Rethinking the Fashion Industry: A Low-Impact and Regenerative Approach
Rethinking Corporate Purpose
How the f*ck did we get here—to a place that consistently puts profit above the planet and its people. As detailed in previous blog posts, the ethical and environmental implications from these business practices have been disastrous; however, the awareness of both the company and the consumer are expanding. The fast fashion cycle must be recognized for what it is: broken and outdated. When considering profit as the sole purpose of an organization, there inherently will be sacrifices and consequences. To rebuild, apparel corporations need to rethink their purpose and move forward with intent. This blog post breaks down some of the philosophies that companies embrace to challenge the fast fashion crisis.
Business for Good
Rather than traditional business theory, valuing only wealth generation and shareholder profit, social and environmental responsibility are being incorporated into business operations. Although this ethical mindset has been around since the definition of sustainability at the Brundtland Report in 1983, it has mainly fallen on deaf ears. Sustainable development, defined by the Brundtland Report, “is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (IISD n.d.). While this is a fine starting point for organizations to reference, this definition is from the freaking 80’s and fails to encompass what our planet and people desperately need—NOW—in 2020.
Providing services and products to customers with the intent of generating something of value—besides money—is a tenant of holistic business theory. An organization can still desire to grow and generate wealth, but that goal must be in balance with helping the planet and people. This business model refers to the Triple Bottom Line—People, Planet, Profit. Credited to John Elkington in 1994, this 3P model not only measures the financial bottom line but the social and environmental performance of a business too (Kenton 2020). Apparel companies must commit to focusing on environmental and social concerns just as much as profit.
Innovating with Purpose
At the design level, designers actually control more than 80% of a product’s environmental impact—providing optimal room for sustainable improvements (Lehmann et al. 2020). As a response to the fast fashion crisis, designers now embrace innovation, creativity, and the best available technology to forge a sustainable future for the apparel industry and create solutions for the industry’s largest challenges (Lehmann et al. 2020). Instead of being complacent and furthering these dire challenges, the slow fashion industry finds opportunities within them.
Shifting operations to a focus on environmental and social concerns calls for both innovation and the recollection of past practices. Fashion once relied on skilled craftspeople to create memorable pieces—it was slow, but worth it. These pieces were celebrated and cherished.
Instead of releasing new collections weekly or less (like H&M, Topshop, and Zara), slow fashion releases only a few times a year—showcasing the craftmanship and sourcing of the most sustainable materials. Slow fashion is an approach to the supply chain that considers the processes and resources necessary to produce apparel (Hill 2018).
However, sustainability spans many issues following the extremely fragmented apparel value chain, making it important to transform every aspect of business. Cherry picking one or two problems—like energy production—but forgetting others—like worker’s rights—does not give a company the right to name themselves sustainable. This means looking at the value chain and directly addressing each element and all of the resources and labor associated with it. Remember this chain includes, Fiber Production, Yarn Preparation, Fabric Preparation, Dyeing & Finishing, Assembly, Distribution, Use, and End-of-Life. This means leaving the lowest impact on the planet in each of these operations while ensuring ethical standards throughout it.
Sustainable Fashion Downfalls
With the progress made in the industry, sustainable fashion falls short from being our “solution” to fast fashion. Although the sustainability movement provides an excellent starting point, some argue that its broadness is problematic. One designer, Rejina Pyo, remarks that, “We do not describe ourselves as a sustainable brand because there is always more to do, and I’m not sure there is any such thing as a truly sustainable fashion company” (Dixon 2019). And she has a point here: the term ‘sustainability’ has grown diluted from corporate greenwashing that it holds questionable value at this point in time.
Sustainable fashion also typically excludes significant populations—failing to include low-income and colored peoples. Sustainable fashion as modeled by white women wearing expensive, neutral toned linen is not accessible to everyone. Failing to make sustainable fashion attainable means that it will never serve as the impetus necessary for meaningful change. As one of our heroes Leah Thomas explains, “…sustainability has definitely been co-opted by Mason-jar-wielding, beige-only-wearing white people. I want people to see that it’s way more than that” (Hairston 2020). Accessibility means incorporating different sizes and prices—something currently missing in sustainable fashion.
Expanding these ideas further, regenerative fashion takes sustainability to a whole new level. Our one-sided relationship with the planet (take take take) loses sight of giving back. Sustainable operations mostly fail at this giving back aspect that our planet requires since taking the least still fails at giving back. As journalist Aditi Mayer says, “The future of fashion really relies on the shift from sustainability to regeneration and seeing how a positive impact is possible” (Hairston 2020).
Regenerate (adjective): formed or created again; to re-create, spiritually reborn or converted; restored to a better, higher, or more worthy state (from Merriam-Webster).
This definition calls upon the industry to restore the planet to a more worthy state than it was to begin. Instead of acres upon acres of detrimental monocrop farming, regenerative farming strategically incorporates a variety of plants and crops to mimic nature. Regenerative agriculture represents an opportunity where the apparel industry can give back.
While this conversation might be new, the techniques are based on tradition (Fara 2020). Inclusive farming with insects, animals, and a variety of crops is something these farmers saw their great grandparents doing. It is a return to the past—a holistic and systems-based approach in synch with the natural world. Companies like Christy Dawn and Patagonia are embracing regenerative farming practices and utilizing regenerative cotton and botanical plants for dyeing.
A Slow Fashion Revolution
On a positive note—we have many fashion organizations understanding the need to focus on environmental and social concerns. Businesses realize the necessity in incorporating responsibility into their operations. The all-encompassing term ‘sustainability’ has helped companies understand what is necessary of them to do good by the world.
Sustainability, however, lacks the preciseness required to tackle this beast that has grown so many heads. For a company to truly claim ‘sustainability’ they would need to rework every operation of their business. And then it comes down to the fact that the most sustainable option would be to shut down all operations and stop creating more clothing to end in a land fill one day… Probably not an option, so it’s low-impact and regenerative fashion that brings us closest to solving the fast fashion crisis.
We here at eMpulse believe in progress over perfection. Claiming to have a totally sustainable clothing brand would be a lie. For us, it is all about low-impact fashion and striving for the best materials and processes we can get our hands on.
Continuously Questioning the Norm,
eM and the eMpulse team
Dixon, Emily. 2019. “The Problem with ‘Sustainable Fashion’.” CNN, CNN Style. October 11, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/the-problem-with-sustainable-fashion/index.html.
Fara, Emily. 2020. “Regenerative Fashion Can Change the Fashion Industry—And the World, But What Is It?” Vogue, May 12, 2020. https://www.vogue.com/article/regenerative-agriculture-sustainable-fashion-christy-dawn-fibershed.
Hairston, Tahirah. 2020. “Three Sustainable Fashion Trailblazers on Boycotting, Buzzwords, and Consumerism.” Teen Vogue, September 18, 2020. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sustainable-fashion-trailblazers-future-of-industry.
IISD. n.d. “Sustainable Development.” International Institute for Sustainable Development. Accessed September 29, 2020. https://www.iisd.org/about-iisd/sustainable-development.
Kenton, Will. 2020. “Triple Bottom Line (TBL).” Investopedia, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/triple-bottom-line.asp.