The luxury and couture designers claim it’s timeless design and quality that allow their designs to be handed down from generation to generation, turning this year’s must have collection pieces into the next generation of vintage. I like to call this “heirloom sustainability”.
Crafters argue that employment of skilled artisans, low quantity production, and the reduction of shipping impact by using local production is what defines sustainability. We call this “localvore fashion”.
A related approach is the “sustainable communities” model when humanitarian entrepreneurs team up with local craftspeople in war-torn or impoverished regions to form collectives to produce and sell regional crafts. The profits, in turn, are used to build schools, teach skills, and acquire much needed resources.
From a completely different perspective, the fast-fashion market has been known to claim that it’s an affordable price-point for customers that makes a brand “sustainable”. Guess we could call that “sustain-a-wallet.” It looks great in the advertisements, but if you try it on, and feel like less than a supermodel, it’s not you. It just doesn’t fit right, and the fabric is less than fabulous. That’s what happens when you put quantity before quality.
Countering the first three models, large factories claim that efficiency is key, and due to their bulk orders which lead to more consistent quality goods and minimal wastage, they are in fact more “sustainable.” This does not address the overproduction which floods outlet stores with excess goods, or the factory worker’s need for equitable pay and benefits. Putting supply before demand, where the customer orders items pre-production, in the “slow fashion” model helps alleviate the issue of overproduction.
And a potential ethical solution to factories would be the requirement of “Fair-Trade” certification – where factories must meet certain standards for working environments and fair wages. There are also special regulations and standards for companies to receive “green” certification in their factories. After being nailed by negative press, mega-corporations (like Wal-Mart) have agreed to regular auditing by third parties to show they have cleaned up their acts to meet all federal labor rights regulations. By also taking measures such as using cost and energy efficient light bulbs and machinery, lowering their toxic waste spillage by using less toxic chemical treatments on their products and/or by cleaning the chemicals out of the water they release back into the local water supply, companies looking for “green” level certification are trying to right some of their past wrongs.
And from a purists point of view, the most sustainable items are the products that already exist, so long as it survives wear and tear. Vintage, second-hand, thrift stores and up-cycling designers would be the cream of the crop. But vintage, as does all fashion, has a shelf life before it starts to. And there are certain unmentionables, like under ware, that you just can’t do vintage unless you’re really hard core.
These various ways of looking at sustainability show that there is still no ’sustain-a-standard’ yardstick that would effectively cover environmental protection, workers rights, product quality, and customer affordability all at the same time.
Quite frankly, when you take all of the above into account, any fashion brand labeled “sustainable” begins to look a bit suspect–not dissimilar to the way a bottle of new and improved “Green” Tide laundry detergent looks. New colored label, same problems. At the end of the day, what’s keeping these companies from making the necessary improvements immediately is their ‘bottom line’, and in this respect, consumers are also complicit in the crime, in that we all want easy access to affordable products.
In the meantime, let’s turn this into a proper dialogue. Give us your thoughts and perhaps we can come up with some better ideas and approaches to these increasingly important issues. Comments welcome!