if fashion is going to clean up its act, we need to stop talking about “sustainability”

We need to hold brands accountable and demand that they do better.

by Alec Leach
|
12 September 2019, 10:08am

We’ve known about fashion’s enormous environmental footprint for years, but the issue isn’t going away. The climate emergency is in the news non-stop, but somehow fashion is carrying on as if it’s business as usual. You’d think sustainability would be the only thing on peoples’ minds, as the ice caps melt and the wildfires rage. But somehow we aren’t talking about it enough, and when we are, we’re doing it wrong.

Sustainability doesn’t really mean anything, and that’s a big problem. Right now, the word is thrown at basically anything that claims to be even a marginal improvement on the status quo. This or that brand is sustainable because it uses organic cotton to make trendy, one-season T-shirts. This or that shoe is sustainable because it’s made with petroleum-based synthetic leathers, even though we don’t know anything about its sole, the lining or glue. Because there is no concrete definition of what sustainability is — and what it isn’t — brands can get away with greenwashing very easily. Fast fashion retailers can commit to sustainability goals, even though their businesses are built on mountains of cheap, disposable clothes.

Fashion wrecks ecosystems through a tangled web of carbon emissions, water usage, raw material extraction, harmful chemicals and waste. It’s a cultural problem, too — it’s about instant gratification and our never-ending lust for newness. But we’re using a meaningless word to describe a hellish mess of problems. That makes it extremely hard for consumers to see the wood for the trees. Even industry professionals are confused.

Sustainability is a buzword, an optional bonus for brands who want to tap into a growing segment of the market. And right now, it is optional. Brands who aren’t making an effort to improve their environmental impact are given the same airtime as those who do.

This needs to change. We need to push corporate responsibility to the top of the agenda. We need to hold brands accountable, and demand that they do better. We can start by retiring “sustainability” as our go-to term, so that we can move on to a more nuanced conversation, one that truly reflects the complexity and importance of the issues we’re facing.

But if we’re not talking about sustainability, what should we be talking about?

Swapping “sustainability” for “responsibility”, as Vanessa Friedman suggested at this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, is a good start. What does an “unsustainable” business mean to the general public? Not much. But nobody wants people to think they’re irresponsible. Even better, responsibility really opens up the intricacies of the issue. You can be responsible in some ways — say, in the way you treat your workers — but irresponsible in others — by using up gallons of water and pesticides to make throwaway fast fashion.

Getting the terminology right is step one. More importantly, we should give the conversation the status and urgency that it requires.

During the menswear shows in June, Virgil Abloh presented Off-White’s “Plastic” spring/summer 2019 collection, which featured, in its fourth look, a re-designed recycling symbol. The show’s press release pondered “society’s general abuse of plastic,” while editors mused on the show’s outdoorsy motifs (the models walked through fields of flowers). Nobody seemed to question Off-White’s business practices.

Beyond the use of recycled plastic in some knitwear pieces — unlikely to count for much of Off-White’s business — there was no sign that the brand was taking any meaningful action to address its environmental footprint. Neither Off-White nor New Guards Group, its parent company, has made public commitments to improving its environmental footprint, and they don’t have a publicly available corporate responsibility program, either.

If responsibility was at the top of the agenda, as it should be, this would be a PR disaster. But nobody seemed to even notice the contradictions between the show’s theme, and Off-White’s lack of transparency. This is about much more than one designer. Virgil Abloh isn’t personally melting the ice caps or burning down the Amazon, but we won’t get anywhere if we’re not holding people accountable, and demanding more from those we put the spotlight on. The fashion press should step up and recognise the power it has to drive positive change. Many brands and manufacturers have pledged to do better, through initiatives like the Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s 2018 commitment to the circular economy. The media should follow suit.

The fashion press can play a huge role in driving change, by energising the conversation around corporate responsibility, and making it relatable. Executives love to say that the consumer isn’t demanding sustainability, but how is the public supposed to know what to demand, when they’re confused by vague, over-used and meaningless terminology? We should aspire to create the level of sophistication that consumers have when it comes to food and skincare. People know that alcohol dries your skin, they know that carbs create fat. We should teach people how to properly care for their clothes, and how to ensure that they’re recycled. Educate them on what products have been made in a responsible way, and why.

The press needs to leverage its influence on the industry, too. Brands love to open up when it comes to a designer’s inspiration, red carpet looks or who shot a campaign, but silent when it comes to business practices. This needs to change.

If we’re going to talk about your fancy new campaign, you need to tell us where your cotton’s coming from.

Newsrooms should be shown the ins and outs of responsible manufacturing, the importance of transparency, and how to spot greenwashing. Editors should lead by example, refusing physical fashion show invites, and turning down gimmick products when they’re visiting showrooms — nobody needs another branded pen or USB stick. It sounds like nit-picking, but it’s a small step toward a more conscious culture in the industry.

Most challenging of all, the press should ask difficult questions about our consumption habits. Buying new clothes is not a lifestyle, it’s a luxury, and it should be enjoyed responsibly. Trendy it-pieces aren’t essential purchases, they’re frivolous indulgences.

Anyone who’s passionate about conscious consumption will tell you that once you’ve opened the door, you don’t close it. As soon as you begin to truly consider the repercussions of your shopping habits, you don’t look back. There is huge potential for a genuine change in values here. We just need to give the conversation the respect it deserves.

It wouldn’t be melodramatic to say that we are talking about the very survival of the fashion industry. The fashion press can make a bold step toward the future, if it acknowledges both the responsibility and the opportunity that comes with its position at the forefront of consumer culture. One the one hand, we are cheerleaders for an industry that’s polluting water supplies, decimating forestry, and pumping carbon into the atmosphere. But on the other, we have the power to truly drive change for the better.

People will listen, we just need to speak the right language.

Alec Leach is a freelance writer and consultant, and the founder of @future__dust, an Instagram platform for responsible fashion.