What the f**k is sustainability?
Sustainability has become sexy. The terminology has been adopted by businesses, brands and people, all promoting a more conscious message. We’ve all seen press releases from fashion houses flaunting “sustainable materials” with spicy terminology such as Equilibrium, Project Earth and ReXXX, whilst international ecommerce sites add “sustainable material” filters for your green fingers to select. Unfortunately, the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” have been used so widely, they've lost ALL meaning (that may be a bit dramatic, but, everyone’s bloody using them).
So, what the fuck does “sustainability” actually mean? How is the fashion industry using the word and when it comes to clothes, how can you easily & genuinely be more sustainable? Well, the easiest & most obvious place to start is the dictionary definition.
- That can continue or be continued for a long time
- Involving the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment
The first of those definitions is obvious, sustainability is to “sustain” something for a long period of time and the second, well, that definition is used flamboyantly by streetwear, high fashion and fast fashion alike. Unfortunately, some brands flaunt the word “sustainable” for practices that can’t be carried on for a long time and still harm the environment - depleting natural resources and exploiting people, which to be perfectly frank, is lying. It’s this misuse that gives “sustainability” it’s ambiguity.
Take the “responsible” product filter in your favourite mass market ecommerce site, we won’t name names. If you select “sustainable materials” you’ll be met with an assortment of conscience comforting garments that meet your planet saving prayers, or do they?! Unfortunately many garments that pop up are only partly “sustainable” (how is that even possible?) see, organic cotton trim, recycled polyster outer etc etc Which begs the question, if it’s only partly “sustainable” and you don’t really communicate that in your messaging, can you call it “sustainable” at all? Does the Econyl strap on your newest backpack mean the garment can be created for the next 100 years without any negative consequences to the environment? Unfortunately, and you guessed it, no, it bloody doesn’t. Using the word “sustainable” to conceal generally unsustainable practices is known as greenwashing, and greenwashing can make us consumers feel positively towards a brand that may have generally unsavoury practices, investing in the very organisations and industries that have drove the necessity for sustainable practices in the first place. We discuss it lightly, but this flippant use of the terminology gives an ambiguity to what is a truly important matter, which may eventually render the term meaningless.
But, at least they’re doing something, right? It is important for us to adopt a more responsible approach and if all of us took small steps, the impact would be huge. Perfection isn’t going to be achieved anytime soon but it is worthwhile recognising a washing of typically unfavourable practices by a using the words “sustainable”. For example, if you were shopping for a sustainable item, would you be happy with a garment made from 28% organic cotton & 68% polyester (polyester is made almost exclusively from oil, creating chemical run-off, water & land pollution)? Understanding what sustainability actually means in this case does have an impact, transparency is integral here, we need to know the overall impact of the garment beyond the fact it’s got some organic cotton in it, there is fascinating technology endeavouring to solve the lack of transparency in the fashion industry, that’s a whole other story, but exciting nonetheless.
The line between sustainable and unsustainable is blurred, and the adoption of the terminology and the ensuing ambiguity have a negative consequence on the industry. So, sustainability doesn’t mean anything anymore?! How can we guide our consciousness with no moral compass?! Of course it does, of course there are brands that have innovative practices, considerate supply chains and beautiful products, all with sustainability as a core of their being. You just have to look a little harder (we’ll help you with this). And if you don’t see the word “sustainable” look out for “responsible”, which seems an ample replacement for brands who admit they’re doing their best, but still have a way to go.
At the end of the day, you know what it means, but you might not know how to be “more sustainable” because there’s so much shit out there, and who’s to blame you? How can you be more sustainable when the word is being used as a guise, how did Malfoy’s parents become deatheaters when they so clearly had good hearts, in the end? Honestly, we don’t have the answer but, we’ve devised an approach (one that we use to understand how our brands operate in this world) that you can use day-to-day to move to a more responsible wardrobe. We’ve pulled out how we at Public Fibre review brand’s sustainability standards, to help you do the same.
Each item you buy is made from a material, be that cotton, plastic, wool or one of the many other recyclable alternatives out there. These materials come from somewhere and the processes involved in farming, collecting or making these materials impacts the environment significantly. In fact, because it often takes a lot of natural resources, this step can have the highest environmental impact of any step in the development of clothing. Cotton, for example, contributes excessively to water scarcity and wool to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions*. Because of this, we’d suggest you look at a brand’s raw material usage closely, how transparent they are with what it is made from and where that raw material comes from. This will also help you understand if the materials have been picked or farmed fairly.
Even the natural fibre cotton has sustainable complexity, with international standards illustrating the validating the sustainability of the yarn. We have some KOB t-shirts on our site that are made from long staple cotton, spun exclusively under environmentally friendly, innovative methods. The cotton is strictly watered using the drip irrigation system, using only 60% of the water that is used to grow conventional cotton. It is grown from non-GMO cotton seeds that are carefully selected and controlled. Cultivated on family farms in Greece, the whole supply chain is 100% traceable. So, even the simple material cotton, can be interrogated and have a more “sustainable” alternative.
Lab Grown Leather by Modern Meadow
Once the raw materials are harvested, collected, picked or made, they go through multiple processes and many hands before they are ready to be placed on the shelves (virtual or physical). We’d suggest you seek out where the garments are made, and if the brands have relationships with those factories. Typically, a closer relationship ensures better regulations and hopefully, fairer conditions. Because we want the planet AND our people to be looked after, right? You can also look out for international welfare standards such as the ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) –which judges and regulates the discharge of hazardous waste in the process, OEKO-TEX® – an agreement of standards for organisations to implement environmentally friendly production processes, and the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certification, an analysis and promotion of safe, lawful, humane and ethical manufacturing around the world.
Now, this is an obvious one. Too much plastic and too much rubbish isn’t great. Lots of brands are adopting compostable mailers, swing tags and tissue at the moment. Considering this stuff goes straight in your bin, it’s worthwhile recognising the impact it can have. One of our brands, Haeckels, have battled this problem by utilising the fungal matter mycelium to provide biodegradable packaging, winning them a coveted design award by the prestigious Wallpaper* magazine.
One thing worthwhile looking out for, is how your garments are delivered. This means your new sneaks are going to have to arrive somehow, and likely there will be some form of fossil fuel burning and an amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It’s more or less unavoidable. However, brands are taking measures to offset these carbon emissions. From reducing the amount of air freight and ensure sizing is correct to reducing returns, working with organisations that plant trees as part of “carbon offsetting”, these measures all contribute to a brands “sustainability”.
One of the biggest things you can do to be “sustainable” is probably the least sexy. Wash your clothes in cold water, and hang dry them. Shockingly, about 90% of the energy your washing machine uses when washing your clothes, goes towards heating the water. Cold wash & hang dry = significantly less energy use.
Going back to understanding what materials your clothes are made from, wool has self-cleaning properties for example, so doesn’t require cleaning regularly at all. Your favourite brand should know this, and they should make a point of telling you, because it truly does make a huge difference.
The end of life of a garment is just as important as the beginning, there’s no need to waste the materials that are used, recycling, donating or reusing are some good things you can employ to feel better about the impending farewell. The most “sustainable” practice possible is circular. One where there’s complete neutrality of what goes into a process and what comes out, an aim for the total removal of waste and pollution from the entire industry whilst maximising the utility of present resources. This is truly the only way to ensure a stable “future” for all, meaning we don’t use or waste or expel anything that we can sequester and use once again. But, we have to be realistic and that’s not always possible (but something good for you to look out for). Brands do offer recycling of their products at the end of a cycle. If you buy a pair of Humans Are Vain shoes and return them to us for example, we’ll send them on to the brand, where they’ll recycle the shoes into new pairs, and give you a gift card in the meantime.
It’s also worthwhile taking a look at the general “responsibility” of a brand, if they give back to any charitable organisation, what their true mission is, and what their values are. Unfortunately, some brands will make garments from “sustainable” materials, but in third world countries where exploitation is unavoidable. Luckily a lot of young, independent brands (many we proudly represent) are founded on good morals across the board, meaning each step of the process is typically considered and you can feel good about donning their logo. Another good thing to look out for is whether an organisation is a “Certified B Corp” this means they engage in responsible actions which ensure a more positive environmental outcome.
There you go, the meaning of “sustainability” may have been lost some time ago, but your drive to be more sustainable can remain true. Arm yourself with this understanding and you’ll be doing great. Question the brands you typically buy from and spend a bit more time when shopping to learn about your clothes, they’re an investment after all.
A piece by Stefan Schröder, co-founder of public fibre.