What even is sustainable fashion?

Quite frankly, it isn’t that simple.

Before you read on, you should know that the following will not give you a neatly packaged answer to the question posed in the title. You won’t leave this page an expert on ‘sustainable fashion’, or be able to spit a clean one-liner to impress your mates. 

Because, quite frankly, it isn’t that simple. 

One of the main issues in the sustainable fashion space is that we often disregard how subjective this term is. We seem to be searching for a basic definition, and a quick solution to something that is complicated AF.

The world is facing some inconvenient truths right now, and many of these are deeply rooted in the fashion industry. Unsafe working conditions, exploitation, environmental pollution, animal cruelty – heavy stuff that’s easily avoided in the change room
. Our seemingly insatiable appetite for clothing has led to a fashion system that runs on overdrive and with little regard for its impact. 

We have bought into a system that encourages almost deranged behaviour. Just watching footage of Black Friday shoppers fighting over clothing is enough to make me question our sanity. (For those playing at home, Black Friday is an annual event that marks the beginning of the Christmas season in America and sees bargain hungry shoppers quite literally stampeding into stores.

Among this mayhem, there’s now an increasing push for sustainability. More people are asking questions about their clothing and whether or not they’re making the ‘right’ choices. 

This for the most part is a positive thing, but  let’s dig deeper and look to the psychology of fashion. Otherwise we run the risk of continuing the same unhealthy thirst for more but in a different form. 

Will these clothes really enhance our happiness? (FYI, the answer is no). Do we need something just because it’s made from organic cotton? How can we as individuals seek to understand our impact? 

The significant changes we can make long-term revolve around slowing down and contemplating need v want, impact, longevity, traceability and notions such as price per wear. The word sustainable means little in fashion if we don’t unpack it and question how it’s being used. 

Sustainable has become the go-to word for those looking to promote themselves as being the ‘good guys’; not too dissimilar to green washing. 

These kinds of buzzwords – cue organic, natural, ethical and ecofriendly – have made their way into marketing ploys regardless of the weight they carry. It can be quite obvious, however, which labels are shaped by intrinsic values and driven by their own personal ethics, and which see these terms merely as good tools for schmoozing. There’s a genuinity missing in the latter, and if you ask the right questions you’ll find that they often lack answers – the buzzwords therefore meaning squat.

Take H&M: a company relying on a fast fashion business model that produces a hectic number of garments per year. H&M claims to care about its impact, via its 117 page ‘Conscious Actions Sustainability Report’, yet it doesn’t seem to take issue with its wildly unsustainable business model. Promoting itself as being a leader in the sustainable fashion space, the same company was found to have factories with no fire exits. Then there’s the H&M recycling initiative, which offers a discount on our next purchase once we return our old shitty purchase. 

’Onya guys! It doesn’t take much to see the 117 page report kind of misses the point, and doesn’t exactly add up to a genuine sustainability mission.  

Whether it’s brands telling us fibs, or over-simplified rating systems trying to package brands into one neat ‘good’ rating, we’re treading across a minefield that needs much deeper thought. 

The real issue is one of values, and how our personal values shape our reading of ethics in fashion. Let’s stop clinging to the word ‘sustainable’ as though it has all the answers to the world’s problems, because as inconvenient as this is, it doesn’t. 

There is so much noise in this beautiful, complex industry and each sound has a different motive and understanding of sustainability. Take the time to understand your own values and pinpoint what matters most to you. No one is asking you to be a purist, in fact I’d argue that it’s near impossible unless you opt for a life off-grid, but let’s be smarter in the way we engage in this space. 

So, sustainable + fashion = ? You tell me. 

Sigrid is the founder of Intent Journal and Media & Communications Co-Ordinator at Ethical Clothing Australia.

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