Sustainable: The Hot Word No One Understands by Leah Sookoo
“It’s more important than ever to be sustainable. But what does sustainability mean for today’s consumer?”
I have to admit, I often fall into this warm, fuzzy daze, believing that the things I'm buying from "sustainable brands" is making this big difference in the world. Typical millennial: I am important! What I do is important! Listen to me! Look at me being sooo smart and good!
As much as that is true, what I do is important and I can make incremental changes that affect the world around me, I do feel that it's a bit unrealistic that all of the clothing I'm purchasing is really contributing to a better world for myself and my plant friends and pet friends and other friends.
This feeling is encapsulated by the most recent trend in fashion: sustainability.
Everyone and their dog has jumped head first into the waters and is waving their white flag of peace, saying they're sustainable and ethical and fair-trade and eco-friendly and wait what other words are people using right now? H&M Conscious Collection, I'm looking at you. Sustainable my tiny brown butt.
I want to believe that this is a step in the right direction, and that fast fashion brands with a lot of pull introducing concepts such as sustainability is an opportunity to invite a mass market into a conversation that provokes changes and incentivizes other brands to follow suit. This should be a good thing.
Many people are wondering: is this just corporate greenwashing? Are brands like Zara, Urban Outfitters, H&M, etc. making strides in the right direction or are they simply using button words to capitalize on a trend? Will H&M's Conscious Collection perform like any other trend: it's here now, but it too shall pass?
“Will H&M’s Conscious Collection perform like any other trend: it’s here now, but it too shall pass?”
If you take a closer look, you can tell that flag they're waving isn't so white. When you walk into an H&M, it's difficult, nay, near impossible, to find the "conscious" garments. Their green tags are lost in a sea of clothing on racks teeming to the edge of full. When you do come across something, you may look at the tag and see 95% organic cotton, causing your heart to sing, mommy wow! I'm a conscious girl now! But you look a little further, and you see it was made in Bangladesh, and you have flashbacks to 2013 when the Rana Plaza collapsed and your head spins and you wonder, um, how can an organic cotton top cost $12.99? It can't, really, if you want those garment workers to be paid and treated fairly. And if you look even closer and get your nose right up in there, you will notice the seams aren't tight, they're poorly made, and they're so ready to fall apart.
I mean, do look for Tencel, organic cotton, recycled fish nets. It's better than polyester. But realize, H&M, that using a sustainable material is a small part of what it means to be eco-conscious. Because what happens when these poorly made items fall apart after a few washes, as they most certainly will? Donation centre < landfill. Considering the lifecycle of a garment is a key component of sustainability, from its beginning to its end.
It makes me wonder if we actually understand what the word sustainable means.
According to research from Common Objective, over the last six years, Google searches for “sustainable fashion” have grown 46% and “ethical fashion” 25%, the words often used synonymously by consumers. Alright, so y'all are curious. But it helps no one and does nothing when all you're looking for is a "sustainable" line from your favourite brand. Big brands are notorious for cutting corners to make affordable pieces for a mass market. When it comes to fast-fashion brands, here's why sustainability is often difficult and therefore suspicious:
Supply chain: a complex sequence of events from manufacturing to merchandising makes transparency difficult. Cheap manufacturing is the most logistical option for high turnover consumption.
Colour: dying vibrant, unique, trending colours inevitably uses toxic dyes that then pollute waterways. When saturated colours are big time must-have's, it makes this process extremely difficult. Natural dyes aren't suited for mass market and aren't as easy to control.
Sustainable fabrics: demand is lower, selection is lower, which means there's less to work with and the minimum order has to be higher. Retailers have to keep a more narrow fabric selection and subsequently use the same prints on many pieces (note: Reformation is an example of a brand that does this).
Pricing: keeping your brand competitive, there's a limit to how much you can charge and how much people will pay. It takes time and energy to keep track of the market and what other brands are doing.
Shipping: freight and packaging can be a nightmare and is really unavoidable. Trying to eliminate waste along the way is a challenge many companies are currently grappling with.
There are brands making grand and glorious strides, brands like Reformation and Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, among others. One thing I appreciated with Reformation, for example, is that they make an effort to conserve all the way down to the packaging, which is a simple paper envelope with the garment loosely inside (no plastic!).
So let's talk about sustainability, what does it mean? First, we must consider all of the points of contact the garment has with the environment. The word connotes a process of balance in which resources, technology, environmental affects, and individuals involved are all maintained and considered. It must support all aspects of humanity and the eco-system, improving quality of life over a lifetime. Our lifetime and the garment's. Sustainable is a hot word, so hot it will burn your wallet. But don't let its bright light blind you from understanding what the word truly can mean for this industry.
In other words, we need to wake up (do the research) and smell the coffee (omg is it fair-trade?).