Darcey Sergison looks deeper into what makes a company truly sustainable and how we can distinguish noise from action.
Sustainability is the buzzword for the fashion industry this year, and in prior years, as allegations of unethical supply chains have damaged the image of many brands, big and small. While sustainability may appear all over your news feeds, it is crucial to identify how it is being used and for what purpose.
According to the Oxford dictionary, sustainability is defined as an “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”. This meaning covers a large expanse within the production cycle of products and how this can be made increasingly a closed loop process through resale and recycle processes. To ensure all aspects of sustainable living are maintained we, as the consumer, must look at environmental concerns, worker’s rights, and use of products in order to identify what is and is not sustainable in the fashion industry.
Greenwashing is a huge concern when it comes to companies’ marketing of sustainable programmes. With calls being made to swap promotional noise for action, greenwashing does not make this commitment. Instead, some companies decide to spend time and money on producing convincing marketing and campaigns that suggest they are making the change you want to see. This approach misleads us into making false hope purchases thinking we are supporting sustainable ethics, when instead we are supporting the marketing.
While it may seem as though it takes time and effort to work out who is sustainable and who is not, there are simple ways to question how truly sustainable is a company? Here are some tips on how you can find truly sustainable brands among the noise:
Go beyond the product
While it is easy to stop at what makes the product sustainable it is crucial that you look beyond this. This is evident in many instances where companies that launch sustainable capsules are not a contributor to sustainable practices as a whole. This is a common greenwashing approach that suggests to many customers that they are buying sustainable in the product but the same cannot be said for the brand. We all know the unmentioned brands. These brands produce sustainable capsules when the pressure is applied, but for the rest of the year continue their contribution towards fast fashion. When shopping, buy into the brand, not just the product.
Supply chain transparency
As mentioned, sustainability goes beyond environmental practices and it is important to remember the human element in production. Behind garments there can be a story of an underpaid worker. When buying products, it is important to understand the transparency on policies and practices on child labour, forced labour, worker safety, freedom of association, gender equality, and living wage. These are all contributing factors that can make or break a supply chain. While these may seem like an intimidatingly large list of contributing factors, there are many ways in which this transparency can be tested. First you can simply search your favourite brand and see whether they address this on their website. I was shocked at how many of my favourite brands did not address this in their ethics policy, which demonstrates how supply chain fog can prevent many of us from understanding more about the exact journey of our products. As well as this, sustainability apps are a great way to track these standards in one easy quantifiable click. Check out our previous issue to find out which apps you should be using.
During the pandemic this has highlighted further incidences of issues with transparency of supply chains. In particular, the risk of payment for hours of work being cancelled at last minute at the will of the purchasing company. In March, Remake took the step to launch a petition demanding brands to pay workers in response to reports of cancelled orders. The project received over 270,000 signatures and became a worldwide movement to #PayUp including celebrity endorsements from Cameron Russell, Arizona Muse, and Nat Kelly. To ensure a sustained interest in worker’s rights, PayUp Fashion has been launched as a “centre for workers voices and demands in the future of fashion. This long-term vision for change lays out concrete, actionable labour rights goals.” Check out their website to see how you can support this cause while shopping using their brand tracker.
Check the label
Fashion always has a label telling you how to care for the product and the origins of the product itself. The latter should never be ignored when understanding the sustainability of the product. Just like food labels, fashion garment labels should always be considered when you are thinking about buying a product. Here are some of the most popular standards and certificates you should look out for:
- Fairtrade: You may be used to seeing this symbol on your favourite chocolate, but now it’s time to consider whether your clothes make the mark too. This standard is designed to “support the sustainable development of small producer organisations and agricultural workers in developing countries.” This approach is holistic through considering social, economic, and environmental criteria. Fairtrade standards also aim to ensure improvements that will benefit the producer and their community.
- Cradle to Cradle: This certified product standard is a transformative pathway for designing and making products with a positive impact on people and the planet. Factors that are incorporated into the critical performance categories include: material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
- OEKO-TEX STeP: This is an independent certification system provided for brands, retailers, and manufacturers referencing the textile and leather industry. Certification is suitable for “production facilities at all processing stages who want to communicate their environmental measures externally in a credible and transparent way”.
- The Global Organic Textile Standard: Developed through collaboration by leading standard setters, this standard has the aim of “defining requirements that are recognised world-wide and that ensure the organic status of textiles from harvesting of the raw materials through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing all the way to labelling in order to provide credible assurance to the consumer”.
The sustainability search continues
With smaller brands arising providing less information than corporate brands, the search continues to understand what makes a brand truly sustainable. Words are no longer good enough. With trackable standards easily monitored through apps or customer research it has made it harder for brands not to take action to stay true to their words.
When we first discuss sustainability, packaging comes to mind for a lot of people, but while it is easy to change packaging, the supply chain is less malleable to sustainability. Supply chains are either sustainable or not, there is very little middle ground. While claims and advertisement of sustainability are crucial to signal to customers, it is important to look beyond advertisement and access the criteria of what makes that company truly sustainable for yourself.