In its report “Our Common Future” published in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainability as the capacity to “meet the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without harming the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”. Even though it remains a vague definition, it sheds some light on a term that can still be unclear to many people and is often misused by some companies or industries.
One of the main ingredients we find in all our everyday products is plastic - also called polyester, polyurethane, or any other “poly” that we can find on many labels. If we look around us right now, wherever we are, we would discover a host of plastic made products, including our clothing. It is one of the most flexible materials to use in all type of industries as it is easy to mold or shape, with a very affordable production process. Plastic is however a synthetic (or semi synthetic) product made of natural gas or crude oil, the symbol of our last century of development. We cannot recycle plastic product. Yes you read it right - we can upcycle plastic but we cannot recycle it, meaning that the end of life of any plastic product is within our environment, usually in micro particles, impacting every living species on the planet, including ourselves. As far as sustainability is concerned, the best plastic is the one that we do not produce.
One sustainability approach of clothing brands is to “recycle” the polyester material (a.k.a. plastic) to make new garments such as duvet coats, vests or t-shirts. Extending the life of this material is a good habit to develop - the fewer plastic materials end up in our environment, the better.
The best sustainability approach, however, is to limit how much we consume and buy only what we are going to wear, while extending the life of our products to a maximum. The most effective waste is the one we do not create, forcing brands and companies to limit their production as well. Many clothing brands are starting to limit the amount of new collections they launch every year, focusing more on essentials and long-lasting style than short term trends.
As far as sourcing material, quite a few environmentally conscious clothing brands start to promote new type of fabrics. Tencel™ is one example. It is manufactured from Eucalyptus trees, which grow quickly, use much less land than cotton, and are farmed without the use of pesticides and insecticides. Its softness, comfort and breathability make it the perfect match and use for most of garments. Other known sustainable materials include Modal (made of Beech tree), Hemp (hemp plant), Cupro (cotton waste) or organic cotton, which uses no pesticide, in stark contrast to conventional cotton. We show our care for what we put into our bodies when we choose healthy, organic foods; we should also show care for what we put on our bodies and choose clothes that nurture the health of our planet, and thus ourselves.
Another way to be sustainable is to limit the transportation flows between the material vendor, the workshop site and the consumer’s address. How can we define a product as eco-friendly if it has travelled around the world before being worn? Nearly all (95%) of the energy required for transportation comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel, making it one of the main greenhouse gas emission contributors. Narrowing the distance between the material sourcing, the workshop and the final client is key to limit our carbon footprint.
Finally, packaging should be carefully selected and developed. This sector remains the main plastic waste contributor and the use of eco-friendly packaging, made of cardboard and compostable material for example, should be promoted to avoid creating additional plastic pollution in our environment.
While developing a sustainable clothing brand adds some challenges - from sourcing, to production, to shipping - it creates extra meaning in the way we do business, whether by building stronger relationships with our partners, caring for our environment, getting closer to each other, or simply making sure that the future generations will be able to meet their own needs as well. All of this together can create a definition of sustainability, not just in how we build our business, but how we choose to live for generations to come.