are highly polluting.

Obviously there’s lots more to be said about this part of the manufacturing process. But let’s bracket it out for the time being, as we’ll come back to the subject of fabrics and other materials a little later on.

– Marketing to Buyers and/or Promotion to the Public

If a brand sells its products wholesale to third party buyers, then it will need to engage in some degree of B2B promotion. Often this means attending trade fairs such as Pitti Uomo or Who’s Next. Frequently ones on the other side of the world – so at a minimum there’ll likely be some air travel involved.

Improving the fashion industry's sustainability credentials means rethinking how we do business

And then there’s the matter of lookbooks, line sheets, postcards and other promotional materials. Are these only digital, or also printed?

Meanwhile, for those brands who instead retail their products directly to consumers, without intermediaries, there will be other forms of promotion to engage in if the public is to be made aware of the brand and its products.

The shift to digital has undoubtedly improved things massively in this area. Yet while print advertising has become something of an anachronism, it nonetheless continues to a degree.
Do magazines like Vogue use recycled paper? What are the inks made of? How are the magazines transported to sales outlets by their distributors?

In short, are all the promotional avenues pursued by the brand truly sustainable?

– Retail Sales

Whether you sell in your own retail space(s), or your products are stocked by others, they need to get from the factory to the store(s). Unless you’re a small business running some kind of zero km operation in your own factory outlet store – an apparel industry equivalent of farm-to-table – this likely means environmentally polluting freight haulage. What’s more, you’ll probably need to store the products before they are distributed. What potentially negative consequences are involved here?

What’s more, if you sell online, the inevitable returns customers make will add yet more shipping emissions to the equation.

Finally there’s the question of what to do with unsold goods. Sell them off dirt cheap and undermine your own market? Or burn them like Burberry and H&M?

– Consumer Use

The environmental damage associated with man-made fabrics doesn’t only occur at the manufacturing stage. For example, synthetic garments also shed harmful microplastics into our water system every time they are washed.

Although I’ve yet to come across a study conclusively demonstrating that the various chemical processes applied to many mass-produced fabrics (even to natural fabrics such as cotton) can cause illness in humans, when you consider that theses fabrics spend all day in direct contact with the wearer’s perspiring and breathing skin, such a risk strikes me as a very real possibility (scientifically proven or not, it’s certainly an argument that’s been seized upon by many “sustainable fashion” brands in their marketing of late).

I’ve already written extensively above about designing sustainability into fashion items right from the drawing-board. Making clothes that can easily be altered and repaired by the consumer once they’ve left the factory is one way that manufacturers can help transition towards a more sustainable fashion industry.

– Disposal

Often, when we clear out our closets it’s not a calm and well-planned procedure, but more likely done in a fit of spring-cleaning frustration at all the unwanted and unworn items in there. All we want is to declutter our lives from months or years of accumulated junk, and as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, until public opinion shifts strongly enough against the wastefulness of chucking out old clothing, many of us will no doubt continue to dispose of our unwanted garments simply by throwing them in the trash. It’s quick and (apparently) painless.

It’s also a huge waste of resources.

Instead, if the clothes are still in wearable condition, then a goodwill store may seem like the most sensible place to send them. However, here we are increasingly warned that donating clothing to charity just leads to enormous quantities of poor-quality apparel being dumped in developing countries – thus totally undermining whatever may have remained of the recipient nation’s local garment industry.

Interior of a vintage clothing store

The above issue is clearly something I need to investigate further. But in the meantime the best solution would probably be for a garment to be sent to a vintage or consignment store, or sold on sites such as eBay or Etsy.

Inevitably though, some items will just be too far gone for anyone to want to wear them again. However, this doesn’t automatically mean that they are of no further use, as in many cases the fibers can be recycled and made into fabrics suitable for the production of new garments.

What the consumer does with a worn-out item of clothing once it’s deemed to have come to the end of its useful life depends in part on the way in which it has been made. Some fibers and fabrics can be easily recycled into strong and attractive garments; others can also be recycled, but with a noticeable loss in quality; while others still are effectively useless as anything other than cleaning rags.

Thankfully though, as more people begin to investigate new avenues here, the number of materials (and therefore garments) that can potentially be recycled is hopefully set to grow. A truly sustainable brand would only manufacture clothing using textiles that can easily be recycled, in an environmentally neutral manner, once the items are no longer wearable.

Sustainable and Ethical Accreditation

Up to here we’ve largely only considered problems that occur during the lifetime of the garments. And as challenging as these issues can be for a fashion company that wants to remain competitive, they are at least ones that the brand itself can make direct decisions about: for example by choosing only to use certain manufacturing processes rather than others.

But the problem is that most fashion labels rely upon third parties for their primary materials, such as fabrics and trimming; or for labels and packaging. These materials have a life of their own before they become part of a fashion item. A life that most fashion brands have no direct control over, as the process all takes place further upstream in the production chain.

A brand wanting to become sustainable can – and indeed must – choose its suppliers carefully. But how can they be certain that the people they’ve contracted to supply their raw materials are honest and that the materials provided are really what they’ve been told they are?

Well, thankfully there are now organizations accrediting textile producers according to their green credentials, guaranteeing certain minimum standards. For example GOTS – an organization accrediting organic fabric producers – states that:

“Only textile products that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers can become GOTS certified. All chemical inputs such as dyestuffs and auxiliaries used must meet certain environmental and toxicological criteria. The choice of accessories is limited in accordance with ecological aspects as well. A functional waste water treatment plant is mandatory for any wet-processing unit involved and all processors must comply with social criteria.”

This is exactly what we want to hear. And buying GOTS certified fabric is certainly a good move (although, as we shall see shortly, organic textiles aren’t going to single-handedly save the world either).

Sustainable fashion requires using traceable raw materials from non harmful sources

However, limiting yourself only to GOTS certified cotton means massively reducing the choice of fabrics you can work with as a designer, while also simultaneously upping the cost: organic farming isn’t as cheap as just planting a few of Monsanto’s magic beans and spraying on copious amounts of flesh-eating Hoodoo-Feed®.

This situation will no doubt improve as more and more producers become GOTS certified. However, in an industry where uniqueness of product is a big part of a brand’s appeal, the fact that there is currently such a limited choice of certified organic fabrics available to designers, and that they cost considerably more, clearly puts anyone wishing to go purely organic at a disadvantage compared to their non-organic competitors.

How many times have you walked into a high-street clothing store and seen a GOTS label on the clothes? No, me neither. Clearly, then, there’s still a very long way to go before the use of certified organic fabric becomes the norm.

But does limiting yourself only to clothing made from fabrics certified by an organization such as GOTS really make for watertight sustainability?

I’m honestly not sure about this. To be clear, I expect that the organization behind GOTS is highly stringent in its controls. Still, I can see some ways in which even the most carefully planned closed-chain process could potentially spring a leak.

For example, if you’re a smaller brand, you will likely purchase your GOTS certified cotton from a middleman rather than directly from the GOTS certified mill. How can you be sure that, before it got to the textile merchant from the mill, the fabric you’ve ordered hasn’t traveled several times around the world in some bizarre logistical maneuver designed to shave a few cents off the shipping fees (but with the collateral effect of massively increasing carbon emissions)? Or perhaps the dealers sell lovely ethically-produced products, but severely overwork and underpay their own warehouse staff? Unless the reseller itself is also GOTS certified, there’s no guarantee that it isn’t to some extent undermining the hard work done by the fabric mill to attain GOTS certification.

Sure, I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and most of the time problems of this kind will not occur. Nonetheless, the more we learn about Big Fashion’s business practices, the more certain it seems to me that somebody somewhere is cheating the system for a quick buck: if there’s a loophole to be found, you can be pretty certain that someone will find a way to exploit it.

What this clearly underlines is that, for a fashion label to be in a position to confidently declare that their product is sustainable, they really need to have control over the entire process: from farmer’s field to recycling bin. While this is fine if you’re an operation like Loro Piana, it’s something that few small or medium sized brands can ever realistically contemplate.

How Sustainable is Sustainable Fashion?

The Italian chamber of commerce produces an annual report on the state of “green” industries in Italy called, funnily enough, GreenItaly. The most recent edition of which claims that interest in sustainable fashion has “literally” exploded in the last year (my commiserations to the victims).

The organization’s 2018 annual report cites the fact that major Italian fashion industry fixtures such as Pitti Uomo and the fabric fair Milano Unica now dedicate an increasing amount of space to matters of sustainability.

Indeed, the last edition of Milano Unica featured no less than 750 samples of “sustainable” textiles on show.

But who has declared that these textiles are sustainable, and what criteria did they use to assess them?

Well, Milano Unica has an advisory committee that insists that, in order for a fabric to be classed as sustainable, it must meet the following technical criteria:

  • Be organically produced
  • Come from responsibly managed forests
  • Made from recycled materials
  • Made from innovative organic-based fibers
  • Made from closed-loop chemical processes
  • Made from low-impact traditional materials
  • Made from cruelty-free animal fibers
  • Be free from dangerous chemical substances

Some of the above criteria are not obviously compatible. Sure, a closed-loop organic chemical process using animal fibers sourced from responsibly managed forests would not be impossible, yet it somehow seems unlikely. This being the case, we can probably assume that in order to be accepted into Milano Unica’s “sustainable” category it is sufficient that a particular textile satisfy just one, rather than all, of these demands.

But is that really enough for a fabric to be considered sustainable?

We could probably ask uncomfortable questions about all of these criteria, but let’s take the first on the list as our example.

Organic cotton is certainly preferable to varieties grown using scary chemicals such as the glyphosate-based herbicide Monsanto (666) markets under the name Roundup. The WHO has stated that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic in humans.“ Reflecting this, in June 2018 terminally-ill former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson was awarded a staggering $289 million in damages from Monsanto by a California court after a trial alleging that prolonged exposure to Roundup was the cause of his cancer.

As pleased as I am to see Monsanto finally take a hit, chemical weedkillers and fertilizers are only one contributor to the global environmental disaster that is cotton agriculture. In a few words, cotton grows best in hot and arid climates; yet in order to flourish, it needs an astonishingly large amount of water.

No rain, lots of water: and you were convinced that Mother Nature always thought of everything, right?

Inhabitants of the world’s driest areas already struggle to find sufficient water to live on as it is. But if what little water that exists in a region mostly ends up being diverted to the cotton industry, you can forget about growing any other non-essential crops.

Such as, oh I don’t know. Food?

Whether cotton is grown using chemicals or not, it still craves that water. Indeed, I’ve even come across conflicting reports claiming that organic cotton consumes more water than the “conventional” variety (at some point I’ll likely do a separate in-depth article on this topic, as it’s clearly a very important issue). So while I’m all for organic, it’s likely not the magic solution it’s so often positioned as.

Organic farming is certainly an important step on the road to sustainability. But it’s just one of several. On its own though, a product made from organic cotton (or other organically grown fiber) is not necessarily sustainable: particularly if growing it causes acute depletion of a region’s water supply.

Implying that all organically grown fibers are automatically sustainable gives a highly misleading message to the public. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a deliberate ruse on the part of the fashion and textile industry: muddy the waters around the topic of sustainability so much that consumers lose sight of what the term really means, and then you can throw out a few token gestures under the sustainable label – such as organic farming – and claim that the problem is fixed. Business as usual, and yes I think I’ll buy that villa on Lake Como if Mr Clooney is selling thank you very much.

Eco Fashion Own Goals

Sadly though, not all the confusion around the word sustainability is caused by fashion industry smoke and mirrors. Indeed, some is even the fault of those on the pro-sustainability side of things.

For example, Swedish fashion consultancy firm Green Strategy is a company dedicated to advising the fashion industry on matters of sustainability. Yet even Green Strategy’s definition of sustainable fashion muddles important terms and mentions the ethical treatment of the workforce in the same context as environmental issues. Of course, working conditions are every bit as important as the environment, but in my opinion they are an entirely separate issue.

Yes, arguably both sustainability and labor rights are ethical matters, and so it’s somewhat understandable that all ethical questions might become lumped together as one. However, I’m not convinced that using these terms interchangeably is such a great idea, as it makes it harder for the public (or at least this particular member of the public) to gain a clear understanding of the different issues involved. And I think that this is probably true both for many consumers and fashion brands alike.

I’ve got to be honest though, while writing this article it has become clear to me just how easy it is to treat words such as sustainable fashion, eco fashion, green fashion, and ethical fashion as if they were entirely synonymous. Indeed, on several occasions I’ve caught myself unthinkingly employing the wrong word, and it’s quite likely some sloppy usage has even slipped through into the final edit of this article (if not here, then certainly elsewhere on this site).

But I do think it’s important that we try to be more concise in these matters. After all, we can hardly call out a brand for misleading consumers with dishonest labeling if we’re not even capable of understanding the difference between one term and another ourselves.

Is Sustainable Fashion a Pipe Dream?

But isn’t the term sustainable fashion an oxymoron in the first place? For something to be in fashion logically means that it will soon be out of fashion. Fashion denotes a limited lifespan. Something that is valued today, but not tomorrow – even if the item itself is still in perfectly usable condition.

Clearly this lies in total opposition to the true meaning of sustainability. So if we take the phrase sustainable fashion at face value, it’s a contradiction in terms. An impossible goal.

Of course, as we’ve already noted, we often use words in a sloppy and inaccurate manner. For “fashion” we might just as easily understand the word “clothes.”

So then, can clothes be sustainable?

Well, that’s certainly the objective. Indeed, the purpose of this article is primarily to find out if an entirely sustainable apparel manufacturing process is genuinely possible – or merely a fantastical story we like to tell ourselves.

But if it wasn’t already obvious, this disagreement between the words sustainable and fashion underlines the fact that the qualities that define sustainable fashion (or, to be more accurate, sustainable clothing) do not all lie in the clothes and materials themselves, nor solely in their manufacturing process, but also in our attitudes to these clothes. Our relationship with them. Our actions towards them.

So we might say that sustainable fashion is not simply something that manufacturers should make, but also something that we as consumers must do. Sustainable fashion is not solely a noun, but also a verb. And this is where ordinary members of the public have the greatest control over the sustainability of fashion – and, as a consequence, the greatest control over our continued healthy existence on this planet.

Whereas the sustainability of clothing largely depends on how it was made and from what materials, sustainable fashion necessitates that we all make a radical shift in our lifestyles. A move away from the quick-hit and chuck-that-shit consumption habits we’ve developed (or been coerced into) over the last few decades.

As it stands, the concept of fashion itself is an obstacle to sustainability. Fashion can become sustainable only once it has been redefined in a manner that is compatible with sustainability.

Of course, all this should be clear to anyone who has given even the slightest thought to the matter. Thus I hope you’ll forgive me if the above paragraphs are somewhat elementary and patronizing. I’m sure you’ll agree, though, that a discussion of sustainable fashion would not be complete without touching upon our personal responsibility as consumers: sustainable fashion means sustainable consumption.

What are Some Practical Ways in Which We Can Become More Sustainable in Our Fashion Consumption?

Sustainable fashion means buying less, but better

Green Strategy recommends a seven-point plan for making fashion sustainable:

“[E]ach garment should first be manufactured on demand or custom-made (No. 1), in high quality and timeless design (No. 2), in an environmentally friendly manner (No. 3) and with consideration to various ethical aspects (No. 4). Thereafter, it should be used long and well through good care, repair and perhaps redesign (No. 5). When the product is no longer desired, it should be handed in to a secondhand shop, donated to charity or handed over to friends, relatives or perhaps a swap-shop, to prolong its active life (No. 6 and 7). When the garment is completely worn out, it should be returned to a collection point for recycling of the textile material, which can hence be reused in the manufacturing of new clothes or other textile products. Ideally, instead of buying newly produced clothes, one should consider renting, borrowing or swapping clothes (No. 6), or to buy secondhand or vintage (No. 7).”

These are undoubtedly good recommendations, but they don’t all concern sustainability. Number #3 for example clearly states that it’s a matter of ethics. While ethical abuses very definitely should not be allowed to continue, in practice they could continue quite indefinitely without the world imploding. Ethics should not be confused with sustainability: unethical practices cause suffering to large numbers of people, but this could go on for as long as those involved permit it to without it necessarily bringing about the destruction of our planet; meanwhile unsustainable practices will kill us all eventually.

What’s more, even some of those points that are directly related to sustainability are arguably not entirely sustainable. For example, if everyone were suddenly to switch over to buying secondhand or vintage clothing (as Green Strategy’s point #7 states would be the ideal) we’d eventually run out of secondhand and vintage clothes because decades earlier everyone had stopped buying them new. Today’s virtuous vintage is yesterday’s evil new.

Yes, I’m being pedantic again. But the point still stands: as with recycling, if my “sustainable” purchasing habits rely upon somebody else consuming in an unsustainable manner, then I’m not really buying sustainably at all.

What’s more, even if we were to successfully follow these guidelines (order clothes bespoke, wear them until they fall apart or we pass them on to others), the question remains as to whether these strategies and actions are really enough.

I’m just speculating here, and the last thing I want to do is undermine attempts to mobilize brands and consumers towards improved habits of production and consumption. But is sustainability actually a realistic goal? Might we have to face the reality that a totally sustainable fashion manufacturing process is not in fact achievable? Certainly the way things are going right now, ultra-thirsty cotton just might not be an eligible candidate for sustainability at all (as I said above, sooner or later I’ll look at this issue more closely in another article).

I say this, and yet prior to the industrial revolution, wasn’t the manufacturing of clothes sustainable? If the wool, linen, and hemp producing cottage industries of Europe and elsewhere had continued as they were before automated looms came on the scene, surely there could never have come a day when these manufacturing processes would threaten the environment as our current way of life does now?

I don’t know the answer to this question (perhaps a reader does?), but the fact is that even if the manufacturing of clothing was once genuinely sustainable, it was a very different world to the one we live in today.

For one, there were much fewer people, consuming in a much slower way – and then fixing and repairing what items they did consume, rather than adding them to landfill after only a few months. Perhaps the negative effects of hyper-consumerism can be rolled back, but with so many of us on the planet now, even meeting the most basic needs of clothing for warmth – never mind style – might be too much of a drain on natural resources.

Perhaps a truly sustainable fashion industry will only become reality after a good portion of the cancerous human race is decimated by disease, war, and environmental disaster? While I’m in no rush to volunteer, a major cull may be the only valid solution.

But I digress.

Zero Negative Impact

As I warned in the introduction, this article raises more doubts than it offers concrete solutions. In part, that’s simply down to my cynical and critical nature. But I think it also reflects this particular moment in time: the push for sustainable fashion production is a relatively recent one; and the moment where it gained sufficient momentum to arrive in mainstream discourse even more recent still. I think that we are all still trying to work out precisely what actions are required in order to achieve sustainability. And while we figure that out, it’s hardly surprising if a clear idea as to the exact form a sustainable fashion industry must take isn’t yet forthcoming.

Yet, while this stage of discussion and debate is clearly important, the clock continues ticking. And what’s become clear to me from writing this piece is that we’re quite far from arriving at any kind of agreement as to what sustainability really means. It’s something that should be incredibly simple to lock down, yet we’re so deep into our bad production and consumption habits that it’s hard to see what changes we need to make to them. Never mind how we can cleanly and rapidly extract ourselves from them altogether.

We need to figure this shit out pretty damn quickly though, so that we can make things better before it’s too late.

But let’s take a look at this word “better” for a second. Just how much better do things need to get?

“Better” does not have the same meaning as “the best.” Something can be better than before, but still totally suck. In this context, better would mean “more sustainable.” True, “more sustainable” is of course a huge improvement over “not in any way sustainable” (which is sadly where most fashion brands still are today). But it’s not the same as saying “sustainable,” without caveat.

In fact even being “more sustainable” is just delaying the inevitable if we don’t quickly transition from there to totally sustainable. “Better” won’t do. We need “the best”. And fast.

Yet, even for the most well-intentioned fashion label – attempting to balance sustainability with style, and thus satisfy both their conscience and the market – it can still be quite a challenge to source sustainable raw materials. Especially at a price that will allow the brand to stay afloat.

Some labels are simply doing their best in a far from ideal world. Many would be more genuinely sustainable if they could, but realistically not all of these changes can come at once. And clearly even a move just a few steps closer to sustainability is better than no action at all.

And this is the reality right now: brands, whether big or small, are not all going to become 100% sustainable overnight. If ever. That’s something we have to accept.

However, perhaps something that brands have to accept is that, until such a transition has fully taken place, they don’t have the right to label their products as “sustainable.”

For sure, a product that meets even just a few sustainability goals is better than one that meets none at all. But should manufacturers be permitted to label such a product as sustainable when in reality it is only at an intermediate evolutionary stage on the path to true sustainability?

Let’s approach things from a totally idealistic point of view: in order to be considered truly sustainable, fashion must meet sustainability criteria 100%. A drop of even 1%, for any reason, might mean that the product is no longer sustainable. This is because, over time, even 1% that is not sustainable may eventually exhaust unrenewable resources, or cause permanent environmental damage.

All moves towards sustainability are positive. But if we’re going to be a little more precise and analytical about things, a product is either sustainable or it isn’t. There’s no middle ground. The phrases “quite sustainable,” “very sustainable,” or “more sustainable” (which is used both by Green Strategy and by myself above) are almost meaningless.

This is because the word sustainable means that the item in question can be produced almost indefinitely without exhaustion of resources, or irreparable damage to animals, people, and society. Either a particular product entirely fulfills this criteria, or it doesn’t. Either it can go on for ever (or near enough), or it can’t. There’s no half-stepping when it comes to sustainability.

Perhaps sustainable is the wrong word then?

Some would say that the word we use isn’t important, it’s the results that matter. This is of course very true; assuming that the word itself doesn’t alter the results.

If the word sustainable isn’t universally understood; or has become confused with other related issues; or is simply a made-up “business-word,” as one young designer suggests in this i-D article, it may be an obstacle to achieving our goals.

Certainly, if consumers can’t even be sure of what they are buying when they see the word “sustainable” this means they can’t exercise their power to choose those brands truly dedicated to developing zero-impact production processes over those that are merely cashing in with the cynical use of a buzzword.

With that said, perhaps such a rigid, quixotic insistence on totally sustainable fashion today is more dangerous than beneficial?

Whether we’re talking about a multinational brand or a tiny backroom startup, a genuinely zero-impact fashion business is still very difficult to achieve right now. And while full sustainability is of course the ultimate goal, if the ideals are set too high, too soon, many will see the slope as insurmountably steep: too daunting to even attempt to scale.

For many, this will mean that they just won’t bother. And if this happens, we’ll be in even worse shit than we are now.

In short, we should absolutely call irresponsible manufacturers to account. But we should just as equally cut some slack for those who are genuinely trying – even if they are still falling far short of achieving those goals 100%.

So, how long should we allow fashion brands a breathing period before we insist on total sustainability? What’s a reasonable amount of time for the fashion industry to get its shit together? And what power do we as consumers have if the industry fails to meet that deadline?

These are all questions I’m still trying to figure out answers to (thanks for sticking with me in the meantime). What I can propose for now is that we lose the term “sustainable fashion” altogether, and leave it for the frauds, the fakes, and the bandwagon jumpers. Instead, the goal of ethically and environmentally concerned producers of clothing should be zero negative impact.

Admittedly there could be a risk of some ambiguity or a degree of subjective interpretation in defining exactly what we might mean by “negative” impact. Nonetheless, it’s a much bolder and more easily verifiable claim than saying that your clothes are “sustainable”. Zero negative impact means just that, and if you don’t deliver on your claims there’s less leeway for wriggling out of our grasp by referring back to a vague or slippery definition of sustainability.

Postscript

Never mind actually manufacturing sustainable clothing, even just defining what constitutes a genuinely sustainable fashion item feels like an enormously challenging process. In fact I’ve likely only touched the tip of the iceberg here, so inevitably this article will need to be updated and edited as time goes on and I learn more about the separate issues involved.

What have I missed? If you have any suggestions of your own to add, please leave them in the comments section and I’ll try to update the article to reflect them when I get a chance. And perhaps most importantly, can you see any potential flaws with my proposed alternative term, zero negative impact clothing? Is this phrase just as open to abuse as “sustainable fashion”?

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