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What is sustainable fashion?

It seems like everyday, everything we buy is being marketed as sustainable. But who really walks the talk?

Consider this.

Company A: is a small brand that uses all natural fibres and makes a small batch of products. Is it a sustainable company?

Company B: is a large brand producing thousands of products, but owns its own factories and guarantees workers at least earn a minimum wage. Is it a sustainable company?

Company C: is a brand working with deadstock or upcycled fabrics without knowing where or how those fabrics were made. Is it a sustainable company?

I hope this simple exercise makes you realize just how complex and layered the issues are.

We currently don't have a standardized definition of what sustainable is. Without it, what does 'sustainable fashion' actually mean?


That's what makes the issue highly subjective - and prone to greenwashing (making claims that make products seem more 'green' than it actually is. So oftentime, I find the use of the term sustainable fashion to be very misleading as there are so many components of that. From the chemicals to the fossil fuels used from manufacturing, but also distribution and end of life.

But the truth is, we cannot buy our way into sustainability. So I think we need to be more responsible as businesses. Acknowledge that every product we make has an impact. And instead of labeling it as sustainable, we can drive more change by simply stating where we are and working continuously to lessen the negative impact. 

Our vision is actually a world where people have far less clothes, but more meaning. Buying less, but well, and caring for it more. Only when we change our relationship with fashion can we have a chance in a truly circular economy.

What is dangerous, however, is using 'sustainability' lightly in marketing campaigns.


Often these campaigns are distracting you from the main issue: the lack of traceability and accountability behind how something is made. The toxic chemicals being used everyday to the exploitative practices that keep women invisible and in poverty. Business as usual, covered by feel-good smoke and screen.

 

Sustainable Fashion Indonesia
The reality of Batik synthetic dyeing in Indonesia, image from The Jakarta Post.


The good news: There’s a lot you can do to be a part of the solution! That’s why I’ve put together a quick guide about the issues that led to the creation of our #MadeRight standard. You can use it to differentiate between brands that create real change and the growing number of those whose ethical and sustainable claims are – sorry to be so blunt - nothing but empty marketing gimmicks.

Let’s dive right in!

#MadeRight is a promise that your clothes provided a living wage, is kind to the Planet, and sustains heritage craftsmanship. 

 

ISSUE 1: WHO MADE IT?


 

 ISSUE 2: UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS? 


 

 ISSUE 3: HOW WAS IT DYED?



 

 ISSUE 4: WASTE & PLASTICS



 

 ISSUE 5: FAKING IT



  

Traceability: The Thread that ties it all together

Traceability means knowing exactly who made it, how, and most importantly, under what conditions.


As you can see from the above, a better fashion world comes down to traceability: Knowing how, where and under what conditions your clothes where made. Most brands can’t tell you where any of their materials came from, let alone who grew the fibers or how much he or she was paid. Fashion’s sprawling global supply chain has made traceability difficult.

So what can you do?

Today, almost everything we buy suddenly says “Ethically Sourced”, “Sustainably Made” etc. Here are a couple of questions you can ask your favorite brands to hold them accountable - and maybe even get them to slowly change their practices. (If they don't have a ready answer, well, yeah that's probably not a good sign):

  1. Who made it? How was it made? And under what conditions?
    Remember, ‘handmade’ does not equal fairly paid. If they use vague claims like ‘Ethically sourced’, ask: How do you make sure the workers receive a living wage?
  2. Did someone from your brand ever visit the workshop to see conditions on the ground?
  3. How do you deal with waste from production and synthetic dyeing? Is there any filtration system in place?
  4. If they use natural dyes: How do you make sure you source the dyes sustainably (aka no deforestation). And were any chemicals used in the process (yes, a lot of natural dye brands actually use chemicals as you can see here).
  5. Is this really batik/ikat or is this just printed? How many % of your collections are handmade vs screen/digitally printed?

And whenever you have doubts – don’t buy it. Buy less, but demand more.

 

It’s time to make sure our choices no longer hurt others.

Sustainability is a journey - a difficult one. There always seems to be more we can do, more that needs to be done. But all change starts with small acts - like asking questions and being more critical with the brands you encounter. Together, we can transform the way our clothes are made to a cleaner, more inclusive industry.

Clever marketing won't solve the problem. Only changing how your clothes are made will. And you have that power.

The truth is, every choice you make has an impact on someone else. From the way fibres are grown in the field, to how the fabric was made, to who stitched it. Where issues are buried under a complex system of outsourcing.

As always, I wanna invite you to keep raising your voice. Ask: "Who made my clothes, how was it made, and under what conditions?"

It matters. Especially for those who don't have a voice. 

Your nerd who cares,

D

_

P.S.  If you find this guide useful, please share it! Amplify the knowledge. It means all the world to the women who make your clothes.