It’s Become Harder & Harder to Understand What “Sustainable” Means: Here’s What to Watch Out For

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To paraphrase the title of a recent Fashion Law article, the problem with “sustainability” is that — on its own — it doesn’t really mean anything. The word has become an umbrella term and, much to the benefit of large corporations, one without a clear definition.

Under “sustainability” is housed a myriad of considerations spanning (but not limited to) tracking carbon emissions, cutting out non-biodegradable fabrics, eliminating excess water usage and the use of pesticides, and offering fair conditions and pay to factory workers. It’s about climate change and “going green.” It’s about championing a culture of longevity and value.

Basically, it’s caring about the planet and future generations, and it’s something the public is finally waking up to.

According to the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, 75 percent of consumers surveyed say sustainability is either extremely or very important, with social media mentions of sustainability also growing in recent years. Elsewhere, a 2018 Yale University survey states that 73 percent of Americans now believe global warming isn’t fake news after all.

When you consider that the textile industry is the second most polluting industry on Earth, not to mention one of the most wasteful, this shift in public sentiment can’t have come soon enough.

The change goes hand-in-hand with growing demand for sustainable goods, and brands are struggling to keep up. Large labels are understandably unable to alter their entire supply chains and product lines overnight. But rather than holding their hands up and addressing the less-than-green halo that hangs above them, some brands and retailers opt to abuse the fuzzy definition of sustainability. That abuse is otherwise known as greenwashing, and it’s happening all the time.

In recent months, a number of Fast Company reports have focused on how fashion giants such as ZARA and H&M misled customers with claims of sustainability. The brands’ work on small, eco-conscious capsules has been used to create a glowing impression of the brand as a whole, regardless of what the full picture is.

To find out more about what’s happening and how we can identify false claims, we caught up with Alec Leach, former Highsnobiety style editor and founder of Future Dust, an Instagram account that cuts through the crap and points out what’s actually sustainable; Sandra Capponi, co-founder of Good On You, an app that delivers intel on sustainable brands; and Sara Arnold of Extinction Rebellion’s XR Boycott Fashion campaign and founder of fashion rental platform Higher Studio.

“Right now, the industry seems to think sustainability just means doing things in a slightly better — i.e. less terrible — way than before,” Leach says. “There’s no sustainability police and governments haven’t bothered regulating the fashion industry so far because it’s not a public health issue, so it’s really easy to mislead the general public. The fashion press is doing a pretty bad job of educating consumers on it, too. So the market is, unsurprisingly, not educated enough to see through the bullshit.”

But what does this “bullshit” look like in reality? “Let’s say you’re a fast-fashion brand and you’re launching some new cotton T-shirts,” Leach continues. “You might say they’re sustainable because the cotton you’ve used is free from pesticides, even though that’s only a tiny part of the picture. Growing cotton uses up gallons of water, even though it’s mainly grown in countries where water is scarce. And it needs intense chemicals to be dyed, which can pollute water supplies and harm local ecosystems.

“And then you have an issue of longevity: has something been made to last, or is it just a trendy novelty? You can just leave all of this out of the conversation and say that what you’re doing is sustainable because there’s no concrete definition and nobody policing it.”

That sentiment is echoed by Arnold, who believes the ultimate responsibility falls on governments to push the industry toward meaningful change. The XR Boycott Fashion campaign was founded in large part to put pressure on governments to start regulating the industry and educate consumers about fashion’s negative effect on the world.

The only way “to meaningfully mitigate this emergency, this crisis,” she says, is if education arrives “from the top-level government. If we have the truth then at least we can start making the right decisions.”

In the meantime, it’s important that we as consumers know which questions to ask and face up to our own contribution to the world’s problems through our shopping habits.

“Responsible consumption isn’t just about improving the way we make things, it’s about changing our relationship with them,” says Leach. “We don’t just need to address carbon emissions, water usage, and pollution — we need to end waste, celebrate what we already have, and only buy things that we’ll really love. Flooding the market with trendy, one-season novelties will never be an ethically sound way of doing business.”

This is where Good On You comes in. The app is dedicated to sniffing out shallow promises. As Capponi explains, the tracking is done by pulling all relevant brand information and running it against 50 different standards and certifications. “The information is evaluated, weighed, and translated into simple, easy-to-understand ethical ratings out of five for how each brand impacts on people, the planet, and animals,” she explains.

These ratings are designed to give credit to genuine efforts by brands to do better. “We give brands with no ethical or sustainability information a ‘We Avoid’ rating because people deserve to know how their clothing choices impact the world they live in,” Capponi adds.

“We love it when brands set ambitious targets,” she continues. “But they need to follow through with action, and not simply ride the wave of good publicity from announcing the targets.” Labels that promote recyclable products without providing any ways to recycle those products is another issue. “They’re basically outsourcing the responsibility of when and how to dispose of their products to their customers without making any changes to their supply chains, [which is] where they can have the most impact.”

So, when important information isn’t readily available, where do we begin? How do we spot greenwashing tactics and make informed choices about our fashion consumption? Downloading Good On You and following Future Dust or similar sources of information is a good start, but here are a few other things to consider.

“Shoppers should be wary of the big headlines, from “no fur” to “zero waste,” and look for brands that are demonstrating meaningful change,” Capponi suggests.

Leach offers similar advice: “Be wary of anyone marketing a specific ‘sustainable’ collection while remaining silent about their main line.”

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