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  • Rachel Gallagher

Most People Don't Understand Sustainability. Do You?

If you haven’t heard the word ‘sustainability’ by now, you’ve been missing out on an important conversation that’s shaping our future. Sustainability is a word that individuals, influencers, brands and even governments have been tossing around for the last three-or-so years, and it’s a concept that’s picked up speed since the lockdowns of 2020

Since then, the idea of sustainability has impacted everything from individual lifestyle choices to policy frameworks around the world. Sustainability has woven its way into conversations across all industries - and most especially - the fashion industry. But, as much as everyone loves to throw around the word ‘sustainability’, do we actually know what it means? 

In 2023, Deloitte ran a survey to measure the average person’s thought and understanding about sustainability. Surprisingly, (or maybe not so surprisingly?) 50% of people surveyed said that a major barrier to participating in sustainability was not having enough information

On top of that, a study by the National Retail Federation in 2023 found that 79% of participants could not identify sustainable products. Now, whether that 79% means that brands are not communicating whether their products are sustainable, or that shoppers don’t understand what sustainability means (and it’s more than just environmental concerns), is a little ambiguous. 

But, nonetheless, we can conclude that communication about sustainability is at least, very vague. Which is shocking to me, after three years’ worth of conversations about sustainability on a worldwide scale. 

What Sustainability Is and Isn’t 

To talk about and address sustainability, we have to find a common understanding, globally, about what sustainability is and isn’t so that we can tackle this ongoing challenge together. 

Sometimes, it’s easier to talk about what something isn’t before we can understand what something is. So let’s look at the ‘isn’t’, first. 

Sustainability isn’t about what this term ‘means to you’, as an individual. It’s not just about ‘green’, or ‘environmentally conscious’, or using paper straws for your iced coffee instead of plastic ones, or jumping on the bandwagon of corporate buzzwords and tokenistic attempts we’ve seen over the years. Because discussing the environment in relation to sustainability is really only just scratching the surface of a very deep, very complex iceberg. 

We can break sustainability down into three areas: environmental, social, and economic considerations. When we think about sustainability’s relationship to our clothes, we think about all of those three areas at the same time. From textile and resource waste, to human rights abuses (yes, the sweatshops are still around!), and the production of fibres and materials that go into making our clothing and their journey to our wardrobes and beyond. 

Sustainability is about slamming the brakes on our current take-make-waste system, in which we currently take raw materials, make products, and then discard those products haphazardly when we’re done using them. Sustainability also means that we take into account where our clothes are coming from - especially the labour that goes into creating our clothing - and how we protect the fundamental rights, safety, wellbeing, and prosperity of the people making our clothes.

On top of this, we have to look at decelerating the enormous levels of pollution and questionable labour practices of fast-fashion, and reconstructing the supply chains that provide the materials and processes for making our clothing. At the moment, the European Union is the largest global power leading the way in this journey towards understanding and addressing sustainability, so far. 

As you can see, sustainability isn’t just ‘environmentally friendly’ clothing, feeling good about what we wear, or influencers telling us what sustainable clothing to buy so we can feel better about our choices. Sustainability is a much larger, sweeping issue that requires a lot of thought, policy, and active participation from the raw materials stage, through to design, retail, purchase, and even at the end of the useful life of what we wear and where it goes when we no longer need it.

Sustainability is so unbelievably complex, and at the moment it’s constantly changing. So it’s no wonder that 79% of Deloitte’s survey participants I mentioned earlier felt like they were under-informed about sustainability communication. Next time you come across the word ‘sustainability’, now you’ll know what it really means.

Make sure to check out more bite-sized information about your clothes over on Instagram


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