Hands up if you walk into a shop and before you purchase anything, think about how it was made? For many people, the answer is probably no! Without passing judgement on buying choices, many of us pick up the cheapest item and don’t give much thought to how it got onto the shelf.
One of the biggest industries facing significant scrutiny for this type of selling power is the fashion sector. However, it’s not just this industry that is raising eyebrows regarding ethical and sustainable practices.
As consumers become more aware of how their consumption is affecting the environment – many also highlight that buying and living sustainably is challenging due to rising living costs and limited choice compared to cheaper alternatives.
While businesses and consumers should be working together to bring change across all sectors, significant modifications are required across the entire supply chain. However, it’s not just a case of providing an alternative product at a comparable price point. This issue goes deeper into the attitude towards consumption and more importantly over-consumption of cheap, throwaway goods.
What does sustainability mean?
the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.“the sustainability of economic growth”
avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.“the pursuit of global environmental sustainability”
One of the most important questions for both brands and consumers is What Does Sustainability Mean and in particular, what does it mean on a personal level. Above, you have a simple definition of the meaning of sustainability. But by identifying the importance and function of sustainability in everyday lives we can start to build a picture of how to balance consumer needs with business strategy while protecting the planet as best we can.
To give you some insight into this much-talked-about topic, we asked thirteen experts across different industries to share their thoughts on what sustainability means to them.
Sustainability for me is about innovations that disrupt the status quo by creating different ways of doing the same things. The most fertile territories for sustainability are the battles between the old fossil fuels and the new renewable energies, the old plastics and the various alternatives, the stuff-based society and a society based on culture and services.
Ramon Arratia, Sustainability Director at Ball Beverage Packaging Europe and Chairman of Every Can Counts
Sustainability to me is a way of life, it’s the drive to consume better, use resources better and make more informed and educated decisions about the products you buy, based on things such as the recyclability and lifecycle of a product. Today brands have the ability to make a positive change by influencing and changing consumer habits and leading people to buy more responsibly. Initially, they can do this by sourcing more recyclable and sustainable materials to make their products from (e.g. increasing the recycled content) and educating consumers about the differences in where products are sourced from and their recyclability.
Ariel Booker, Co-founder of CanO Water
Sustainable luxury fashion is possible but it requires brands, retailers and consumers to all work together. The luxury fashion industry is particularly well equipped to succeed in adopting sustainability as it manufactures and sells premium items, which should always be of the highest quality and designed to last. As an independent retailer, we handpick brands and products for Zen Wardrobe to offer our customers high-quality pieces that they can wear and treasure for years to come. Zen caters specifically for customers that are concerned less with trends and care more about the quality, longevity and wearability of a product. At Zen, we stock a great range of transitional items that can be worn time and again, crafted from the finest natural fabrics such as linen, cotton, silk, wool and cashmere. These are pieces for the modern woman’s capsule wardrobe, which she can come back to year on year regardless of seasonal trends.
As well as stocking and promoting sustainable brands, it is also important for retailers to work on their own practices and set goals to become more environmentally friendly. One step we’ve taken is to ensure that our packaging is 100% recyclable, which really makes a big difference. As ‘slow fashion’ has become so prominent, it is vital that larger brands and retailers follow suit and work towards making the fashion industry sustainable.
Bethany Hamer, Online Fashion Editor of Zen Wardrobe
A key reason for both the over-consumption of fashion products within the UK is the lack of education on ‘how’ to shop correctly. The average British female spends close to £100,000 on clothes over her lifetime. Of this, only around 25% is spent effectively on items that are worn often. This spend is 66% higher than that of our French cousins who are known for their tasteful style. The art of knowing how to shop specifically for your body shape and complexion is a skill that we lack. As a result, we waste a lot of money (and time) on trial and error purchases. Often these are fast-fashion items which we discard or leave unworn once it becomes apparent that they are not quite right.
When we learn how to shop for items that are right for us and develop a signature style rather than being swayed by passing trends, we can shop with confidence. As a result, we will then invest in pieces that last years rather than just this season. Buying fewer but better quality items is both economical and reduces the amount of wastage produced by the fashion industry. Fashion comes and goes but good style is timeless.
Keren Beaumont, Personal Stylist and Image Consultant at Keren Beau Styling
Sustainable fashion shouldn’t just be this year’s trend but a holistic approach to fashion. To me, it means taking better care of my clothes, repairing them more, and visiting thrift stores and auctions – making shopping creative and fun. Thinking more about what we buy and why. No new energy is needed to produce vintage clothes.
Susie Nelson, Vintage Fashion Expert of London-based boutique Modes and More
Sustainability, to me, in short, is making sure the world still exists in great shape for future generations. I think I was brought up in a time of disposable everything and now, fortunately, there is a shift to reuse and minimising consumption and waste. Doing anything that is unsustainable must, by definition, have implications on our and future generations.
Consumers look to brands for guidance on what to wear and how to shop. Brands have perfected the art of making everything desirable and feeding the demand for new all the time. Seasons have merged and trends are smaller and shorter – all this has been engineered by brands and retailers. By reversing that trend, making the argument for buying less but paying a little more, brands have the power to really positively impact the consumption and waste in the fashion industry.
Tim Williams, Founder of YRStore
While becoming more environmentally conscious may seem difficult or costly in the short term for brands, there are plenty of benefits beyond just being more sustainable. Brands can increase loyalty among their shoppers and also acquire new customers who want to support more sustainable brands instead of those using non-biodegradable products, overusing water or resources and more. These sustainable changes shouldn’t just be limited to companies selling products either, as those supplying a service or hospitality can make changes too. For instance, Timebased Events introduced a Sustainable Business Policy back in 2009 to keep ourselves and our own suppliers accountable and our mission is to achieve the ISO 20121 international standard for event sustainability.
It’s been great to experiment with different ways of working as part of this; in 2016, for example, we worked with H&M to produce an eco-friendly installation for their World Recycle Week campaign, where the green lights at the event were powered by shoppers walking on the entrance tiles. We also like to hire props and equipment rather than using single-use items, encourage sustainable travel to our events, like carpooling and public transport, and incorporate technology to reduce paper use, which are simple changes that every business can implement.
Richard Dodgson at Timebased Events
Individuals believe that sustainability means enough for everyone forever, something that lasts and doesn’t run out. Brands that provide more sustainable products can help individuals to be the change, by encouraging them to buy better. In the end, it will be the individuals who will create the demand for the brands to produce more and more products that lessen harm to people, planet and animals. That’s why my organisation’s key message is for us all to be the change! #BeTheChange
Kelly Levell, Sustainability Consultant at WeDoEthical.org
Tackling environmental issues is not a question of if, it’s when. Soon, all business will need to think about how to improve the environment, as the problem will be unavoidable. The recent press coverage and media campaigns about plastic pollution prove that consumers are waking up to the issue, too. Change needs to happen, but it doesn’t need to be difficult or painful. We should be working on this both top down and bottom up, as businesses and consumers.
At DAME, we believed that if we could create a product that was both sustainable but similar to what women were already used to, it would be easy to get them to make the switch. The average woman uses 12,000 tampons in her lifetime – that’s 24 pieces of plastic (each applicator has two plastic parts) ending up in landfill. Creating a reusable tampon applicator seemed like the obvious place to start.
We believe the only way for sustainable alternatives to have true mainstream appeal, and ignite meaningful environmental change, is if they are convenient to use, high performing and aspirational. These were the core principles that guided the design of our reusable tampon applicator, D. The exciting thing is that since we first had the idea for D, the cultural context has shifted; people are waking up to the impact of single-use plastic, and are looking for change. D makes that change really easy.
Celia Pool, Co-Founder of DAME
As we see the effects of climate change more drastically, sustainability is becoming more and more important. Therefore, I’m glad to be working for a brand that puts a sustainable production at the heart of everything they do. Out leather is vegetable tanned and most of the production is still done by hand – hardly any machinery is used. In addition to that, we use solar power to power the whole factory building. However, I think the most important aspect is that we offer a 25-year warranty on our products. We do that because we believe in the quality of our bags and accessories, but also in order to get people to start seeing purchases as an investment rather than a one-season-item. If more people treasure and care for their belongings instead of replacing them we would already see a very different shopping behaviour.
Nicole Rohde at Maxwell-Scott
It’s always been a way of life for me, how I was raised, its only now people are talking about it and struggle to keep life ‘ethical’ or sustainable, I would say the simplest way to live life and work that makes the least amount of harm to people and the environment around you. That could mean buying fruit and veg from your local greengrocer, swapping clothes rather buying new ones, repairing garments rather than throwing them and gifting people with experiences rather than ‘stuff. For the brand, I make sure I use only surplus yarn to knit my products, as keeping it all zero waste my utilising every scrap of fibre.
Knitwear Designer, Valentina Karellas
Sustainability means the ability to reuse everything, extending the ‘life’ of everyday products and putting an end to the ‘use once and throw away’ culture that we’ve been lazy enough to fall into. At Creative Nature, every single thing that comes into our warehouse is put to use, from the pallet wrap to used label papers to damaged boxes, nothing is just thrown away, even if it is recyclable. Even our superfood packaging follows this ethos, with our tubs making perfect pen and pencil holders, mini growers for herbs or insect housing in the garden.
On a grander scale, sustainability needs to be championed by the bigger brands and government. Why is plastic and unrecyclable packaging still legal? Force the larger brands to act and it will bring the costs down for all the smaller brands who possibly can’t afford to use compostable packaging when it’s around 7 times more expensive than recyclable. The government needs to put a time-scale in place, say 2025 where all plastics and environmentally un-friendly packaging is illegal, then put money aside to help manufacturers transition from producing these harmful products to making sustainable, compostable packaging that benefits everyone. Let’s be the champions of change post-Brexit and show the world what true sustainability looks like!
Matthew Ford, Operations Manager at Creative Nature
As consumers, it is important to think about our purchasing habits as well as encourage the brands we are buying to rethink their products and packaging. As a whole we need to rethink our entire consumption system, businesses can start producing goods with compostable or reusable packaging. Brands need to demand better quality stuff, made by fairly treated people, from sustainable resources and consider how they can make changes to help the environment.
Brianne West, CEO and Biochemist at Ethique
This important question provides us with food for thought when shopping for everything including cars, energy providers, fashion, home interiors and food.
What does sustainability mean to you? Join the conversation – we’d love to hear your thoughts and advice on how to live a low impact lifestyle.