The breathless email was all too familiar. It was from Levi’s, the company I buy most of my denim from, telling me about a new product: its “most sustainable jeans ever”. Made of “high quality recycled denim” and hemp, these jeans were “positive impact” and “negative waste”, the copywriters pledged.
There are some phrases so well-worn, we become numb to their meaning. For me, “sustainable fashion” is one of those phrases. It is a term now so ubiquitous in PR and marketing, so liberally applied to any brand that uses organic cotton or manufactures its goods locally, that its fundamental definition has become obscured.
I am not alone. “I barely even know what the word ‘sustainable’ means any more,” said the designer Stella McCartney, who has been speaking out against the industry’s record on the environment and human rights since the 1990s, as she unveiled her spring/summer 2021 collection last month. “The majority of people who say they’re doing a sustainable thing, if you ask one question, it will pretty much fall down at the first hurdle . . . It’s a bit tiring to see people’s overuse of these terms and really not have any substance to back it up.”
During the past four years, the number of clothes and accessories described as “sustainable” has quadrupled among online retailers in the US and UK, according to Edited, a London-based retail analytics company. Corresponding terms such as “vegan”, “conscious” and “eco” have also seen their usage multiply, the company said.
Where there is progress, brands are quick to shout about it. Organic and recycled fibres, once a rarity, can now be found in designer collections and in H&M. Yarn spun from recycled ocean plastic has become a major ingredient in everything from Adidas track pants to Prada nylon backpacks. High-end labels such as Balenciaga and Burberry now tout not only the luxuriousness of their materials, but also whether they meet certain environmental certifications. More importantly, companies over the past decade have begun to quantify the impact across their full supply chain and take strides to reduce it.
But there’s a problem. Not only is fashion not sustainable, it is becoming less so every moment. A report published by the Global Fashion Agenda in Copenhagen and the Boston Consulting Group last year revealed that the apparel and footwear industries’ progress on everything from carbon reduction to ensuring living wages for workers was 30 per cent slower in 2019 than the year before. The sector is also growing so rapidly that its impact on the planet is actually worsening. The volume of apparel and footwear being produced is forecast to increase by 81 per cent to 102m tons by 2030, according to the report.
It isn’t just fast fashion at fault. Even Gucci parent Kering, which has one of the most advanced and transparent environmental policies in the luxury sector, has struggled to reduce its footprint because its brands are growing so quickly.
And yet the good news keeps coming: in a deluge of emails promising products that are “carbon neutral”, “negative waste” or even “positive impact” — as if the making of a new garment could actually be a good thing for the planet. No wonder many of us are confused. “There is this vast array of icons and language and terminology, all of which feed a dynamic where customers don’t question a purchase, it reinforces a purchase,” says Alex Weller, European marketing director at Patagonia, a US outdoor clothing company whose public mission is “to save our home planet”. The company donates 1 per cent of gross sales to environmental projects and doesn’t use the word “sustainable” to describe itself or any of its products.
“It’s a bunch of coded language so that we think, yeah I’m comfortable with that, I can buy that,” Weller continues. “Versus trying to help the customer make a smart decision.”
As recently as a decade ago, few fashion brands wanted to be described as “sustainable”. When Yael Aflalo launched Reformation, a Los Angeles-based label known for its flirty, floral-print dresses, in 2009, she didn’t talk about how many of her garments were made from upcycled vintage or deadstock fabrics because her publicist told her it was “not going to resonate with fashion consumers”, she told me in a 2016 interview. “But we had seen the change in the automotive industry, seen the change in the food industry,” the founder and former chief executive said. “And [we knew] fashion was going to be next.”
Today, many of us are starting to feel pretty guilty about the environmental and social costs of our wardrobes. Surveys of US and UK shoppers repeatedly show that we would prefer to buy more “sustainable products”, and would even pay slightly more for them. But most of us have no idea what that entails. We don’t know our own carbon footprints, much less that of a creamy Mongolian cashmere jumper or pair of calf-leather ankle boots we might be lusting after.
Those who make an effort to be informed will inevitably encounter masses of false and contradictory data, as I did while reporting this story. Twenty-plus-page reports from world-leading consultancies are full of dubious statistics about fashion’s share of carbon emissions and water pollution. And whether materials such as organic cotton or recycled nylon are truly better for the environment than their non-organic and non-recycled counterparts is still hotly debated within the scientific community.
“We’ve gotten to a place where citizens know sustainability is something they should care about, but they are not informed enough to know what it means to be sustainable,” says Maxine Bédat, founder of New York-based New Standard Institute, a research and advocacy group focused on the relationship between fashion and climate change.
Unlike food labels such as “organic” or “free range”, which are regulated by western governments and can result in fines or even imprisonment when misappropriated, “sustainable” is not a regulated term, leaving brands free to attach it “to literally almost anything”, says Bédat.
She would know; she used to apply the label to her own apparel brand, Zady. Founded in 2014 as an ecommerce site that championed small batch, organic, and transparently made clothing and lifestyle goods, it soon launched its own label, which was celebrated for being among the first to trace the organic cotton of its T-shirts or the wool of its jumpers from farm to finish — and then make that information available to consumers. Such transparency remains rare.
It wasn’t easy. “I remember thinking, huh, how do you Google search this?” Bédat recalls of building the supply chain for Zady. “I thought, if we could find a ranch that is doing things the right way, and see who they send their product to, that would be a start. But even once we found our rancher in Oregon, at the beginning she didn’t want to connect us with the people she worked with.
“It very much became this investigation of what all the steps were, who was doing the steps in the supply chain in the right way, and what did it mean to do things in the right way.”
It wasn’t always so complicated. Apparel and footwear brands used to manufacture their own goods; they owned their factories, and some spun their own yarns. But decades of globalisation and trade policy have encouraged brands to outsource production, and with it they have lost oversight and ownership of their supply chains.
Mapping today’s supply chains is an arduous journey that can take years. Companies such as H&M employ more than a thousand factories across the world, many of which subcontract that work out to other factories brands have no knowledge of. Often factory owners are unwilling to reveal who their textile suppliers are, who in turn do not want to reveal the secrets of their fibre supply, for fear of being undercut.
Persuading third-party suppliers to become greener — to power their machines with solar power, say, or to begin sourcing and working with lower-impact materials that could require new sources and equipment — requires persistence, patience and investment.
“What the media have got wrong, is that they want [sustainability] now, even though there’s no realistic way of getting it now,” Jonathan Anderson, creative director of LVMH-owned Loewe and JW Anderson, and a longtime collaborator with Uniqlo, tells me. He began implementing “massive product changes” across the labels four-and-a-half years ago — making clothing out of recycled plastic bottles, finding less toxic ways of galvanising hardware, working on denims with Uniqlo that require 80 per cent less water — but has kept relatively quiet about them.
“There’s a lot of people who love to use a moment like this, a PR moment, to say we’re doing this [sustainable] collection,” he says. “That’s not sustainable. That’s just going with the public zeitgeist.
“It’s a 10-year strategy to do right,” he adds. “And your whole team has to want to do it.”
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In 2018, Bédat shut down Zady. Last year she founded the New Standard Institute as a resource centre for brands, journalists and citizens to educate themselves about fashion’s environmental and social costs, and what it will take for the industry “to exist within planetary boundaries in which people and the planet can thrive”, she says.
Brands have been leading the discussion on sustainability, creating a glut of misinformation, she explains. Until journalists and citizens are better educated and demand greater transparency and regulation, brands will be able to say whatever they want, and legislators will prioritise other issues.
“Clothing will always have an impact. What we need is for brands to speak about what they’re doing to reduce impact and be honest and transparent about how far they are going and where they need to go.
“No company can be perfect,” she continues. “But don’t call something sustainable if it isn’t.”
In some ways, the pandemic has been good for the sustainability movement. Global clothing and footwear sales are expected to fall 27 to 30 per cent this year, according to McKinsey analysts, and brands have cut back on production.
At fashion weeks, concepts and methods that were once the exclusive domain of young, fringe designers — using deadstock fabric, for example, or cutting up and refashioning last season’s unsold garments into something new — are now being adopted by large mainstream brands such as Louis Vuitton and Maison Margiela.
“Carbon-neutral” shows, in which brands offset the carbon emissions they can’t eliminate by donating to forest restoration projects, for example, are becoming standard. Executives are better informed about their company’s sustainability policies than they used to be. Many, such as Timberland owner VF Corp and Chanel, have set aggressive targets to reduce and offset their carbon output. In September the latter committed $35m to install solar panels on the roofs of low-income families in California — which will generate enough renewable electricity to power the company’s entire operations in North America.
“When I started at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the number of sustainable apparel fashion professionals could fit in one room,” says its former chief executive Jason Kibbey, who now oversees the Coalition’s Higg Index, a tool designed to help brands and retailers evaluate the environmental impact of the materials they use. “Now there are thousands.”
But it has also put more price pressure on mass-market brands that are thinking harder about the bottom line.
“When I’ve spoken with brands that are positioned with lower-priced products, I haven’t heard them push back and say that they don’t want to be more sustainable,” says Brian Ehrig, a retail and sustainability specialist at US consulting firm Kearney. “I’ve heard them push back and say it’s going to make my product more expensive. Right now, with the global recession we’re in, trying to get consumers to pay more for a garment or a pair of shoes seems very unlikely.”
In April, Allbirds, the unicorn footwear start-up whose merino-wool, sugarcane-soled trainers have become ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, began labelling every one of its items with its carbon footprint. The company’s average product emits 7.6kg CO2e, which is roughly the equivalent of driving 19 miles in a car, or running five loads of laundry in the dryer.
“Our hope is that carbon becomes a unifying metric and north star for the fashion industry, and all other entities and organisations,” says Tim Brown, Allbirds’ co-founder and a former captain of New Zealand’s football team.
Carbon isn’t the be-all end-all metric for measuring a product’s environmental impact, in the same way that calories don’t fully capture a food’s nutritional benefits. “But it can help you make healthier choices,” argues Brown.
“Part of the challenge is that ‘sustainability’ means 10 different things to 10 different people — microplastics, air quality, recyclability, biodiversity,” he continues. “Some of those factors have competing incentives, so it can be confusing in terms of what is the right thing to do. What we’re doing is coming to the conclusion that all things matter, but all line up to carbon.”
Retailers are also beginning to earmark products that meet certain environmental criteria — and stop carrying those that don’t. “[German etailer] Zalando is a good example. They’re basically going to get rid of companies not engaged in sustainability,” says Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Kibbey. “We’re going to see more and more platforms do the same, using high-quality data to decide what products are going to be sold to most consumers. That will shape the industry quickly.”
In August, luxury department store group Selfridges expanded a labelling system as part of its Project Earth initiative that highlights products that are organic, forest-friendly or vegan. Under the hood, these products are rigorously vetted for certifications and accreditations, Daniella Vega, group sustainability director of Selfridges, says. The retailer has also given brands targets to ensure that the nine most environmentally impactful materials used in their products come from “certified, sustainable sources” by 2025, she adds. Luxury etailers Net-a-Porter and MatchesFashion have introduced similar labels.
As a consumer, it can be tempting to leave the responsibility for lowering fashion’s impact to businesses. “It’s important to remember that consumers have a role in this too,” says Kearney’s Ehrig. “They have to change their behaviours as well.”
As a shopper, I’m aware that I am part of the problem. I’ve stopped buying virgin leather, and I try to find whatever jumper or jacket I’m in pursuit of on a second-hand site before I buy it new. And yet I place at least one order on a luxury ecommerce site every month. I reason that I’m buying well-made products that I can eventually pass on or re-sell. But still, I buy more than I need.
How do we break out of these habits of consumption? Patagonia’s Weller likens it to “reprogramming”.
“I grew up in the 90s, which is probably the period of time when a lot of us were groomed to consume,” he says. “There was for my peers a moment of reckoning, of realisation that this boundless consumption was ridiculous. Of course everybody instinctively knows that. You just have to block cognitive dissonance for a second to know that this is completely excessive.”
When I fess up about my own shopping habits, Weller’s reply is measured: “It is an iterative journey for everybody. You need to truly engage and invest in everything you own and take responsibility for it. Not just as a transaction and item, but as a useful, meaningful possession that you’re going to take care of. That’s a mindset shift. That requires people to think differently about stuff.”
Words to live, and shop, by.
How to reduce the environmental footprint of your wardrobe
1. Buy less and wear your clothes for longer. This is the simplest and most impactful thing you can do.
2. Buy second-hand. Local charity shops are your best option. Consignment platforms such as The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective and eBay are good destinations for pre-owned luxury products, although they require packaging and transport.
3. Research before you buy new. Websites such as GoodOnYou.eco rate brands based on environmental impact, labour conditions and animal welfare. Read up on brands’ sustainability policies on their websites, and check for certifications such as B Corp and Bluesign. Avoid synthetic fabrics derived from fossil fuels, such as acrylic and polyester, which cannot be recycled at scale.
4. Wash your clothes in cold water, and less often.
5. Think about what will happen to a product at the end of its life cycle. Is it valuable enough that someone would purchase it second-hand? Is the fabric recyclable? Repair broken zippers or missing buttons on items before donation — damaged items will automatically head to a landfill.
Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor
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