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Maxine Bedat on the Destructive Impact of Sustainability as a Buzzword

Is there such thing as sustainable fashion?

Despite the seemingly endless advancements in sustainability, one industry expert questions the validity of a garment that claims to have zero impact on the environment.

Maxine Bedat, founder and director of New Standard Institute (NSI), a “think-and-do tank” focused on transforming the fashion industry into a force for good, addresses the topic in her new bookUnraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment.” The book outlines denim’s impact on the environment and people who make up the supply chain, and calls on consumers to question the real meaning of sustainability.

“When we use those words, it ends up being about just choosing which product [is most sustainable] when the real heart of the question is, ‘what is my relationship to this product, and am I going to be wearing it for a long time to come?’” she said during a webinar this week hosted by sustainability advisory service Impactorum.

This is far from the first time an expert has discussed the overuse of terminology related to sustainability. Words like “sustainable” and “organic” have become so commonplace that they’re losing their meaning and becoming vulnerable to abuse. Greenwashing is an industry-wide issue that’s being tackled by advancements in transparency that aim to make it harder to fake a responsible and fair supply chain.

Traceability technology such as Retraced and FibreTrace, adopted by brands like Boyish Jeans and Reformation, are part of the shift to holding companies accountable. By sharing verified data throughout the supply chain, these technologies can help clarify which companies are playing fair.

“Greenwishing” is a new phrase that has emerged to signify companies that oversell their bare-minimum standards—for instance, those that claim to vet “ethical” supply chain partners, but really just perform standard audits of their manufacturers. Bedat noted that auditing was developed by legal teams to protect brands—and not to provide workers with genuinely helpful resources like fair wages and safe working conditions.

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The way these facts are communicated is crucial for reducing environmental impact, as terms are often misinterpreted. For example, Bedat said that many consumers interpret a brand’s use of organic cotton to mean the entire product is sustainable.

“When something is sold as organic, it means that the raw material has gone through an organic certification, and it has no bearing without other certifications about the rest of the supply chain,” she said. “And when it comes to climate change, the textile mill is actually the most important part. The farm is important, but not nearly as important as what’s happening in the actual textile mill.”

Certifications related to water and energy savings go a step further and help shed light on the environmental impact of a product throughout other stages of the supply chain. A “B Corp” label can also demonstrate a company’s commitment to ethical supply chains—the certification verifies that the company aspires to “do no harm and benefit all” through its products and practices. B Corps, according to B Lab, the Pennsylvania-based social enterprise behind the certification system, are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, the community and the environment.

Workers’ rights are a subject of contention in a post-pandemic world, as many companies came under fire for their mistreatment of supply chain partners during a global time of need. Some brands and retailers postponed the delivery of goods that had already been produced, others canceled new orders that had already been agreed upon, and some delayed payments to manufacturers for the apparel they had already shipped.

And while the pandemic helped shine a light on these shortcomings, fair working conditions have been a longstanding issue in the fashion industry, where workers are often trained to mimic machines.

“It’s [the] same mentality of taking a human being and maximizing their output, which started in the cotton fields in the south,” Bedat said. “It has expanded to garment workers who are mostly women in the Global South, and it’s operating today in distribution facilities in the U.S. and Europe.”

Implementing sustainability and easing the environmental burden undoubtedly has financial repercussions. In order to maintain an economy while drastically reducing consumption in a society that’s truly sustainable, Bedat said there needs to be an entire upheaval of attitudes related to success—both for companies and consumers. Companies must redefine their KPIs and ease the pressure to grow revenue. And while she said there’s no clear solution just yet, a truly sustainable future is possible with collective efforts.

“We are participants in our society, and we can change our society,” she said. “We have more power than we’ve been led to believe.”