Call me old fashioned, but I wake up with a radio. I have this radio station I listen to every morning, that has good music and little talk. Perfect for getting ready for the day.
As I was preparing my coffee, I half-listened to a local economist speaking about what businesses can expect, as the effects of this pandemic cumulate. He said that businesses must embrace sustainability, as the biggest trend today.
And that’s how this man, who I never even met, ruined my morning.
Not many things spoil my coffee as treating sustainability as a market trend. Or as something smart business owners should take in, because it’s profitable. And as with every trend, better get it while it’s hot, or it may go away!
But that is not what sustainability is. Sustainability is not a market trend that will pass like any other. It is certainly not something anybody should embrace because it is profitable or cool right now.
Nobody expressed this better than Orsola de Castro, the co-founder of Fashion Revolution when she said:
In other words, sustainability, meaning living within the natural boundaries, is how we as humans got this far in the first place. Mass consumerism, overproduction, pollution: all of these are recent things, and we need to stop them trending.
Let’s talk business for a moment.
How business sees sustainability
In the business world, sustainability very often comes up as a trend and something that sells. Considering that the business mission is usually to respond to consumer demand, I can understand why this happens. Many consumer studies show how people are becoming more environmentally and socially aware. For example, this study says that 90% of respondents are equally or more concerned with big issues than before the pandemic. Another report shows that 87% of people are more loyal to sustainable brands. Even the investors are picking it up. Last year, they invested €120bn in European sustainable funds, and experts predict that this will only grow.
And what happens when the brands and businesses treat sustainability as a profitable trend?
Let me give you just a few concrete examples: H&M has a Conscious collection, while C&A has a ‘Wear the Change’ campaign. Zara initiated ‘Join the life’, and ASOS launched a circular fashion line.
There are more, of course, but these show how some of the biggest fashion brands today are embracing sustainability: by offering usually organic cotton and other, more eco-friendly options.
You might sense where the problem is.
Hint: it’s greenwashing.
Missing the point
To these brands, sustainable collections are just a (rather small) part of their larger offer. They might be featuring recycled PET crop tops, bio cotton shirts, and recycled metal jewellery, but they also continue to bring new collections and produce more clothing every week. Acting on a fast-fashion model, they continue to pollute the planet and exploit the workers. Just recently, a group of volunteers found H&M labels dumped in a Nature Reserve. And ASOS leaves the responsibility to recycle their garments completely to the consumers. Not quite circular, right? Not to mention that all the mentioned brands, and many more, cancelled their orders at the beginning of the pandemic and refused to pay for them. For some, it took weeks or even months of public pressure and campaigning to finally pay what is fair. And some, like C&A, still ignore this, leaving the garment workers to pay the cost of the pandemic on the industry.
Asking the consumers to buy your sustainable line but avoiding to reform your business model that is contributing to climate change or refusing to acknowledge the ethical problems in your own supply chain is simply not good enough. As Sophie Benson brilliantly says: it’s like putting a plaster on a broken leg. Treating sustainability as a trend misses the whole point.
But, what does this mean for us, the consumers?
Sustainability is not about shopping, it’s a lifestyle
Look, if you have the option to buy a better version of a product, whether it is recycled, organic, plant-based, or reusable, then do it. Every time you decide to buy a more sustainable option, you are sending a message. But, sustainability is not just shopping.
Sustainability means adapting. It means not thinking of our planet as a resource to extract for our own profit, but as our home.
As such, sustainability is a mindset and a lifestyle change. By this, I mean understanding that everything we own is made out of materials, needs energy, and involves some form of human labour. Recognising this requires us to appreciate the things we own, reusing them, and caring for and about them, as opposed to only looking at what to buy next.
For businesses to be sustainable, they need to restructure their whole business model. And for us as consumers, it means rethinking our entire lifestyle. Buying a bamboo toothbrush means nothing if we are not ready to rethink our consuming, eating, or travelling habits.
Yes, it’s a big and radical change. And as such, it needs to be done slowly, one step at a time. As with every lifestyle change, it is not about reaching perfection. It is about working with what we have and looking for things to change in our everyday lives, to make it last. After all, if you cannot do it forever, it’s unsustainable.
Tena Lavrencic is an anthropologist, researcher, and an ethical fashion advocate. After years of working in the market and public research, she started her content and copywriting adventure: Thinking Threads. She helps small brands and ethical businesses change the fashion industry, one word at a time.