The designer and fashion sustainability advocate says that you must first understand what sustainability means, and then do your research to be a more discerning consumer.
In the past decade, global markets have a heightened awareness for sustainability. It has become pivotal for the fashion industry, in particular, to integrate greener practices into its brands. What was once only feel-good marketing messaging in the 90s, has now become a legitimate customer demand.
The numbers reflect it: In 2019, the sustainable and ethical fashion market was worth $6.35 billion. According to the Globe Newswire, the market is set to grow to $9.81 billion in 2025 and $15.7 billion in 2030.
Fast fashion companies, in turn, are creating green divisions under their brands to accommodate this demand. But these are also being closely scrutinized.
In 2019 the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) accused Swedish clothing company H&M of “greenwashing” their sustainable integration. NCC found that H&M Conscious only provides vague descriptions on why the H&M Conscious line is genuinely eco-friendly.
Greenwashing is a form of marketing spin that deceives consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally sound, usually done as a shortcut to gain profit without concrete evidence.
With H&M Conscious launching in 2010, it took nine years for the greenwashing controversy to arise. It seems that the mass market has yet to understand what sustainable products must entail and what questions must be raised to shop sustainably accurately.
The retail company, apparently, had an extensive dialogue with the NCC about better communicating the work that they do. In an interview with British Vogue last year, new H&M CEO Helena Helmersson said that “fast fashion doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” and shared some of their immediate and long-term eco-friendly goals.
“With our size and our resources, we can be part of making [new technologies] more scalable,” says Helmersson, who used to be H&M’s chief sustainability officer.
Designer and fashion sustainability advocate Lulu Tan Gan says that one must know what sustainability means to be an earth-friendly consumer. It’s not enough to take a brand’s word for it.
“Sustainability is made up of three pillars: the economy, the ethical factor, and the environment,” Tan Gan explains. She believes that avoiding fast fashion altogether will reduce the carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere, also known as a carbon footprint.
“Be aware of fast fashion brands that are made from unfair wages and unsafe working conditions. You can then support fair labor,” says Tan Gan, adding that we should prioritize quality over quantity when shopping and opt for timeless pieces that can be worn year-round.
If you don’t know where to start, Tan Gan advises exploring artisanal fashion brands as they use natural textiles such as organic bamboo linen and wool that are biodegradable. You would also be supporting skilled workers that design in small batches, which ensures the ethical manufacturing of each collection.
It’s also a way to retain local craftsmanship, as the Philippines is home to time to long-living traditions of weaving and embroidery.
Fast fashion retailers regularly mass-producing garments. Spanish brand Zara, for example, makes 840 million clothing pieces each year, which is sold in its 6,000 stores worldwide. This might make for an unethical production process.
There are also other issues associated with bigger retailers, from brands stealing independent artist’s designs to the unfair wages, and dangerous environment garment workers experience. Smaller-scaled brands might offer more transparency and have the capacity to control a more direct supply chain.
Slow it down
In Tan Gan’s namesake brand, they utilize local and organic fabrics such as piña, and when it comes to production, she says that the carbon emission rate is at zero.
“We fabricate, either hand-woven or hand-knit, using hand-drawn looms and not automated. Therefore there is no energy used, no carbon footprint at all,” Tan Gan shares. “Our designs are properly studied and engineered to avoid wastage of materials. Our artisans have good hand skills.”
With Tan Gan’s product offerings being handmade, it takes time to produce collections, which categorizes her label as being “slow fashion.”
Slow fashion is a business and awareness approach that contrasts fast fashion with its emphasis on quality over quantity. This process aims to produce long-lasting garments that value the treatment of people, animals, and the planet.
Many platforms have risen that highlight slow fashion brands. Frankie and Friends General Store, for example, is a curated marketplace that sells homegrown, eco-friendly products from shoes and bags to home items and pantry goods.
In addition, it regularly provides impact reports to communicate their supply chain methods and contributions to local cities where they source labor and goods.
For instance, they offer bags made of upcycled coffee sacks from Cavite. With every bag sold, coffea is planted to help revive the local coffee industry. Frankie and Friends also sell bags from Cebu City made of recycled rice sacks woven together by underprivileged families to provide them with a livelihood.
Tan Gan remains optimistic about the future of fashion’s sustainability.
“Globally, we have a younger and more eco-conscious generation of consumers who are distinctly aware of the supply chain’s environmental impact,” she says. “Many brands, big and small, are supporting the livelihood of local communities. Several surviving brands have brought out environment-conscious collections.”
With the new generation being raised with information at their disposal, we can hope that slow fashion’s growth will continue to rise. It seems that instead of constantly asking “what’s next?” fashion consumers want to know what’s here to stay.