Why is Sustainability Not Enough in Fashion?

Sustainability has become a part of everyday fashion terminology. Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance’. But the issue of climate change crisis has significantly worsened over the past decade and hence avoidance or maintenance won’t benefit the environment much at this stage. Sustainability has become a tool for marketing and the First Annual Business of Sustainability Index shows that 75% of Millennials are willing to pay more for an environmentally sustainable product, compared to 63% of Gen Z, 64% of Gen X, and 57% of Boomers. While this growing acceptance towards sustainability might seem like a good result, brands should definitely not focus on that as the end goal.

It’s time to move from Sustainability to Climate Positivity

According to a study, overconsumption has surpassed overpopulation as the leading driver of climate change which means that no matter what fabric or packaging a brand chooses, it just isn’t enough because there is still too much being produced and consumed. We are far past the phase of prevention now and brands need to start working actively on reversing climate change. This is where the term ‘climate positivity’ or ‘earth positivity’ comes in which suggests that a brand is playing a vital role in reversing climate change by offsetting significantly more than it emits. This is a big commitment when brands are still struggling to be carbon neutral where they compensate for 100% of their carbon emissions. Carbon Neutral was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2006 with the rise of the green movement and growing awareness about global warming. Over the years, the need for immediate steps to help turn around climate change has peaked with Climate Emergency being the word of the year in 2019.

The good thing is that many brands are realising the problem and moving beyond sustainability to take measures to reduce their net carbon emission. The term was first introduced in the market by the Swedish burger chain, Max Burgers in June 2018 who created climate-positive burgers, the first such product of that kind. The company claimed that customers will then be eating burgers that have 110 per cent of their climate emissions offset — meaning every Max Burger sold will help fight climate change. Since then a lot of companies across industries have launched climate positive products and a startup non-profit, Poseidon Foundation also built a platform that allows you to calculate the carbon cost of consumer products and enables people to pay to offset it. Ikea announced that it plans to go climate positive by 2030. While it may seem like a bold step coming from a brand that deals with disposable furniture, it certainly shows initiative when they devise a plan to create some positive change. Over the past year, earth positivity has also started to crop up in the fashion industry and is expected to be the buzzword for next year.

The environmental and social non-profit, Slow Factory Foundation first proposed this term for the fashion industry, describing it as “going back to our roots of living in harmony with nature”. Many fashion brands have stated their intentions to go climate positive and hope to achieve it in the next few decades. Burberry recently became the first luxury fashion brand to commit to becoming climate positive by 2040. It aims to do so by funding climate resilience projects in vulnerable communities, investing in nature-based solutions and ecosystem restoration, and, importantly, reducing its own manufacturing emissions by 46%. Several brands are presently working to get a Climate Neutral certification. Climate Neutral is a startup that is currently helping over 350 brands become carbon neutral and hence, encourage them to move closer to becoming climate positive. The process begins with an emissions calculator, which works out how many carbon credits (or offsets) a brand should purchase. Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral wrote about three simple rules that consumers could use to take action on climate change. Buy less, make it neutral and tell others. In addition to an individual sense of responsibility that can be undertaken by buying less clothes, consumers also need to realise the power they wield in pushing brands towards neutrality which will hopefully translate into climate positivity.

Consumers have to drive the shift for a better tomorrow.

Brands like Allbird have managed to get the certification and are inching closer to positivity through the use of regenerative agriculture which deals with replenishing and strengthening the plants, the soil, and the nature surrounding it in the process of creating a garment. Among other methods, Reformation optimises its transportation routes and switches to lower-emission transportation modes and fuels whenever possible. While critics are still sceptical about this being about slapping another certification on a brand, this is a more immediate and real solution that deals with grass-root problems surrounding the fashion industry.

In her new book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, Maxine Bédat discussed how we keep buying more without actually thinking about the real cost and the social and environmental repercussions. She also talks about the role of consumers in driving the shift by pointing out that “wearing a garment twice as long would lower greenhouse gas emissions from clothing by 44%.”

It’s upon the brands to move beyond a superficial solution and consumers to drive this shift. If we keep consuming outfits the way we are, with the fashion industry growing every year, it will be responsible for a quarter of the climate budget by 2050. Climate positivity has the potential to revolutionise the fashion industry for the better. In a post-pandemic world, now more than ever we realise the importance of the resources we have been gifted with and the need to use them most constructively. So, let’s not look at making a change twenty or thirty years down the line because that will be a different generation working on problems that have been cultivated by people before them. We are here now, this is our planet and now would be a good time to start giving back what we have taken from it.

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