If you search for hashtag #sustainable on Instagram, it will give you 9.1 million results with pictures of literally whatever: clothes, interiors, food, animals, skincare products, landscapes, and people.
The core concept of sustainability deserves a series of books, and can’t be thoroughly explained in the format of a magazine article. This only wants to be a short introduction to sustainability, by the example of clothing and footwear production – a brief tour on the top of the iceberg.
Although it is not completely clear what stands behind the word sustainable in each case, it has become viral. Often it might seem to be just a marketing trick, which works: people prefer sustainable goods, brag about having a sustainable lifestyle, and buy from sustainable brands.
The Oxford Dictionary gives the following definition: “the property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”.
The definition is pretty broad and leaves space for interpretations…and speculations. For today there are no legal regulations for using this label. We can distinguish a sustainable brand as a brand, which is:
Eco-friendly – aims to minimize as much as possible pollution of any type and reduce the carbon footprint in particular.
The Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide emissions associated with all the activities of a person or other entities (Britannica).
According to a report from McKinsey and the Global Fashion Agenda in 2018 apparel and footwear industry produced 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions — approximately four percent of total global emissions. This figure consists of emissions of all the 9 steps of production from raw material extraction to retail and end-of-life of each item. The same industry is the second biggest polluter of water.
The pollution can be reduced. For example, by using natural fibers, as they have a lower carbon footprint compared to synthetic ones. A perfect fiber would be the organic natural one. Have you ever heard about organic cotton? Sounds like 0 kcal water. In fact, not all cotton is organic, but only the one which grows in its natural conditions, without being modified, treated with pesticides or any other chemicals. Only 0.93 percent of all produced cotton is organic (Organic Trade Association).
Other ways to minimize the carbon footprint are: reducing water consumption, as it leads to extra energy consumption; use of manual labor where it is possible instead of machines; use of renewable energy, etc.
Ethical – all the workers involved in production at all its steps are fairly paid, their rights are respected in accordance with labor law, and the working environment meets safety requirements.
A vivid example of workers’ abuse is the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, the story of which is shown in an iconic documentary about the fast-fashion industry “The true cost” (2015). The problem of child labor is still a part of our reality as well: the International Labor Organization estimates that 152 million children are currently employed, and part of them makes clothing for stores in Europe, the USA, and other countries.
A brand whose products are lasting – this criterion depends on the type of product. In simpler words, a t-shirt should last more than one season, an electronic device shouldn’t malfunction in one year, or when the producer launches an upgraded model (or an update). Otherwise, people have to get rid of broken or worn out items and buy substitutions for them. And so on, producing more and more rubbish, endlessly buying non-lasting goods again.
A sustainable solution for a clothing brand, in this case, would be making timeless pieces, and capsule collections, put quality above quantity.
These are the 3 fundamentals of sustainability, which are a must for a brand or product to be labeled as sustainable. It is a minimum, which can be supplemented with charity initiatives, helping local communities, organizing or taking part in other useful side projects.
Thus, sustainability in the clothing segment is the opposite of fast-fashion. It is a way of production that puts principles of no-harm and fair trade above quick profit, in short.
How can a customer be sure that a brand matches the above-mentioned criteria? Another important characteristic of a sustainable brand is the transparency of all the production chain and openness in communication with potential clients.
Not all the brands, which call themselves sustainable, match all of the above-mentioned criteria, but if they are working on upgrading their standards, and on the improvement of weak points, they are worth supporting.