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  • Rachel Gallagher

It’s Not Your Fault If You’re Confused About Sustainability

Sustainability is probably one of the biggest shifts in fashion recently. It’s a huge topic that exists beyond, I think, anything that fashion has tackled before. It’s honestly mind boggling how many layers that the sustainability concept has. If fashion professionals (like me) get lost in the complexity of it all, then it's no wonder that everyday people that don’t work in the industry are confused, too.

The concept of sustainability and sustainable fashion is so all-encompassing that it requires huge changes in mindset and action on so many levels that go beyond the walls of fashion houses and beyond the reach of brands. But the concept of sustainability isn’t actually new.

Sustainability got its first major mention in the 1987 ‘Our Common Future’ report by the UN Brundtland Commission. However, the term sustainability as we (sort of?) understand it today didn’t start gaining worldwide traction until three years ago. Doesn’t it feel longer though, (like a lifetime) since fashion’s been talking about sustainability?

But it’s only been three years!

The word sustainability reached record global levels in 2020, seeing an increase of mentions in companies’ annual reports, quarterly reports, earnings transcripts and so on. On the Internet side of things, Google searches about sustainability reached a peak in 2020 during lockdowns, with a similar spike for social media mentions to match.

Sustainability is such a complex idea. It not only covers environmental concerns but also social, economic, and ethical considerations. It’s a beast that even the fashion world has yet to fully address, let alone anyone else. As new laws start to be introduced in the EU, likely with flow on effects across the world, the complexity of this entire process of shifting to sustainable fashion takes centre stage. Even policymakers and governments are struggling to determine where to start and what to do.

An AI interpretation of sustainable fashion, made with Leonardo.AI

Beyond the fashion industry and ‘fashion people’ – and this is anecdotally speaking – everyone still seems to be struggling to figure out what exactly sustainability means and how to go about doing it. The answers to these questions are slippery and still yet to be concretely defined. So, if you’re an everyday person (i.e., not working in the fashion industry) and want to do more for the planet and people but are confused about what sustainability is and how to do it: that isn’t your fault.

You’re not alone in wanting to do better, either. A lot of people do care about the environment part of sustainability, especially the 82% of Gen Z that expresses concern about the environmental state of the planet. But what may come as a surprise is the overwhelming popularity of brands that are known to be completely the opposite of sustainable, including ultra-fast fashion brands such as Shein (one of the largest culprits of negatively impacting people and planet), a brand that is insanely popular with the very generation that claims to want to do better.

It seems like such a huge contradiction, doesn’t it? But instead of shifting blame onto people who are buying from brands like Shein, I think it’s more important to ask: why does this contradiction exist in the first place?

Between greenwashing, vague direction for industry action on sustainability and consumer distrust of brands’ sustainability claims, there’s a lot to be desired in fashion’s communication and consumer education about sustainability.

As one of the biggest contributors to textile waste, accompanied by the myriad supply chain concerns, the fashion industry as a whole has such a big responsibility here to educate consumers about what sustainability is and how to impactfully participate in it at a price that is reasonable and accessible. More needs to be done to teach people who buy clothing about the what and the how of sustainability, and then provide effective solutions that people can – literally – buy into.

Maybe then, the generation that cares so much about sustainable principles won’t have Shein as one of their favourite brands.


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