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Earth Day: What Makes A Fashion Brand Truly Sustainable?

With a few experts, we break down the definition of the often used and misused word in fashion: sustainability.

Throughout the past few years, we have seen an increase in consumers’ desire to make use of ethical and sustainable consumption practices. Fashion, an industry that serves as the primary culprit and a leading cause of environmental issues, has been aiming for this one catch-all word: sustainability. Although this came with the rise of fashion brands and clothing lines aiming to be sustainable, there has also been an increasing trend of greenwashing. 

In an interview with Jonas Dumdum, an Environmental and Corporate Sustainability Practitioner, Sustainarumble’s Co-founder and Co-host, and Wear Forward’s Chief Sustainability Engineer, we were able to break down what it means for a fashion brand to be sustainable.

Before diving into the various ways clothing companies practice sustainability, we must first understand what the term sustainability actually means. For sustainability in fashion, Jonas gives us the triple bottom line, which is a concept that “creates a balance between people, the planet, and the profit.”  This means that when a product benefits the brand given its profits, there must also be a relevant impact on the consumers, the environment, and society. This impact should not only be seen in the final product, but also in how it is sourced and created.

Jonas indicates that it certainly is possible for clothing brands to be fully sustainable if they make use of the circular economy model. This means that a sustainable fashion brand must be mindful and efficient in their sourcing, production processes, and means of distribution, while also providing their customers with a long-lasting product that is durable and beneficial to their needs. Yes, it is not just the product that makes a brand sustainable, it also includes the processes leading to it.

With all this talk of sustainability, brands have been attempting to mask their lack of it through the use of greenwashing. In the interview with Jonas, he cites that a way brands greenwash is by claiming to be sustainable solely because their fabric is. He states that these types of brands end up not being sustainable because of their logistics of having to source from different countries, which implies a large amount of carbon emission. 

Apart from this, he also says, “In terms of clothing, the more glaring indicator would be water use.” He states that greenwashing can also be practiced if it takes a large amount of water to produce a product, but the brand still claims to be sustainable. 

Given all this, when asked if brands should claim to be fully sustainable Jonas recommends, “...telling people that they are on a journey to become more sustainable is a better way of sharing their sustainability campaign or disclosure.” 

There are many roads leading to a green and ethical brand. Given logistics, and water consumption, a local brand that uses locally sourced materials is more sustainable compared to other brands. Jonas says that these local brands “hit the marks not just on the environmental, but also on the social side. The people who made it earn from it–that is also sustainability.”

Another large part in determining if a brand is sustainable or not, is through their transparency. Jonas talks about how H&M is a good example of a transparent brand through the use of their sustainability reports. These reports include their CO2 consumption, material blends, and water consumption, which are “the usual indicators for global sustainability in fashion.” 

What makes H&M a sustainable model for the fashion industry is the materials they use, their transparency, and their effort to giving fair job for all. For the brand, inclusivity and diversity is just as important as their goal for sustainability. According to Marian Dang, H&M's Regional Sustainability and Public Affairs Manager for South Asia, 80% of what you currently see on the stores are from recycled and sustainably sourced materials. Their efforts toward sustainability and becoming climate positive also trickle down to their suppliers. H&M supports these entities by introducing better alternatives such as using renewable energy for production. 

Even with this type of report, Jonas says, “you have to tell a story about how this shirt came about.” He cites an example of how there are crafts passed down generations, which create products that are more sustainable than the products being imported. 

"We know the only way to really transform fashion and to really make a change [is to be] transparent and traceability throughout the whole value chain," says Marian. "While we are on this journey, we want to bring our customers with us. We cannot do it alone. [This is through] raising awareness towards the customers, but also by providing them options to shop a little bit more consciously. By doing that, we want to give them the information to empower them to be more sustainable in their daily actions." 

Since today, H&M Philippines has brought back its Garment Collecting program wherein customers can drop off their unwanted clothes or textiles where they can recycle these pieces for you.  

The H&M Philippines Garment Collection program installation for Earth Day in Greenbelt 4

Jonas concludes that an easy way to also consume ethically is by shopping local brands. Their artisans, heritage, and locally grown materials all add up to create sustainable products.

The road to sustainability is paved with good intentions. Though there is no one road, the many movements and changes the fashion brands today are taking create some ripple to hopefully create the change we need to see in fashion. As a consumer, the most sustainable step one might take today is loving and rewearing all the pieces you already have today. 

Art by Raff Colmenar

Lead Photos from Unsplash

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