Fashion brands have latched onto the word sustainability. How’s a savvy earth-saver supposed to tell the difference between an honest, eco-friendly product and a bunch of sustainabullshit?
You started buying organic produce years ago, and you cried over the recent UN report on climate change. You’ve watched the BBC Drowning in Plastic documentary, and you’re fuming over the WWF report on species decline. You’ve decided it’s time to live a completely sustainable lifestyle, and you want All. The. Sustainable. Things.
But that's the rub, isn't it? Sustainable has become another marketing buzzword like "eco-friendly," and "natural" and even "vegan." Remember when "gluten-free" started popping up on things like corn chips that were by nature gluten-free to begin with? It's kinda like that, and kinda not. Because “sustainable” can mean a whole lot of things and cover up a whole lot of not-really-sustainable practices leading you, the earnest, and earth-loving consumer just a wee bit misled.
Our plastic not-fantastic
My own personal soapbox for environmental conservation is plastic. I like to share what I hope are reasonably attainable ways busy people can cut unnecessary plastic waste IRL over on IG at @plasticfreemamma. Plastic permeates our lives, and most of us live in denial about where plastic actually goes once we stick it in the ubiquitous recycling bin. But we're waking up to the myth of recycling. And we're waking up to how insidious plastic has become in almost everything we touch. It's encircling of the food we eat, the homes we live in, the furniture we sit on, the technology we use, the make-up we wear and the clothes we buy. The clothes we buy not only contain plastic but come down a supply chain loaded with plastic waste we can’t even begin to fathom. Even if we’re purchasing a natural fiber fabric newly minted “sustainable” by (insert big brand name here)’s marketing company, what do we really know about the overall resource-depleting or resource-conserving process for producing that single item of clothing?
But my new yoga pants say “sustainably made?”
Even the hottest new indie “sustainable” sportswear brand who just made it onto the shelves of Nordstrom is beholden to that big retailer’s vendor rules. Did you know that Nordstrom and their ilk require that every item of clothing (every, single, individual item of clothing) arrives wrapped in single-use plastic which is promptly thrown away? Most of those items are also hung on disposable plastic hangers. So, the clothing may have been “sustainably made,” but it sure wasn’t “sustainably delivered.”
Retailers aside, big brands themselves are always looking for ways to jump on the latest marketing buzz-word zeitgeist. Just this past October, a bunch of global fashion brands like Burberry, H&M, and Stella McCartney, plus the Chilean and British governments jumped on the anti-plastic bandwagon signing the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to eradicate plastic waste and pollution at the source. Pretty ambitious. To be fair, it’s got some lofty goals I can really get behind:
The trouble is, we already know that number two and number three aren’t really working for us so well. All those recycled plastic fleece Patagonia jackets turned out to be an environmental hazard in their own right. Only about nine percent of all the plastic produced since the 1950s has actually been recycled. Despite attention from massive brands like adidas and their “Parley for the Ocean” recycled ocean plastic line, this type of environmentally-motivated marketing accounts for very little of big brands’ sales. According to Racked, adidas expected five million pairs of recycled shoes to be sold in 2018 – only a tiny fraction of the 450 million they sell on an annual basis.
Yes, we can recycle it, but most recycled polyester has a serviceable life of just a few cycles of continually lower-quality polymer products before the polymer breaks down entirely and is suitable only for the landfill anyway.
Sustainability and your next pair of kicks
I think what these big brands miss entirely about sustainability and plastic reduction is slowing our roll on consumerism in the first place – being more mindful in what we invest in, where we buy it, and how we take care of it for the long term. Let’s look at shoes.
I found a study with these figures: The average American woman will own 268 pairs of shoes during her adult life and blow $4,364 on shoes which either don't fit properly, or have been worn once, or not at all. That’s a lot of shoes headed to the landfill – 300 million pairs annually, in fact. Ethylene Vinyl Acetate, the type of plastic substance which usually makes up the midsole of most running shoes, can last for as long as 1,000 years in a landfill.
The average pair of shoes takes more than 50 years to decompose – that includes the “natural” leathers and rubbers which are usually treated with a slew of nasty chemicals and glues during the manufacturing process.
At any one time, the average woman owns 20 pairs of shoes, and only actively wears five of them. We can bet that little or no thought has been given to the “sustainability” of these shoes. But since you’re here, and you, dear reader, care about real, legit sustainability, how do you decide on your next pair of shoes?
First, fix what you have. This digs deeper into sustainability as part of a circular economy where we own quality over quantity (slow fashion), repair what we own, and conserve an ecological balance by avoiding the depletion of natural resources. I’m not saying go all capsule wardrobe here. I love fashion and believe it is a beautiful, creative and artistic expression for the people who wear it and the people who design it. Just in invest in your personal style, not a fad, and take care of your things.
Second, dig deeper on the lifecycle of the materials used in the production of your shoe. Many materials labeled as “sustainable” are of dubious origin.
Intentional living in Portland, OR
I take sustainability personally. Really personally. I use my voice to advocate for plastic-free and low-waste living by offering tips, tricks and hacks to busy families through my Instagram account @eco.emily.pdx. When I have something really long to say about something, I'll stick it here.