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The Meaning of Sustainable Fashion

By Patrick Chew

Felicia Yap

“Sustainability" has become such a buzzword within the luxury and fashion industry in the last few years that people are starting to turn away the moment the word is uttered.

It is a shift largely influenced by consumer pressure and social media. As the core consumer shifts from Gen X to Y, it is worth noting that millennials spend 15 per cent of their income on luxury goods, as compared to the 4 per cent of Gen X. That increase has brought about an ever-growing desire and demand to know where goods come from and how goods come about.

The truths to those questions leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. After all, how can a product born from the second most pollutant industry in the world — outdone only by oil and gas — be considered beautiful? Can a leather bag or a pair of leather shoes still be desirable if consumers are aware that they are products of exploitation of poverty in third-world markets?

These are issues which brands are faced with, and to which they are responding.

Earlier this year, the chief executive of Kering, François-Henri Pinault, outlined the luxury group’s sustainable development targets and goals to achieve by 2025 such as cutting carbon emissions by 50 per cent and reducing environmental impact from production of raw materials by 40 per cent. These are steps, which, according to him, are “strategic long-term investments, not short-term costs.”

Is this all the industry can do? Some seem to think so. But William McDonough, co-author of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” and visionary behind Fashion for Good, a joint industry initiative, has argued otherwise.

To him, it is not enough to be doing less bad and thinking that it is, in fact, doing good. “Is less bad being good?” he asked at a conference. “Or is it being bad, by definition, just less so? Are we confusing a human value with a numerical number? If you’re saying that you are going to reduce your carbon footprint by 20 per cent by 2020, all you’re really saying is that you’re aiming to be 20 per cent less bad.”

It is a simple question that has brought about a profound realisation — that the issue of sustainability within fashion has to be approached by changing the game rather than merely shifting the needle. It is not enough to tell the world what you’re not going to do, which, if you think about it, is about as useful as telling a taxi driver you’re not going to the airport and leaving him to figure out the answer.

Everyone has their own definition of what sustainability means to them. In response, McDonough offered his: Sustainability means that the world is better because you made something. And not making something that made the world less bad than it did before.

He brought up the collaboration between Fashion for Good and C&A Foundation that produced a modest cotton T-shirt in which all of its materials were assessed for ecological and human health. “A hundred per cent of that T-shirt’s molecules were assessed,” he explained. “The mills are clean. The water is clean. The dyes are clean. The people are treated with dignity. It is 100 per cent renewably powered.”

Fashion labels have a lot of control over the product and very little over its consumers. The kicker to all of this is that all of fashion’s sustainability issues can be solved if everyone simply cuts back on their consumption, an unattainable goal by any means especially when we consider how the global output of clothes and garments has doubled since 2000.

What fashion labels can do is to give their consumers better options because consumers need more than just moral reasons to buy better; they need convincing arguments. So it’s up to the fashion brands to lead that argument.

Burberry and Diane von Furstenberg, for instance, have placed both real and faux fur in their collections, highlighting the difference (or lack thereof) between the two and leaving it to the customer to decide. Elsewhere, Stella McCartney has discussed her plans of becoming the standard-bearer of sustainable fashion by cultivating eco-minded designers, showcasing ethical fabrics on the runway, and, most recently, presented a plan for a waste-free circular textiles economy. Last month, Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Gucci, announced the brand’s ten-year “Culture of Purpose” plan, which will see the Italian house going fur-free, guaranteeing the traceability of 95 per cent of its raw materials, and reworking the management of its supply chain.

The move towards sustainable and ethical production is not limited to luxury fashion labels but also fashion-fashion ones. It is something that may come as a bit of a surprise to most, considering the perception that fashion-fashion is the devil that sits on the opposite end of the spectrum that continues to generate a toxic culture of greed. But take a stroll along Main Street and you’ll find fast-fashion labels pushing their sustainable lines such as Zara’s “Join Life” collection and Mango Committed, a 45-piece line that the brand launched earlier this year. On top of that, H&M Group boasts of having gathered and recycled more than 55,000 tonnes of garments since launching its garment-collecting initiative four years ago.

It is clear that changing our wasteful ways isn’t at all difficult if we look at it differently. Rather than cutting back on the negatives, it is simply better to focus on the positives.

Fashion is about setting and anticipating trends, and being reflective of the culture and society of the time. But more than that, it is about celebrating the beauty in life. With that in mind, it’s time to start making beautiful things in a truly and deeply beautiful way and hoping it catches on to become something unceasingly automatic.