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‘Sustainable’ ‘Eco-friendly’ ‘Ethical’: Is It Really Time To Ditch These Terms?

5 min read

‘Sustainable’ ‘Eco-friendly’ ‘Ethical’: Is It Really Time To Ditch These Terms?

There is growing doubt in the fashion industry (and beyond) as to whether buzzwords like sustainable and eco-friendly have had their day. Fears about greenwashing, new green claims regulations, and a sense that many environmental terms have become meaningless are all contributing to a disillusionment with the very concept of environmental and social sustainability

And it’s not hard to see why: these terms have become unstable and slippery, having been absorbed by the very systems they were intended to oppose - or improve. That banks, fast fashion brands, and even fossil fuel companies have now fully adopted terms like “sustainability” “sustainable” and “eco” should set alarm bells ringing. 

Recently, one self-styled sustainable fashion brand even published a campaign against their own use of such terms. They called it no more sustainability bullshit, and announced plans to cull their use of the words “eco” and “sustainable” in relation to their products. To them, the word “sustainable” means “zero harm” and should therefore not be used to describe products that are made within a fossil-fuel powered society. 

However, as several IG users pointed out, their definition of “sustainable” looked a lot like the BS they were criticising. Sustainable doesn’t mean “zero harm” but has many different meanings in different settings. By itself, “sustainable” simply means “able to be continued for a long time”. This chimes in with the UN definition of sustainable development which is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” From which we conclude that a “sustainable product” would be one that 1) lasts, 2) respects planetary boundaries and 3) involves the wise use of resources. 

“Zero harm” might be the end-goal, but the spirit of sustainability is really about reduction and ongoing improvement. 

There is little doubt that industries like fashion need to be sustainable, because their current practices involve the rapid depletion of natural resources (water, fossil fuels, soil fertility), and unethical labour strategies that do not even meet the basic needs of the present. In theory, this change is already well underway, with brands no longer seeing sustainability as “an optional extra” but an “essential” if they are to capture the hearts and minds of new customers. The growth of the sustainable fashion phenomenon and sustainable consumer appears to be making a palpable difference. In practice, fashion isn’t changing fast enough, and as Fashion Rev founder Orsola de Castro told the BBC, “green” products and promises can be used to obfuscate deeply flawed production systems. 

To that end, the upcoming Green Claims Directive might help to clarify the picture by forcing brands to verify or evidence every claim they make. That won’t make brands change their systems, but it will force them to think carefully before they label something “eco-friendly”. 

Will Rejecting These Terms Make Any Difference?

Our take is that the problem is not the words themselves, but the way they are used - and by whom. Sustainable, eco-friendly (meaning not harmful to, or trying to help, the environment) and ethical (meaning morally right, or fair) are useful signposts for customers looking for better products. Which is why they shouldn’t be abused or dropped from our dictionaries completely. 

Sustainability is what every fashion brand should be gravitating towards. Banning yourself from discussing it means you have to rethink your lines of communication to essentially say the same thing: that these products are better for the environment than those made by fast fashion competitors. Should fast fashion companies be allowed to use these terms? Probably not. Should sustainable fashion companies stop using them? The clue is in the name. 

It’s really about backing-up whatever you say (whether you’re Team Sustainable or Team Anti-Bullshit) with concrete action in favour of the environment - as well as for present and future generations. 

PRE-ORDER And Other Meaningful Actions

The fashion industry’s biggest issue is that it produces too much clothing. Some of it will end up never being worn, while the rest continues to contribute to a society of excess and rampant consumerism. Until something changes there, it’s hard to see how brands can be said to be producing “sustainable” clothing because their business models permit overproduction and the depletion of natural resources. 

PRE-ORDER has the power to change that. If brands put new collections on PRE-ORDER instead of mass producing them, this would slow down the rate of consumption (since wait time would have to be factored in) and reduce clothing waste, by only creating the number of styles that customers actually want to wear. Of course, this isn’t a silver bullet solution: it would need to be complemented with “reduce and reuse” schemes, as well as the introduction of more eco-friendly or recycled materials and ethical production practices that ideally don’t involve massive trips around the world. But just imagine what brands could already achieve simply by adopting a PRE-ORDER System. It may even eliminate the 15-45 million tonnes of clothing (per annum) that never gets worn.  

We use terms like sustainable, eco-friendly and ethical because we feel they’re a fair reflection of our system, our materials, and even our preference for the clean electricity we use in our offices. We’re also B Corp™ certified, meaning our social, legal, and environmental performance has been verified. 

That said, we’re no stranger to self-reflection and are always careful not to exaggerate the truth. In a way that’s what this blog space is for - to lift the lid on our thought processes and question our own beliefs. 

Conclusion

We’re not done with sustainability, or being more eco-friendly, or striving to be ethical. And we don’t think that ditching these terms will amount to anything more than another form of marketing. Yes, they are being misused by many of fashion’s most damaging companies. But that doesn’t mean that brands who are doing a good job - while admitting that they are far from perfect - should stop talking about the sustainability of their products. 

In effect “sustainable” “eco-friendly” and “ethical” fashion is the liferaft that has helped us to swim against the tide of fast fashion. Why abandon ship now, when it has got us this far? Instead what might be needed is a more precise and careful use of these terms - something that is already on the horizon in Europe…