What does ‘sustainable’ even mean?

It’s rare that a term becomes such a key part of common lexicon in such a short space of time as sustainability. The term itself is derived from the Latin ‘sustinere‘, meaning ‘to maintain’, ‘to hold’ or ‘to support’. The word can now be found used widely in policy, commerce and economics, usually in a way that pertains strictly to environmental sustainability

It’s become widely used in the last 30 years in spite of (or perhaps because of) its multitude of potential definitions. For example, this catch-all term can be found explaining why you should buy a new dress, why a city council should build new properties or why a brand’s coffee is better than other coffees. But what does it actually mean?

Around 30 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, charting a path for development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is essentially our current definition of environmental sustainability. However, the term has since come under fire for lacking any unified, definitive or quantifiable meaning – basically, it means nothing.

There is no doubt that the fashion industry requires movement in a direction that manages its demands on the environment without compromising what’s available for future generations. No one would argue that the fashion industry, responsible for 10% of global emissions, doesn’t require more investment in ‘sustainability’, but without any quantifiable definition of the term, what does this look like?

Various other terms within many industries are verified using third-party certifications and accreditations, meaning that a brand or business has to prove it is doing something to be able to use the term. The Soil Association, for example, is a UK-based charity that regularly reviews manufacturing processes throughout the supply chain to ensure a business is producing organic products. You cannot use the term ‘organic’ without being certified. The Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS), does the same for textiles, showing the buyer that the products throughout the supply chain have been verified by an external body as organic.

One issue with sustainability within the fashion industry is that almost all accreditations are voluntary. Rather than having regulatory standards, similar to those within the food industry and mandatory energy labels on EU white goods, accreditations are seen as ‘optional extras’, often used as a marketing tool rather than a baseline standard.

Because of this erosion of state power, brands and organisations within the fashion industry looking to become more ‘sustainable’ are left in a state of ‘choice paralysis’; there are a multitude of private-sector accreditations which all claim to provide certification of ‘sustainability’ in marginally different ways. And of course, because they’re private sector, all claim to be slightly better than their variants, yet none are government regulated. This isn’t to say they don’t all provide some benefit – many do in considerable ways – it’s just that the whole industry is open to confusion and lack of regulation, to the point that the consumer has a very hard time understanding what they’re buying into. 

Various voluntary initiatives available to the textiles industry – but by no means all of them

So what can we do?

With WOVN’s 2020 consumer report showing an 84% increase in the use of terms such as sustainable, ethical, Fair Trade and eco-friendly and an increased desire to shop from brands seen as ‘sustainable’, it’s important now, more than ever, to understand what this term really means. As brands cotton on to this fact, there’s an increasingly opaque arms-race to appear more sustainable, where being truly environmentally conscious is almost secondary to appearing as such.

There have been calls to incorporate ‘Carbon Labelling‘ on clothing, but of course being sustainable isn’t about simply releasing as little carbon as possible (in the same way that the health of a food item isn’t about being as low calorie as possible), but also things like wastewater reduction, ceasing the use of harmful chemicals, improving labour standards, using renewable materials, reducing waste textiles and so much more. While innovative, labelling like this would only solve a proportion of the problem, and potentially just become another method of greenwashing.

Accreditations will play an important role in the fashion industry’s road towards becoming more in balance with the environment, but there are serious changes that need to happen, including regulation of the regulators. Consolidating numerous similar accreditations into larger, stronger and more rigorous ones would be a powerful first step. 

Secondly, as a globalised industry, fashion requires international regulation. The majority of the textile industry has outsourced its negative environmental and social impacts to the Global South, affecting the people and habitats that can least afford to protect themselves, all the while making masses of money for the corporations residing in the Global North. This inequality simultaneously exacerbates the issues and hides them from view of the consumer. This means that it’s hard to know how what you’re buying is impacting the people who made the clothes, for better or worse. Because of this, we need international regulations throughout the supply chain, protecting both the environment in the world’s most biodiverse areas and those most affected by the industry’s indiscretions. 

In the meantime, companies must be more transparent about their supply chains, allowing the consumer to make their own decisions about what is ‘sustainable’ and what is not. After all, no brand is going to be perfect in all regards, certainly not while industry accreditations are such a minefield. It should be possible for the consumer to decide what matters most to them, and be able to accurately measure up brands to this standard. It is important that this doesn’t automatically disadvantage those choosing to become more transparent; while transparency may highlight areas requiring improvement, brands that choose to avoid transparency for fear of what it may show up should be penalised beyond those showing up less favourable elements within their supply chain. This is important because transparency is the first step towards accountability. Brands that doesn’t show the former will never have the latter.

Consumers, while requesting greater transparency and action from the worst offenders, should also realise that no amount of sustainable production will counteract buying clothes we don’t need. Buying less overall, buying secondhand, fixing what we already have and finding new homes for clothes we no longer wear will always be better than shopping, even from ‘sustainable’ brands. 

Further up the chain there should be incentives and clear direction for brands wanting to do better. This direction should be passed on to suppliers, with brands using their purchasing power to push suppliers to be better, and workers using unions to effect chain from the ground up. Large brands and conglomerates especially have huge amounts of power to effect change, and it’s time they were forced to do so. 

Over over 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill in the UK each year – no matter how sustainable the brand, this can never be environmentally friendly.

TL;DR

  • There are many steps available to brands looking to become more sustainable, in whichever way they choose to interpret the term.
  • However, without quantifying what sustainability actually means, it’s going to be difficult for the fashion industry to ever reach the goal of being ‘more sustainable’ in any meaningful way.
  • Currently there is a mishmash of private-sector accreditations and certifications all with overlapping goals being regulated with varying degrees of success. Without unifying these standards and consolidating the accreditations that exist, it will be hard for consumers to be able to assess which brands are truly sustainable vs which are using accreditations as a facade.
  • As the fashion industry is a global one, it requires global regulatory bodies, which currently don’t exist. Currently it is beneficial for brands to outsource their labour and environmental harm to the Global South, which doesn’t have the resources to protect itself. International regulation could limit this harm.
  • In the meantime, brands should improve transparency of their supply chains to allow consumers to choose who they want to buy from. Brands should be congratulated for improving transparency, although not at the expense of action which is the obvious end goal (H&M is one of the most transparent brands but also one of fashion’s biggest polluters – transparency can’t come at the expense of action).
  • Consumers have the power to request greater transparency from brands, and also to stop buying from the biggest polluters. Shopping small businesses is a great place to start, but we should only buy what we really need. No amount of sustainability will make up for purchasing a wardrobe of clothes you never wear.
  • Large brands have huge amounts of purchasing power and are in a strong position to effect change. It’s about time they did so.

If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more, there is a great report on palm oil, fishing and textiles, all of which suffer the same lack of unified regulation – you can read it here. If you regularly read and enjoy my articles, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.

Sustainable & Ethical Gift Guide 2020

Buying presents over Christmas time can be an absolute minefield for the average person and even more so if you’re trying to be conscious with your consumerism. The average British adult will spend £512.85 on gifts each Christmas, meaning nearly 27 billion is spent in the UK total at this time of year – imagine the positive impact this could have if it were spent purely ethically and sustainably, supporting small local businesses!

Here are some gift ideas – send this to family and friends if they’re unsure what to get you too. This post was written in collaboration with Hattie @hattie_eco – my research assistant and sustainability expert. Go and check out her Instagram!

Organic basics produces ethical and sustainable underwear and activewear

Clothes/Fashion/Accessories

  • Organic Basics – This underwear and activewear brand produces beautiful eco-friendly and ethically produced clothes in Europe. They use recycled and organic fabrics and regenerative agriculture to minimise environmental impact.
  • Lucy & Yak – Everyone’s favourite dungaree brand Lucy & Yak places supply chain transparency at the forefront of their production values. They publicly share information about their factories and commitment to people and planet. Oh, and their dungarees are awesome.
  • Made My Wardrobe – One of the most sustainable ways to have new clothes is to make them yourself. Gifting a pattern to sew your own dungarees costs only £12.50, or with fabric included it’s £63 and provides hours of meditative entertainment too.
  • Endless Wardrobe (second hand purchases) – The most sustainable item of clothing is the one you already have. This is the ethos of Endless Wardrobe, which loans out outfits for a fraction of the price they would cost new, to be worn and sent back – don’t worry, dry cleaning is included in the price! They also offer second-hand ex-rental clothes if you fall in love with something you’ve rented.
  • Amma Ski Lanka – This kickstarter provides employment and training for mothers through flexible, part time, fairly paid jobs within the textile industry. They also produce zero-waste ethical and sustainably manufactured garments. By pledging to this kickstarter you’ll be funding women in Sri Lanka to receive training, and you will be gifted various accessories in return, dependent on your donation.
  • Yala Jewellery – Black-owned B Corp accredited jewellery brand Yala produces stunning jewellery. A lot of gold jewellery is neither ethical nor sustainable, so Yala opts for brass and they are transparent about production methods.
  • We Are Meg – For the active but eco-conscious giftee, We Are Meg produces exercise accessories such as foam rollers and yoga blocks made from sustainably-sourced cork. They’re about about conscious recovery that’s good for both you and the environment.

Skincare/toiletries

  • Evolve Beauty UK – UK based organic skincare made in small batches. Their production studio is wind-powered and all their packaging is eco-friendly. All products are vegan and cruelty free.
  • Upcircle Beauty – Upcircle is a cruelty free and vegan skincare brand that upcycles waste such as coffee grounds into skincare. They were also winner of the 2020 Circular Economy Award, so you know you’re buying from a market-leading brand tackling some of the biggest issues facing the planet.
  • Narloa – Black-owned startup Narloa has been featured in the Evening Standard, Buzzfeed and Women’s Health, among others. Known for their beautiful face oils, as well as bath products, these are all, of course, vegan, nature-based and cruelty-free.
  • Bramblewood Soap – Homemade in Dorset, these soaps are the epitome of handmade luxury. And, as everyone is using a lot of soap at the moment, why not buy a few for friends and family?
  • Wild deodorant (subscription also available)  – Wild is an innovative deodorant brand fighting against our culture of waste. They provide refillable aluminium applicators and compostable packaging with a product that not only smells great, but actually works too! You can get 20% off from 3rd -5th December with the code FLORA.
  • With Love, Nature – If you’re looking for a beautifully packaged gift box, With Love, Nature is a great place to look. They offer luxury vegan and cruelty free products in eco-friendly packaging.
  • Shmood Candles – I wrote this post about my favourite vegan soy-based candles, but Schmood was launched more recently during lockdown. These sustainable candles smell delicious, and come with a spotify code for a playlist designed to match the scent. I recommend Chill Pill.

Online shops/marketplaces

  • Mosaik Education – Mosaic’s Christmas shop helps provide funding for refugees to access higher education. Just 3% of refugees access university, compared to 37% of global youth, and this NGO is looking to change that.
  • South Coast Makers Market – This Dorchester-based outdoor market provides a platform for independent businesses on the high street and handmade products. For anyone Dorset or Hampshire-based, they are hosting a 2 day market on 5-6th Dec and loyalty cards to provide discounts to local cafes, shops and restaurants, all of which are struggling in the current times.
  • Jamii – Jamii is a marketplace and discount card for Black-owned British brands, allowing shoppers to support a variety of small businesses, from face masks, to skincare, to art prints. They’ve been featured in Metro, Forbes and the BBC and are making quite the impression.
  • Know The Origin – This collective of ethical brands promotes transparency, sustainability and ethics, partnering only with brands that embody this ethos. You can buy a range of products here, in the knowledge that they are well made and ethically sourced.
  • Wearth London – Wearth is a great place to discover new sustainable products and brands, whether you’re looking for homeware, zero-waste accessories or even furniture. They really have something for everyone!

Make yourself

  • Bath bombs – self care is so important, especially at Christmas and especially this year. Bath bombs are easy to make, and homemade gifts show a little more care and thought has gone into them.
  • Vegan gingerbread men – Gingerbread lasts a surprisingly long time, and is perfect to gift at Christmas. It’s easy to make vegan – I have a recipe here!
  • Jam – Making jam at home allows you to get exactly the taste and texture you’re looking for. I personally find shop-bought too sweet, so love making my own. It’s also very relaxing.
  • Sloe/damson gin/whisky – not one for this year, but creating your own sloe or damson alcohol is both easy and charming – and who doesn’t love a bit of alcohol for Christmas! There are plenty of recipes online. Warning: they take time and by the time you’re done, you’ll probably want to keep a couple of bottles for yourself.

Subscriptions

  • Naked Sprout or Bumboo – Who knew loo paper would be such a luxury in 2020?! Getting a subscription service not only allows you to choose ethical and sustainable brands such as these, but also means you’re sorted in the event of another lockdown! These 2 UK brands provide bamboo-based loo paper that gives back – Naked Sprout provides water to school children in Kenya via Just A Drop, and Bumboo plants a tree for each box sold.
  • Leo’s Box – Certified B Corp Leo’s Box is run by 16 year old Lysander, but school studies haven’t stopped him creating a very well regarded eco subscription service that provides full-sized products form sustainable brands. They’re products you’ll undoubtedly need, so nothing is wasted, and it’s a great introduction to new brands at a reduced price.
  • Peirene Press – For the literature lover in your life, Peirene Press provides three books of world-class translated literature from around the world. Not only does this allow access to previously un-translated novels, it also supports various charities and gender equality work. The gift subscription also comes beautifully wrapped!
  • Oddbox – Food waste is a massive issue worldwide, with a third of food being chucked each year. Oddbox provides one solution to the huge amount of fresh produce that doesn’t fit supermarket standards for size or shape, paying farmers fair prices and shipping food across London and South-East England.

Food/consumables

  • Grind coffee compostable pods (also available as a subscription) – If you have a coffee machine, capsules can be problematic to recycle and wasteful. Grind provides Nespresso-compatible pods that can be thrown on your compost heap or out with the food waste. Everything is plastic-free and organic (and the packaging is beautiful).
  • Bird & Wild coffee – Coffee is often unsustainably and unethically produced, and without looking for certain accreditations, it can be hard to know what you’re buying. For the ground coffee lover, Bird & Wild is about as sustainable as you get for coffee.
  • Bax Botanics – For anyone looking to avoid the booze this year, Bax’s eco-friendly, fairtrade, zesty Verbena non-alcoholic spirit is the way to go. For more info on them and other favourites, see this post for the best alcohol-free spirits.
  • Tony’s Chocoloney – Aside from producing delicious, CHUNKY chocolate, Tony’s campaigns for ethically produced chocolate that does not use modern slavery or child labour – which unfortunately is more common than you might think. They have vegan and non-vegan options.
  • Doisy & Dam – Christmas can never have too much chocolate, so here’s another great brand. D&D sources their cocoa from sustainable farms, and as a B Corp, they are serious about transparency. They don’t use palm oil and are 100% vegan.

Charity initiatives/tree planting

  • Secret Santa Action for Children – For the person who has everything, make a gift to someone else in their name. Action for Children provides Secret Santa gifts for some of the 9 million children living in poverty in the UK. This allows them to have a hot meal, a place to sleep or a little gift this Christmas – you choose!
  • Treedom Trees – Gifts don’t have to be visible to make an impact. Treedom allows you to plant and name a tree around the world that will allow smallhold farmers to have an extra source of income or food source, all while soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. All trees are geotagged, so you can check in and see how your tree is doing! Use the code FLORA20 for 20% off whichever tree you buy.
  • Adopt an animal through WWF – This is the perfect present for a child or young relative that keep on giving through regular updates. This provides funding to keep that species safe, and you get a little welcome pack to show thanks.
Treedom supports smallholder farmers across the world and sequesters carbon too

If you enjoyed this post please do share and tag Hattie and me on Instagram! That way we can support more businesses and make more of a change. What are your favourite ethical and sustainable businesses – why not tag them on Instagram or Twitter to support them? Happy shopping!

The Ethical Implications of Black Friday

This year’s Black Friday takes place on the 27th November, between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, 30th Nov.

Despite growing concern over the ethical implications of Black Friday, 2019 saw transaction values increase by 16.5% and volume increase by 7.2% in the UK compared to 2018. In the US in 2019, Black Friday online sales beat all previous records, reaching $7.4bn, up from $6.2bn on Black Friday 2018, continuing the exponential upward trend of sales made on Black Friday, driven primarily by millennials

Black Friday is theoretically a great way to boost shop sales made each year – 30% of all retail sales occur in the month between Black Friday and Christmas, giving a much-needed boost both to online stores and in most years brick and mortar stores too. It also allows people to purchase goods they need and would otherwise not be able to afford, such as white goods and electronics. 

But what are the ethical implications of nearly 50% of items for sale being reduced each year for a weekend of mass shopping? How does this impact the supply chain and environment? Despite a slower increase in sales year on year in the UK vs. the US, there is significant harm caused by the surge of sales globally over the Black Friday weekend. 

Where does your money go?

One of the arguments for Black Friday is that is boosts the economy and benefits many brands and businesses. However, the companies most likely to benefit from Black Friday are those with the largest mark-ups on their items, who likely do not have great ethical credentials and who benefit from tax havens, thus not contributing to the economy as much as you might hope. According to ecommerce stats, shops with over $1bn annual sales see a 62% boost in sales over Black Friday, whereas smaller shops see only a 27% growth. In 2018, Amazon, Ebay, Apple, Sony, Currys and Missguided profited the most from Black Friday sales in the UK – these are hardly small brands struggling for profit. Amazon’s tax avoidance has been known about since 2012, as well as their operations which run through Luxembourg to avoid paying any tax in the UK, thus not actually benefitting the UK economy as much as expected.

Small, independent brands have to compete with low prices from mass corporations such as these year round, thus profit margins are miniscule even when paying full price. These companies cannot afford to cut prices further over Black Friday, and thus aren’t the ones benefitting from the increased spending. 

How can they cut prices so significantly?

When Missguided sells jumpers and dresses from as little as £5, it begs the question how much mark-up was on the products before, and how little the factory workers get when a dress sells for that little. In 2017 there were reports of UK garment factory workers being paid £3ph in Leicester – less than half the legal minimum wage at the time – in order to compete with clothing made in China and Bangladesh. Clothes made abroad often have even more significant problems, such as utilising child and/or slave labour. Worryingly, most brands these factories were producing for claimed to not even know that the factories were producing clothes for them, highlighting the need for transparency across the supply chain. 

If we are to have a truly sustainable economy, we need to accept that good quality, ethically made clothing cannot be bought for £5. Better quality clothing costs more and has lower profit margins, but also is likely to last longer and be cherished more. Cheap clothes encourage wasteful behaviour

Packaging problems

In recent years, shoppers have move from shopping primarily at brick and mortar stores to shopping online, raising the added issue of packaging. Many small items will be wrapped in mounds of non-biodegradable plastic packaging, often in a box inside a box. This mound of packaging will likely primarily end up in landfill.

Consumerist behaviour

This year, with most Black Friday shopping taking place online, stories of injuries and even deaths thanks to the commotion of Black Friday are likely to be limited. However, these are yearly examples of how consumerism brings out the worst in shoppers. We tend not to make good decisions when stressed – simple neurobiology – and so Black Friday is one of the worst days to make purchasing decisions. 21% of Brits purchased something on Black Friday that they later regretted, at an average of £83 per person. The pressure of Christmas looming, limited items for sale and other shoppers going wild means that it’s unlikely Black Friday will be spent purchasing goods we need, instead leading to panic-buying items we’ll never use.

Shop and factory workers

Nothing is free. However much you save on an item, there will always be a cost somewhere. Unfortunately, during busy times of year this is often passed onto the workers who create and package up items to be dispatched. Working overtime in factoriesdispatch centres and on the shop floor is gruelling, with reports of timed loo breaks or worse, nappies, as well as long days and unsafe working conditions. I personally received numerous messages when researching for this topic from retail workers who dread Black Friday yearly due to the horrendous behaviour of customers and stressful conditions in store. 

Returns

With the UK panic-buying millions of items that are not needed, the volume of returns in the month after Black Friday skyrockets. This costs the retailers considerable amounts of money, resulting in a dip in profits, which again harms smaller businesses considerably more than larger ones.

Reports have suggested that it can cost a retailer twice the price of delivery for a product to be returned to the supply chain. In addition, the environmental costs are huge. When a product comes back to the warehouse it has to reprocessed, cleaned, repaired, repackaged and made ready to be bought again. In total, it will pass through seven pairs of hands before it is back on sale again – at which point it may be reduced and further devalued, perhaps even ending up in landfill, with devastating environmental effects. All of the above, combined with the extra packaging and shipping emissions mean that returning items en masse is both bad for business, and bad for the environment.

Black Friday encourages us to buy things we don’t really need, getting caught up in the frenzy of deals ‘too good to turn down’. Even people who are aware of the above issues can get carried away with the aggressive marketing tactics used by many brands – if you’re online or in town, it’s impossible to ignore. Even Instagram’s replacement of the notifications button with the ‘shopping’ button (who even knew Instagram was somewhere to shop?) is an example of the lengths brands and businesses will go to, to encourage consumers to consume more than ever before. 

My Black Friday rules are to avoid all ‘big deals’ and instead support small brands and independent businesses to buy Christmas presents – it scratches the shopping itch while simultaneously benefitting businesses that otherwise lose out at this time of year to bigger brands. If I need something big (furniture, white goods etc.) I’m likely to wait for Black Friday (this year I’m moving house and will certainly be looking for goods I need in the sales), but otherwise I avoid the day altogether. 

What are your thoughts on Black Friday? Are you a fan? Do you partake or avoid it? If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution