There is no such thing as a sustainable apparel brand. There are brands that make a stronger effort than most to take responsibility for the world around them. There are brands that deploy crafty PR strategies to drum up buzz for new, allegedly eco-friendly lines. But there are no sustainable apparel brands.
Before we dive in, let me pass the mic to the men’s clothing brand Noah:
- “Noah is not a sustainable company...There's really no such thing as a sustainable clothing company.”
- “True sustainability would mean turning back the clock on over a century of clothing consumption and production trends, most of which have been fueled by accelerated industrialization and the rise of consumer economies worldwide.”
Noah has it right: The clothing industry is a necessary one, but as one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries, it relies on environmental degradation and has done so since loincloths were en vogue. It’s a given that we take things from our natural surroundings to repurpose them as food, clothing, and shelter. That’s not the problem.
The problem is this: It doesn’t have to be this bad—and yet, it is. We don’t have to live in a world in which 20% of all industrial water pollution and 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions come from the fashion industry.
Those staggering numbers are in no small part a symptom of our miscalculation of what it means to create clothing responsibly.
- Instead of lauding small but genuine sustainability efforts of brands aware that they’re in an inherently unsustainable line of business…
- We find ourselves foolishly believing we are consumers of clothing that won't ever hurt the world around it.
“Clothing will always have an impact,” Maxine Bédat, founder of New York-based New Standard Institute, told the FT. “What we need is for brands to speak about what they’re doing to reduce impact and be honest and transparent about how far they are going and where they need to go.”
I second that motion. Inundated by greenwashed efforts to make “the most sustainable virgin leather available” or “carbon-neutral denim,” we’ve lost sight of what’s important: brands trying to limit the inevitable repercussions of centuries of apparel sales.
With that, here’s what we need to do:
- Hold brands guilty of greenwashing accountable.
- Create new and realistic metrics for what it means to work toward sustainability.
What that means for consumers: Don’t fall for the email marketing campaigns. Consider limiting your shopping sprees to brands that disclose their entire supply chains and environmental impact regularly. A few benchmarks to keep in mind:
- Does this business support the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals?
- Does this business use clean and renewable energy when possible?
- Does this business disclose climate and supply-chain threats as risks it takes seriously?
And the biggest impact you can have?
Stop shopping so much—it really is that simple. People bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000. And kept the clothes for half as long. What happens next? One garbage truck of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.
For regulators: enact and enforce more regulation...there, I said it. Do your jobs.
Apparel became the globalized beast it is because of increased (and state-sanctioned) global trade, which isn’t always a bad thing. But supply chains have moved overseas for plenty of other industries that remain highly regulated (cars!). It’s time to enforce some limits on an industry that’s been permitted to run rampant for decades now...perhaps I might be so bold as to suggest a carbon tax?
For brands: “I think it's really, really important that companies look at this holistically and they just start taking steps in the right direction,” Ryan told me. “And they understand from the beginning that sustainability is something with no end to it.”
- In Patagonia’s case, that looks something like this: The company donates 1% of gross sales to environmental efforts. Also, it doesn’t use the word “sustainable.”
Two things worth noting: 1) Patagonia owns up to its own shortcomings in environmental stewardship, yet isn’t giving up the battle for better outcomes. And 2) it’s not one of a kind—consider Reformation (I do often).
- The brand just announced plans to be “climate positive” by 2025, as my colleague Halie LeSavage wrote. As Halie reports, that means investing in “further reducing emissions, insetting (a process of expanding renewable energy in the direct supply chain), and producing garments with regenerative fibers.”
All that, and Reformation still cops to being the second-most sustainable option, behind being naked.
By rejiggering our sustainability expectations for the clothing industry, we can set more realistic goals—goals more companies might endeavor to meet rather than attempt the impossibility of truly “being sustainable.”