When it comes to greenwashing, consumers are much savvier than they once were. Whereas even five years ago, brands could get away with doing the bare minimum in the sustainable fashion department, releasing a one-off “green collection” on Earth Day and garnering praise via sold Instagram ads, the bar is higher now. As the environmental crisis continues to worsen — according to NASA, 2020 was one of the warmest years on record — every fashion brand has had to confront their own dedication to sustainability and how far they have yet to go before claiming a victory. For brands who are seriously committed to eco-conscious practices, it’s a far more honest thing to claim that they are “not sustainable.”
In February 2018, Noah, a brand founded by Brendon Babenzien in 2015, published a blog post on its website with the headline, “We Are Not A Sustainable Company.” Printed in capital letters, the words were superimposed over a photo of a landfill blurred with a thick layer of smog. Below, the brand spotlighted some of its press mentions — describing Noah as using “the most sustainable practices” and “killing it” on the sustainable front. (The brand sells any damaged or incorrectly produced garments at a discounted price, rather than discarding them, and partners with ocean preservation organizations like Sea Shepherd, among other practices.) “Although we're very flattered that the press and our supporters frequently compliment our engagement on environmental issues, the way we operate isn't even close to sustainable. There's really no such thing as a sustainable clothing company,” it read.
The statement is not wrong: From the natural resources it takes to create fabrics to the toxic chemicals used during production and the carbon dioxide required to transport the final product, almost every step of fashion's current production model negatively affects the environment. Noah’s post went on to say that it will now focus its efforts on transparency — “We are trying our best to be responsible — followed by a detailed list of the eco-conscious and ethical initiatives the brand employs. “To say we're sustainable would be a lie,” the post concluded. “To say we're doing a little more with each season would be the truth.”
Every happy customer comes at an environmental cost.”
Mark De Lange, Founder of Ace & Tate
Shortly after it was published, Mark de Lange, the founder of Dutch eyewear brand Ace & Tate, took to Medium to communicate a similar message. “The harsh reality finally hit me,” he wrote in the blog post. “For every pair of glasses we make, Ace & Tate does harm to the planet. Every frame we produce, every lens we cut, and every package we ship: everything is connected to natural resources. Every happy customer comes at an environmental cost.” Speaking with Refinery29, he said that sustainability is an ongoing process, one that could never be fully complete. Why try then? Well, just because something seems impossible, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt it.
Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory, an organization focused on climate and systemic change-based education, agrees with de Lange. “Sustainability is a spectrum,” she tells Refinery29. Nicolaj Reffstrup, the founder of Danish fashion brand Ganni, feels the same way. “There is no straight line to being sustainable in fashion,” he says. According to Reffstrup, despite its many sustainability initiatives, Ganni doesn’t identify as sustainable because it recognizes the “inherent contradiction between the current fashion industry that thrives off of newness and consumption, and the concept of sustainability.”
For Reffstrup, the point of bringing attention to the fact that Ganni is not sustainable is to have something to answer to. It puts pressure on the brand to be better and in turn, communicate wins and losses to their customers. (The brand now publishes the projects they haven’t yet figured out on the @GANNI.lab Instagram account, as well as in an annual responsibility report.) “It’s about holding ourselves accountable,” Reffstrup says.
With Ace & Tate, de Lange wants to provide his customers with everything they need to make educated purchases. “I think the consumer is sick and tired of being marketed to and lied to,” he says. “And also for myself, I genuinely do not know how to turn Ace & Tate into a fully sustainable company. It’s probably not going to happen because it’s probably impossible. However, I’d like to share our thoughts on what our journey is.”
According to Daniel Silverstein, the founder of Brooklyn-based brand Zero Waste Daniel — which Silverstein describes as “zero-waste,” which means that all products included in production are reused and nothing is sent to a landfill — a 100% sustainable fashion brand is possible. The proof, he says, is in the past. “We made completely sustainable clothing for a really long time as a species,” Silverstein tells Refinery29. “Once we reconnect with and fall in love with the slow processes that our ancestors practiced for years, we can start making clothing with no electricity, with no chemicals that are harsh or synthetics,” he says. “It just comes down one question: When are we going to be ready to accept the way that changes our relationship with consumption?”