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Sustainable Fashion: The Industry's Tort Reform

Sustainable fashion is a contradiction in terms. The three R's of sustainability are fashion's ultimate saboteur. Can an industry based on excess go green?
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Last week, the Financial Times explored Sustainable Fashion and actually had the cojones to ask "What does green mean?"

Green means eco-chic! Green means good for the earth! Green means organic hemp cotton tees made from soda can tabs, which are like so hot right now for Spring! Or something.

At a Copenhagen conference designed to promote fashion's environmental agenda, it's unsurprising that the question "How do you define sustainable fashion?" came up. What was shocking were the responses. Let's just say they were colorful, if not concrete:

  • Quality items that stand the test of time ... a timeless handbag that you wear again and again, and can pass on ... - Frida Giannini, Creative Director of Gucci
  • A commitment to the traditional techniques, and not just the art, of making clothes. I work today in the same way that I first learnt in the ateliers of Balenciaga and Lanvin 50 years ago ... clothes that are not only beautiful but extremely well made. - Oscar de la Renta
  • Locally sourced materials that don't pollute in their creation or demise (preferably recycled) and with limited transportation to achieve the completed product. - Anya Hindmarch
  • Sustainable fashion is a contradiction in terms. It refers to how the fabric used for a new garment has been produced ... I believe, we need to consider this issue from a more macro and profound perspective. Though a cotton may be unbleached, we need to examine how it arrives to the manufacturer or to us the wearer. What was the 'carbon imprint' of its delivery, for example? - Dries van Noten

At first glance, it seems like no one has any effing idea what they're talking about. Giannini ignores the question altogether and defines 'investment piece' instead.

De la Renta gives a nostalgic diatribe on the history of couture.

Hindmarch kinda gets it, but fails to pinpoint the kinds of materials that don't pollute in their creation or demise.

Van Noten is the only one who says something of note, and no, I'm not talking about the part where he focuses on the 'carbon imprint' of transporting materials in lieu of addressing the damage his industry's manufacturing practices wreak on the earth.

"Sustainable fashion is a contradiction in terms."


Riddle me this: If a fashion outsider like myself can Google her way to an explicit answer as to what sustainable fashion is in two and a half minutes, is it plausible that the hacks quoted above can't do the same (and by that I mean order their assistants to do it for them)?

I don't THINK so. The luxury goods industry's collective inability to define sustainable fashion isn't a mark of ignorance. It's a survival tactic.

Let's cut to the chase of Wikipedia's extensive article on Sustainability by scrolling to the section on Materials:

"Sustainable use of materials has targeted the idea of dematerialization, converting the linear path of materials (extraction, use, disposal in landfill) to a circular material flow that reuses materials as much as possible, much like the cycling and reuse of waste in nature. This approach is supported by product stewardship and the increasing use of material flow analysis at all levels, especially individual countries and the global economy."

The luxury goods industry's existence hinges on creating the desire for excess, and on manufacturing and selling products designed to satiate that desire. It tells us to want something when it's not yet available; we can't have it, we want it more; it becomes available; we buy it; it tells us to want something else.

Dematerialization means reducing the quantity of materials required for a given product i.e. doing more with less. Apply this principle to an industry founded on the big M (MORE) and it doesn't compute. The three R's of sustainability are fashion's ultimate saboteur.

Reorienting itself to one kind of green means the sacrifice of the dollar kind, and fashion will not do that. So the luxury goods industry masks the problem in soundbites and buzzwords, and enacts PR-friendly changes designed to promote the appearance of giving a shit beyond the status quo.

It revels in organic/ethical/environmentally-friendly/eco chic, and claims green as its own by calling it the new black.

Sustainability becomes its tort reform -- a frivolous sideshow designed to distract consumers from what really needs to be done.
The grand poobahs queried in FT's article are all too aware of this. I mean, what are they going to say, sustainable fashion means we all have to stop making new crap? Playing dumb's a hell of a lot easier. Also more lucrative.

Unfortunately, avoiding the question isn't a sustainable solution (pun party).

Sustainable fashion is a contradiction in terms as it applies to designers, to the luxury goods industry, to new merchandise. Whether or not it exists in the form of thrift, resale, vintage and/or consignment depends on how you define fashion -- I define it as "stuff you like to wear," so to me, gently-worn merch in sync with my personal taste epitomizes sustainable fashion.

It's an answer for environmentally-conscious consumers. But it doesn't do jack to address the luxury goods industry, and (more importantly) keeping the millions connected to it employed.

Is it possible for fashion to embrace its doppelganger, to produce sustainable goods, to do more with less and still stay in business?

You bet. (See?! I'm not ALL doom and gloom.) A workable definition of sustainable fashion exists -- one that might even be realistic on an industry-wide scale. (Provided said industry takes its head out of its ass and admits it has a problem. Is there a Promises program for an addiction to creating epic amounts of waste in the name of fashion?)

Stay tuned for the next installment.