What does "sustainable" mean and why should we be conscious of how brands are using it?

Written by Freya Davey

There is no doubt that sustainability is having a bit of a moment, especially when it comes to the world of fashion. New sustainable clothing brands are popping up all over the place and well-known highstreet brands are regularly coming out with their own ‘sustainable’ lines. Everywhere you look, companies seem to be throwing around terms like ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘organic’ in their marketing communications. But what does it really mean to be sustainable, particularly in the context of clothing, and why has it suddenly become such a buzzword?

 

It might feel like a good thing that sustainability is becoming a buzzword in the fashion world, surely we all want the harmful impact of fast-fashion and over-consumption to be something that is talked about on the news and considered by big corporations? The more sustainability is on our minds, the more likely we are to act on it, right? But when you consider that a buzzword is just a term that is particularly fashionable for a period of time, it becomes apparent that sustainability needs to be so much more than just another trend or marketing ploy. With so many fashion brands jumping on the ‘sustainability’ bandwagon, how can separate the doers from the sayers?

 

Confusingly, there is no universally agreed upon definition of sustainability. On an etymological/semantic level, it refers to an ability to maintain or sustain something at a certain rate, but in practice, brands use it inconsistently to refer to a whole host of things with no clear industry regulation. This means that when we see a brand use the word ‘sustainable’ in its marketing of a product, we can make no assumptions as to what this means. It could be that the brand uses recycled materials in their products, or rather, biodegradable materials, or materials that need very few resources to develop. Yet these all have considerably different consequences on the environment. Alternatively, it could refer to a company’s business model, low carbon emissions or fair working conditions. The list is long and varied, and yet just one word – sustainable – is used as an umbrella to cover it all.

 

Being able to settle on a definition and criteria of what counts as “sustainable fashion” is vital for identifying instances of greenwashing, where brands might preach one thing while practicing something entirely different. With the current unregulated ‘trendiness’ of sustainability comes companies that merely want to appear to be considering the environmental and social impact of their practices without taking any significant steps to make it a reality. But, simply labelling an item of clothing sustainable doesn’t make it so. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is H&M’s Conscious collection. In the brand’s explanation of the range they clarify that garments containing just 50% recycled fabric (or 20% recycled cotton) can be labelled ‘conscious’ which they assert “makes the fashion industry more sustainable”. However, very little else is offered by way of clarification. The company’s vague, misleading statements about sustainability and lack of transparency has been heavily criticised as a textbook case of greenwashing. Even Primark is marketing itself as “a sustainable choice” these days because it uses organic cotton in a handful of its products (conveniently overlooking the fact that their business model is built on producing tonnes of poorly made clothes that are essentially disposable).

 

So, with all this confusing jargon and misleading marketing out there, how can you tell whether a brand really is sustainable or whether they just claim to be? One of the best resources out there is Good On You, an app and website which rates brands’ sustainable efforts based on their actual environmental impact, labour conditions and animal welfare. They also have a series of handy guides out there including this cohesive guide to the relative sustainability of pretty much every fabric you could think of, this one on where to find second-hand clothing, and this one on sustainable fashion and home DIYs.

 

But the easiest way to consume fashion more sustainably and avoid greenwashing? Don’t shop at all! The best thing we can do as consumers is to consider what we already own and how we can make the most of that before turning to second-hand or ‘sustainable’ clothing. Every item of clothing we buy – sustainably produced or not – has a substantial carbon footprint attached to it and will eventually end up in landfill, so naturally, the best way to minimise this impact on the planet is to make use of clothes that already exist.

 

Jargon buster!

 

As we know, sustainability jargon is often pretty hard to define due to a lack of clear criteria and regulation for how words are used. Nevertheless, here are some guides for how jargon is typically used in the industry and what some of the more common buzzwords mean.