What is sustainable about fashion?
When posed with the question, “What is sustainable fashion?” the industry has come to no agreement. The luxury and couture designers claim it’s timeless design and quality that allow their designs to be handed down from generation to generation. Let’s call this “heirloom sustainability”. Crafters argue that employment of skilled artisans, low quantity production eschewing large machinery emissions, and the reduction of shipping impact by using local production is what defines sustainability. We call this “handmade/local production.” A related approach is the “sustainable communities” model when humanitarian entrepreneurs team up with local craftspeople in war-torn or impoverished regions to form collectives to produce and sell regional crafts. The profits, in turn, are used to build schools, teach skills, and acquire much needed resources. From a completely different perspective, the fast-fashion market has been known to play loose with semantics and claim that it’s an affordable price-point for customers that makes a brand “sustainable.” Guess we could call that “sustain-a-wallet.”
Countering the first three models, large factories claim that efficiency is key and due to their bulk orders which lead to more consistent quality goods, they are in fact more “sustainable.” This does not address the waste and overproduction, and equitable pay and benefits. A potential ethical solution would be the requirement of “Fair-Trade” certification – where factories must meet certain standards for working environments and fair wages. There are also special regulations and standards for companies to receive certification as “green factories.” After being nailed by negative press, mega-corporations (like Wal-Mart) have agreed to regular “green” auditing by third parties to show they have cleaned up their acts environmentally. By taking measures such as using cost and energy efficient light bulbs and machinery, lowering their toxic waste spillage by using less toxic chemical treatments on their products and/or by cleaning the chemicals out of the water they release back into the local water supply, companies looking for green certification are trying to right some of their past wrongs. Unfortunately many of these companies still won’t even post their “green” certifications, because there will always be some part of the production process that is not sustainable, leaving them vulnerable to further press and consumer objections.
These various ways of looking at sustainability show that there is still no ‘sustain-a-standard’ yardstick that would effectively cover environmental protection, workers rights, product quality, and customer affordability all at the same time. Quite frankly, when you take all of the above into account, any fashion brand labeled “sustainable” begins to look a bit suspect–not dissimilar to the way a bottle of new and improved “Green” Tide laundry detergent looks. New label, same problems. At the end of the day, what’s keeping these companies from making the necessary improvements immediately is their ‘bottom line’, and in this respect, consumers are also complicit in the crime, in that we all want easy access to affordable products.
And that’s just the tip of the iceburg in the sustainable conversation. Textile fiber farming, manufacturing, dying, and finishing are whole other cans of worms, sometimes very slimy ones. So on that note, this conversation shall be continued…
In the meantime, let’s turn this into a proper dialogue. Give us your thoughts and perhaps we can come up with some better ideas and approaches to these increasingly important issues. Comments welcome!