What About... Sustainability?
What about it? We see so many different terms everywhere. Brands label themselves as eco, organic, fair, and slow. Sustainable fashion is trending. For the consumer it gets confusing and also hard to discern between what is true and what is not which can cause misconceptions and skepticism.
The purpose of this article is to give some clarity on what sustainability means in the context of fashion, what the problem is with becoming sustainable and why it matters that the customer is more knowledgable.
Sustainable clothing is the type of clothing that is designed and manufactured to maximize benefits to people and society while minimizing adverse environmental impact. If we see sustainable clothing in this way, we also notice that it is composed out of two components, namely the social level and the environmental level. Since sustainability is so broad it helps to analyze the two different levels in order for the whole concept to become more clear. What we speak of when we talk about social sustainability is for example fair living wages, raising the minimum wages, banning child labour, making sure working hours are shorter and working conditions are better.
When it comes to the environmental level we talk about minimizing the environmental footprint of the production of the products. This can be divided between using organic fibers (and using certified materials, on which I will elaborate later), using greener fibers (bamboo and Tencel), and the use of recycled materials. The process from fibre to material on its own is already complex, because it starts with the farmers, and their choices to use chemicals or not. The yarn manufacturers and the process of painting the materials, the transportation in between processes, and so on. So being sustainable on the environmental level means also saving water when growing cotton, using no pesticides, and using cleaner technologies for dyeing. It means greener distribution and logistics, and energy saving technologies.
Helpful for companies in the process of becoming sustainable are the certificates that have been created. These are designed to standardize procedures and practices by the textile industry. Some of the well known certificates on the level of fabrics are the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO-TEX. GOTS in short stands for producing organic fibers throughout the whole supply chain entailing environmental and social compliance. OEKO-TEX is testing products for harmful ingredients. On the level of the factory workers that are making our clothing there exists the ISO 14001. This standard applies to environmental management systems. ILO Decent Work Framework focuses on providing overall guidelines to offer workers a good working life as well as supporting their private lives by focusing on decent working time and adequate earnings.
All in all, the effort to become more sustainable is really pressing. In the case of the environment it is kind of obvious that the industry is harmful. But also, what we see happening in the fashion industry, is that it is a buyer-driven industry instead of a producer-driven industry. Retailers, brand-marketers and brand manufacturers decide when and where production takes place, and also have the power to decide the speed of production, and quality. Sometimes this results in forcing the manufacturers into impossible deadlines.. This strongly influences the working standards in factories. Since the power lays on the side of the buyer, it matters that customers start asking critical questions, and demanding fairness.