Good question. And here’s the truth: having spent two days in Copenhagen immersed in the concept, having thought about it over the weeks since then, and having canvassed a wide variety of fashion figures, I can honestly answer ... no one knows. And the more you try to figure it out, the more confusing it becomes.
Consider the following responses to the same, straightforward, question: “How would you define sustainable fashion?”
Frida Giannini, Gucci creative director: “Quality items that stand the test of time – it is this concept of sustainability, symbolised by a timeless handbag that you wear again and again, and can pass on, that I am always thinking of when I design.”
Oscar de la Renta, designer, brand founder: “Sustainable fashion implies a commitment to the traditional techniques, and not just the art, of making clothes. I work today in the same way that I first learnt in the ateliers of Balenciaga and Lanvin 50 years ago. We need to ensure that the next generation of seamstresses and tailors have the skills necessary to develop clothes that are not only beautiful but extremely well made.”
Anya Hindmarch, designer, brand founder, and initiator of the “I am not a plastic bag” initiative: “I would define the ideal as locally sourced materials that don’t pollute in their creation or demise (preferably recycled) and with limited transportation to achieve the completed product.”
And, lastly, designer and brand founder Dries van Noten: “Most of what we may currently refer to as sustainable fashion is a contradiction in terms. It refers to how the fabric used for a new garment has been produced ... Yet, I believe, we need to consider this issue from a more macro and profound perspective. Though a cotton may be unbleached, we need to examine how it arrives to the manufacturer or to us the wearer. What was the ‘carbon imprint’ of its delivery, for example?”
Not all the same, then.
. . .
This is a problem, because words such as “sustainability”, “green”, “eco”, “organic”, and “ethical” are increasingly a part of the fashion conversation. Last month the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva hosted an EcoChic fair, featuring a “sustainable fashion show” in which well-known designers created garments out of natural fibres manufactured in the “most sustainable way”. At London Fashion Week this month, an exhibit called Estethica will be devoted to “eco sustainable fashion”. Next month, the Fashion Institute of Technology joins forces with the University of Delaware and the Parsons design school to mount a sustainable fashion exhibit, tentatively titled “Passion for Sustainable Fashion”, which will feature student-created clothes designed and made in an ethically-sourced and eco-friendly manner. Meanwhile, ahead of the film awards season, Oscar-nominated actor Colin Firth’s wife Livia has said she will wear only “ethical fashion” on the red carpet.
And yet not one of the above institutions or people has really specified what they mean by combining those two words. Indeed, while the London College of Fashion defines “sustainable” as “harnessing resources ethically and responsibly without destroying social and ecological balance”, it does not go so far as to pin down how that might evolve when attached to the word “fashion”.
This lexicographical fuzziness is not a problem unique to the style world – by which I mean the world of high-end fashion, the glossy, global brands that capture the imagination and position themselves as leaders, in every sense of the world. (High street fashion, with its worn today/tossed tomorrow ethos, brings up entirely different issues when it comes to sustainability.) The UN itself doesn’t have an agreed definition of “sustainability”. The food industry has for years been wrestling with the slippery nature of terms such as “lite”, “organic”, and “grain-fed”.
Indeed, it’s the widespread interest in these words elsewhere that has brought the issue to the forefront in fashion. The industry’s great talent is, after all, tapping into the Zeitgeist.
As well as ethics, the question of sustainability is one of economics. Mintel, the international market research company, notes: “As consumers demand more from the companies they do business with, they’ll want ... more scrutiny on ethical claims than ever before.”
As a brand then, it’s not enough to attach a word to your actions – you have to understand specifically what you mean by that word, and be able to prove it. A fashion brand may say it is “eco” but, in the mind of the consumer, this means something entirely different to what the brand itself intends. And that way lies not consumption and balance sheet growth, but confusion.
I have plenty of first-hand experience of this. As the FT’s fashion editor, rarely a day goes by when I don’t get an e-mail about a new product attaching one of these green terms to its pitch: “It’s an eco-friendly baby carrier!”; “it’s a recyclable shoe!”; “it’s made of pre-organic cotton”. Generally, I read these with certain assumptions: for example, that “recyclable” means you can toss said item in the bin with your bottles; “pre-organic” means fabricated from some sort of absolutely untouched natural material.
But further investigation reveals that pre-organic cotton is, in fact, cotton from a farm that is on the way to being organic, so it’s not organic at all. The shoe that claimed to be recyclable was, in fact, only theoretically recyclable because, though it was plastic, not all recycling authorities accept shoes. This creates a situation in which I am filled with distrust and doubt, not just about these products but about all such products and all similar claims.
However complicated the explanation, there needs to be a shorthand method of communicating specific initiatives. If the car industry managed to do it (hybrid, anyone?), so can fashion. Some sort of public lexicon has to be created.
I am not the only one who thinks so. The blogger Fashionista-at-law, writing last December, asked: “Is Fashionista acting sustainably if she buys organic or fair trade clothes and what exactly are ‘ethical’ clothes? Fashionista would love to see those terms on labels so that she no longer has to spend her time researching a brand that claims to be ethical, green, organic, before facing the tricky question as to whether it is more ‘green’ to order the item of desire online or to check for its availability in a shop close by.”
Christian Kemp-Griffin is chief mission officer for Edun, the sustainable fashion brand created in 2005 by Ali Hewson and her husband Bono, the lead singer of U2. At the Copenhagen conference, Kemp-Griffin told me: “The problem is there is no cohesion in this space. We’re all just doing what we can but, because there’s no official anything, no one knows the answer.”
When Edun first launched, the brand identified its mission as driving “sustainable employment” in Africa – not anything to do with the earth. But, four years later, it has expanded its definition; specifically, Kemp-Griffin said at the conference: “We found it was very important for us to know what was happening with the source of our cotton ... not just the manufacturing, but with the farmers.”
Nicole and Michael Colovos, creative directors of Helmut Lang, have taken account of this evolution too. “We believe sustainable fashion is clothing that continues to be relevant – that can be worn for years,” they say. “It is the opposite of disposable fashion. It is about quality of fabric and construction, intelligence of design, and the ability of a concept to withstand the test of time.” However, they say, it now also “extends to working with factories and mills that work in an ethical environment with regards to the employees and the environment”.
So how come fashion didn’t start at the beginning, and pin down a succinct and broad language of sustainability? The answer is partly because, for a long time, though fashion brands sensed they needed to engage with the questions on some level (just in case), they didn’t really want to explain what they were doing. Their tentative forays into combining luxury and environmentalism were more defensive than offensive. Why? Because an industry predicated not on need but desire is one that is often associated with indulgence and excess. To add a moral dimension is to invite charges of hypocrisy.
Case in point: two years ago, the World Wide Fund for Nature published a report called “Deeper Luxury”, seeking to grade the 10 biggest publicly listed luxury brands in 50 different eco and ethical categories; none got higher than a C+.
One of those brands was the jewellery house Tiffany, which had, since the jewellery industry was caught up in the blood diamond scandals of the 1990s, been fairly active in the ethical and environmental arena. Despite this, Tiffany was given a D+, primarily because of a lack of communication about its efforts. I asked Tiffany chief Michael Kowalski why this was the case. He explained that for a big glitzy brand to claim any kind of “green” credentials was to open itself to attack for what it didn’t do. It was safer, he reckoned, to simply fly under the radar and go quietly about its business.
There are exceptions, of course – smaller, niche collections, such as Commun and Noir, whose mission statements have included sustainable or organic sourcing from the beginning. But even they are more concerned with selling themselves on the strength of great design rather than depending on the value of, well, values, to move product.
And that doesn’t even get into the complications of fabric creation and the point that some synthetic fabrics are “cleaner” to create than some organic ones, though most people assume that natural is always better (see Prince Charles’s recent campaign for wool over polyester).
No wonder fashion has so far taken an approach best summed up as: we are doing what we can but we don’t talk about it unless asked. In one way this is good (we should all take individual responsibility for our own efforts) but at the same time it has meant there has been no public discussion about the questions, and so no consensus built about meaning. Everyone has done their own thing, and used words their own way. And now that we need a common tongue, it doesn’t exist.
Thus, one of the aims of the Copenhagen conference was to resolve, or at least expose, the problem; to get the industry to admit it has a problem in the hope that this may be the first step towards fixing it.
Because, in fashion, green is not the new black, not just another trend to come in and go out with the seasons. Rather, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, and such shifts, whether political (Glasnost) or technological (the internet) demand their own language: not he said, she said, but we said.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor
Additional research by Lottie Young