Demystifying “Sustainable” Fashion

Ethical fashion. Conscious fashion. Sustainable fashion. These terms and others are becoming increasingly common and are often used interchangeably, but their meanings can either closely align or widely differ depending on the perspectives of the person saying them, and the person hearing them. The shame of this ambiguity is twofold. One, it takes away from the genuine efforts being made by many brands to address serious social and environmental issues in the industry. And two, it’s a barrier to entry for consumers who are keen to take a more considered approach to buying clothes but, understandably, struggle to decipher exactly what these claims really mean.

SO WHAT DO THEY MEAN?

There’s no universally agreed definition for any of these terms, but ultimately, when using them to describe fashion brands, we’re referring to companies that have considered one or many forms of harm that could result from their business processes, and have taken steps and established policies to minimise or, even eliminate, that harm.

Some of the terms, like eco-fashion, focus specifically on environmental aspects, while others like the three mentioned above are broader and also include consideration of working conditions (commonly categorised as social concerns) and/or human health and/or animal welfare in addition to the environment – again, depending on who you ask!

Where it can get messy is that, because some of these terms have become umbrella terms, two different brands could advertise themselves as “ethical” or “sustainable” but actually have vastly different policies and processes. For example, one might have several policies in place to address environmental concerns such as using only organic cotton, low impact dyes, recyclable packaging and offsetting their carbon emissions, but their garments may be made in a factory that pays below the minimum wage or has unsafe working conditions. Conversely, the other brand might have exemplary labour standards but make little or no effort to reduce their environmental impact, polluting waterways, using synthetic fabrics, lots of plastic packaging etc. In another scenario, you might find two self-proclaimed “eco-friendly” brands with one having taken significant steps to reduce environmental harm across all of their business processes, and the other having only committed to a couple of token changes so they can market themselves as eco-friendly.

Concept of sustainability
The concept of sustainability means different things to different people and has become quite an amorphous beast, particularly when it comes to its use in the field of fashion

Without any clear definitions to say otherwise, all of these companies are within their right to adopt many labels that suggest they adhere to higher moral standards than mainstream fast-fashion brands. And, of course, many of them do, and their claims are completely legitimate (apart from the last example which is best described as greenwashing!).

As a customer, though, this makes it extremely hard to navigate, because it means that when you see a company presenting themselves as “sustainable” or “conscious” or “fair trade,” you can’t take those claims on face value. It’s almost impossible to tell exactly where their efforts are focused and whether they prioritise the same values you do. And that’s where transparency comes in. The more information brands give us as customers, the easier it is to identify whether they’re addressing the issues that we personally care about, from child labour to the use of animal fur or known carcinogens, or all of that and more.

WHAT SUSTAINABILITY MEANS TO ME

The idealist in me would offer the following take on sustainability:

If something causes harm or destruction then it is inherently not sustainable, by strict definition, because that damage, either to the environment or to a person physically, mentally or financially, is cumulative, and will ultimately lead to a negative decline in its subject’s wellbeing, or possibly even worse.

For me, sustainability is about creating a system that, without this destructive element, can continue indefinitely and better still, can actually bring genuine value to people and planet in the process.

That is, for sure, the ultimate goal. Experience has shown me though, that the journey to pure sustainability is a complex one, and one of continuous evolution. An expectation of perfection fails to recognise the life-changing impact a brand, or individual, can have on the road to sustainability, without maybe ever reaching the final destination. (Tweet)

To give just one example, according to Textile Exchange, “in 2015 alone, by growing organic instead of conventional cotton, farmers potentially saved:”

aoc-lca_savings_en-aboutorganiccotton-org
Environmental benefits of growing organic cotton. Image credit & source: Textile Exchange/aboutorganiccotton.org

That’s with less than 1% of the world’s cotton being grown organically and doesn’t even take into account the social, health and other associated benefits.

IT’S NOT BLACK AND WHITE

As Whitney Bauck, Assistant Editor at Fashionista puts it, it’s a spectrum:

The more you learn about the ethics of manufacturing and production, the more you’ll be forced to acknowledge that #ethicalfashion is less of an in-or-out category than it is a spectrum. – Whitney Bauck

This is something the forward-thinking team over at Patagonia (one of, if not the most, progressive large-scale clothing brand in terms of ethical production and environmental awareness) recognised early on, choosing to refer to their business as “responsible” rather than “sustainable.” This really resonates with my inner pedant who can’t ignore the reality that any form of clothing production involves some level of resource depletion and therefore can’t strictly be considered sustainable.

In my own work, I’ve taken the approach of trying to do the best I can, from my perspective, to address environmental, social (labour conditions) and health concerns along every step of the supply chain. This has led me to the decision to make my whole collection certified according to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Unlike many of the ambiguous terms mentioned so far, GOTS lays out a long list of ecological and social criteria that must be met by every party involved in every step of the production process before a product can be certified. As well as bringing a greater level of clarity, certifications also serve as a quickly recognisable indicator and purchasing tool for customers wanting to better understand a brand’s policies. Is this a perfect solution that is 100% sustainable? Definitely not, but it’s an approach that aligns with my values and feels like the closest I can get to where I want to be at the present time.

Road to sustainability
The road to sustainability is a long one but much can be gained on the way without necessarily reaching the destination

SO, WHAT TO MAKE OF IT ALL?

I think there are a couple of key takeaways here. 1) don’t let the ambiguity around this subject stop you seeking out brands that create clothing with more care and respect for people and the planet if it’s something that’s sparked your interest and 2) approach brand claims of being “sustainable” with an open but enquiring mind and look for more info to find out if their values align with yours. As a general rule of thumb, the brands that are doing the best tend to want to talk about it and are often, but not always, the most transparent. If you can’t find the info there’s probably a reason for that but there’s also an easy way to confirm and you may be pleasantly surprised. Drop them an email telling them how much you love their stuff and ask where you can find more information about their social and environmental policies.

Apart from being unrealistic, what’s sad about the black-and-white approach is that it leaves a lot of people feeling like they have to stick to a set of rigid yet ambiguous rules which understandably then translates to a virtually impossible task.

My invitation to anyone who has any curiosity around the topic would be to jump in. Do some research, read an article or two, follow some sustainable fashion bloggers on social media, see what it’s all about. You’ll soon find people whose approaches make sense to you, and whose tips and insights will make finding good alternatives much easier. Most importantly, disregard any expectation of perfection. The most experienced in this sphere, whilst fiercely committed to their ethics, also recognise that it’s a continuous process of improvement. Because, the irony, of course, is that taking a militant approach on the path to sustainability is, just, well, not sustainable!

Till next time,

Amy x

P.S. If you’re keen to learn more in an easy-to-digest format, check out the Instagram stories mini-series I published during Fashion Revolution Week covering: what Fashion Revolution is, the key issues it’s seeking to address, easy ways to learn more (hooray for Netflix!), and LOADS of tips and tools to help you shop more sustainably and find brands that are doing good – including a whole day dedicated to breaking down what all the logos and labels mean. You can find the 7-day series in the highlights at the top of my Instagram profile here (FRW Day 1, FRW Day 2 etc.).

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The Beginning

Hello and welcome!

Some of you may already be familiar with my background but for those who have just joined me, a brief intro.

The past few years of my professional life have been spent working with my husband at the digital marketing agency he founded here in Bahrain. At the end of last year, we made the decision to change course, transitioning the agency to a consultancy so that we could explore new opportunities and areas of interest. We were excited about the prospect of taking a step back, reassessing and applying the valuable lessons we had learnt at the agency to new challenges and projects. Over the past few months we’ve had the opportunity to do just that. For me, this has led to an unexpected path, but one that I’m very excited to embark on and share.

This week, I took the first steps towards creating a small capsule wardrobe of organic, fair trade everyday essentials for women. That’s a bit of a mouthful, I know, and I’ll be expanding on the idea more in future posts! I’ve just enroled in an online accelerator program that provides support for people looking to create sustainable clothing businesses and I’m hoping to take you along for the ride!

As well as being a means of keeping you up-to-date with what I’m up to and what I’m learning, I’m hoping this little journal will also act as a virtual accountability partner and help keep me on track. If you’d like to sign up to receive notifications of new posts by email you can do that over on the right-hand side of the page if you’re on a desktop, or towards the bottom of the page if you’re on a mobile or tablet.

A SEED IS PLANTED

So, where to start? For those that know me, it won’t come as a surprise that my passion for food and healthy living in general has continued to grow over this past year, but it’s also expanded and taken me in a direction even I would never have seen coming. This post is a lot longer than future posts will be so, apologies in advance, and thanks for bearing with me!

Around the middle of last year, my interest began to move beyond food as I started to get curious about the ingredients in my make up, shampoo etc. This led me to Alexx Stuart’s “Go Low Tox” course which was an extremely eye-opening and educational exercise. That’s a whole other story though, and one I’d be very happy to share with anyone who’d like to learn more.

Although I’d heard the terms before, this course became my first proper introduction to the concepts of ethical and sustainable clothing (I’ll be shedding some light around these ambiguous terms in future posts). Part of the course highlighted the social, health and environmental impacts of “fast fashion,” particularly in terms of the chemicals used in clothing production. A seed of curiosity was planted and I started to read more about “healthier” clothing options.

WhoMMC-50Fast forward a few months to Fashion Revolution Week – an annual campaign that falls on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy which killed 1138 garment workers when their factory collapsed in Dhaka in 2013. As part of the schedule of activities organised by the local chapter of Fashion Revolution, I attended a screening of The True Cost documentary. I won’t go into detail here, other than to say it tells an important story about the largely unseen impact the clothing industry has on both the people involved in producing our clothes, and on the environment. It’s on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and also available for free online; I’d encourage anyone to watch it.

I didn’t walk out of the screening a raging activist but I did leave feeling very flat, sad, and if I’m honest, disappointed. Why hadn’t I ever really clocked on to the fact that something didn’t quite add up when it came to all those unbelievable bargains? I was angry at the big fast fashion companies for having pushed the industry to this point whilst successfully hiding the ugly truth that sat behind it, but also struggled with the uncomfortable realisation that it was society’s insatiable hunger for a bargain (mine included) that had, in turn, pushed them.

Along with that came an element of guilt, but I quickly realised that there was nothing to be achieved by dwelling on decisions made when I, rightly or wrongly, simply didn’t have the knowledge. You don’t know what you don’t know and when you do know, the best use of your energy is to try to do better.

Without meaning to sound overly dramatic, it’s safe to say that my approach to buying clothes, and shopping in general, was changed forever. That’s not to say that I’ll never again buy anything on the high street or in a mall, but just that it wasn’t possible for what I had learnt not to influence my buying choices.

Soon afterwards, we went to the UK where I was sure I would be able to find some brands producing wardrobe staples with organic or low chemical fabrics and also complying with good social and environmental manufacturing practices. I did buy a couple of things but for the most part struggled to find what I was looking for. I’m no fashionista, but I still like to look and feel good in my clothes.

LIGHTBULB MOMENT

A few weeks later at yoga (I know, so cliché 😂) I was telling friends how surprised I was that it seemed so hard to find “normal,” everyday clothes that were certified organic AND Fairtrade (it’s relatively easy to find one or the other) and not either a baggy, hemp sack or a high fashion catwalk creation. How had nobody done that yet?

Oh. Nobody’s done that yet.

Hmm.

The conversation quickly moved on to capsule wardrobes – a few key versatile and coordinated pieces that combine to create multiple outfits – and within minutes the two ideas merged and the concept of an organic, Fairtrade capsule was born. The idea got me super excited. So much so that I was up until 4am that night researching competitors, fabrics, factories etc. I couldn’t be the only one looking for this, I thought (I’ve since learnt that research both in Australia and the US shows over 50% of people would make more ethical shopping choices and more sustainable decisions if presented with more options – source), and, if no one else was doing it in this way, maybe this was an idea worth pursuing? I was pumped.

Then my inner critic made himself heard – “Uhh, HELLO, you have NO fashion experience! You don’t even read fashion magazines! There are sooo many clothing companies out there, even sustainable ones these days, and people who are way more knowledgeable and creative than you!” But despite going over and over all the reasons why this didn’t make sense, another noisy voice inside my head kept saying, “Do itttt! It’s an opportunity to learn. Don’t be afraid to try different things. Don’t overthink it for once, just jump in!”

Around the same time I came across the online accelerator program I’ve just signed up to. An attractive proposition for sure. I couldn’t help but notice that, although the excitement around other ideas I’d had waned pretty quickly, my enthusiasm for pursuing this one seemed to be lingering.

MOTIVATIONS & GOALS

While pondering the opportunity, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would be hoping to get out of this project. More than anything, it’s about being comfortable with being uncomfortable. About proving to myself that I can take a leap towards something, without any real certainty about the outcome, and not have the world fall down around me. About making mistakes and learning the valuable lessons that come with them. About creating something from scratch through to realisation and surprising myself with what I can accomplish by simply taking little steps forward each day. About connecting with like-minded individuals who share my interests. And, finally, about actively supporting and participating in a positive movement for change that aligns with my personal values.

reflectionREFLECTION & REALISATION

If all I gain from this venture is achieving just a few of the things I rattled off in the paragraph above, how could I possibly not consider that a success?

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was the opportunity for personal growth that was attracting me to this project the most, not financial growth. Now, that’s not say that I don’t want it to generate an income, of course that’s part of the plan, but I realised that if that was my sole focus or purpose for taking on this challenge, then it was way too easy for me to find reasons not to do it. I thought, if all I gain from this venture is achieving just a few of the things I rattled off in the paragraph above, how could I possibly not consider that a success?

Those of you who know me well will probably recognise that this runs counter to my usual approach to, well, anything! Even though I’ve been working hard on embracing the motto of “progress not perfection” over the past couple of years, I’m all about the research, the planning and making sure all my ducks are in a row before I start any new task. And whilst that approach has its merits, it also has its limitations when it comes to taking (and missing) opportunities.

I realised that the main thing that held me back from taking a more daring and positive approach is that my brain would always focus in on everything that could go wrong in a particular scenario if I DID do it, but it never got as far as thinking about what opportunities might pass me by if I chose NOT to pursue an idea or take action. The new knowledge and perspectives I would gain, the connections I would make, the sense of accomplishment and purpose….you get the picture. As a side note, Tim Ferriss’ “Fear-setting” exercise was central to this realisation and I highly recommend it for times when you’re facing a tough decision about whether or not to do something.

So, this week, I pushed the button. I’m apprehensive and excited all rolled into one. I know that even with the help of this program it won’t be easy but life so far has taught me that the things that give me the greatest sense of satisfaction often aren’t!

Phew, that took a little longer than expected. Thanks for reading this far if you’re still with me and please feel free to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter or drop me an email.

Just a little side note before I sign off. I know that some of the issues I’ll be writing about can sometimes be contentious but the purpose of this blog is purely to share my experience. It’ll be as much about personal development and starting a new business as it will be about the ins and outs of the clothing industry. Hope you can take something useful from it.

Here goes!

Amy x

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