- the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.
- Environmental Science: the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.
Sustainability has been a term used in business and discussions on the environment for many years now. However, the word 'sustainable’ in conjunction with production, business and especially the fashion industry has taken on an additional and often misleading meaning, which unassuming consumers believe is ecologically and environmentally sound.
Let’s look first at ‘business’ sustainability. When a business is ‘sustainable’, this generally means there is balance between the fundamental aspects of the business, which according to Marcus Lemonis of The Profit fame is: people, process, product = profit
When a business has all of these aspects in place, then effectively the business ecosystem is sustainable - the right people in the right jobs completing the right process to build/deliver the right product which generates the ‘right’ profit so that business grows at a manageable rate and the future looks great for everyone involved.
What is missing in the majority of ‘sustainable’ businesses however, is the ‘planet’ aspect - achieving all of the above, without being harmful to the global and environmental ecosystem external to the business...
The fashion industry and the way that it functions on a large scale is completely unsustainable environmentally. The very philosophy that the fashion industry is based on - that there is a continuously moving and changing ‘trend’ that needs to be followed and updated every ‘season’ - is unethical and unsustainable on many levels. It feeds and thrives on promoting the consumer mentality of dissatisfaction with what you already have.
I believe this is what has been my major philosophical struggle when it comes to finding a resolution between my love for fashion and unique style, and my calling to be an environmentalist...
Working in the fashion retail industry for many years, I have witnessed first hand how constantly moving trends make the fashion industry completely unsustainable. The truck loads of unsuccessful designs that would end up in ‘factory outlets’ at the end of every season can spell disaster for a brand. But heavily reduced prices of ‘rejects’ aren’t the only cost of fashion retail, the wastage affects the business and the environment exponentially, no matter how high the original markups.
There is a huge number of new fashion businesses promoted as offering ‘sustainable' fashion alternatives. However, not all of them are sustainable in the true sense of the word. Eco or organic products can face huge manufacturing minimums, importing product components from long distances, and entry into a competitive industry where consumers are needing massive behaviour and culture change. Not really sustainable for a start up business.
But even if a product is sourced and manufactured in an ecologically sound and ethical way, once the item has left the store, the only person who has control over the future life of the product (and therefore, the closing of the lifecycle loop) is the consumer. But it is the consumer that is being treated like a pawn in the whole process...
Big brands like H&M are trying to resolve this issue by offering vouchers for clothes returned for ‘recycling’ enabling the customer to feel good about buying more. But the chemical processes that a returned fabric goes through to be turned into a new fibre is NOT a sustainable or environmentally viable solution. Additionally, many ‘organic’ fibres and garments have also gone through chemical processes that do not make them ‘biodegradable’ when they hit landfill… The industry is a long way off from truly being sustainable and resolving the severity of its effects on the planet.
So if the industry is unable to offer a solution that consumers can rely on, where does the responsibility lie??
It really all comes back to the consumer. Unfortunately, that means you…
As a force for change, consumers have the power to slow the effects of this unsustainable industry dramatically. And we can do this simply by rebelling against the marketing machine, which fashion capitalism supports, and take back control of our predominantly unconscious consumer behaviour.
Not buying ‘stuff’ is so far outside of our Western cultural convention that it takes a large amount of courage and discipline to implement it in your life. Your family might resist the change, your colleagues laugh and people closest to you think you’ve gone completely mad.
But in honouring your own personal values and committing to become one of 'the wild ones’, who dare to do things differently from the masses, the rewards far outweigh the first few months of struggle, the overwhelm of consumer desire and possible feeling of ‘missing out because you have nothing new and exciting in your life'.
The rewards of 'becoming wild' don’t only include the obvious benefits of less money spent on meaningless stuff, less time devoted to meaningless shopping and less pressure to fit into the meaningless expectations to be someone you’re not. But 'becoming wild' also enables increased self-awareness, improved self-confidence and a feeling of purpose that filters down into the work that you feel compelled to do.
What could be more self-’sustaining’, self-’supporting’ and self-’confirming’ than living true to who you are?
Our goals for living sustainably as an individual and a consumer don’t just include the impact we have through the things we do or don’t buy. Our goals for living sustainably also include the impact we have through 'living wild’ - by being true to our personal values that defy convention, by being authentically and unashamedly who we are, and by identifying that our purpose is to contribute positively to the global ecosystem every day of our life.
So really sustainability is not just an expression used to describe how business is done or how products are made - the meaning of sustainability can be used as a much greater philosophy and way of life for people who are pursuing an existence outside of the standard conventional system.