The buzz term ‘sustainable fashion’

The buzz term ‘sustainable fashion’

Sustainability has to be a global agenda and concern.

The ‘’sustainable’’ term is used by so many different designers and labels from fashion industry in so many different ways that it becomes misleading. Every day we read about a clothing company talking about sustainable production and supply chains, sustainable development, sustainable economic growth or sustainable conditions for employment.

Many fashion labels use a different conceptualization of what “sustainable” means, but each often thinks their concept maps neatly across to others and it means different things for variable people. However, I think instead of changing the world or stop using it, it is better to educate the society about its meaning and aims. It is very important increasing the society’s interest in sustainability.

But using this term technically is all right. What problematic is, its usage.

When something goes into the mainstream traffic, its original usage and with it its meaning will be deformed. We’re afraid, when finding a new expression for sustainability, this new term would be corrupted soon.

The issue of sustainability was put on the Global Agenda at the 1983 World Commission of Environment and Development – WCED – chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister. His goal was to unite countries to pursue sustainable development together. The Chairperson of the Commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland, was appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in December 1983. At the time, the UN General Assembly realized that there was a heavy deterioration of the human environment and natural resources. To rally countries to work and pursue sustainable development together, the UN decided to establish the Brundtland Commission.

The Brundtland Commission draws upon several notions in its definition of sustainable development, which is the most frequently cited definition of the concept to date. The Brundtland Commission pushed for the idea that while the “environment” was previously perceived as a sphere separate from human emotion or action, and while “development” was a term habitually used to describe political goals or economic progress, it is more comprehensive to understand the two terms in relation to each other (We can better understand the environment in relation to development and we can better understand development in relation to the environment, because they cannot and should not be distinguished as separate entities). Brundtland argues:

“…the “environment” is where we live; and “development” is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”


The fashion industry is a global business of 1.3 trillion dollars, which employs more than 300 million people worldwide and represents a significant economic force and a substantial driver of global GDP. This industry operates in a highly competitive market dominated by the presence of global brands. In recent times, despite the deep financial crisis of the last decade, the fashion industry has attained fast growth and has experienced vast transformations.

In 2019 data from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecast a slower growth of the industry in developed markets and a flat growth curve in developing countries. The areas most affected by this trend are Europe, Middle East, and Latin America. Due to the increase of economic uncertainty and political instability, the level of spending for fashion products is declining and, at the same time, the demand for customized and personalized fashion, at lower prices, is expected to grow in the future years. In addition to political instability, other problematic events have characterized the last few years: terrorist attacks, natural disasters, new epidemics, a combination of factors that are not only devastating for the people they directly affect, but also have major consequences for companies and the local communities in which businesses are rooted.

Another important change in the competitive scenario is the growing digitalization of the economy. The fashion industry is more and more interconnected with the digital world. Digital platforms and digital marketing strategies are becoming prevalent in the fashion market and many new brands have emerged with the development of e-commerce, which allows companies to engage consumers through virtual reality. Technology improvement in the production process can provide new opportunities for business, like an acceleration of the life, robust reduction in labor costs, an increase in margins, along with the localization of materials/products (for example, digitalization of inventory), and also increase the sustainability of processes.

Sustainability has recently become an important new driver in consumers’ purchasing decisions.

Phenomena such as the global population growth, climate change, and land and water scarcity have intensified in recent years and sustainability pressures related both to product and production processes became more relevant in this industry. The speed of fast fashion, which has emerged in recent years as a new phenomenon with great impacts on the industry, amplifies problems, as it is causing high water consumption, high discharge of hazardous chemicals, an increase in waste, an increase in violations of human rights, together with bigger greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers are expecting transparency more and more across the entire value chain; they want to have more information about both the provenience of goods and the quality of materials used. Brands are responding to these challenges which have arisen from the demand side by trying to be more transparent, in many cases specifying the costs of materials, the mark-up, the costs of labor, transport, duties, and so on. Many cross-industry initiatives have helped companies to identify more sustainable work practices across the product life cycle and several brands have publicly fixed sustainability goals and set standards for imports of fabrics, and they are promoting initiatives for improving innovations in the materials used for producing fashion items.

“Sustainability” dominated for years as well the fashion weeks. From using recycled fabrics to declaring their runways carbon neutral, designers and brands reflected a growing demand among consumers for more than fashion.

According to the latest Pulse of the Fashion Industry study, over a third of those surveyed reported “actively switching from their preferred brand to another” because the latter displayed superior environmental and social values.

The pursuit of sustainability is a vast, hazy, yet ever more urgent task — one that many say will require radical and transformative measures. Is fashion truly becoming more sustainable? Or is the concept just another trend?

Sustainability, or the idea of it, at least, is hard to miss during fashion month. Recycled materials are everywhere, as well the use of recycled polyester and plastics alongside organic cotton. Fabrics made from cactus, plastic bottles or “carbon neutral”. Many fashion companies announced that they “will become carbon neutral within its own operations and across the entire supply chain.”

But, using recycled materials or pledging to become carbon neutral doesn’t necessarily make a brand sustainable.

Many objective sources for rating sustainable fashion are missing and customers can struggle to make legitimately sustainable choices while the term remains so vague.

The consumers are aware, sometimes, of the complex social and environmental issues associated with the fashion market and how their shopping habits contribute, but others often don’t fully get what ‘sustainability’ really means. Consumers have difficulty when it comes to rating which offerings and which brands are truly sustainable.

In short, to be considered genuinely sustainable, brands may need to entirely transform every aspect of their businesses. To that end, the leadership forum Global Fashion Agenda sets out eight “crucial sustainability priorities, “including complete transparency throughout the supply chain, safeguarding workers’ rights, becoming more energy efficient and reusing textiles. Cherry-picking one or two issues, the forum stresses, will not suffice.

Cutting down on single-use plastic, for instance, does little for the 90% of garment workers worldwide who have no negotiating power over their working conditions or wages, as the global trade union IndustriALL found. And an emphasis on organic cotton over synthetic fabrics does not address the water stress placed on cotton-producing regions in countries like India and China, as flagged by a 2019 report by the British parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee.

The term “sustainability,” therefore, is considered by some industry experts to be so broad as to be problematic. Designer Rejina Pyo, who works with materials including recycled polyester and organic cotton, as well as regularly visiting her factories and suppliers to ensure they uphold ethical standards, said, “We don’t describe ourselves as a sustainable brand because there is always more to do, and I’m not sure there is any such thing as a truly sustainable fashion company.”

“I think there is a lot of greenwashing out there, which does dilute the meaning of the term, but it is still really important that we are talking about it. The more awareness there is the more we can challenge and interrogate its use,” Pyo added.

Batsheva Hay, whose brand Batsheva recycles existing fabrics and produces clothes blocks away from its New York City headquarters, suggested that sustainable practices can only do so much in the face of continued mass consumption.

“My main issue is with companies like H&M pushing such huge quantities of cheap clothing by calling it sustainable, yet in the end, they are still producing a massive collective waste,” Hay said (H&M has a stated “sustainability strategy,” and brands some items with green “Conscious” tags to signal that they contain “more sustainable materials.”) She continued, “The focus should really be on buying less and wearing what you own over and over again, rather than buying too much cheap, disposable clothing.”

Sustainability has long been at the center of both scientific and institutional debate.

Awareness of the need for a change in the sustainable development approach was reaffirmed in the 2030 Agenda. The Agenda is a program of rules, binding the governments of the member countries in respecting people and more properly our planet. It gathers 17 objectives, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for sustainable development, with 169 goals to be reached by 2030, the deadline within which nations must have met standards for achieving goals. The document in which the 2030 agenda is contained takes the name of Transforming Our World and focuses on the three pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, social inclusion and, environmental protection.

The achievement of sustainability objectives is extremely important for achieving a qualitatively better standard of living. The commitment that each State will have to implement this goal is extremely important and necessary for the common good of today and tomorrow. Taking into account at the same time, and in a balanced way, the three dimensions that are traced in the 17 objectives—namely, economic, social, and ecological development—will have to change the vision and politics of each country.

This approach inevitably involves the transition from a linear industrial system to a circular system that can be enabled by the introduction of a new business model, a product manufacturing cycle with a view to both economic and environmental sustainability. Optimization of resource consumption, reduction of energy waste, and reduction of waste are the possibilities in terms of saving capital and resources, with an impact on the environment both inside the company and outside. Circularity subverts traditional business models, leading companies to focus on managing resources within markets rather than in production alone. Businesses are driven to focus on what is truly valuable for customers. The circular economy, therefore, becomes a paradigm that balances economic development with the protection of the environment and resources.

An article by Mira Postolache

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