What does "sustainability" really mean?
The word “sustainability” has been hammered and abused so much for the last few years, it’s become more than just a buzzword, but a total catch-all for anything that sounds reasonably good. Remember “synergy”? Let’s take a moment to dissect what it really means to be sustainable, what that word even means, and then let’s take a closer look at H&M’s utterly misleading lip service to the environmental movement.
When it comes to corporate responsibility, I believe it’s critical for these two concepts to intertwine to truly claim sustainability. Below I’ll go through a few sticking points that really grind my gears.
Oxford Dictionary gives two definitions for sustainability:
“the ability to continue or be continued for a long time”
“the use of natural products and energy in a way that does not harm the environment”
Country of Origin
Countless brands fill their websites with marketing jargon, stunning photography, and great copywriting to lead the customer to believe the brand is upholding sustainable practices. Well the first question should be, where is the stuff even made? Is it made in an entirely different part of the world? If the company is based in Austin, TX but everything is made in Bangladesh, how is that upholding practices "that does not harm the environment”? The environmental costs associated with shipping goods, importing and exporting, using countless planes, trains, ships, and trucks is astronomical! If your supply chain is 12,000 miles long, that’s a significant impact on the planet that doesn’t just happen once. It’s on-going and indefinite as long as the company continues.
And what about the “ability to be continued for a long time”? We all saw supply chains shut down in 2020 during the pandemic and we continue to feel the effects now. Entirely separate to Covid, the Suez Canal was blocked for 3 days, greatly impacting global commerce. When your business and supply chain rely on a teetering balance of global networks, how sustainable is it when it can all fall apart overnight?
Plenty of countries make beautiful textiles and have long histories of apparel. Portugal, India, and Peru come to mind. Being Made in the USA is only sustainable if you are operating and selling predominantly in America. Clothes made and sold in India are no less sustainable than those made and sold in the USA (in terms of supply chain).
Where this truly gets to me as a consumer, is when brands that tout sustainable practices very often do not state the country of origin on their website. You have to purchase the product to check the label (and it’s often hidden in the seam tag inside) only to find out it was made in China. And at that point, returning it is simply another unsustainable process, shipping it back to the warehouse, where it often ends up unable to be sold to another customer and ends up in the trash.
What materials are most sustainable?
This is a classic conundrum that simply cannot be broken down into Black and White. Truth be told, all materials have some kind of environmental cost and impact. That being said it is up to the producer, and the customer, to determine which is in fact the best to use.
There are essentially three types of fiber: natural, synthetic, or somewhere inbetween. Natural fibers would be cotton, wool, hemp, linen, or silk, among others. Synthetic examples are polyester, lycra/spandex, nylon, or acrylic. And the “something in between” fibers may be ones that employ a chemical process on a natural fiber, like Rayon or viscose.
So which is the best? To me, and to us at Goodwear, it is no question that natural fibers are the best choice. Cotton has been used for millennia to produce durable, comfortable, and biodegradable textiles. All textiles fall apart over time, and as cotton does, it sheds natural cotton fibers that become dust and decompose over time. Polyester on the other hand is incredibly common, incredibly cheap, and incredibly comfortable. Unfortunately, it is a plastic and therefore starts its journey derived from oil. It also sheds, only the fibers being released are microplastics that never disappear. Every shirt, dress, underwear, sock, jacket, hat, or pair of pants ever made of polyester, acrylic, or nylon is in some form still existing today. Whether that’s in the landfill, ocean, or our lungs and bodies.
While the water cost to produce cotton is often chastised, it is simply another agricultural crop. I’d be quick to point out the amount of water used to produce the corn and soy in this country, entirely to feed the cattle (that also need water) that often end up in the landfill themselves. And that’s not to say better water usage practices can’t be implemented in the cotton industry, or that better alternatives exist. Hemp is one such alternative that we have begun using, but the domestic hemp industry is still too small to support the demand or to shake up the textile industry. But hemp is a faster growing, less needy, and more durable fiber than cotton and will have its day soon enough. Not to mention it's incredibly comfortable(this long sleeve striped hemp shirt is my favorite thing we make).
Landfill in Chile, largely fast fashion polyester-based clothing | Getty Images - Martin Bernetti
Cost of production and waste
All companies in all industries have some kind of waste, failure, spillage, or loss. It is unfortunate, but ultimately impossible to erase. But the apparel industry, on average, is an obscene offender, the worst of all being the giant Fast Fashion brands that dominate department stores, malls, and now the E-commerce space. Brands like H&M.
The industry average for quality control failures in production is around 3-5%. At Goodwear, in a 1000 piece production, we can expect anywhere from 30-50 shirts to be damaged when it’s all said and done. This could be from tears in the fabric, missed stitches, mismatched seams, oil stains from the sewing machines, among many others. Over the course of the year, we amass several dozen boxes of these “irregulars” and donate them to local shelters, food banks, or overseas crises.
But imagine a company like H&M. H&M pioneered the fast fashion movement and kept up it’s blistering pace without a second thought. Only 20 years later they have now rebranded as a company focused on “sustainability”. Keep in mind they produced the waste they now claim to be taking a stand against. H&M produces 3 BILLION items PER YEAR. With a conservative estimate of 3% damages, that’s 90 MILLION shirts in the landfill. Shirts made from cheap plastic polyester, by the way.
It gets worse. Deadstock, or old styles unable to be sold any more, accounts on average to be 40% of a company’s inventory. (We use deadstock in our annual Grab Bag sales where you get 5 Goodwear shirts for $50, we also donate it with our irregulars). With 40% of H&M’s production going into deadstock, that’s over 1 Billion shirts going in the trash, year in, and year out. And that’s one company. One company claiming “Sustainability” and how they are “Leading the Change”.
After reading this blog, pay attention to the companies claiming sustainability. Are they a global, polyester producing, 4 season release company? Like your food labels that say “natural!”, “healthy”, or “carefully crafted”, saying your clothes are “sustainable” has no real meaning or regulation. It’s not easy to be a discerning customer, so if you’ve found yourself here shopping at Goodwear, we applaud you, and stand by our promise to be the most sustainable, well crafted, and long lasting shirt in your closet.
For more information about the Chilean landfill disaster in the Atacama Desert, I encourage you to read this article from our friends at EcoWatch
about the author
Peter is the Creative Director for Goodwear USA. He writes about sustainability, Goodwear's business practices, and for fun. He enjoys surfing, photography, and cooking.
- peter liquori -
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