Buzzwords & Bullshit: What Sustainable Fashion Really Means (to most brands)

Buzzwords & Bullshit: What Sustainable Fashion Really Means (to most brands)

A t-shirt shouldn't cost the earth. The fast fashion industry is a murky, horrid world jam-packed full of exploitation, dirty dealing and corner-cutting. It's one of the reasons we don't like to call ourselves a fashion company - aside from the fact that none of the Kardashians choose to wear our stuff. It's not a great conversation starter to admit that you're part of an industry responsible for 4-10% of global greenhouse emissions; that sends around 13 million tonnes of material to landfills annually in the UK alone and is a principal driver of climate change.

I Turned 3000 Kilograms Of Clothing Destined For Landfill Into An Art  Installation | Bored Panda

Many companies are determined to clean up their act - given the unavoidable truth that we're living on a planet dying from the greed of an elite few. 

One word regularly deployed in marketing content is 'sustainability'. It's used as follows: "We're the most sustainable we've ever been!" or "Buy our product and live a sustainable lifestyle". You might even see the term' ethical fashion'.

But what does sustainability actually mean? Its overuse in advertising and corporate press releases has stripped any real, material meaning. However, for the purposes of this article, which is to examine sustainability throughout the fashion sector and strip away the bullshit, we should get some basic definitions together. 


Sustainability - what actually is it?

When something is described as 'sustainable', it refers to some kind of process or a state of being that can continue functioning over a period of time. In the context of human industry and development, we can take it to mean the 'avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance.'

But that's only part of the story. Sustainability also refers to the economic and social factors surrounding a business or industry. 

Simply put, it means that we're not using more resources - including human - than we can regenerate or that the environment can replace. At this point, it's essential to understand that every single economic market on the planet has its very base source in the natural environment. Economic sustainability refers to the cost to the pocket of whoever has a financial interest in that particular industry. Social sustainability refers to the impact on humans. 

'Sustainable fashion' refers to garments and products that have been made to address the environmental and social issues around the extraction of resources that the industry needs and the production chain. 

Sustainable fashion primarily concerns itself with five key areas:


Water: The fashion industry uses a phenomenal amount of water. It takes, on average, 10-20,000 litres of water to cultivate just one kilogram of raw cotton, depending on where it is grown. That doesn't include the amount used in fabric processing and dying. We also need to look at wastewater emissions, which can contain toxic chemicals or become deoxygenated. Sustainable production ensures less water is used and wastewater is safe on its reintroduction back into the environment.
Energy: Garment factories can use a lot of energy - but there's more energy used in producing some materials, such as plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels. The use of renewable energy is thus a crucial part of fashion sustainability.
Chemicals and Land Usage: The agricultural industries that supply the fashion sector often use chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides to increase yields. (See our Why is Organic Expensive blog). If the land is used for one crop, it often can't be used for another until the next season or the season after. This can affect soil quality but, most importantly, takes out the land from food production. In addition, some dyes like azo, a synthetic nitrogen-based blue dye - have highly toxic to aquatic life and are responsible for the deaths of rivers in India and the global biodiversity crash.
Waste: Every industry creates waste - either from offcuts or excess production. Or even, as we'll see later in this article, more sinister things.
 
Societal: Working conditions and companies' business practices relating to the communities they find themselves in are significant factors when examining sustainability. The fashion movement and unprecedented disasters such as the Rana Plaza collapse have brought attention to unscrupulous factory bosses and the notion of fair trade. Poor employment laws in the global south make those countries vulnerable to exploitation. If a brand inflicts harm upon people - it's not socially sustainable.


Extraction isn't sustainable

In Europe, only about 50% of collected textiles are reused, and the processes involved also seem somewhat wasteful. Many of the clothes deposited in collection bins are exported to other countries, half of which is recycled. Yet only 1% of that is recycled into new clothes. 35% of donated clothing is made into industrial rags, and only 15% of consumer-used clothing is actually recycled. Most reported 'industry recycling' happens pre-use - that is, by the manufacturers themselves before it even gets to the shelves.

The European Commission estimates that this represents a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials each year. More than that, it also means a phenomenal waste of water, energy and land use that went into making the fibres and fabrics in the first place. 

Most of the fashion industry is run in the financial interests of a few elite, profit-motivated rich folk. It's safe to say that environmental sustainability hasn't really been as high on the agenda as financial sustainability. For the owners and shareholders of the big brands, economic sustainability is always a relatively short-term outlook. These folk are primarily concerned with what kind of return they can get in the shortest amount of time. 

Only in the past few decades has political and social pressure begun to show. The EU directives on Waste and Water Management, an increased push by China to green the industries that have been outsourced there by the west, and marginal increases in the standards for 'organic' are forcing manufacturers to change things up. Public attitudes are also changing - led by the visible societal and environmental collapse we're witnessing daily. 


Greenwash: Corporate Bullshit

Being a heartless and detached c-word isn't a great business model - unless you're Ambercrombie & Fitch, which prides itself on its body image and class elitism. Public attitudes are changing, however, and on the whole, people don't want to be personally responsible for the downfall of the planet we live on.

McKinsey, the global consultancy firm/CIA collaborator/bread price fixers, ran a massive survey on public attitudes to sustainability in fashion in 2021. they found that 57% of those surveyed had made significant lifestyle changes to lessen their environmental impact. More than 60% reported going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging.

Meeting consumers' attitudes is the basis for consumerism - so corporates thus have an interest in selling to those people by 'being green'. Or, more accurately, giving the appearance of being green. In its July 2021 report, the not-for-profit Changing Markets Foundation showed that 59% of all green claims by European and UK fashion brands are misleading. Simply put, most companies out there first you for cash by making deceptive or irrelevant claims. Here are a few examples of stuff that makes it to the billboard:


Big-word Initiatives: Brands love discussing corporate initiatives to reduce carbon emissions - banning plastic straws in the office, recyclable cutlery, ride shares. Sounds good, but it's stuff they should be doing anyway - and their effectiveness relative to their supply and production chain is a drop in the ocean.
Misleading Wage Claims: Brands love to chat about paying a minimum wage. However, given that in most labour-outsourced countries (India, Bangladesh, Honduras, etc.), minimum wage barely covers survival, it's not a remarkable claim. Workers need to be paid living wages - every worker's wage should meet housing, healthcare, transport, education and leisure. If you think that doesn't even apply to your pay, you should probably consider unionising your workplace. 
Misleading Climate Targets: In the UK and US, climate targets are essentially voluntary for companies to meet. The rationale is that 'consumers will drive better standards' based on what companies do. All fine and good - until you realise that most brands are lying about those targets and their 'tremendous' carbon footprint. Eco-fashion blog Good On You, published a fashion which found that 69% of large brands with greenhouse gas emissions targets do not say whether they are on track to meet them.
 
Eco-friendly Packaging: Eco-friendly is a non-enforceable buzzword. In itself, it doesn't refer to anything measurable. Many companies might lead with this - look a little closer. It's simply recycled (which can be defined as a blend of virgin and recycled materials) or recyclable packaging (already a legal requirement in many countries). However, a tiny amount of plastic actually makes it to recycling. Many processes for recycling packaging can create microplastics - it's still a poor claim to plaster over your shop frontage. 
Token Sustainability: In the same way racist folk often say they have one black friend, greenwashing brands often say they have one 'eco clothing range.' They pay lip service to the idea of sustainability by creating a range representing a tiny proportion of their production and supply chain. It speaks to nothing about whether the rest of the cheaper lines are made more sustainably. Brands will often hide behind their 'token' line as a sign they are green. If a brand only has one sustainable line - it's not sustainable.


With that last point, I should relate one of Gav's stories from the early days of THTC when he was talking about eco collaborations with a couple of big brands. Talks with one brand in particular - who will remain nameless - got pretty far. That is until the CEO brought up a key point: 

"If my customers see this THTC and [redacted brand name] eco collaboration, they'll ask why the rest of the clothes we sell aren't sustainable." 


Similarly, if you see conventional cotton being sold next to organic cotton, and the brand markets itself as green - why sell something substandard? This is the thinking behind many brands, so they don't even try. 


One other point regarding recycling clothes is that many of them are not recyclable in the first instance. Using plastics, PET and rPET as fibre-strengtheners means that many natural fibres become contaminated. When these garments decompose naturally, they leave behind plastic meshes. This counts for the majority of cheap garments sold globally.


Engineered Artificial Scarcity

Economy and market theory states that the more supply of a product, the more demand can be met, leading to a lowering of prices. One of the interesting properties of a capitalist economy is that it can produce a lot of goods in a short amount of time. In fact, it can make more than is actually needed by a given society. Take, for example, the vast amount of food waste generated globally. As a civilisation, we produce more food than people can buy, which goes spoiled. Rather than freely giving this excess to hungry people and those in poverty, it's often destroyed. Hunger exists in the developed world because people can't get rich from giving to the poor. 

To maintain a high price tag and reduce warehousing costs, brands such as Burberry, H&M, Louis Vuitton, Coach, Michael Kors, Juicy Couture and many others have engaged in the destruction of stock. In an annual report, Burberry openly admitted to destroying up to $28.6 million of stock. More recently, Amazon was caught red-handed, destroying insane amounts of stock. 


 

This practice is carried out to 'protect exclusivity' through artificially engineered scarcity. Again, just the same as with hungry people, brand owners are terrified of losing out on money from "grey market" sales. 

It is maddening to think of the catastrophic waste. Everything from the intense amount of animal suffering, human labour, and environmental cost - and then for it all to be immolated because it's not providing shareholder value? What a world.  


Consumer Activism - Passing the buck


In the past, at THTC, we've been guilty of saying the phrase - vote with your wallet. It implies that the consumer is the boss and that the public has the power to change things through their purchasing and consumption habits. 

Nothing could be more reductive and further from the truth. As we've stated, companies lie routinely about what they do to save the environment and pour billions into marketing those lies and passing them off as reality. Even when the truth comes out, the majority of the buying public - that is, the working class - usually have little to no choice in where they shop. They will always go for the choices that balance comfort with survival and affordability. Larger companies receive tax breaks and avoidance measures. As our favourite cocaine-raccoon philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, once said, 'you cannot consume your way out of a climate crisis.' 

 

 

The idea that consumers are somehow responsible for the products that are essentially forced on them through externalities like depressed wages and high rents is not only laughable but also cruel. As we'll say, again and again, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.


The Real Solutions: Circular Economies, Zero Growth & Collective Ownership

It's not just about using materials like hemp and organic cotton. The solution to the problem of consumerism and 'fashion trends' needs to go deeper. When I was a civil servant for the British Government, working for Defra and DECC, I met a chap called Prof. Tim Jackson, head of the Sustainable Development Commission. This government organisation was among the first to be abolished when the Conservatives came into power in 2010. In 2009, he published Prosperity Without Growth - a vitally important document that was all but buried by the incoming administration. 

 

 

Written against the backdrop of the 2008 credit crunch and recession, it outlined the step changes needed to arrange our economy for the greater good. It questioned our dominant economic model - capitalism, propped up by consumerism. He argued that the cause of the crash and environmental decline could not be the solution. Capitalism - our dominant economic configuration - relies on unfettered growth and thus constant consumption and is predicated on the economy and means of production being owned and operated by a small number of people.


While Prof Jackson did not overtly go fully commie, his message was clear. He also highlighted a new economic model that had been theorised by other philosophers and economists years before. He outlined three areas for work vital steps:



Building a Sustainable Macro-Economy - moving away from debt-driven materialistic consumption
Protecting Capabilities for Flourishing - helping people break the social logic of materialistic consumerism by providing creative opportunities for people to flourish within the planet's ecological limits. 
Respecting Ecological Limits - ensuring we use natural materials at the same rate as environmental systems replenish them.


Many learnings from this document and others slowly solidified into a notion of a 'circular economy, that is, an economy that has no external inputs and zero waste. 

Circular economies do not provide much - if any - room for the growth required by capitalism. How does an investor make a return on growth? How can a capitalist make money on something that doesn't grow? The traditional economic model of a prominent investor coming in to create a business just doesn't work in this context. And to be honest - maybe it shouldn't. 

The alternative is creating company ownership and direction based on a worker, community and environmental needs, along with a planned economy. Creating an economy that serves immediate and future social and ecosystem needs, rather than the pockets of a few billionaires, is where we need to be headed. Slow fashion means just that - slowing the world down for the better.



THTC Code of Ethics

In the words of a better person than me, 'What is to be done?' In the absence of a complete revolution in our society, there's a limit to what individual companies can do. 

However, at THTC, we feel doing our best is abiding by the following principles:



Reduce Consumption: THTC Clothing is built to last. Hemp clothing can last up to 15 years. We reduce the need for repeat purchases by ensuring a long product life cycle. In addition, THTC clothes lend themselves to being used secondhand. They make fabulous donations to charity stores when you're done with them.
Repairability: Simple, basic cuts and product design mean that we're never more than a needle and thread from fixing. In addition, our clothes can be upcycled easily.
Recyclability: We're entirely phasing out rPET from all of our product lines to maximise the recyclability of our goods. In addition, our production partner, TeeMill, conducts organic cotton reclamation, turning used fibres into new through their circular collection service.
Living Wages for All: What it says on the tin. All our garment workers and partner producers pay their workers enough to thrive. 
Collective Ownership: While THTC itself is really just Gav and me (mostly Gav), we ensure that our partner organisations operate based on collective ownership, or 'workers as stakeholders', meaning workers hold either property or company equity. Even our garment factories and farmland are collectively-owned. 
Trust through Independent Certifications: When we say something, we want you to be able to trust that we're undertaking sustainable practices through our supply and manufacturing process. So we'll get happily audited by folks like the Vegan Society, Fashion Revolution or partners from Common Objective (when we have the cash to do so!)

We stick to these principles as best we can. And unlike other brands, if you see us slipping - we're not going to fob you off with some greenwash - we'll do better. We're just two guys relying on our partners' good faith and ambitions, who in turn do the same with their production partners. A considerable degree of trust is needed for our respective institutions to work - and trust is the fundamental currency of our age.


Sustainable Fashion Brands - Well, as sustainable as you can get

We don't want to leave on a low note - sustainable clothing is possible, and making circular fashion production is possible. There are some fantastic people out there doing awesome stuff. These are the guys we recommend - better than most and striving sincerely to be the solutions we need:

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