Looking good, being good: the collective responsibility of sustainable fashion

Cover art Erka Inciong

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Digital Reporter

The emergence of fast fashion has changed the landscape of the fashion industry. Mass produced pieces fill stores around the world, allowing consumers access to routinely updated styles without having to break the bank.

But convenience and affordability come at a price. And in recent years, the planet–and the marginalized–have been footing the bill.

According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, textile production in 2015 emitted 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, greater than the combined emissions of the aviation and shipping industries. Dyeing and treatment of textiles also contributed 20 percent of global industrial water pollution. These negative effects extend beyond the environment, as workers are subjected to long hours in hazardous conditions without rightful compensation.

With consumption of non-renewable resources expected to more than triple by 2050, it seems that there may be nothing left for succeeding generations. In response, a rising movement has sparked in the fashion industry, one that ventures to produce and consume clothing with a conscience: sustainable fashion.

Defining sustainable fashion

As its name suggests, sustainable fashion is derived from the concept of sustainable development. The goal is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. For businesses, this entails making a conscious effort not only to reduce their carbon footprint but also to improve their labor regulations, an ethical conversation that lies at the heart of sustainable production.

Photo by Mariel L. Aguinaldo

Similarly, sustainable consumption touches on the responsibility of the consumer over their purchases. Compulsive shoppers often hoard pieces they never use, while misguided fashionistas regularly dump pieces that go out of style.

Sustainable fashion can take on many forms. Green Strategy, a Swedish sustainable fashion consultancy firm, defined seven that apply to both production and consumption:

  1. On-demand & Custom-made
    2. Green & Clean
    3. High-quality & Timeless design
    4. Fair & Ethical
    5. Repair, Redesign, & Upcycle
    6. Rent, Loan, & Swap
    7. Secondhand & Vintage

Ideally, fashion items are produced and consumed in all seven forms. But that’s not always possible. Oftentimes, sustainability practices are dictated by one’s lifestyle or economic situation. A middle-class consumer may not be able to order bespoke clothing, but could definitely upcycle her current wardrobe. A business might not be able to afford environmentally-friendly equipment, but they can ensure that their workers are paid and treated fairly.

Adopting new models

In order to do their part for the planet, most businesses have adopted the Environment-Society-Governance business model, also known as People-Planet-Profit or Triple Bottom Line. In this model, companies try to meet the needs of all three elements to hit the sweet spot of sustainability.

A different business model, however, is slowly gaining ground. The 3-Nested Dependencies Business Model primarily argues that among the three elements, the environment is the most important. “Economy functions within the society… but they both get resources from the environment,” said Dr. Assunta Cuyegkeng, Director of the Ateneo Institute of Sustainability. “The more foundational aspect of it is the environment, because you get everything from it and we throw everything back to it.”

Guided by this perspective, these businesses are now aiming to create a circular economy. Compared to a linear or make-use-dispose economy, the different elements within the whole production cycle are “brought back into the loop” through the collection of used products and innovative product design. For example, some fast fashion brands recently began collecting customers’ old clothes so that the textiles can be manufactured into new garments.

Growing adoption of these practices has led to a paradigm shift among sustainability-conscious firms. If the old business models were mainly concerned with profiting for stockholders, the focus has now shifted to doing good by its stakeholders, or the people who affect or are affected by the business. Employees, customers, and the overall community are included in this group.

“For some businesses–and these are mostly the social entrepreneurs… they’re more concerned with what they give back,” explained Dr. Cuyegkeng

Women with a passion for (sustainable) fashion

Many online businesses have tried to capitalize on the demand for sustainable fashion by “greenwashing”, or deliberately branding their products as eco-friendly to lure in customers. But for two young businesswomen, it was the desire to genuinely “give back”–and their love of fashion–which inspired and pushed them to set up their own sustainable fashion businesses.

For 20-year old Kathleen Gatchalian, a recent graduate of the University of Asia and the Pacific, inspiration came from learning about native woven fabrics and a stint with Gawad Kalinga. In November 2017, she launched her shoe brand, Neotiv, weaving hand-woven indigenous textiles into classic styles.

Kathleen Gatchalian

While setting up the business was initially a school requirement, she knew that she wanted a concept that would be able to sustain her interest beyond graduation. More importantly, she wanted to build a business that could help and empower different communities.

Her suppliers–which she refers to as her business partners–include the Mangyans of Mindoro, Igorots of Benguet, a group of traditional weavers from Ilocos, and a community in Liliw, Laguna, known for their shoemaking prowess. It’s a collaborative and personal process, with Kathleen traveling to these different groups and learning about their culture and lifestyle. “[W]hen you claim you are a brand that uses these types of fabrics, you at least try to make it a goal to actually connect with the communities that you work with. You don’t just go to a middleman and buy.”

For 25-year old Anjeline Angeles, a full-time photographer and multimedia artist for DLD Studios, creating these connections plays a vital role in her advocacy of sustainable living and women empowerment. In May 2018, she launched secondhand clothing brand Sustainably Styled PH, which sends part of its profits to Ruhama, a shelter for abused girls.

Anjeline Angeles

She also taps models who share in her vision–a marine researcher-cum-diver and a self-love influencer, for example. “My vision was always to build a platform not just for selling clothes but also celebrating women… and also being good to the environment.”

While Kathleen and Anjeline have met their fair share of challenges pursuing their respective businesses, the positive feedback from customers help keep their passion for sustainable fashion burning.

“I was getting so many messages. I thought I was just doing something so small but it meant a lot to a lot of people,” Anjeline said. Customers were so enthusiastic about her cause that they began donating boxes of their old clothes by their own volition.

A change of lifestyle

While the sustainable fashion movement continues to grow, barriers like price and affinity for trends and Western influences may hinder the majority of Filipinos from shopping sustainably any time soon. But production and consumption of sustainable fashion is a complex, nuanced process rather than a step-by-step procedure. A cotton shirt might be biodegradable, but requires 2,700 liters of clean water to produce. Polyesters and nylons are non-biodegradable but can be recycled. With pros and cons on both sides, informed decision-making is necessary to strike a balance.

Photo by Mariel L. Aguinaldo

Sustainable fashion needs to be inculcated as a lifestyle, because it calls for conscious and consistent learning in the way we choose our products. This helps equip us against greenwashing. “Just do your research and ask the experts.” advised Anjeline. “Don’t believe everything right away.”

Dr. Cuyegkeng emphasizes the power of the consumer to move big corporations to action. “The reason companies keep producing them is that there’s a demand for it. So it’s a chicken and egg [situation]–who will change first? Chances are, not the companies, unless they are a responsible company and they see that they have to educate their consumers. But how many of them are truly like that?”

Hopefully, this challenges fashion businesses to work hand-in-hand with their customers in genuinely transitioning to sustainability. “When you become aware of these situations, you can’t be blatantly ignorant anymore to real-life situations,” said Kathleen. “When you’re aware, you have now the responsibility to make an effort.”