Since sustainability became a buzzword for marketing purposes, companies have been making half-hearted attempts to monopolize on the trend without truly embodying the spirit of the movement. Products with biodegradable components advertised in big, glossy 40-page look-books; organic cotton t-shirts without complete supply chain transparency; “timeless” artisan constructed leather bags that aren’t intrinsically sustainable but go against the “fast-fashion” mentality. What it truly means to be sustainable in fashion is confusing, to say the least.
Which of these tactics are benefiting the environment as much as they are benefitting the wallets of the companies who employ them? How long can we continue down this path, convincing ourselves that small changes to select areas of the fashion industry are going to bring about the enormous shift in both consumer and corporate mentality we need to enact to significantly reduce the strain fashion puts on the planet? Maintainable sustainable consumption needs to come from multiple angles: a change in mindset from the customer, employment of life cycle assessments to truly understand the impact of products, as well as a complete reimagination of the market-cycle.
Consumers need to push beyond buying apparel that has token “environmentally friendly” practices tacked on to the hangtag. The current state of affairs should make people pay more attention to the authenticity of packaging claims and the origins of their purchases.
We are buying masks, paying close attention to their quality; conscious of their origins. We ask: were these made by a reputable source? What is the material? Are they multi-use? Is my purchase of this mask taking it away from someone in society who may have needed it more than me? What if we were to be so discerning when making clothing purchases as well. We could be asking: Can I be sure the workers who created this garment were treated fairly? How long will it last before it ends up in a landfill? Is it authentic?
Maybe our current situation will encourage us as consumers to slow down and make more deliberate purchasing decisions. By being forced to step away from the cycle of constant consumption, when we return it will hopefully be with a fresh set of eyes towards what is truly important: the health of humanity and the planet. While we are missing the tangible stimulation, and creative inspiration of physical retail spaces, when we return will we need less to get the same buzz. Some of the ostentation will have become too much.
As fashion brands, we obviously want our customers to continuously purchase in order to turn a profit, but we have been churning out more product faster than ever before all while touting environmental sustainability. In many ways it’s contradictory.
Brands need to make deep changes to their supply chains, practices and ethos. By employing a life cycle assessment model when making sustainable manufacturing decisions, companies are able to gauge which tweaks to their process will truly have the most impact, beyond just giving them sustainability credibility with the consumer. This will also allow them to communicate more clearly with the customer what quantitative, tangible differences these changes in production make. A life cycle assessment follows a product from its raw material stage to manufacturing, packaging, transport all the way through its use and care by the customer until the point where it is either disposed of or reused.
Now, more than ever, transparency is important to both companies, and consumers. We are wary of where things came from, and how they got to us. We clean our deliveries religiously before they come in our house; we ensure that the companies that we are ordering from are treating their workers fairly during this time of crisis; and we have a greater appreciation for the means by which we are able to keep purchasing. By utilizing the above life cycle assessment model retailers are forced to fully understand the impacts of production from inception and can in turn more clearly communicate these findings with the end customer. When you purchase a recycled wool sweater, it means something to understand where the raw material was sourced from, that the extra money spent is providing living wages to the garment workers who produced it, that there was a conscious decision not to ship it with tissue paper and a printed receipt in order to reduce waste, and lastly that perhaps there is a way to care for it that is kinder on the environment and on the garment itself.
Beyond just the manufacturing of clothing, the fashion industry needs to take a step back and look at the impact of its entire model. How much international travel is really needed for fashion shows, markets and photo shoots? how many sample lines are truly essential? How many drops is too many? How can we reimagine our entire market cycle to be kinder to the planet, while still retaining the same excitement, creative spirit, and connectivity?
Maybe part of our problem was that our industry has become too prolific for its own good. Our marketers have become too good at convincing consumers to buy more, our designers are too efficient at dreaming up new lines, and our production lines are too good at executing last minute drops. As we have been forcibly put on pause, it’s clear that in the grand scheme of things sometimes more productive isn’t better, thoughtfulness and consciousness are undervalued traits that we as consumers and industry professionals need to take with us into this new normal.