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WTF is Sustainability?

Is sustainability a greenwashing campaign’s favorite buzz word or a tool in the climate crisis fighting arsenal? My take: both!

Essentially, sustainability refers to the prudent use of environmental resources. It gets some well-deserved flack when used by companies trying to meet demands of environmentally aware customers without overhauling its business practices. The other danger with the word is that it allows us to talk about solutions without having to do the work of figuring out what those solutions look like. Which really gets us nowhere.

Language as a tool in the environmental movement 

I’d like to offer a defense of the term, not despite its broadness, but because of it. As I see it, it’s short-hand for a spectrum of practices that value and prudently apply environmental resources. The climate crisis is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. It is, at times, simply impractical to describe the myriad ways our economy and infrastructures must change to avoid further ecological reckoning. Sustainability offers a general term to encompass all attempts to reduce human disruption of the environment.

For me, it’s helpful to think of what the word sustainable means outside of the context of the environment: can I eat nothing but chocolate ice cream with brownie chunks? Well sure, for a while, but eventually my body will need vitamins and whatever else bodies need that ice cream alone can’t provide. Can I buy new pots and pans to avoid cleaning my existing ones? Again, for a little bit, but eventually I’ll run out of money or spaces to fit all thedirty pans. It’s not sustainable.

Sustainability is not fast fashion

It’s the same thing with the environment. We can (and most definitely have) dig up fossil fuels and burn them to make polyester and fuel production lines. But eventually we run out of fossil fuels and we run out of space for all the discarded polyester and its byproducts. We can dump production waste into whichever stream is nearest. Eventually, however, we are going to run out of clean streams for doing things like, say, drinking, bathing – those silly things we humans like to do.

sustainably repaired cashmere sweater

What fashion is sustainable?

Though I am advocating for this shorthand term, it is important to be clear about what it really means (at least within the context of this blog). An absolutely sustainable product or process:

  • Does not add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than the earth can absorb. 
  • Does not create waste that won’t safely re-absorb into the earth within a few years.
  • Does not irrevocably disrupt ecosystems. The environment is a complicated web of relationships and when we disrupt one species, we are disrupting all the species it interacts with throughout its life – including humans!  

That’s it. Pretty simple: don’t use more than we can afford or waste more than we can store.

Celebrating all progress towards sustainability

Okay, it’s not that simple. These criteria are aspirational in today’s fossil fueled, cheap-good-hungry economy. For now, anything that releases less greenhouse gases, produces less waste, or disrupts less space than mainstream products (i.e. fast fashion) is sustainable. This blog strives to define the full impact of products and processes featured while celebrating any progress made towards more sustainable fashion sourcing. 

The bright side of being dependent on a global infrastructure that seriously devalues limited resources and human lives is that we have a whole lot of room for improvement.