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What does sustainability mean in fashion?

We all know more or less what sustainability may be, but distinguishing it in fashion is not always easy.

The fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to global sustainability issues. With a large part of global emissions coming from the production and consumption of clothing, sustainability has become a necessity in the industry. 

Most of these issues come from Fast Fashion—where brands rapidly produce new styles at a low cost—which has become increasingly popular over recent years due to its affordability and easy access. Unfortunately, most of its production processes use unsustainable materials and practices. Because Fast Fashion relies heavily on making clothing a disposable product, this leads to an increase in textile waste as well as a decrease in quality garments over time, without considering the environmental and social impact on the local communities where factories are located. Some of these brands cover their conduct behind sustainability initiatives that are more window-dressing than anything else. That's greenwashing, which sometimes also concerns even brands not involved in Fast Fashion. Greenwashing harms not only consumers but also those companies that are truly committed to sustainability.

On the other side is Sustainable Fashion, a term that refers to clothing, shoes and accessories that are made with sustainability in mind. It focuses on sustainability through the entire production process—from design to sourcing materials to manufacturing and shipping—and takes into account how each stage has an effect on people and the environment. Sustainable fashion brands use environmentally friendly materials, create pieces from recycled fabrics or vintage items, strive for local production rather than offshore factories, engage in ethical practices when working with their suppliers and producers, upcycle existing garments and donate unused materials to charities. By doing this they can help reduce the amount of waste and pollution while still producing fashionable garments that consumers deserve.

 Let’s define sustainability in fashion

 What we have written so far gives you a general idea of what sustainability is, now we want to be more precise.

Sustainability in the fashion industry usually refers to a combination of environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability:

  • Environmental sustainability involves working towards lessening the industry’s carbon footprint, reducing water consumption in production processes, and using sustainable materials such as recycled or upcycled materials whenever possible.
  • Social sustainability is focused on providing fair wages to workers throughout the supply chain and creating safe work environments for those involved in production.
  • Economic sustainability focuses on long-term profitability by promoting responsible spending within the industry as well as making sure that sustainability initiatives are cost-effective for companies.

In other words, sustainability in fashion means creating products with respect for the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet and Profit.

Trends in sustainable fashion

 Certain phenomena characterise ethical and sustainable fashion. They can occur individually or together. Here is a brief list:

Circular Economy- This new model of sustainability looks to create a system in which materials are kept circulating as much as possible by switching from traditional linear models to closed-loop systems. In Circular Fashion, brands engage in recycling, reusing, upcycling, reselling, and renting old garments.

Corporate Social Responsibility- Many brands are now creating sustainability-focused initiatives such as donating a portion of their profits to charities, fair trade, preferring locally sourced materials, and vegan choices.

Sharing economy- Through peer-to-peer platforms, such as eBay or Depop, consumers can now rent, resell, exchange, or give away clothing.

Technological innovation- It involves sustainable raw materials, green energy, Regenerative Agriculture and Regenerative Fashion zero waste technology, 3D printing, AR and VR, wearables, connected products, and any tools that make production more sustainable. 

Consumer awareness- From Slow Fashion to transparency and sharing of information on product sustainability, it represents the change in consumer tastes and demands towards more sustainable fashion.

Differences between real sustainability in fashion and greenwashing

Let's go back to greenwashing for a moment because it is around this term that we can determine what sustainability in fashion really is. 

Greenwashing is when a brand or company claims sustainability but doesn't actually practice it. By focusing on the aesthetics of sustainability without changing their practices and processes, companies can give the impression of sustainability without actually committing to it. The key difference between real sustainability in fashion and greenwashing lies in the intention behind sustainability initiatives: greenwashing is all about appearance, while sustainability is about taking a holistic approach and making meaningful changes that last. 

Real sustainability in fashion requires significant changes throughout the entire supply chain, from sourcing sustainable materials to creating ethical work environments for employees, and it is only when these changes are made that sustainability can truly be achieved. It is not enough simply to use recycled cardboard for packaging or to start a fundraiser if everything else remains unsustainable or unethical. Indeed, the weakness of greenwashing is that claims are contradicted by data... if such data is available at all!

Real sustainability is based on transparency and traceability. For sustainability to be met, fashion brands need to share comprehensive data and evidence that sustainability claims are true.

Connected products  play a key role in the fashion industry's sustainability efforts. They enable companies to track garments throughout their entire journey, from production to sale, to end-of-life. In addition, they provide a communication channel for sharing information on materials used in production, GHG emissions reduction, labor protection, sustainable and ethical initiatives, and what to do with a garment once the consumer no longer wants it. Connected products provide transparency and traceability while enhancing the customer experience.  

Nowadays companies have everything they need to create fashion that is both stylish and sustainable. And it is not an environmental or social matter but also an economic one, since it can lead to greater customer satisfaction

08 Mar 2023

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