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SUSTAINABILITY 101

In our world, the talk about sustainability is getting louder and louder. But what does “sustainability” mean?

 

Consumers are constantly bombarded by companies with promotional messages using words such as eco, environmentally friendly, or green that are vague and ambiguous. These claims lack of specific meaning and often result in confusion or uncertainty on their validity. 

In parallel, since the 1990s there has been a rise in knowledge about the unethical practices of large brands and their cover-up of unpleasant environmental actions as a marketing ploy (the so-called greenwashing). Not only do consumers mistrust green claims, as they cannot verify the credibility of the organization, but they also face a huge variety of information regarding sustainability that they cannot manage and fully understand.

 

As a matter of fact, the concept of sustainability is complicated. 

 

It has its origin in the Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future, published by the United Nations in 1987. The Brundtland Commission’s mandate was to answer the following question: how can the aspirations of the world’s nations for a better life be reconciled with limited natural resources and the dangers of environmental degradation? Their answer is sustainable development, defined as:

 

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

 

Since that time, the concept has been developed more and more specifically. A huge number of definitions of sustainability exist, making it difficult to choose one for application. There are studies about it, showing that most definitions are non-measurable, ambiguous, and global in context. Expressing in a few sentences that a particular decision is sustainable is impossible. However, we’ve tried to sum up the most important and common aspects. 

 

In general, sustainability is almost always seen in terms of three dimensions: social, economic, and environmental. When considering a process or product, besides the environmental need to reduce the burden on ecosystems to maintain the natural basis for life, we need efficient use of scarce resources, make a profit and improve people’s life with ethical and inclusive initiatives. 

 

Another concept that is often found in literature is the distinction between weak and strong sustainability. According to some researchers, some loss of natural resources is inevitable, but this may be compensated for by increased capital (weak). Others, however, feel that sustainability is a matter of preserving natural resources essential for our survival (strong). Strong sustainability can be basically seen as a series of thresholds that must not be crossed; the setting of these thresholds is a matter of policy but must be informed by scientific knowledge on the resilience of ecosystems. 

 

A more detailed vision of these concepts can be seen in The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG/SDG), 17 objectives set for 2030. Some of them are particularly relevant to the fashion industry: 

  • Objective 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, aims to reduce the negative impact of product manufacturing on water streams, which implies the use of fewer chemicals; 
  • Objective 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, relates to the collateral effects of mass production at lower cost, which is usually displaced to developing countries with poor working conditions; 
  • Objective 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, refers to eco-friendly production methods and reducing the amount of waste in the context of the circular economy while avoiding depletion of the Earth’s materials;
  • Objective 13, Climate Action, aims to reduce all activities’ CO2eq emissions and global warming potential, which relates to all phases of the fashion product supply chain, including buildings’ energy efficiency. 

 

In conclusion, we are dealing with a very complex and articulate issue. We can affirm that a unique and precise definition of sustainability cannot exist because it depends on various aspects and on the sector we are considering. However, we have pointed out some general pillars that need to be taken into account. What’s certain is that this qualitative view must be translated into quantitative evaluations, to objectively assess if and how much a process is actually sustainable.