The ‘S word’ is being thrown around boardrooms all over the world, targets are being set and CSR initiatives seem to be popping up left, right and centre. We’ve strutted into 2020 with sustainability at the top of our fashion agenda, yet with an air of caution. Should we be watching out for sustainable fashion fraudsters?

It seems that when it comes to sustainable fashion there’s no definitive end goal. It’s not a tick box exercise to complete and there’s definitely no such thing as perfection. Sustainable fashion is a vision that can be interpreted in myriad ways and the opportunities for positive change are endless. In its simplest terms, it’s an all-encompassing ambition to sustain our wonderfully vibrant industry for the long term while minimising the impact it has on our people and our planet.

In a polarised market where the top twenty businesses rake in 97% of the profits, it’s imperative that big brands take the lead. And they are. LVMH is said to be on track to meet or exceed its 2020 goals to procure 30% of its energy from renewable sources and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25% across its own operations. At Kering, “luxury and sustainability are one and the same,” according to Chairman and CEO, François-Henri Pinault. And at PVH, the aim is to “reduce the company’s negative impacts to zero, increase positive impacts to 100% and improve over one million lives throughout its value chain.”

On the high street, H&M have introduced their Conscious Exclusive collection, are pleading to use 100% sustainable cotton by the end of this year and will use 100% recycled or sustainably sourced materials across their entire collection by 2030. Zara have introduced recycling bins into stores, they’re promising to have no single use plastics in their supply chains and are aiming to beat H&M to 100% sustainable materials five years earlier by 2025. Primark is working with 160,000 cotton farmers in India, Pakistan and China to train them in environmentally friendly farming methods by 2022.

Then there’s sportswear, home to some of the world’s leaders in sustainability-focused innovation. Possibly the most notable of all is Patagonia who achieved B Corp status back in 2012. [A B Corporation is “legally required” to create a material positive impact on society and the environment – Editor] Patagonia, under the direction of CEO Rose Marcario, have tackled sustainability issues with an admirable amount of honesty in terms of progress made as well as that yet to achieve. Adidas, too, have been working towards sustainable operations for over twenty years, collaborating with their supply base to reduce the water consumed during material production by half. And then there’s Nike who have long-invested heavily in technology and textile innovations that reduce their environmental footprint right the way back to raw materials and dyeing processes.

Rose Marcario – by patagonia

There’s plenty of progress being made and essentially, that’s what sustainability is all about; progress. So why does it feel like we’re not applauding these huge strides forward as much as we should? There’s something really interesting about our human nature in that the moment somebody proclaims to be doing something morally good, we can’t wait to seek out their flaws. It’s as though they’re holding up a mirror and we don’t like what we see. And so, in an attempt to deflect attention and defend our actions, we set out to find the faults in theirs.

The result is that many of these big, global brands are now being accused of greenwashing. The first criticism is that they — the likes of H&M, Zara and Primark — are to blame for fuelling our fast fashion habits in the first place. Their low prices, incessant introduction of new collections, low quality items and pushy marketing campaigns are at the root cause of our throwaway culture. Introducing a few recycling bins and making bold but ambiguous sustainability goals is therefore being seen as nothing more than token gestures and empty promises. A very valid point.

The second most notable criticism can be found in the inadequacy of their efforts. We complain that their sustainable targets aren’t high enough, timelines aren’t short enough, change isn’t happening quickly enough. However, it’s worth asking ourselves the following question: if we were at the helm of one of these incredibly successful global brands, what would we do now that purpose has risen to meet profits at the top of the business agenda?

Would we look to completely overhaul our supply chain operations overnight? And how easy would that actually be? Would we sever longstanding supply partnerships and swap garment workers for sewbots? Would we replace our entire cotton supply with nothing but organic and switch leather for pinatex in the flick of a switch? Would we find a way to totally remove the need for water consumption or drastically reduce our carbon emissions? It wouldn’t be so simple.

The likelihood is that, if we were ever to find ourselves in this position, we’d quickly come to establish that change at such a scale and such a pace is impossible. These organisations operate globally, employ hundreds of thousands of people, have complex, global supply chains and provide products and services to millions of consumers. Disrupting the status quo and implementing business change would need to form part of a well-thought out strategy. It would require planning, people to mobilise those plans effectively and most of all, it would need time. 

We’d also soon realise that no matter how many targets we set or how quickly we achieve them, no business can ever be 100% sustainable – unless, of course, they cease to exist. The production, consumption and disposal of all products will always carry an ethical and environmental footprint of some sort. No matter how far these businesses go to be more sustainable, there will always be room for improvement. And that’s exactly where the beauty is; somewhere between where we are now and where we want to be.

There has never been a time when fashion has been so full of opportunity for positive change. Consciousness is on the rise and art and innovation are no longer the sole requirements of the design team. There’s now so much room for critical awareness and artistry in every single step in the value chain; from design, to buying, to sourcing and supply, right the way through to marketing, sales and to us, the consumers.

With technology as a key enabler and sustainability is the driving force, big changes are on the horizon. Efforts big and small should be rewarded and we ought to carry on strutting forward sustainably, perhaps with a little less caution and a little more hope. Maybe there’s no such thing as a sustainable fashion fraudster after all.