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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
These days, hundreds of brands, companies and organizations are focused on sustainability. That’s great news in many respects, to be sure. However, the term’s seeming iniquitousness also leads to confusion and questions about what makes something truly sustainable.
In fashion, for example, sustainability has become increasingly important, not least because that industry, according to the United Nations, is among the most polluting in the world; depending upon metrics, it can be ranked as the second most polluting, just after the oil sector. But how can one determine which labels are sincere in their environmental mission given the “greenwashing” in the industry — in which companies make claims that are misleading or unsubstantiated.
To help clear things up, here are some observations from SAIL label founder, Jaewoo Ahn, in which he discusses key factors to look for in an environmentally responsible fashion brand.
1. Sustainable Materials
“Textiles are the largest source of both primary and secondary microplastics, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution. Harmful textiles such as polyester are too commonly used, but shoppers often don’t realize that what they’re wearing is essentially plastic, which contributes to pollution during every wash. At SAIL, we use organic materials, knowing how important it is to respect natural resources while a garment is made, as well as after it’s purchased and worn. Natural materials like organic cotton require up to 95% less water to produce, and do not pollute water with harmful chemicals, bleaches or dyes. Currently, 20% of industrial water pollution comes from the clothing industry, a figure we’re committed to minimizing.
This is one of many ways a brand can incorporate sustainable practices in its materials, which can include natural and organic fibers as well as high-tech innovative textiles created for enhanced performance and/or from recycled materials and otherwise alternative sources.”
Related: Meet the Entrepreneurs Who Are Trying to Save Our Planet With Sustainable Fashion
2. Ethical Production and Fair Pay
“Sustainability doesn’t just refer to environmental protection; it includes initiatives that are good for both our planet and communities. With this in mind, sustainable brands are those that also respect and protect all their workers, and I don’t just mean office workers or retail employees, but people throughout a brand’s supply chain, including the garment workers who actually make the clothing and accessories.
“It is estimated that one in every six people on earthworks in the fashion industry and its supply chains, and 80% of them are women. What many don’t realize is that behind many brands, especially ‘fast-fashion’ varieties [defined on SAIL’s site as a model in which ‘consumers are offered constantly changing collections at low prices and constantly encouraged to frequently buy and discard clothes’], is the exploitation of garment workers in order to sell low-cost clothing. It’s reported that 98% of such workers are unable to meet their basic needs. If this isn’t bad enough, as many as 250 million children are part of the industry. A sustainable operation must guarantee fair pay, safe working conditions and equal employment as bare minimums.”
Related: Why Paying a Living Wage Is Smart Business
3. Quality Products
“A sustainable brand must also create products that are designed to last and are meant to be worn beyond a single season. That ethos is in direct opposition to the disposable clothing and overconsumption perpetuated by fast-fashion operations. One-hundred-and-fifty billion garments are now made every year, and it’s estimated that the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothing textiles is incinerated or landfilled every second. So, it’s about quality rather than quantity. Purchasing better products from a responsible brand can help decrease the carbon footprint of the industry, which at the moment is larger than all global flights and shipping combined. When you have clothing that you can wear beyond the fast-fashion average of five times, you decrease carbon emissions by as much as 400% per item per year.”
“Another way to determine whether a brand is truly sustainable is by looking for third-party certifications. Today, there are a number of international organizations that can certify textiles, indicating that a company is truly using sustainable materials. Some of these are the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Bluesign® approved fabrics, and OEKO-TEX® and ECONYL® certifications.
“Brands can earn other designations as well (after an in-depth evaluation and assessment), as a guarantee that they have sustainable practices and policies in place. They include the Eco-Age Brandmark, B Corporation certification and Positive Luxury’s Butterfly Mark.”
“This is crucial because it’s not just incumbent upon a responsible fashion brand to declare that it’s sustainable; it must also share what makes them so in order for shoppers to engage in informed choices. This also enables brands to see how they can further improve their social and environmental policies and practices. A sustainable company that can be trusted is one that is honest and forthcoming with such information, but, according to Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index 2020, after reviewing 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers, the average transparency score was 23% (out of 100). Not even remotely a passing grade.”
Related: What You Can Learn From the Rise of Sustainability-Focused Entrepreneurship
Sustainability is something that companies, as well as shoppers, must continuously work on and improve habits regarding. I hope sharing my own considerations for responsible brands will help guide more people towards better fashion choices.