What does sustainability actually mean?

The concept of “sustainability” in fashion has started to become a little convoluted. It’s an issue, a movement and an incredibly important conversation encompassing everything from eco-friendly production to ethical treatment of workforces. But how exactly can we assess what we consider to be “sustainable practice”?

The Business of Fashion looked recently at Milan-based menswear brand Zegna and the industry trend towards the “vertical integration” of production. In 2014, Chairman Emernedgildo Zegna purchased a 60 percent stake in Achill, a Merino wool farm in Australia’s New South Wales. Gaining control over the supply of a material essential to the brand is a strategy that’s also been adopted by leaders like LVMH, Hermes and Chanel. And it’s true that taking over this part of the process offers brands the potential to maintain welfare standards when it comes to treatment of staff, animals and the environment. But it’s difficult to be sure that this is something we can see as a truly “sustainable practice”.

The article described Zegna’s move as one that would “tell a marketing story of sustainability and transparency.” It’s certainly easy to look at the big brands with cynicism. Over the past few years, we’ve seen design houses race to appeal to a new “Generation Z” customer. With their minds fixed more firmly on social issues and higher expectations when it comes to ethical practice from corporations, the Gen Z’ers are the next big market to be conquered. And the shift in priorities hasn’t escaped the notice of luxury brands, now eager to show themselves as socially conscious.

What can we do to measure sustainability?

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It’s not enough for a brand to tell its customers a sustainability story, and we risk “sustainable” becoming a marketing buzzword if we don’t properly define it. It needs to be about real, practical, proactive changes that retailers can show us being implemented. To achieve that, we need a tangible measurement for success.

So, who’s doing what? The latest group to commit to what’s been called a “circular production model” is Kering. Collaborating with organisation Fashion Positive Plus, they’ve pledged to increase the use of recyclable materials across their portfolio of 16 brands by 2020. Their first step will be to identify the materials that fit within the circular framework. Shifting our focus to the middle of the market, we can also look at Reformation. The “fast fashion” brand recently moved 80 percent of its production to a privately-owned factory in LA now offers weekly tours of the LA factory to the public. Their “Ref Scale” score ranks products based on how much water and waste were saved in their production. Both proactive moves towards transparent structures that can support sustainability.

What’s the future?

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There’s another argument here and it’s this: does it really matter whether the motivation to “go sustainable” is entirely altruistic? Not so long ago, a “sustainable” fashion brand would’ve been considered in some way niche. Turning sustainable and ethical practices for production into a standard and (eventually) a prerequisite for all retailers is progress. Of course, the end goal is totally authentic commitment. For now, we should push for transparency when it comes to supply chains and continue to ask brands to strive for positive change.

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainability in fashion, then you can join us in taking the free online course Who Made my Clothes, from Fashion Revolution and the University of Exeter. For more insight into today’s fashion landscape and how you can make sure your brand is involved in the relevant conversations, get in touch with us here.

 

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