Image: Stella McCartney
Near the end of last year, I co-hosted a panel discussion – "Has Sustainability Become Stylish" with Hula. I remember as I was coming up with possible titles for the panel (we settled on the topic of sustainability), a certain incident came up in my head. When I was in my senior year at Parsons, I remember my professor, (the amazing) Timo Rissanen (who was among the first to formally research zero-waste fashion… among other feats) mentioned about a course conceived by Professor Cameron Tonkinwise at UTS in Australia where students were asked to design a logo for a sustainable fashion company - his first rule?
Please… no green.
That was the first time I noticed the paradox between sustainability and its brand image – what people think of when the “s” word comes up. And they think - happy, green, scratchy and cuddly.
Huh? Where the f*** is the badassery? – was frankly my first internal reaction. Giving a shit is pretty badass – no? Ever since then, whenever I come across sustainability’s warm, fuzzy, straw-colored face, part of me just wants to go all Jackson Pollock on it.
It’s like saying nice people look a certain way –- forgetting that the common thing nice people have is the way they act, not the way they look. Sustainability – responsible business – however you choose to call it, is about system processes of design, production, logistics and garment care that take stakeholders instead of just shareholders into consideration – it shouldn’t have a look to it. But it does. And I get it – people who started making clothes with organic cotton loves hugging trees and the look stuck. The absolute worst is when they put the phrase "sustainable fashion" in front of a girl's gown made out of trash. Trashion, I think that's what they call it. How, may I ask, is this helping?
"Whenever I come across sustainability’s warm, fuzzy, straw-colored face, part of me just wants to go all Jackson Pollock on it."
Image: One of the many images you find when you google "trashion"
People often compare the ethical food movement to the ethical fashion movement, propagating that fashion will follow the trend of food in a move towards conscious consumption. What no one seems to point out is that there one huge, gaping difference between selling an organic tomato vs an organic cotton jumpsuit. Traditionally for most people, when you buy food, the #1 concern is usually that of taste. Price comes second, and as of the last few decades, its impact on your health and perhaps the environment. When people buy clothes, their main concern is if it looks good on them. Brand name’s an influence too and then recently, its ethics. If a tomato is grown organically, it usually means it tastes better. But here’s the thing – if a jumpsuit is made with organic cotton – it doesn’t necessarily mean it looks better.
The ethical quality of a food’s production process usually directly correlates with the quality of its primary selling feature – taste (it’s a win win, ethics go up, taste goes up); whereas the ethical quality of a garment’s production process does NOT necessarily correlate with the quality of its primary selling feature – its look. If it does, it’s by chance or conscious choice, not by cause and effect.
"If a tomato is grown organically, it usually means it tastes better. But here’s the thing – if a jumpsuit is made with organic cotton – it doesn’t necessarily mean it looks better."
So it is easy to use the ethics of a food’s production as a marketing baton as it hits what consumers care most about when ordering an avocado toast – taste. When we use fashion’s ethic-ness as marketing tool, we are appealing to what they care second or third about. It’s a bonus consideration, not because consumers don’t care – but because fashion’s main job is and always has been to make us look good – everything else naturally comes second. If someone’s looking to put some money into something whose job is to primarily make them feel good and moral, they would donate to Women's Environment and Development Organization, not buy your shirt. Someone who donates to WEDO however, will buy your shirt, if they are looking for a shirt, it looks good on them, its pricing is reasonable to them, AND you tell them women who made the clothes are paid a living wage.
So is the conscious consumer still going to buy a top that makes her waist tiny if she is blatantly told it is made with child labor, since making us look good is clothing’s #1 function? I don’t think so, and this is even if it costs 2 dollars – first of all because of her conscience but also because in today’s market, she has plenty of other choices out there, and increasingly more where style, responsible production and pricing competitiveness are not mutually exclusive. What she will do is when she wants to buy a new trench coat, she will google “sustainable trench coat”, just out of curiosity - expecting to see something scratchy looking – and would be surprised to see a few options from several brands that actually look pretty good. Then she’ll click on one whose pricing looks reasonable and she’ll land on the brand’s website – and discover that hey, this company doesn’t only care about the environment and people who make their clothes – they actually make some pretty cool shit! She won’t only buy the trench, she’ll come back to your website later when she needs a pair of pants. Of course, she’ll also read more to see if you’re greenwashing her.
"Sustainability will always be a bonus consideration, not because consumers don’t care – but because fashion's main job is and always has been to make us look good ."
So really, I realized the title of the panel I hosted – instead of being “Has Sustainability Become Stylish”, should have been – Has Stylish Become Sustainable? Sustainability doesn’t need to be stylish – it just needs to work. Rather than thinking of ways to rebrand sustainability, we should focus on making brands sustainable, because at the end of the day, you can’t really market sustainability – it has to come from the inside. It has to seem genuine for people to work as a selling point and the only way for it to be genuine is if it really is. It’s the difference between a guy telling you he’s not like the rest and he’s nice vs. him actually being nice.
So my thinking is, spend less time trying to rebrand, market, and slap sustainability across our branding and spend more time learning about and establishing concrete goals one should work towards - but first of all, for heaven’s sake, make sure the clothes look good. Otherwise, spend your money on pro-women, pro-immigrant, pro-earth, anti-bigotry organizations that need your support - here’s a list.
(And here's one if you're in Home Kong.)