There's No Such Thing as Sustainable Fashion!

There's No Such Thing as Sustainable Fashion!

First published on Linked In - 12th August, 2020.

Has anyone else noticed how everyone’s talking about ‘sustainability’? Perhaps for many the context will relate to the long term viability/existence of a product, service or a company? However, when I hear proclamations of 'sustainable fashion', 'sustainable brand', or 'eco-chic', (broad and sweeping statements) it’s not always evident as to how deserved that brand is of such claims.

I’m not writing this article because I’ve got it sorted. On the contrary, I’d just like us all to address the language used when we create and sell. I’m not an expert and I’m not here to preach to the converted, but ideally, I would like far more transparency when using the term ‘sustainable’ in marketing and promotion. I would also like to offer a slightly different perspective by offering my understanding of the term; 'sustainable development'.

I’ve had a diverse career, working in local government, the voluntary sector and currently my own small fashion/design business and in my humble opinion; there is no such thing as sustainable anything!

Developing sustainably, as a brand, is hugely complex. For those who have tried to reduce their environmental impact in their own household, you get the picture. But, it’s not just about the environment;

there are three broad aspects to sustainable development: social, economic and the environment.

Working towards producing anything sustainably, ones commitment and enthusiasm can dip, along the way, and undoubtedly ‘eco-fatigue’ will loom! It’s hard work! Some businesses go down the route of certification e.g. ISO14001, as we did at the Environment Centre. A time consuming and expensive project requiring commitment from all employees, which in the long term saves resources. Others may have used a ‘sustainability appraisal mechanism’, a great tool to explore the complexity of projects that helps a business or service provider to reflect on its direction with all employees need to be involved. Back in the late 90’s I worked with a team from Forum for the Future when they developed one for Southampton City Council (SCC). 

My post was funded by SCC, and I was based at the local Environment Centre working to a joint management group that included the then Southampton Sustainability Forum. This unusual approach received praise from the Improvement and Development Agency. The post was the local response to the publication of 'Agenda21'; the UN’s action plan agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in1992. The Summit was an international gathering of leaders of states, at the highest level, trying to safeguard the planet's natural resources and eliminate poverty. The UK Government responded by asking local authorities to develop policies and procedures that addressed a ‘Local Agenda 21'.

In my opinion, the most helpful definition of ‘sustainable development’ originated from the Brundtland Report 1982. 

‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’

Or, as Richard Sandbrook OBE, eloquently put it - in the UN Rio Earth Summit’s forward:

‘A way of living from nature’s income rather than its capital account’.

It’s a great definition isn’t it, but with our growing global population, smart phones and our one click buying habits, just how do we achieve this utopia? It’s not possible is it, so let’s stop saying we are sustainable - because we’re not. Saying we are ‘working towards a more sustainable product’ and hopefully lifestyle would be more realistic. And only then, if we have considered EVERYTHING we do, EVERYTHING we buy, sell, throw away, etc. It all has an impact on our future, our environment, our economy and our communities locally and globally.

Don't just take my word for it. Stacey Dooley has reported on it several times.

So unless one is living in a tribe in the middle of the Amazon rainforest it isn’t possible to claim that you have a 100% sustainable lifestyle, let alone a truly sustainable business. It’s very difficult, unless we have the most amazing, fully committed leadership, at the highest levels internationally. Ha! 😏Not so good at the moment is it, so it’s down to us.

At this point one could give up and buy some more plastic we don't need. It’s too difficult and complicated I hear you say. Someone else will sort it out! Well, one of the sayings back in the 90’s was; ‘Think Global, Act Local’, in other words, consider your global neighbours, and act accordingly in your life, where you live. This offered hope to the communities I was consulting at the time and empowered them, to come up with some amazing projects. ‘Are you doing your bit?’ was another, which was linked to short succinct lifestyle tips, like turning lights out and turning the tap off when brushing teeth.

There are of course many success stories and plenty to read on the subject. We can learn from experts and we can learn new habits and remember, that our choices, and our consumer behaviour can change things for the better.  There is so much we can do, bite size chunks as they say. I believe the best way forward, in any industry, would be more honesty, and to talk/show/share our knowledge and our experiences (that’s the easy bit nowadays) and try and save our planet, our home for our children and our children’s children.

After carefully considering my options since the pandemic landed, it’s what I’m going to do. I’ll share what I learn on my new journey, I’m going to be designing and appraising my entire product life cycle and see what I can do. If you’ve read this far, that’s great, thank you for taking the time and do comment below, I’d be interested to hear your opinions. 

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