The word sustainability has been used and misused to categorize a wide variety of steps toward sustainability.
But what exactly is true sustainability? What does it look like in practice, and what’s holding us back?
Sustainability is not the use of a certain material. Sustainability is not the elimination of a single toxic process. Sustainability is not one specific personal habit.
This isn’t to say that these things cannot have a positive impact. Something can be better than its leading alternative but still not quite sustainable. A single decision can be responsible, even while the process or product it exists within is not quite sustainable.
Sustainability is achieved when the need an object fills is proportional to the impact the object has on the world. This means that sustainability, particularly in product development, cannot happen in isolation. Sustainability requires the participation of an entire system. A distinction of sustainability requires a full product life cycle assessment. This assessment must cover production, use, and end-of-life.
No Sustainability without Transparency
The “production” phase gets a lot of airtime in the sustainability conversation. Its effects are the easiest to isolate, study, and communicate, because they depend on industrial processes and limited individual behaviors.
The impacts of production are both social and environmental and are deeply intertwined with one another. The majority of the modern apparel industry is built on a model of exploitation of people and the planet, and we cannot uplift one without uplifting the other as well. There is no sustainability without environmental justice and living wages across supply chains.
Apparel production is rarely studied in its entirety. There are several tiers in the apparel supply chain, including assembly factories, subcontracted assembly factories, fabric production facilities, yarn production facilities, and raw material suppliers. Because of these complexities and a lack of accountability, there is very limited transparency between suppliers, brands, and consumers. This makes it difficult for a consumer to assess the environmental and social impacts of production in the apparel industry. Large brands have the power to demand transparency in their supply chains, but without increased consumer pressure and legislation, this is unlikely to happen.
No Sustainability without Good Design
In general, the more a product is used, the more worthy it is of production and of existence.
This is not to say that anything that is often-used can justify its environmental footprint, especially when we take into consideration that some products’ footprints grow larger as they are used. This is only to say that if something is going to have an impact on the environment (as nearly all products do), it’d better serve a purpose.
In this portion of the life cycle assessment, it becomes clear that sustainability and good design are synonymous when environmental and social metrics are factored into the equations of cost and efficiency. This three-pronged cost analysis is commonly referred to as the triple bottom line, although this phrase, like sustainability, has been misused across industries.
The “Use” phase of a product’s life is complex, because it depends on both physical and emotional durability which are often determined in product conceptualization. Champions of “sustainable consumption” have proven that consumers can extend the life of products on their own accord, but the bigger issue here is the forced obsolescence that is built into many products to encourage more rapid consumption.
Many industries, particularly the fashion industry, are choosing to perpetuate rapid trend cycles, cultivating a take-make-waste culture. The physical integrity and design quality of garments reflect the throwaway attitude. This leaves consumers hard-pressed to find classic, quality garments that they can comfortably use into the foreseeable future.
No Sustainability without Circularity
The last piece of the life cycle assessment puzzle is the “end-of-life” phase. An end-of-life assessment considers what happens to a product when its functional life has come to an end. Some end-of-life considerations:
Can the product be repaired if damaged?
Is the infrastructure in place to repair damaged products?
Will the product eventually be thrown away?
Can it be made into something new?
Is it designed to be disassembled and its parts reused?
Can it biodegrade? Can the material be easily recycled?
Is the infrastructure in place to recycle the material?
Is the infrastructure in place to deliver end-of-life information to the last user?
Will it be easy enough for the user to follow the appropriate end-of-life procedures?
A strong end-of-life plan is one that is designed into the product from its conception and makes its life—or the life of its parts—circular rather than linear, maximizing resource efficiency through regenerative principles.
So What is Sustainability?
All of this is to say, sustainability is complex. It is something many are working toward, but few have achieved. Its principles are innate in the living world, many of which are exemplified by tribal and indigenous communities with a more meaningful understanding of humanity’s relationship to land.
At LIVSN, we have always worked toward sustainability by prioritizing intentional production processes, high-quality design, and product repairability. As a relatively small brand, we face challenges accessing certain materials and generating significant pressure across the many tiers of suppliers. Currently, we are working toward increased transparency in our supply chain. As we grow, so too will our push toward sustainability.
As an industry, we must take accountability for the many byproducts—good and bad, tangible and intangible—of our work. Some brands are intrinsically motivated to seek sustainability. However, many of the world’s largest brands must be forced toward sustainability by external pressures: consumer demands, legislation, or eventual exhaustion of natural resources. Although consumers are not to blame for the shortcomings of the fashion industry and its strategic “take-make-waste” culture, consumers do have the power to demand that the fashion industry does better.
Consumer power starts with education, and if you’ve made it this far you’re already on your way. In your journey toward personal sustainability and environmental advocacy and activism, I would encourage you to seek out a variety of perspectives. A few good places to start include Aja Barber’s Consumed (along with her incredibly honest and vulnerable Instagram account), Orsola de Castro’s Loved Clothes Last (along with her Fashion Revolution), Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed, the sustainable fashion advocacy non-profit Remake, the Sustainable Fashion Forum, Intersectional Environmentalist, and the Instagram accounts and writing of Sophia Li, Isaias Hernandez of Queer Brown Vegan, and Pattie Gonia (yes, you read that right).
Sustainability isn’t a new idea. Rather, it is an age-old standard that has been made foreign to much of the western world via colonization, industrialization, and globalization. We must now choose to actively pursue a return to this ideal.
Written by Abby Hollis
This is exactly the kind of company and ethic I want to support! I can’t wait to try my first pair! Thanks for laying out sustainability so clearly in your industry.