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The Problem with Fashion Brands that Call Themselves "Sustainable"

Yeah, it's a problem.
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Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use this time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.

It seems as though every week a press release lands in my inbox announcing the launch of an exciting(!) and revolutionary(!) sustainable fashion brand. And it's because these words — sustainability, eco-friendly, socially and environmentally conscious — are, at the moment, some of the buzziest in the industry — they give both emerging and established labels a newfound do-good, feel-good purpose that goes beyond simply selling clothes and raking in a profit.

But really, what does it all mean? One emerging brand can claim itself as sustainable for harnessing the talent of artisans around the world to create handcrafted pieces in lieu of employing labor from a factory; another, for sourcing organic cotton or recycled materials, even as a fast-fashion giant. They’re different, yet they're both sustainable. Is one better than the other? And who determines that?

First, it's important to understand what "sustainability" means under a fashion lens. Freya Williams, CEO of sustainability consultancy Futerra North America, says sustainability encompasses both environmental and social aspects, which means everything, from the making of the garment to the end of its life, has to be considered, including the materials used to make a garment (whether it's sustainably sourced or made from recycled content), the impact of said materials (how the cotton is grown, how much carbon is emitted, water usage), how workers are treated (human rights, fair wage), and finally, whether it can be recycled after or left in the landfill.

"It's a huge challenge for the apparel industry because we're producing way more clothes than we really need," Williams says. "It's also very complex — we're talking about an industry that spans the globe, that employs millions of people, that is responsible, some people say, for being the second most toxic industry in the world."

The biggest problem is the lack of standardization across the board. Nearly everyone I talked to compared the fashion with the food industry — or rather, how far behind fashion is as compared with food, which has a governing body, like the USDA, to certify whether a product is organic. "There is no third-party certification, which is the big issue," says Yael Aflalo, co-founder of cult-favorite eco brand Reformation. "It's a bad situation. There's nothing that creates standards for businesses to follow."

That's not to say there hasn't been any progress. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry body that formed from a conversation between Patagonia and Walmart, has rounded up almost 50 brands as members to collaboratively work toward a solution. There's also B Corp, which determines whether a business is "good" — as in, a business that does its best to be socially and environmentally responsible — though it's not fashion specific. But there hasn't been one entity to come even close to setting measures or standardized guidelines.

"There are brands that say they're eco and they're not, and it's irritating because you want people to walk the walk, but I also think it's a really good indicator, because it's the beginning of a shift," Aflalo continues. "When Reformation first started, no one was talking about sustainability, except maybe Patagonia. This is the beginning, and once we get certification as a whole, it's going to be a great thing."

Williams says fashion lags behind food and beauty because there's less of a personal investment. "We've found that people are more motivated by a personal impact rather than environmental," she explains. "It's been easier to get consumers engaged with food because it's something that goes in your body; with beauty, it goes on your skin. Clothing is one step removed."

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Plus, it's incredibly confusing. If designers struggle with the complexities of sustainability, then how can we expect consumers to figure out which issues to care about? "It's like you need a PhD in sustainability to go shopping," Williams says. "The more difficult we make it for consumers, they’re more likely to tune out and not even bother — the industry has to take on the responsibility of what 'good' looks like."

When I asked Genevieve Saylak and Corissa Santos, the design duo behind the new sustainable brand Where Mountains Meet, to determine whether it's environmentally better to source organic cotton overseas or non-organic cotton grown locally, they revealed there is no way to determine which is less toxic. "I honestly don't know which one is better in the end," Santos says. "The best we can do is how we, as a small brand, can make a difference."

Together, the two have established loose "in-house tellers" for Where Mountains Meet that they abide by, like being mindful about where they source materials, employing artisans, offering transparency to consumers, and setting goals to "do better" every season (as of now, not every piece from their collection is eco or artisan-made, but they hope that by spring 2018, at least one element from every garment will be). At Reformation, too, there's the RefScale, an internal measurement of how much water, waste and CO2 emissions the brand saves when producing a single piece (the brand was 50 percent more carbon efficient in 2016 than an average clothing company). Sustainability consultancy Eco-Age also has its own set of principles called Green Carpet Challenge, that it uses to verify product, or in Emma Watson's case, her entire "Beauty and the Beast" press tour wardrobe that was broken down via social media.

Girlfriend Collective spins leggings from plastic water bottles. G-Star Raw did the same with Bionic Yarn for its denim. And Charlotte Turner, senior account manager at Eco-Age, says that there are exciting innovative fabrics in the works, like pineapple leather and a recycled polyester from Italy called Newlife. A couple more shout-outs: Filippa K works with a rental clothing model, and then there's Zady, a small brand that has pushed for transparency and spearheaded the slow fashion movement since its launch in 2013.

Still. At the end of the day, for an industry that runs on consumers buying into trends season after season, it's a business that's inherently not sustainable. And that's compounded by the existence of fast-fashion retailers, like H&M. "The whole principle of H&M is anti-sustainability — it's all about volume, volume, volume," Saylak says. In its defense, Williams argues that at least H&M is making strides to practice sustainability to some extent.

"You can't transform a massive global brand like H&M into a Zady overnight," Williams says. "I do think Zady has an important role in showing us a different approach to fashion and what that looks like. H&M's push to be circular and its ambitious sustainability strategy is interesting, and if they succeed, it can have a huge impact on a much larger scale."

So, to answer the overarching question here — no, a fashion brand can never be truly sustainable. But what it can do is work toward making a positive impact and addressing issues. And on a consumer level, there's a way to make a difference, however small that may seem by first understanding where your clothes come from ("That was the nice thing about Emma Watson's Press Tour, because it raised awareness and it reached so many people," Turner says), and then by supporting brands that are at least trying to do good.

"It's always better to buy something sustainable than something completely not," Williams says. "Buy secondhand, buy quality, keep your stuff for longer — there's a lot we can do to make our wardrobe more sustainable. It can feel overwhelming — daunting even — but everyone has a role in this and we should work together to get there."

Homepage image: A look from the Where Mountains Meet Fall 2017 collection. Photo: Where Mountains Meet

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