What is the Problem with ‘Sustainable Fashion’?

Image: Project Stop-Shop

The meaning of the term ‘sustainable fashion’ is not always clear cut. Here our head of sustainable fashion and textiles Charlotte Turner explores the challenges with this term, and how people can decipher the good from the greenwashing.

Earlier this week, CNN Style published this article titled ‘The problem with ‘sustainable fashion’’, which focused on a challenge we often debate here at Eco-Age. As more and more people become invested in sustainability and protecting the future of our planet, fashion choices are increasingly coming under the lens, and it feels like the term ‘sustainable fashion’ is everywhere. But what does it really mean?

At first glance, the term ‘sustainable fashion’ seems fairly straightforward. However, when you dig deeper you realise that there isn’t really a globally agreed definition of sustainability in the context of fashion; and at its core fashion is centered around the constant production and use of new items, which is inherently unsustainable. 

This creates a bit of a dilemma, as we want to make more responsible choices, but how do we know what the right choice is if nobody can actually agree what that looks like? It’s becoming increasingly confusing, particularly as more and more people are talking about ‘sustainable fashion’ whilst likely having their own definitions for what this means. 

That said, there are a few things we can do and look out for – starting with understanding the personal principles that we want to guide us in our choices. For us, the Eco-Age Principles set out some of the key areas we want and expect brands to address – from fair work and diversity and inclusion, to environmental management, corporate governance and ethics and more. Using personal principles as a guide is a good starting place for identifying the brands we want to support, and understanding which ones really need to do more. 

Though many brands haven’t reached this stage yet, we’re seeing a growing number beginning to publicly address social and environmental issues. From the creation of collections or products made with lower impact materials, to fashion shows and events that are plastic free or ‘carbon-neutral’, or partnerships with social initiatives and charitable causes, brands are talking about these issues – and the most advanced ones are providing thorough evidence to back up their claims. But as the article points out, this is not enough to deem a brand ‘sustainable’. 

It’s incredibly important that brands are transparently communicating about their positive achievements (with the appropriate evidence to back up any claims), whilst being realistic and honest about the impacts and challenges across their supply chains and business practices – and what they are doing to address them. Without this information, it is incredibly difficult for customers to make decisions about brands when they are not faced with all the facts. 

At the root of this debate though, is the shocking over-production and consumption that we have become numb to – fueled by marketing machines and the capitalist economy. We are stuck in a cycle of disposable fashion pushed by fast fashion brands, and whilst we are stuck in this cycle it is difficult to reconcile sustainability with fashion at all. A lack of consensus across the industry for what ‘sustainability’ means, or how to be more ‘sustainable’, means that the definition of ‘sustainable fashion’ is definitely not clear cut.

So what can we do? Ask questions, dig deeper, and make it clear to brands that we expect them to reassess their business practices and move meaningfully in a more positive direction.