Fashion industry’s biggest contradiction: sustainable clothes

For every five garments produced, three end up in a landfill or are incinerated each year, says a McKinsey report  (iStockphoto)
For every five garments produced, three end up in a landfill or are incinerated each year, says a McKinsey report (iStockphoto)


World Environment Day serves little purpose till brands redefine ‘sustainable fashion’ and what they are selling

The start of June is a reason for publicists to inundate reporters with emails about “5 homegrown sustainable fashion brands you should know" and “Design brands celebrate sustainable fashion with a new collection".

Most fashion brands claim that sustainability is at heart of their strategy, a pledge they announce more stridently around this time, when 5 June is “celebrated" as World Environment Day.

Yet, to counter every business leader clamouring to discuss their grand plans to cut their carbon footprint is the fact that the fashion industry’s planet-warming emissions are likely to rise about 40% by 2030, according to an analysis by trade coalition Apparel Impact Institute.

How can companies that run on a business model powered by overconsumption be sustainable? It makes as little sense as a clothing brand selling “mindful" yoga clothes that have microplastics—I wish this was sarcasm. The term “sustainable fashion" makes little sense. It is an oxymoron.

Sustainable, according to Oxford English Dictionary, means “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level". Fashion, on the other hand, is a cycle of daily, if not hourly, trends. Marrying the two is, honestly, impossible.

Why not, instead, frame the discussion in a different way?

Also read: Universality is the most important thing in design, says Gunjan Gupta

Instead of hiding behind the term “sustainable", which even consumers know is greenwashing, why not define the brand better to explain what makes it “responsible"?

“Brands need to be specific. Are they being sustainable financially, environmentally or culturally?," says London-based Orsola de Castro, creative director of Estethica, author of Loved Clothes Last, and co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit that advocates industry reform.

“The communication needs to be accurate, not based on sensationalism. Today’s consumer respects brands that say what they are. If you are fast fashion, own it, because the world already knows who you are. If you are eco-conscious, then explain what makes you so. If you are a slow label, make your how and why clear," says de Castro.

Brands could also find their own unique descriptor.

Like Rajasthan-based designer Bhaavya Goenka describes her label Iro Iro as “a circular design practice". She works with over 25 artisans, including refugees from Myanmar, on the outskirts of Jaipur, turning 100-200kg textile waste every month into chic, everyday clothes.

“Calling yourself a ‘sustainable’ brand is a smokescreen," says Goenka. “I sometimes feel I am not doing the right thing because, at the end of the day, I’m still producing clothes, even if it is from waste." she says.

The semantics matter. When a brand explains what they mean by “eco-conscious", “slow" or “circular design practice", it gives the conscious consumer a clear idea of how their shopping choices will impact the world. It also shows that the fashion industry is making an effort to clean itself up, step by step.

There’s no easy answer to fashion’s dirty problem. The obvious solution—produce less, buy less—would mean, among other things, huge job losses in an industry that employs over 300 million people globally. That’s a strategy profit-driven brands will not follow soon.

Till then, brands should spell out what they stand for and mean it. It’s the small details that matter.

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