Why Sustainability Matters in Fashion

Regeneration as the Pathway to True Sustainability.

A quick Google search for fashion products using the word sustainable yields hundreds of responses. Consumers are seeking out “sustainable” products from “sustainable” businesses at an increasing rate. Progress has been made in the fashion industry in some areas to minimize the net impact of manufactured goods, but the industry as it stands is still inherently unsustainable.  https://sourcingjournal.com/report/sustainability-2020/

The Merriam-Webster definition of sustainable is

1: capable of being sustained

2: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged

Why are we using the term, sustainable, when marketing products? Our business models and “sustainable” products don’t meet the definition and are rooted in linear, extractive models. By labeling products as sustainable- we mislead our consumers and give false hope that their purchases have no negative impact. Sustainable products and sustainable business practices are the ultimate destinations, and we are still on the journey. We should be transparent about the fact we are on the journey with our customers. Instead of claiming a shoe made with recycled polyester is sustainable, brands should only state goods are made with recycled plastic content and note the certification body. The option to learn more about the design process and the brand’s journey toward sustainability should be on the website. An admission that the product put out in the world is imperfect, but part of a journey toward sustainability opens up conversation lines between consumers and brands. Doing this admits that both customers and the brand share the burden of product impact. Instead of portraying this purchase as sustainable absolution.

So how does a fashion company move towards sustainability?

There is no one size fits all approach, but there are two necessary starting steps towards defining a realistic sustainability strategy/journey.


  1. Understanding the impact of your business practices and the products made.
  2. Committing to move away from extractive, linear processes and committing to regenerative systems.

Once we understand the impacts of a business and the products made, we can move to make informed decisions to minimize these impacts, and we can be honest with our customers. Too many brands are offering “sustainable” products because they see the metrics that support customer growth. Without really trying to understand the areas in which your company operations have environmental costs, sustainable efforts aren’t strategic or wholistic.

The pandemic has stressed the fashion industry, and brands have no choice but to adapt to dynamic consumer demands. Business as usual thinking is not the recipe for survival. Our current production system is linear, based on extraction, and feels out of date in this overtaxed world. Extraction means that we take the resources from the earth. A product resulting from extractive methods is sold to the consumer; the primary business process stops there. As Naomi Klein states in her 2014 novel, This changes Everything. “Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking” Let’s apply that concept more widely, as a process of “taking something without provision for renewal” as defined by Merriam Webster. This way of doing business has lead to an atmospheric carbon load that is truly unsustainable.

 Linear thinking allows the maker and the consumer to be finished with a product when it has reached an end in its useful life. Ultimately ending up incinerated, sometimes donated.  https://sourcingjournal.com/report/2020-circularity-survey-report/

If brands and consumers are responsible for a product until the end of life, we might consider our purchases and how we build products differently. This way of thinking is the pathway to circular business models.

What business and economies look like beyond linear thinking and extraction is still being defined, and that uncertainty is unsettling for many. Naomi Klien further writes, “For those of us born and raised inside this system, though we may see the dead-end flaw of its central logic, it can remain intensely difficult to see a way out ….the deeper message carried by the ecological crisis—that humanity has to go a whole lot easier on the living systems that sustain us, acting regeneratively rather than extractive.” (This changes Everything, 178). Fortunately, the term regeneration is catching on at the agricultural level and informing fiber and leather selection within brands like Keuring, Eileen Fisher, and Timberland. Economic futurists and thinkers are spreading the economic concept (see Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics).

The formal definition of regeneration is to regrow lost or injured tissue. Regeneration is embedded in interdependence rather than hyperindividualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. After generations of extractive practices, we need to regrow our very foundations in order to build sustainable models. The concept of regeneration is heavily rooted in repair. We have exceeded our global carbon load, and overgrazed and over-farmed fertile lands, setting into motion a chain of catastrophic events for life on earth and business as usual. We are at a point in which a regenerative approach is our only way forward. We have a limited amount of time to work together, collectively as an industry and across the industry, to redefine new business systems that are regenerative and finally sustainable both from an economic and environmental impact point of view. This a challenge for an industry heavily rooted in competition, IP, and brand exceptionalism. As we move into an open-source world, can the fashion industry keep up, and are we willing to work together to conquer the challenges ahead?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Buckminster Fuller




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