Since the launch of green stilettos, I have been exploring the various permutations of “sustainable” fashion: ethical, eco-, fairtrade, green, responsible and slow fashion are all terms being used interchangeably by the industry itself as well as countless magazines, forums and blogs that report on this growing trend. Is there a roadmap to navigate the rapidly expanding universe of sustainable fashion? What does “sustainable fashion” really mean, how can it be measured and, ultimately, what difference does it make?
To start with, there is no single, universally accepted standard for sustainability in the fashion industry. The Higg Index 2.0, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, comes closest; however it is still subject to critique as it mainly skewed towards measuring environmental – rather than social – performance in the supply chain.
The SAC’s newly launched Materials Sustainability Index has left me perplexed: can oil-based polyester (not recycled!) really be more sustainable than linen, a natural fiber which uses far less water and fertilizer than cotton? According to the MSI, it is so: polyester gets the higher score of 23.3 compared with 22.6 for linen. Hmm. And then there are sprawling standards and associated labels for various materials used in fashion: from down to wool to cotton. Who do you trust?
Another noteworthy initiative is the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) CertifiedTM Product Standard, which rewards achievement in five categories (material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship and social fairness) and at five levels of certification – from Basic to Platinum. The standard is so stringent that only four products in the apparel category have been added to the C2C registry since 2005, including PUMA’s biodegradable and recycled sportswear.
There is no doubt that sustainable fashion needs a reliable, comprehensive, easy-to-apply and easy-to-communicate standard; one that would inspire confidence in both producers and consumers. According to Danish politician Benny Engelbrecht who spoke at the recent Copenhagen Fashion Week, ”Certification must be (Higg) index-based because none of us believe in the existence of the perfect piece of clothing. The goal must be an international certification system that considers environmental impact as well as the social aspect”.
Until this happens, it will be up to us to judge the validity of sustainability claims of a certain product or brand. And although they say that beauty is only skin-deep and fashion even shallower, we would be wise to remember that one cannot judge the book by its cover.