The rise and rise of sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion is sometimes said to be eco-friendly, built from recycled materials.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

First of all, don’t stop reading! And second of all, do you know what it is? I had an idea, but then I decided to dig deeper into an aspect of fashion that others go gaga over, while I cringe, flip the page and move on.

Fashion, bless it, is terrible for the environment. Clothes from Shein, H&M and Zara end up in landfills where they are anything but biodegradable. And, for the record, sustainable fashion is a term used to refer to clothes, accessories and other fashion items created and produced in ways that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

Maasai women doing beadwork that is then sold to you are practitioners of sustainable fashion. They are empowered by your money and it is ploughed back into their families, so yes, you can be smug about it.

Sustainable fashion is sometimes said to be eco-friendly, built from recycled materials, and as in the case of the Maasai beadwork, implementing fair labour practices.

Then there is slow fashion.

This is a movement encouraging a mindful and sustainable approach to fashion. It is the antithesis of fast fashion with an ethical approach towards persons in the supply chain meant to reduce pollution, and, again, can make you self-satisfied.

Sustainable fashion

The problem with sustainable fashion is that it is not particularly sustainable. By definition, the word means something doable over a long period of time. It involves practices and processes that support long-term health and well-being. Throw in fashion and trouble brews.

One of the tenets of sustainable fashion is transparency. Knowing where stuff comes from be they raw materials or production.

Sweatshops, for instance, are the bane of sustainable fashion’s existence. Cheap labour affords brands speedy access to products. It also lends itself to toxic practices such as low pay, overwork and toxic work environments.

According to The Myth of Sustainable Fashion, an article by Kenneth Pucker, the former COO of Timberland in the Harvard Business Review, stresses that mayhaps it is time to “retire sustainability.” But, we could also do with more transparency.

Business, the book says, “must disclose their lobbying efforts, use their clout to affect positive change,” all while “engineering a business system that is regenerative.” Leaving the business of fashion to businesses is not a very promising place to start. Not even if sustainability reports are made mandatory.

In the past, I have advocated for the fashion industry’s ability to contribute to the country’s bottom line. GDP is the yardstick. But, what if instead of GDP we use another vetting system? If, say, we dwelled on well-being - (social, natural, economic and human capital) - we might have more balance. What are our options outside of the GDP? It turns out, plenty.

There are about eight indices we can use to measure economic health. Name two, I hear you say. I’ll do better than that. I will pick the ones that I believe make sustainability possible.

  •   The Better Life Index (BLI
  •   The Happy Planet Index (HPI)
  •   The Thriving Places Index (TPI)
  •   The Human Development Index (HDI)

According to the Business of Fashion’s Sustainability Report, companies, specifically from the annual reports of 15 of the world’s largest fashion firms, are basically doing nothing more than mouthing off on things they are yet to action.

“The findings show signs of positive engagement, but the fashion industry’s rhetoric on sustainability is often far ahead of companies’ actions. Information on target-setting is much more readily available than data to measure performance or concrete plans for strategic investments to meet these goals.”

The report also went as far as disclosing clear pain points while simultaneously revealing that there are “exciting opportunities for meaningful transformation.”

Enter the Millennials and Gen Z, demographics who say they are willing to spend more on environmentally friendly products.

They also declare if a brand is mistreating employees or suppliers, they will vote with their feet. An example is sustainable denim. Making a single pair of jeans takes 6,813 litres water. It explains sustainable denim.

Environmentally damaging items

Vogue says “Denim is known as one of the more resource-heavy, environmentally damaging items we buy, and the reason is simple: Denim is made from cotton—lots of it—and most cotton is grown with harmful fertilisers and pesticides and requires huge amounts of water to produce.”

Let us come back to slow fashion. McKinsey says on average, Americans buy a new piece of clothing every five days. For every five new garments produced, three of the said garments will be disposed of. I doubt this is our realm.

Forbes once asked; What Does Slow Fashion ‘Actually’ Mean? The answer is “producing clothes with trendless designs and premium, long-lasting quality.” Like a white t-shirt. Keep in mind there are only so many iterations of a sock, a button-down and a vest. Some items do not lend themselves to much transformation.

 These are usually capsule pieces like a black pencil skirt, a white collared shirt, black pants and a black blazer. You can’t change the fact that pants have two legs and are worn one at a time. These pieces lend themselves to slow fashion, even if you are not a lover of the capsule collection.

Meanwhile, sustainable fashion is good, theoretically at least, because it does wonderful things such as reducing your carbon footprint, needing less water, supporting far, safe work conditions, ridding the world of child labour, and more importantly, it allows us to enjoy our relationship to and with our clothes. If you bought something designed to last at least two-five years, it is likely above average in cost. But in the long run, you will not need to replace it every six months.

I hope I have made sustainable fashion a little more interesting to you, and that you might on the off chance that you go shopping today, just consider slow fashion.