Like me, you are trying to lead a more sustainable life, or more realistically, a less impactful life. You are willing to make the right choices. But what are those right choices? Marketing and advertising people in brands and retailers are shouting from the rooftops that this product is sustainable, or that brand is ethical, to choose green, or we should be conscious consumers or fight fast fashion with slow fashion, or choose FairTrade or bio and live clean lives… And what’s worse, they tend to use them interchangeably as well.
Arghhh, makes your head spin, right? And you haven’t even begun looking into said claims…
To make your life easier – and to make sure we’re on the same page on Sewrendipity going forward – I’ve put together a post with my understanding of the definitions that I’ve come across in the world of sustainability, both in a professional capacity and as a consumer.
The information in this post mostly refers to products (clothing, shoes, beauty and homewares) that are labelled with the described terms. In some cases, they can also be used to describe categories, like fashion, fabrics etc or brands (‘sustainable footwear company’). Some of them can also be used to describe consumers and consumer behaviour (‘conscious consumer’) and I will endeavour to be specific as to which case I am referring. For ease of understanding, I grouped the terms in loose categories, so you can easier get what’s what.
Feature photo credit: Andy Feliciotti @someguy
- Sustainable / Responsible / Transparent
- Environmentally-friendly / green / eco / earth-friendly
- Ethical / FairTrade
- Vegan / Cruelty-free
- Organic / bio
- Conscious / Responsible / Thoughtful consumer
Sustainable / Responsible
It is probably the most used term when referring to fashion (along with ethical) and it is also one of the most abused ones as well.
Although the dictionary definitions (Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, etc) mostly refer to the use of resources, there is an overall understanding that sustainability is always looking to the future and making sure that the planet and its people will be protected and even improved for the next generation.
See United Nation’s definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
So the term ‘sustainable’ does not refer just to the environment, but also to social aspects, like protecting communities and traditional ways of life, as well as improving lives of people around us and delivering social justice. It is an all-encompassing term and that is why claims that a brand or product is sustainable are actually very difficult to believe or prove.
For a brand to be ‘sustainable’, they have to prove that the entirety of their operations, supply chains and products are following the principles of sustainability, both environmental, social and ethical.
For a product to be labelled sustainable, there will have to be evidence that the principles of sustainability apply throughout its lifecycle, and not just in parts (for example, raw materials).
In the context of fashion (or products in general), it is used as an alternative to sustainable, but mostly in the context of sourcing, ‘responsibly sourced’, which usually tends to have more of a social connotation, but also can refer to environmental practices that are less harmful, but mostly in the commercial relationships with the suppliers. The implication of ‘responsible’ is also that all the legal due diligence have been carried out in the relationships to suppliers and also includes a commercial (e.g. paying fair prices) and ethical (e.g. avoiding corruption) aspect.
Environmentally-friendly / green / eco / earth-friendly
All these terms refer to an aspect of environmental sustainability and are often used interchangeably.
With the increasing interest from consumers in sustainability, the temptation to market brands or products as environmentally/eco-friendly increases, so we need to be wary of such claims and try to dig a bit deeper to understand what are the reasons for these claims and the respective evidence.
I will single out ‘green’ as it has become a sort of catch-all for any kind of labelling that is looking to appeal to a more conscious consumer. The widely encompassing territory that it covers is what we need to be mindful of, as it can be quite tenuous sometimes. For example, bamboo rayon is made from renewable resources, but the energy and chemicals that were used to convert it to yarn far outstrip the benefits of the original raw material.
So then what’s the difference between all these and sustainable? As a rule of thumb, environmentally-friendly / green / eco / earth-friendly refer to environmental sustainability – raw materials, dyeing and printing, etc – ‘sustainable’ looks at all aspects of doing business or manufacturing a garment or fabric – environmental, social and ethical.
These terms may refer to aspects of productions such as:
- raw materials (agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry)
- using renewable energy, or less energy in the production process
- using less or no hazardous chemicals
- good practices in waste management
- lower carbon emissions or carbon neutrality in production and/or distribution
- using less water (for examples for wet processing)
- using less or no packgaging
Ethical / FairTrade
Along with sustainable, it is probably the most used term in relation to fashion. In fact, most people are probably confused as to what is the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion and what should they be going for?
‘Ethical’ is usually used in relation to people involved in the manufacturing of products, but in fact, it has wider connotations and it refers to someone’s beliefs and values. That is why vegan or cruelty-free can be considered sub-areas of ethical fashion because they address someone’s moral beliefs and/or life choices. In some views, it can also cover some environmental aspects. The Ethical Fashion Forum describes ethical fashion as an ‘approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising the impact on the environment.’
What does it mean in practice? It usually refers to the working conditions of the people who produce goods. Think about it as the opposite of sweatshops. According to the Ethical Trade Initiative – an NGO that exists to improve working conditions in global supply chains – these are the tenets of ethical trade:
- Employment is freely chosen (no slave or bonded labour)
- Freedom of association (creation of unions to represent workers’ rights)
- Working conditions are safe and hygienic (e.g. no exposure to harmful chemicals)
- No child labour
- Workers are paid living wages
- No excessive working hours and paid overtime
- No discrimination
- No harsh or inhumane treatment
Under the umbrella of ethical fashion may come products or brands that use their buying power to have a positive impact on people and communities (usually in developing parts of the world) through:
- supporting women empowerment projects
- contributing to preserving traditions of an ethnic minority
- producing based on traditional methods (as opposed to industrial)
- handmade (as opposed to in an industrialised mass-produced way)
- donating part of its profits to related causes
‘Social sustainability’ also covers ethical aspects and you might also encounter the term ‘ethical trading’ or ‘ethically sourced’.
This is one of the terms that is easiest to define, as it is, in fact, a trade name and it can only be used in relation to products produced in accordance to the principles of the FairTrade Foundation. It refers mostly to food-related commodities (coffee, tea, etc), but also to textile fibres, such as cotton.
The mission of the FairTrade Foundation is to connect disadvantaged farmers and workers with consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower farmers and workers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives.
In essence, a FairTrade logo certifies that a premium has been paid to the local grassroots farmers and producers in order to support their livelihoods and development. It also ensures decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.
Vegan / Cruelty-free
According to the Vegan Society, veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
In relation to fashion, vegan means avoidance of animal products, such as fur, leather, silk (because it’s made out of silkworms and they are killed in the production process) and sometimes wool and hair products (angora, cashmere, camel etc). Also, vegan excludes any GMO materials, so conventional cotton can fall foul of that.
It is debatable whether a vegan product always equals an environmentally friendly one, as for example, leather substitutes like PU or PVC are oil-derived and produced through processes that release toxic chemicals and carbon into the environment. However, for many people, this is an ethical choice and lack of animal derivatives is the main concern.
Usually, this refers to cosmetics, make-up, personal care and household products. It’s marked by the Leaping Bunny logo, which is a trade-mark of Cruelty-Free International.
The presence of the Leaping Bunny logo certifies that the respective product and all its ingredients have not been tested on animals. Companies are subject to independent audit of their entire supply-chain monitoring system to check they meet the strict Leaping Bunny criteria.
This does not necessarily mean the respective product is vegan/vegetarian-friendly.
Organic / bio
You probably have heard organic mostly mentioned in relation to food, but increasingly, organic textiles have made their way into the mainstream fashion as well.
Organic refers to the farming practices used to grow the raw materials. According to the Soil Association – one of the organisations that certify organic products – non-organic production makes wide use of manufactured and mined fertilisers and pesticides, whilst organic means produced with natural fertilisers from plants, less energy and more respect for the animals that provide it. Organic excludes the use of GMOs.
Organic labelling is very strictly controlled in the EU and it requires a transparent supply chain from grower to final product, in order to ensure that it contains only ingredients that come from organic agriculture.
Organic can be used in relation to fibres such as cotton (the most commonly available), wool, linen and hemp.
It is another word for organic, and I have seen it used a lot in the Nordics and Germany as well as in France. According to the European Union legislation, the terms are synonymous and can be used alternatively depending on the language.
Both organic and bio are strictly regulated labels and can only be used if the specific legislative requirements are met.
Conscious / Responsible / Thoughtful
This a term usually used in relation to consumers, meaning that they have high ethical and environmental standards and want to be informed about the choices they make. They are expected to be willing to pay more for ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ or ‘organic’ products. This term may be used in relation to lifestyles ‘conscious fashionista’ or ‘conscious traveller’. This does not tend to refer to a specific product.
I have already discussed ‘responsible’ in relation to brands or companies, but what do you know, consumers also have a part to play in this dance we call sustainability.
A responsible consumer is the consumer that understands that what they buy matters and that more and more, we must vote with our money. They will research the brands/products they choose to invest in and they demand transparency and traceability, as well as holding brand to account when they do not live up to their expectations. Where it’s in an active or more passive capacity, a responsible consumer is aware of their impact and they are not taking consumption lightly.
This one is actually my favourite word in this entire list! It is the word that I aspire to have associated with myself as a consumer and as a maker/sewer. This is how I understand this term (I could not find an actual dictionary definition).
A thoughtful consumer is one that actually thinks twice before consuming. They are responsible and informed when they do buy, but they are also looking at alternatives such as borrowing, renting, swapping or just avoiding altogether. They will go for the sustainable alternative even if it’s harder and less convenient. They have strong beliefs and act upon them. They strive for minimalism and declutter. They are an involved citizen.
Yes, that is something that I definitely aspire to, hard and sometimes seemingly un-achievable as it may seem. Well, at least I can take control of my fashion by following my principles of building a meaningful wardrobe, as well as inspiring you all to take action in ways that feel right for you.
I’m hoping this helped debunk some terminology for you and you are feeling a bit more prepared to face the brand claims and navigating the world of sustainable consumerism.
Photo by Chris Barbalis
So which one should I choose?
You will see this a lot with sustainability, but there really is not a straight answer. ‘Truly sustainable’ is a very hard to attain attribute and it is even harder to prove it believably and consistently.
So, I will say that there is no ‘choose this one it’s the best’ answer, it actually depends on what matters to you. And be aware that there are always compromises to be made. So if social justice is what’s important to you, look for ethical. If you already live a vegan lifestyle, look for those products. If you are worried about the environment, look for products that are lower-carbon or with a reduced water footprint. If you care about chemicals in production and final products, choose organic or bio.
But whatever you end up going for, please make sure you do your research and don’t take brands at face value and challenge their claims.
THIS IS A FIRST POST ON SUSTAINABILITY ON THE NEW BLOG AND I AM REALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO YOUR VIEWS. IS THIS HELPFUL? TOO LONG? NOT LONG ENOUGH? INTERESTING? RELEVANT? PLEASE TELL ME YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS OR ON TWITTER @SEWRENDIPITY.
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