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Redefining ‘Sustainable Fashion’

In 2009, the Danish Fashion Institute held one of the first sustainable fashion summits in Copenhagen, just around the time of the U.N.’s COP15. This was back when everyone thought it was funny to make jokes about green being the new black, and most people thought “eco” and “vegan” and “organic” all meant kind of the same thing, and if any major fashion companies even had chief sustainability officers, they were based in tiny rooms many floors and winding corridors away from the heart of the C-suite.

How things have changed.

Now pretty much all fashion brands, from the mass market to luxury, swear that they put sustainability at the heart of their strategic plans. On almost all of their websites are E.S.G. (environmental, social and governance) reports the size of small books. Chief executives are clamoring to talk about how they are evolving their businesses to combat climate change. Pledges to reach carbon neutrality abound.

In 2018, the U.N.F.C.C.C. (the U.N. climate change body) unveiled the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate action, with its science-based targets for the fashion industry, including reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Last year, at COP26 in Glasgow, the group updated it to reflect a need to halve emissions by 2030; currently, about 150 brands and supporting organizations have signed on.

It is similar in aim but unrelated to the Fashion Pact, created in 2019 by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, and François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of Kering, which is itself sort of related to the “C.E.O. Carbon Neutral Challenge” issued the same year by Marco Bizzarri, the chief executive of Gucci (which is owned by Kering).

Then there’s the Fashion Taskforce, chaired by the former YOOX Net-a-Porter chief executive Federico Marchetti and part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative created by Prince Charles. Just last month, the group issued a “Regenerative Fashion Manifesto,” along with plans for a program in the Himalayas to create a regenerative farm for silk, cotton and cashmere.

Yet for every development suggesting a serious commitment by industry and government to at least come up with a plan for systemic change (and a time frame for it), there’s another that makes real sustainability, when it comes to fashion, seem as far away as ever. “Greenwashing” is still an ever-present issue, so much so the European Union is about to address it, with its “Initiative on Substantiating Green Claims,” which will be published later this year and essentially requires companies to back up such claims as “green” and “eco-friendly” with recognized third-party methodology.

After all, the ultimate fast-fashion company, Shein, was valued at $100 billion in its latest funding round. Even it has an E.S.G. head, appointed at the end of last year — despite the fact that the company also has a business model built on overconsumption.

If you are wondering how that works, well, join the club. It doesn’t make any sense.

But then the term “sustainable fashion” itself doesn’t either. It is an oxymoron. “Sustainable,” after all, implies “able to continue over a period of time,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary. “Fashion,” on the other hand, implies change over time. To reconcile the two is impossible. No wonder striving for net-zero emissions makes us all feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

(And as William McDonough, the author of “Cradle to Cradle,” the foundational book on the circular economy, says, since when is “zero” the most desirable outcome?)

That’s before you begin trying to wade through the acronyms and abbreviations; aside from the above, there are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and C.C.S. (carbon capture and storage) and N.F.F.O. (non-fossil fuel obligation) and T.P.H. (total petroleum hydrocarbons). To name a few.

We need a better way to frame the discussion.

So we are going to use “responsible fashion”: a term that refers to a world in which all players, from the consumer to the C.E.O., the manufacturer and the farmer, take responsibility for their part in the supply chain and the creative process, and for the choices they make.

It may sound semantic, but it is the difference between an end goal that appears impossibly, perhaps discouragingly, out of reach, and the process of at least trying to get there: step by step, increment by increment, decision by decision.

Because there is no simple answer to solving fashion’s role in climate change. Even the obvious one — don’t make, or buy, any new stuff, and don’t throw away any old stuff — has negative implications for employment, know-how and self-definition. (After all, people have been adorning themselves to express themselves for pretty much as long as they have understood themselves as “selves”.) The crucial issue for each of us, no matter which side of the equation we are on, is thinking about and understanding the effects of the choices we make, so we can make better ones in the future.

And even, perhaps, seeing these challenges as creative opportunities, rather than burdens. Especially for brands. Often limitations give rise to new ways of thinking and designing.

To bring to life what that means when it comes to clothing — especially as we start to emerge into the world after a two-year period of quasi-hibernation, and begin to rethink dormant wardrobes — we are bringing to you the stories of a group of smaller brands and manufacturers as they seek to act responsibly, weigh the trade-offs involved, and try to make choices that balance out not to zero, but to a positive result.

How big does a company really need to be? How do you scale upcycling when there are limited resources? How do you share know-how, or even materials, with companies that are your competitors? How do you decide whether leather counts as a byproduct or a bad product? How much do you, the consumer, need to know before you buy, and what’s the best way to explain it? Is it possible to quantify doing “good”?

Twice a month, through climate weeks in London and New York, and until COP27 in Egypt, come behind the scenes in the struggle to give fashion a new look. Because in the end, it’s not just about product. It’s personal.

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