I recently listened to an industry podcast where the host and guest argued that there is no such thing as a neat definition of sustainability in fashion, making it hard to know what to do to effect change. I disagree.

Every sustainability strategy is unique, certainly.  Some will prioritise a shift to organic and recycled materials.  Others will do their best to safeguard the standards of living of their supply chain workers.  Others still will try to quantify the carbon their production, distribution, and disposal processes spit out. And there will be blends in between. But having different approaches doesn’t mean there isn’t a common objective.

A sustainable fashion enterprise is one that can continue to operate indefinitely without damaging itself or the world around it each time the cycle repeats.  On balance, it must not take out more than it puts in, or that system fails and needs to be propped up by external support.  And at its most essential level, the topic of sustainability in fashion need be no more complicated than this.

As an industry, to be considered truly sustainable, fashion should therefore be capable of running in perpetuity on its own terms – from design to disposal.  And it should be able to do so without subtracting permanent net value from the environment, the people, and the economies that fuel it.  It is not a controversial statement to say that, by this central metric, fashion is decidedly not a sustainable industry.  And indeed most fashion organisations are not sustainable either.

Although this article is not intended to chastise, let’s substantiate that by stacking the sustainability yardstick alongside the areas that fashion is more often criticised for being unsustainable.

Depletion of finite or scarce resources.  

Owing to the prevalence of offshore manufacturing, the fashion retail industry relies heavily on international freight – a dependence that’s being compounded by the sheer speed at which the market operates, necessitating rapid design, development and production of new styles.  Without comprehensive overhauls to the way brands and retailers work, speed to market means making products faster and getting them onto store shelves more quickly.  And that means an approach to logistics that emphasises air cargo over sea freight – a prime consumer of fossil fuels, and a significant contributor to carbon emissions, which the fashion industry makes up at least 10% of, globally.

The fashion industry is also a major consumer of water – one of the planet’s least equitably-distributed essential resources.  The amount of water it takes to dye a single pair of standard jeans could keep a person alive for years.

Pollution.

As well as using staggering amounts of water and energy, the apparel industry is also a serial polluter.  From the effluent of the denim dyeing process to the microplastics added to the water table by the creation and use of many lynchpin synthetic fabrics.  And from the massive volume of textiles that are dumped in landfill – at least £140 million worth every year – to the shady, condemned practice of burning excess inventory to preserve brand cachet. The average design, development, production and usage cycle is anything but clean.

Exploiting inequality.

The dark heart of global commerce, inequality is especially rife in product-driven industries, like fashion, where most manual work has been outsourced to regions or population segments where quality of life looks very different to the way it looks for the finished product’s target consumer.  To be blunt, the current fashion model only works, and current margins can only be sustained, if it can tap into a pool of workers who – either through direct coercion or through dearth of opportunity – can be paid incredibly low wages.  And this is putting it mildly; state mandated labour, dystopian “re-education,” child labour, and outright slavery have not been consigned to the history books yet.

This is, of course, not unique to fashion. Consumer electronics and a host of other industries should shoulder equal blame, but it cannot be ignored that garment and textile manufacturing props up almost the entire export economies of countries like Bangladesh, where factories producing apparel for Western consumers pay considerably less than a living wage.

Encouraging destructive buying behaviours.

Fast fashion is currently being vilified by regulators and ethically-conscious consumers.  And this is not without cause.  Over the last two decades, rapid-turnaround, disposable fashion has become so popular that many shoppers consider it the default mode for the industry.  But in the same timeframe, clothing production has more than doubled, the number of garments each person buys has rocketed, and out of every five garments purchased, three will end up on a rubbish heap, in an incinerator, or will be subject to low-yield mechanical or chemical recycling processes that do little to blunt the impact of so many garments being thrown away.

While not all of this can be laid at fast fashion’s door (other models produce waste as well) it is clear that for acceptable-quality products to hit the market fast, and be priced keenly enough to be worn for a year or less before being discarded, either people or the environment – usually both – are paying the ultimate price. And not even COVID is guaranteed to stop this train, with new statistics from The Interline’s data partner, EDITED, showing that the fast fashion segment has been adding new styles faster in the last quarter than the three months prior – even if newness is still down year-on-year. That unsustainable speed is likely to pick back up soon.

If the fashion industry is a spinning top, and every new cycle of production gives it another boost to keep it rotating, then the issues I’ve listed above are the forces looming in to destabilise it – to prevent it from operating in a sustainable, repeatable, non-destructive way.

But the big problem is that everything I’ve just described is a systemic problem. Waste, inequality, energy consumption, and pollution – these are capital-I humanitarian and ecological issues that it feels unfair to ask clothing producers and retailers to solve.

And this is especially true when becoming more sustainable – for an established business at least – can mean stacking the playing field against oneself. Sustainability initiatives cost money to implement: new materials require R&D, new capsule collections need dedicated marketing, supply chain visibility means investing in technology and infrastructure, and shifting processes away from the rapid-turnaround offshore model means devising and testing alternatives. And these costs are going to be passed on to consumers for the foreseeable future, as EDITED’s Kayla Marci told me when we talked as part of my preparation for this month’s editorial coverage:

“Products described with more sustainable attributes are still advertised with a higher average price point in the mass market than those without. For example, the EDITED Market Intelligence platform found jeans described with attributes such as “recycled,” “carbon neutral,” or “conscious,” were advertised as 55% more expensive. Despite these alternatives becoming more accessible, they will continue to command a higher price point.”

This price disparity shifts the onus for making sustainable choices on to the customer, at the same time as putting more environmentally friendly options out of the hands of the average shopper. Asking people to pay a premium to feel better about what they wear, after all, runs completely counter to the dominant principles of fast fashion, but as Marci puts it, this may be precisely the point:

“While constant newness is still a defining factor in retail, the pandemic has awoken people to “fast fashion fatigue,” with consumers cluing in to the excessive consumption levels within the industry. The pandemic has caused people to become more price-conscious. However, it doesn’t mean they’ll be spending less. Lockdown provided an opportunity for consumers to declutter and analyse what is really essential, as well as take an approach to living with less. Going forward, there will be more of an evaluation surrounding products that have longevity and provide more value for money.”

This is where I see fashion, in the majority, making two key mistakes in its approach to sustainability: hedging its bets that shoppers will eventually stop scrutinising their environmental and ethical credentials so carefully, and treating sustainable styles as something to partition away from their main collections, to ringfence the R&D cost of sourcing new materials and onboarding new suppliers.

Both, though, lead to the same outcome: treating sustainability in a narrow way, as a problem to be solved, rather than as a broad, ongoing opportunity to make a difference.

As put into practice, this is the reason why many sustainability strategies have concentrated on what we might call the low-hanging fruit, to borrow one of consulting’s favourite catch phrases. Rather than taking a stance on sustainability in general, most brands and retailers will offer a line of products that use recycled, organic, or upcycled materials. Or they will put in place more stringent codes of practice for their first-tier suppliers to warrant an “ethical” label, even though one of the standard-bearers for that movement was recently accused of using marketing to obscure a less pleasant truth.

“There is still the mindset that the product composition solely determines if a garment is sustainable or not. The livelihood and security of people remain a core factor within conscious fashion,” Marci told me. “A brand can’t rightly describe themselves as sustainable if their products are environmentally-friendly, yet they neglect the injustices happening within their own supply chains, which includes subjecting workers to dangerous working conditions and low wages.”

Which, in a roundabout way, leads us back to the headline of this article. Out of convenience or necessity, most brands and retailers have chosen to address sustainability by taking aim at the nearest problems: materials, and the wellbeing of manufacturing staff. Very few corporate social responsibility statements go any further.

You might expect me to be about to condemn this approach, but you’d be wrong. As is often the case with topics that The Interline talks about, we’re going to be looking at sustainability from a practical, pragmatic perspective. And speaking practically and pragmatically, those two areas make the most sense for attention; they have the clearest, most quantifiable input into a product’s overall impact, and they also matter a great deal to the buying public.

What I am going to say, though, is that they’re a good start. But they don’t represent the finish line for sustainability. Far from it.

To close, I’m going to use an analogy we’re all familiar with: recycling. The vast majority of us now recycle cardboard, plastics, glass, and so on. In the modern sense, recycling has been established as the responsibility of consumers and corporations since the 1970s. It’s so well-established that most of us don’t give it a second thought; we sort our rubbish into separate containers and go about our days.

But for a growing number of people, recycling was also the gateway to other lifestyle changes. From riding bikes to work to eating less red meat; from car pooling or using public transport instead of driving everywhere, to buying from brands whose values align with their own. These are wider transformations that have their roots in greater collective awareness of the impact of the alternatives – an awareness that came about, in many cases, because of the way recycling was promoted and adopted.

There are, to be clear, people who take that attitude to extremes. I am not one of them. I make compromises in what I buy, how I travel, and how I act that stem from valuing convenience and affordability over sustainability sometimes. And for most people that’s going to be a familiar theme – becoming truly carbon neutral, for instance, is a severe commitment that only the bravest can make.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t try wherever I can. As a family we share one car when two would be very helpful sometimes. I switched to LED bulbs everywhere. I prioritise fuel economy when I drive, I recycle everything, and despite working in the fashion industry I really don’t buy a lot of clothes.

By the technical definition, my life is probably not sustainable. But it’s getting better. And that’s because awareness of the issues is slowly reshaping the way I act across the board.

This is the way I believe fashion businesses should look at their corporate impacts, too. Going from a standing start to total sustainability is impractical, but confining yourself to just making changes to the materials you use and where you produce is artificially limiting. Look at labour, materials, processes, logistics, water, and energy. Explore options for re-shoring, or experiment with a microfactory. Cast your net as wide as you can, and identify changes to be made – even if you can’t make them today.

The problem with sustainability in fashion is not a lack of clarity when it comes to the word itself – it’s in the ways we interpret and translate it into ongoing action. And “ongoing” really is the watchword, because until your business can run and run without someone, somewhere, paying the price, you can’t call sustainability done.

And that’s by definition.


This introduction marks the start of The Interline’s month-long focus on sustainability. We have exclusive interviews, op-eds, collaborations, and more scheduled throughout September.

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