I can’t be the only one stupefied by the overwhelming use of this word “sustainability”.
I 1000% stand behind its intentions: not polluting or depleting natural resources, ethicality at all levels of production, and equity for all participants. But reality is, the word has evolved into a dramatic performance, a well-intentioned branding, swept up by the capitalist’s bid for profits.
No industry has been less exploited by the word’s relentless push for popularity than that of fashion (or textiles/clothing). Like I said, there is good reason – the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions, 20% of industrial water pollution and renowned for its labor inequalities. Yet even with knowledge of those statistics and the burgeoning “sustainable” focused entrants, clothing production is increasing while clothing lifespan is declining.
We’re living in a grey area and fashion is loving it. There are little to no government regulated guidelines defining what sustainability actually is. The private sector, the good and bad (slow and fast) fashion labels, have weaponized the ambiguity, unleashing environmentally friendly buzzwords with little threat of backlash.
Most people are aware of the hypocrisies from fast fashion brands pushing this NEW founded planet loving image – the Uniqlo’s, the H&M’s, the Nike’s. Less suspecting are the brands we’ve put on a pedestal, the one’s mentioned in our privileged conversations around sustainability, spared from any sort of reprisal. While they do engage in some ethical practices, they have misrepresented the word, leading to the deterioration of its meaning.
I think of Bode. Founded by Emily Bode, the first female designer to show at NYFW, Bode has dashed onto the high couture scene with beautifully anomalous upcycled pieces, projecting a timeless cadence in an era of materialism and ephemeral culture. That theme of permanence has lifted Bode’s reputation into the rafters of sustainability. Unfortunately, there’s no way the prices they charge uphold those values. A tote bag goes for $425 and a jacket $1,400. Why does their sustainable approach matter if it is only available to a tiny elite market? They operate in high fashion which is already intrinsically sustainable, of good quality, and one of kindness. Bode’s clothes might be made ethically, but they’re essentially reaching no one and are irrelevant in the fight against fast fashion.
Patagonia. It’s hard to criticize them – they are THE green company archetype. They use recycled materials, engage in microplastics research, strive for fair labor practices, and are huge activists in their community (I recently discovered they are leading action to reduce oil drilling and equality injustices right in our backyard, Wilmington, CA – https://www.patagonia.com/actionworks/campaigns/stop-neighborhood-drilling/). Contradictory to this proactive approach is their alarming growth. Sales have increased from $500 million in 2011 to around $1 billion in 2017 and are still growing. For comparison, the brand Everlane, which was publicly chastised for falsifying sustainable practices, did $250 million in sales in 2020. Patagonia is a known proponent against the capitalistic consumption model, even including it in their infamous 2011 “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign. But their absurd levels of sales growth indicate they don’t care – any increase in production, ethical or not, means taking and polluting from the natural world. As a face for sustainability, Patagonia seems to be flying under the radar of scrutiny. To set a better example, they need to set a production limit.
I’m clearly being harsh of companies pushing change, but the point remains – sustainability has lost any sort of meaning it once held. For an industry so detrimental to our future, every company must be criticized until the standards are raised. I also understand that as an outsider, I have simplified a very complex issue. To get a better feel for the experiences on the ground, I spoke with Oddli, an LA brand attempting to reclaim the term “sustainability”. Founded in 2020 by Stanford grads Ellie Chen and Jensen Neff, Oddli’s patchworked gems stand in a remarkably unique situation. As late entrants and witnesses to the rise and fall of brands latching on to term, they have an opportunity to redefine what sustainability can mean.
Why did you start Oddli?
Oddli came from learning about how disgusting the fashion industry is. We wanted to show that wearing sustainable can be colorful and fun, definitely not a sacrifice. We believe there’s every excuse in the world for us to work on environmental issues, so it was never about making money, or entering a blooming market, it has always been about battling climate change, and figuring out where we fit in.
What is your definition of sustainability? How does Oddli incorporate this?
We think about this every day. There are a lot of definitions. There almost needs to be a new word because it has lost its value. Maybe intention and care? To us, transparency is huge, letting our customers know what they’re getting and where it came from. We started out with deadstock fabric because it was a tangible way to use what the Earth already had, so we knew we weren’t creating anything new. However, this is still on the backend of a solution because we are not directly sourcing the materials – like do we want to source our own organic cotton? So that’s the next step for us, figuring out what Oddli values – is it carbon, water, using all-natural dyes, labor. We’re going to write that thesis, we still have a lot to learn.
How will real change come about?
Real change is going to come from legislation and holding fast fashion accountable. It’s absurd how it’s not brought to the table like transportation or oil. Fashion is always thought of as “frivolous”. You have companies like Forever 21 swallowing their fines to continue underpaying workers because they’ve figured out it’s more profitable. On a more somber note, we spoke with Ken Cook, one of the largest environmental lobbyists in DC, who believes there’s not going to be any real changes in legislation for the next 5 years because the industry is so fragmented and huge. So that means every CEO needs to step up and create their own definition of sustainability.
But what about the oversaturation problem? I feel like too many companies are jumping into this boat of sustainability because green demand is high and there’s no regulation.
Well we fricken hope there’s an oversaturation problem. There’s so much on picking apart the details of small brands trying to do anything against fast fashion brands, and so little on the opposite. Zara makes enough pieces for every person to have 14 pieces a year. H&M had $5 billion of unsold clothing last year. The amount of damage those brands are doing is mind-blowing.
How do you democratize sustainability so that it is available to all socioeconomic backgrounds?
That’s a tough but important question. There are people on both sides who deserve equitable access and lives. We want to provide affordable clothing to as many people as possible, but the worker needs a livable wage. For Oddli, we want to hover around a reasonable price point, like $50 for a bucket hat. We make stuff that you can save up for, treasure, and that you will feel good wearing. People are literally brainwashed into thinking it’s ok to get something for $10. That is not ok! There is someone on the backend working for $4. One of our goals is to communicate with our customers that it’s not ok to think $10 is OK.
Oddli’s message is clear – sustainability means transparency. As a young company, they humbly acknowledge they’re still learning which doesn’t shine through in their matured intentions. Maybe the goldrush to sustainability has propagated bad actors, killing the meaning of the word, but Oddli has convinced me that any attempt of ethicality is FAR better than leaving the industry in the hands of fast fashion. Until we get out of this grey, it’s up to the consumer to hold everyone, including the Oddli’s and Patagonia’s, accountable. I wish Oddli the best of luck as they scale.