You may have heard of “sustainability” and the “new normal” umpteen times over the past months. 2020 was said to be the year that fashion businesses and corporations gear down on developing their sustainability strategies. Until the pandemic hit, and the focus shifted to simply staying afloat and surviving the financial repercussions of enforced lockdown and isolation.

Global fast fashion brands are failing to do the basics expected of them despite their deep pockets. It’s puzzling that many are seeking bailouts and government stimulus packages to pay their retail employees (Topshop’s CEO, Philip Green is a billionaire) and even luxury brands are negotiating their rent payments with landlords as they miss out big time on brick-and-mortar sales. It goes downhill from here. It has since been reported by The Guardian, that Kohl’s, one of America’s largest retailers, cancelled orders worth US$150m with garment factories and paid US$109m in shareholder dividends just weeks after. The cracks of the fashion industry are revealed in other news, e.g. where British retailer Boohoo experienced sales spikes earlier on during the pandemic. Going against the basic safeguarding of their employees’ health and safety, Boohoo continued warehouse operations with minimal social distancing regulations and went ahead with e-commerce shoots, amidst case counts increasing daily in the United Kingdom.

I could go on and on. And yet, the reality of a capitalistic system also means that smaller brands, despite doing everything right by themselves and the communities they serve and work with - what we as consumers expect of businesses - shut their doors. Elizabeth Suzann, a brand I admire and adore, announced their closure at the end of April. Liz, founder of the brand, mentioned in their blog post that the financial pressure to recover from a pandemic healthily, is simply too severe. Closer to home, Matter Prints issued that they are halting business operations just a few days ago. The cessation of these businesses does not reflect at all on their lack of passion to keep the business up and running. With sustainability beyond commerce at the heart of what these businesses represent, their folding up only sheds light on the broken fashion system that profits off rampant production and its incessant push for sales. Is this what we want for our future?

Setting it straight - what is the definition of sustainability?

Whilst greenwashing is still the common practice amongst big fashion brands, significant progress has been made in the field of fashion sustainability since its initial conception. Right now, sustainability in the context of fashion has moved way ahead of cosmetic PR stunts and marketing campaigns. Beyond reducing plastic waste and being transparent with company policies, sustainability in fashion proves to encompass different intersecting issues of systemic racism, oppression and environmental stewardship.

Ultimately, sustainability asks for us to think about the consequences that the fashion supply chain has on the world around us. Supply chains are infamously massive, complex and opaque. For what the industry is worth, it requires extensive manpower to maintain daily operations. On top of retail staff members, designers and headquarters employees; the raw material suppliers (usually farmers, planters, harvesters), garment workers (weavers, fabric dyers, pattern cutters, sewers), order fulfilment staff members (packers and warehouse employees) are imperative to running a viable business, but mostly kept muted and out of sight. This non-exhaustive list covers the most basic structure of a comprehensive supply chain. All these while top CEOs of fashion brands earn the wages of a garment worker’s lifetime earnings, in four days.

Additionally, the Slow Factory Foundation, a public service organisation which seeks to address the intersections of environmental humanities, highlights that the relevance of sustainability lies in the fact that “everything you make returns to the earth as either food or poison”. Sustainability in the context of fashion is heavily emphasised because we want the production of clothes to be regenerated as part of naturewhether in terms of the restoration of planetary resources or a shift away from the industry’s obsession with growth and scalability.

Why sustainable fashion is everybody’s business

You are probably reading this because you are aware of how fashion is complicit in the detrimental big oil industry and contributes to a large bulk of environmental pollution and excessive waste. On top of that, statistics on how much gallons of water is needed to grow and harvest cotton and manufacture a pair of denim jeans are easily found on the internet. The reality is that we are running out of time and excuses to disregard the imperative need to rework the fashion system. As citizens, we cannot continue to perpetuate practices that exploit finite resources at the expense of our environment and its people.

Sustainability in the context of fashion is as much an urgent matter of climate emergency as it is a humanitarian crisis. There is no “sustainability” without ethics. Most recently, the causal effect of the pandemic has resulted in thousands of garment workers being displaced from their jobs. In Bangladesh, as many as up to 2 million garment workers are at risk of losing their livelihood overnight. Some of them migrant workers, mostly women, have stopped receiving wages for the clothes that were already made because big fashion companies are not proceeding with fulfilling their end of the contract, e.g. paying for the clothes they ordered prior to the Coronavirus outbreaks. This directly results in a loss of income, leading to an exponential increase in gender-based violence (GBV) in households and factories. Women succumb to higher possibilities of GBV during times of crises, often caused by pre-existing inequality and heightened levels of stress. 

Factory owners and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Exporters Association (BGMEA) have since voiced out on how detrimental this is to their corporate partnership, and how badly it reflects on the brands that refuse to pay up. In March, Remake, an advocacy group committed to ending fast fashion, launched the #PayUp campaign and petition to hold brands accountable for the lives of garment workers. To get daily updates into how the pandemic is affecting garment workers in fashion supply chains all around the world, visit the live-blog created by Clean Clothes Campaign. I digress, but this proves how conversations surrounding sustainable fashion are incredibly nuanced and have to be discussed at great length.

Designers, independent or honing prestigious luxury houses, seem to have had enough. In response to the pandemic, Rewiring Fashion, a proposal for the global fashion industry coordinated by a group of independent designers and executives and facilitated by the Business of Fashion challenges how the fashion system should work in the new normal. Fashion seasons have become obsolete over the years, and runway shows are, at best, a chance for huge houses to display impeccable showmanship. Gucci and Saint Laurent have since initiated their commitment to reducing the number of collections they release annually. However, there is valid scepticism as to whether a reduction in the number of collections really reflects a drop in the number of products produced and sold - it is unlikely the case. This is true to the underlying structure of the fashion system that still rewards an expansionist model to drive profit margins. For the fashion industry to be more sustainable, intersectional and multi-faceted changes need to go hand-in-hand to tackle current practices that are not sustainable.

In April, Fashion Revolution, a non-profit organisation championing for a sustainable future for fashion, relaunched their free online course “Fashion’s Future and the Sustainable Development Goals” which addresses the industry’s connection to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in detail. The goals that the fashion industry has a measured impact towards are - SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 6: Clean Water, SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and SDG 15: Life on Land. These objectives set the agenda loud and clear for everyone involved - if you wear clothes, sustainability is your business.

Constructing a different reality

I question if a new normal can drive brands to resist returning to the status quo and only produce within capacity. That being said, a large bulk of the movement around mainstream sustainability is still pretty much focused on individual efforts and collective reimagining of a different reality. On this note, I wish to encourage everyone to learn more about how this movement lives beyond a trend.

Echo after me: sustainability is not a trend. It is a fundamental shift in mindset and corresponding actions when fashion corporations reevaluate their priorities to question their obsolete business models. In an article published by Eco-Age, Rachel Arthur quotes Tim Jackson from his book, “Prosperity Without Growth”, on how decoupling on economic growth can work for fashion. He writes: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must.”

Moving forward, we have to discuss fashion in relation to culture, art, marginalised communities and the climate crisis. Yes, clothing is an avenue of aesthetic expression, but it is also more than that. It is important to recognise that fashion needs to be talked about beyond how it makes wearers and buyers feel.

Throughout my journey here at Shop Bettr, I hope to break down the intersecting issues pertaining to sustainable fashion and start some very necessary conversations to drive change. Some solutions (actually, most) are bigger than mobilising individual and collective effort. An entire rewiring of the fashion system to tackle growth and prosperity is imperative for sustainability in fashion to be long-lasting in the new normal.

Post note: There are some articles I pen down with ease. But ones, like this, aiming at addressing the definition of fashion sustainability - are really difficult to write. It is beyond my abilities to define sustainability, in my opinion. I only wish to share an alternate reality that I dream of. Moving into a new normal, efforts have to be mobilised intentionally, consciously and collectively. 

I would also love to hear from you and what you think sustainability in fashion means to you. I leave you with some extra reading to do for the weekend - as the country opens up and we return back to “normal”, remember how ensuring and upholding sustainable fashion practices is everybody’s business.

Resources and articles:

A guide to the language of sustainable fashion by Aja Barber
Conde Nast’s sustainable fashion glossary
Explaining fashion’s existential crisis and its relation to growth by Rachel Arthur
The Earth Logic research action plan
The true cost of fast fashion by Aja Barber
The ‘Clothing is Political’ series - an Elizabeth Suzann campaign
Colonialism and fashion and how these power dynamics exist today by Ayesha Barenblat and Aditi Mayer


About Xingyun

Xingyun Shen

Xingyun is a fashion business graduate who advocates for a more humane fashion system. Seeking to address the importance of intersectionality when analysing fashion sustainability, she runs @noordinaryprotest as a platform to call for a shift in mindset. Her favourite time of the day is 5 pm, and her go-to fashion activity is swapping.