Overcoming the sustainability language barrier

An introductory post.

If you’ve stumbled across this post, then hi, it is lovely to meet you! I’m Mel, a freelance fashion journalist and the author behind Not What It Seams.

Sustainable fashion is a bit of a minefield, isn’t it? Even if you’ve mastered the lingo, it can feel impossible to keep up with the latest changemakers or debates. And while it’s encouraging to see so many forward-thinking innovations, there seems to be just as many greenwashed campaigns.

The rising popularity of the sustainability movement has created a mainstream language barrier. As Aja Barber pointed out, the average shopper often lacks the tools or lexicon to decipher where they should spend their money. But the onus is still on the consumer to do their market research, an often long and perplexing task. Fast fashion marketing only adds to this confusion.

The most glaring example of this was when H&M fraudulently claimed to be the most transparent brand in the world. After questioningly securing the top spot in this year’s Fashion Transparency Index, H&M celebrated in a post that deliberately confused the transparency and sustainability labels. While many were quick to point out that they are two separate things, the damage was already done. Countless headlines reading "H&M ranked world's most transparent brand" and "H&M on top" had already reached the masses, circulating rumours that the H&M group are some ethical powerhouse.

The issue here is that ‘transparency’ is not synonymous with ‘sustainability’ or ‘ethics’. Transparency can of course be a tool for change but it can equally be a tool for greenwashing. And when you are a multi-billion-dollar company who refuses to pay its garment workers a living wage, transparency is simply not good enough. A shit wrapped in a clear bag is still a shit.

But how are shoppers to know when they are constantly exposed to misleading marketing campaigns? Greenwashing is everywhere and it can be very difficult to spot, which incentivises even the most conscious of consumers into buying products that harm the environment. I’d like to think that’s where my newsletter comes in.

From first-hand experience, I know just how overwhelming sustainability can seem. I used to mix up the definitions of ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ or mistake the Fashion Transparency Index as a shopping guide. I’m also guilty of using the ‘slow’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ fashion labels interchangeably when they all mean slightly different things.

I created Not What It Seams to delve deeper into the headlines, demystify the language of sustainability and properly hold brands to account. So, what can you expect from my newsletter? Every fortnight, I send out:

  1. Critical takes on the latest news, brand announcements and debates.

  2. Fortnightly roundups of the latest articles, blogs and podcasts.

  3. Glossary terms to equip you with all the sustainability lingo.

If this sounds up your street, please sign up below. And if it sounds up your friends’ streets, please share this with them. Every like, comment and retweet helps me in my mission to make sustainable fashion just that little bit more accessible.

In other news…

This is where I’ll be catching you up on the latest headlines and podcasts. Today, I’m highlighting some brilliant resources to help get you started.

  1. Condé Nast recently partnered with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion to create this extensively detailed Sustainable Fashion Glossary. We share the belief that to design a more sustainable future, fashion stakeholders must have a shared knowledge of the key issues, and a common language to tackle them.

  2. To prove that language really matters, Francine Heath penned this open letter to fashion magazines urging them to ban the phrase ‘must-have’.

  3. For something on the go, I’d really recommend listening to the Common Threads podcast, as co-hosted by sustainable fashionistas Alice and Ruth. The second episode is a gentle introduction to the world of ethical fashion, discussing everything from fair trade to circularity.

  4. If, like me, you love a good book, why not join the Fashion Talks online book club?

  5. If you’re keen to dive in head-first, Fashion Revolution offer a free online course which critically examines the role the fashion industry plays in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the social, environmental, cultural and economic impacts of fashion.

What is sustainable fashion?

Every fortnight, I’ll be unravelling a glossary term and the logical place to start is defining sustainable fashion. Admittedly, it can be quite difficult to pinpoint, but I think Green Strategy captures its essence perfectly:

“More sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects. In practice, this implies continuous work to improve all stages of the product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components. From an environmental perspective, the aim should be to minimise any undesirable environmental effect of the product’s life cycle by: (a) ensuring efficient and careful use of natural resources (water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, etc); (b) selecting renewable energy sources (wind, solar, etc) at every stage, and (c) maximising repair, remake, reuse, and recycling of the product and its components. From a socio-economic perspective, all stakeholders should work to improve present working conditions for workers on the field, in the factories, transportation chain, and stores, by aligning with good ethics, best practice and international codes of conduct. In addition, fashion companies should contribute to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns, caring and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion.”

And breathe! There are several things to unpack here. Firstly, sustainable fashion is a movement, an ideal or a process of change. What this means is that brands can endeavour to be as sustainable as possible without ever being 100% sustainable. That’s because every garment has an environmental and socio-economic footprint, no matter how small, hence the phrase ‘more sustainable fashion’.

Secondly, sustainability takes place across the entire supply chain, including the design, production, marketing and disposal stages. Thirdly, while sustainability is often thought of in environmental terms, it also has social meaning in that it must sustain life, be it through encouraging biodiversity or enriching the livelihood of garment workers.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that sustainable fashion exists in opposition to fast fashion. Fast fashion by its very nature cannot be sustainable because the mass manufacturing of temporarily-trendy, poorly-made clothes thrives on labour exploitation and environmental degradation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts - what does sustainable fashion mean to you?

I put a lot of time and energy into creating free, accessible content. So, if you enjoy or benefit from my work, you can very kindly gift me a virtual coffee here - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running!