A New Definition For Sustainable Fashion

This piece by Rob Steel is featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


Sustainable fashion. You can’t read a style magazine in 2020 without seeing those two words begrudgingly thrown together. It’s a phrase that has undergone a multitude of transformations in the last half-century – once considered oxymoronic in its very nature, the concept of ‘sustainable fashion’ has transcended from homegrown hemp-clad hippies to the celestial designs of Stella McCartney.

But as an ever-increasing number of people identify as ‘living sustainably,’ the phrase is quickly losing meaning – diluted by the swathes of influencers looking to improve their SEO by tagging #sustainablefashion each time they refuse to use a tumble dryer.

Fast fashion brands don’t help us either: at the height of Fashion Revolution Week in April, a misinformed H&M claimed to be ‘the most transparent fashion brand in the world’ after they came out at the top of Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index – a document that has historically been used to shame the world’s largest fashion corporations into releasing accurate and reliable information about where their clothes are being made.

As more people look to create a greener wardrobe, we need to be able to differentiate between the global corporate brands like H&M who claim to sell items of ‘sustainable clothing’ (as part of the 550 million garments they produce each year), and ethically-focused brands who actively contribute to making the fashion industry a better place for both the environment and the people involved in making their garments.

If we are to adopt a new lexicon, it needs to take into account the multitude of terms that traditionally fall under the ‘sustainable fashion’ umbrella, ranging from transparency and animal welfare to environmental and social activism.

Some brands in the past have opted to refer to themselves as ‘conscious.’ The word conscious is sometimes defined as ‘the state of being aware or capable of thought.’ The problem is that being “aware” of something is not an active stance. You’re aware the house is on fire. You think about putting it out, but decide it’ll take too much effort, and instead you carry on making dinner. In this scenario, by definition, you’d still be considered conscious (albeit probably not for much longer).


"The problem is that being "aware" of something is not an active stance."


If we are to create a regenerative fashion industry – that is, one that gives back more to the the planet and to society than it takes – then we need companies to be responsible.

One particular definition of responsibility is ‘the state of having a duty to deal with something.’ It means being held accountable for your actions, which, in turn, means you’ll make changes to the way you operate if something is causing harm. It’s an active response to an issue.

Progress happens when we demand fashion companies be responsible for the way they operate within the world – or, even better, if fashion companies hold themselves accountable and take responsibility to change their ways before their customers ever have to point out glaringly obvious issues. A lack of transparency has long been the scapegoat for fast fashion, but it’s time for that to change.

During the coronavirus crisis, we’ve become devastatingly aware of the companies that are responsible and those that are not. Responsible companies closed their doors as soon as necessary to protect their workers. They offered furlough pay and extra cash grants for any workers in particularly vulnerable situations. They are continuing to check in on their employees and workers to ensure everyone is okay.

Responsibility is an obvious indicator of whether a company is forward-thinking or not. You can call yourself responsible, but there’s nowhere to hide if you don’t follow through on that promise (as H&M found out after posting about their interpretation of the Transparency Index results on Instagram – the post has since been deleted after multiple complaints).

A responsible company needs no provocation to investigate where its clothing is coming from or how the fabrics are produced. Seeker x Retriever can tell you the names of the individual tailors who sew each garment that they sell.

A responsible company holds itself accountable for the amount of wastewater, hazardous chemicals, and GHG emissions at each stage of production. In order to be held accountable for their environmental impact, Allbirds print the amount of CO2 produced by each shoe they make on the sole.

A responsible company looks after all of its workers’ needs, not just those of the ones in the head office. Kotn builds schools in the Nile Delta so that the children of the workers who produce their cotton have access to quality education.

A responsible company thinks about the eventual disposal of an item of clothing. Nudie Jeans offer a trade-in and free repair for life service so that customers don’t dispose of their clothes in landfill when they wear out.

A responsible company puts its metaphorical hand up when it’s wrong and admits, ‘We made a mistake, but here’s how we’re going to fix it.’

It’s not easy being responsible, but it’s also not impossible. If we are truly going to avert a complete climate catastrophe, we need corporations and the people who run them to be willing to make the effort.

It’s our turn to be responsible adults.