In Ethical Fashion, Desirability is Sustainability

NEW YORK, United States — Over the past ten years, the eco-fashion movement has been gathering steam. Following the lead of pioneering brands like Stella McCartney and NOIR, which were founded on the basis of ethical principles near the turn of the millennium, there are now entire fashion exhibitions, forums and blogs all focused on so-called sustainable fashion.

Ethical fashion is also high on the agenda of the major luxury goods groups. In April 2009, having already partnered with Stella McCartney to launch her eponymous label, PPR announced its support of HOME, an environmental call-to-action by filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand. François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer, said at the time that PPR’s support aimed to use “images and commentary to make us understand that each of us has a responsibility towards the planet, and that we can each act in our own way.”

A month earlier, Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, told investors at the luxury group’s annual shareholders meeting in Paris of his plan to take a 49 percent stake in Edun, the sustainable clothing label founded by Bono and Ali Hewson. “LVMH shares the vision and ethical values of Edun, a pioneer in ethical apparel, and its founders,” he said later. “LVMH is committed to advancing both the social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, which plays an intrinsic role in the development of our brands.”


In the food industry, we have witnessed the rise of certifications like “organic” and “fair trade” and their widespread adoption by affluent consumers. But what exactly do words like “sustainable,” “eco,” “ethical,” and “green” mean in a fashion context?

Earlier this year, in an insightful piece for the Financial Times, Vanessa Friedman identified a complete lack of consensus within the industry: “Having spent two days in Copenhagen immersed in the concept, having thought about it over the weeks since then, and having canvassed a wide variety of fashion figures, I can honestly answer … no one knows,” she wrote.

Ms. Friedman was in Copenhagen to attend a sustainable fashion conference which coincided with the UN climate change conference and spoke to a number of leading industry figures like Gucci’s Frida Giannini, Oscar de la Renta and Dries van Noten, a perfect focus group, you would think. Yet each of them had a different response to her question: “How would you define sustainable fashion?” Some emphasized a commitment to traditional techniques, others pointed to locally sourced materials, while still others mentioned the importance of reducing carbon footprint.

Industry-observing bloggers don’t fare much better in providing a cohesive answer. On the blog which accompanies sustainable fashion initiative The Uniform Project, co-founder Eliza Starbuck (who has since parted ways with the project to start her own line) wrote an especially thorough post which tried to clear up the confusion.

In the post, Ms. Starbuck distinguished between “heirloom sustainability” — the school that basically says nothing is more sustainable than a high-end designer item, say an Hermès belt, that is passed on for generations — and what could be dubbed “artisanal sustainability,” which is defined by handmade production and a low carbon footprint, the sartorial equivalent of the locavore movement among foodies.

In the end, however, Starbuck concludes that “there is still no ‘sustain-a-standard’ yardstick” that will cover all bases. After all, what are we sustaining? The environment? Traditions? Labourers? Change the parameters and the definition of sustainable fashion changes dramatically.

Commenting on the issue for this article, Christian Kemp-Griffin, chief mission officer at Edun, agreed that there is no single, definitive answer to what is ultimately a very complex question and that the best companies can do is strive for ethical progress and accountability, not ethical perfection.

Summing up Edun’s credo, he explained: “Ethical companies make thoughtful decisions and sell product thinking about the people who make the clothes — wages, human rights, health and safety — and the planet — energy use, biodiversity, organic — which boils the definition of sustainable, ethical clothes down to: product that benefits people and the planet.”

But rather than looking for a single formula, perhaps what is most important is that ethical and sustainable fashion brands are clear on what they are promising. As long as brands stay true to this commitment, they uphold the ethical values that are most important to them and their consumers. The more transparency brands can offer in their sourcing, manufacturing, and design processes, the more consumers can judge for themselves whether the promises being made are really being fulfilled.

In high-fashion, Stella McCartney is, without a doubt, the brand most closely associated with a commitment to the environment. The label’s famously vegetarian, farm-raised founder and designer very openly made planet-friendly practices a foundation of her company right from the start. Part of what makes her proposition so compelling is that her firm stance against cruelty to animals lies at the heart of everything her company stands for.

But is it 100% ethical, in the broadest sense of the definition? Probably not. Does this matter to her fans and customers? Probably not. What’s most important to them is that they know what she is promising and what they are getting when they buy a Stella McCartney product.


Definitions and good intentions aside, fashion is a business built on desirability — people buy fashion because they covet what it looks like and represents. So an equally interesting question is whether “Made Ethically” has the same effect as “Made in Italy.” In other words, is sustainability a positive differentiator in the eyes of fickle and demanding fashion consumers?

Stella McCartney became known as a chic designer label that’s convincingly green, not as a green designer label that is convincingly chic. Speaking to The Business of Fashion, McCartney was clear about her priorities: “Obviously, I don’t use any animals which has a huge impact on the planet. But my first job is to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing for women to want to buy. Then I ask myself: can I do this in a more environmental way without sacrificing design? If I can, then there is no reason not to. I think that women buy my product because they like how it looks, feels, fits and being sustainable is an added extra bonus.”

This emphasis on desirability and design may come as no surprise from a graduate of London fashion college Central St. Martins. But interestingly Ali Hewson, who founded Edun primarily as a means to do good, sees it no differently. She told BoF: “In the fashion business desirability is sustainability! This point has taught us over the years that we must produce quality clothes. Fit must be right, design details correct.”

Julie Gilhart, influential fashion director at Barneys New York, and an early proponent of sustainable fashion, sums it up bluntly: “Consumers respond to good design. Design and desirability must come first.” When deciding whether to spend on fashion, the consumer looks, above all, for good design. Ecological or ethical considerations are still very much secondary.

To illustrate the point, Gilhart recounts an empirical lesson: “At Barneys, when we explicitly labeled Stella McCartney’s organic line with the word ‘organic’ its perceived value actually went down in the eyes of the consumer, even though it was actually more expensive to produce.”

There’s little doubt that environmental awareness amongst fashion consumers is rising and that greater transparency will become important for more and more brands. But in fashion, sustainability cannot drive sales without desirability.

Indeed, the brands that will resonate most with increasingly aware, but ever-demanding consumers will be the ones who integrate sustainable principles into their operations without making “being green” their defining principle.

Suleman Anaya is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion

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  1. I think The fashion system don’t really take care about the environment and about what people think. They try to put their fashion in an artistic way and try always to create “strange” mood just for attracting the “sheeps”. The sad Truth is that they take care just about money and that’s it, just about making profit. So It’s always good to read about new brands and new artist that try to respect the world, but often they just stay there…
    Saving the World is not “fair” for too many powerful people….and we all know that…
    you’re great BoF


  2. We as a company Shyla are trying to take care of the environment. we make garments for private labels.
    We have constructed a factory out of local material, mud thatch lime etc. trying out vegetable dye, ceramic buttons, natural fabrics etc. But the demand is not that strong, and fashion houses do not care much about our environmentally friendly building etc.
    But we are trying and it is hoped that some designer would chose our Atelier/factory to produce.

  3. Superb and concise article. Congrats to BoF and Suleman. For years, I have been saying to brands that improving their sustainability credentials does not require to tag the brand as “eco”, “green” or “ethical”. Humility and hard work are necessary to make current luxury/fashion business models and supply chains more sustainable. It is very easy to fall into greenwashing when one company presents itself as “eco” just because they have one “eco-collection” or a CSR director… We should serve sustainability more than sustainability serves us, and act more than we speak… As for the sustainable luxury definition, it is not as difficult as one would think, it requires to have a positive impact on people, planet and… profits. The implementation of this 3p definition is obviously complex and long term.

    Florian Gonzalez from London, London, United Kingdom
  4. Great article. I think Stella McCartney sums it up perfectly in your article when she says, “..I think that women buy my product because they like how it looks, feels, fits and being sustainable is an added extra bonus.” I agree 100% with this statement.

    Along similar lines, I believe that Fashion for a cause has gained more and more interest among consumers, such as T-shirts designed by various clothing designers where a portion of the proceeds goes to fund a certain cause and the FEED bags by Lauren Bush.

    I think it’s wonderful when you can wear a graphic T-shirt that is not only gorgeous in its design but also sends a great message as well.

    Cheers and as always, I enjoy reading your insightful articles.

  5. As the gigantic dust clout from the growing Gobi desert blows around the world (and can even be seen from space), I do not see cashmere discussed. The demand of American and European consumers for cheap cashmere has created an environmental disaster. I have not seen fashion houses address this, other than a few claiming they have ‘ethical’ cashmere. Yet, is that even possible? What does ‘ethical’ mean in this case, since it is the very demand for this product, and the sheer number of goats grazing away every bit of green left that is creating this mess. Thus, I do not buy cashmere anymore.

    aisha sobh from Bloomington, IN, United States
  6. I owned and operated a small yet very visionary consulting and sourcing business in NYC for 2 years called Tela Verde, where I offered only fabrics, trims, notions and even services for designers, fashion and interior, that were produced or executed in a sustainable manner. Some were made by larger mills and manufacturers that were certified by GOTS and other international organizations. Some were made by small coops that through their profits, would elevate the lives of the producers, usually women. Some were produced within 100 miles of NYC. I had dyers from 175 year old indigo houses in Japan and I had dyers from Ghana that lived in Harlem that would hand dye in the kitchen. It was the first firm of it’s kind in the US and definitely in NYC. I traveled extensively, looking for and visiting people who were creating things with the higher mission of a lighter footprint on the earth. I was contacted by and worked with some amazing designers and companies. Many would be recognized on an international level by even non-fashion people. I was even interviewed and spoke at conferences. It was an amazing opportunity that I will cherish always. The serious economic downturn made it difficult for me to continue and I closed my doors a year ago.

    One of the recurring negative issues that nagged at me was the fact that fashion, as a concept, is about the what’s new and what’s next; even in simpler times, pre-Internet. That is in direct conflict with the sustainable concept of consuming less. Nowadays, the fashion business is a multi-billion dollar industry that is solely based on what’s new and what’s next. Slowing down of consumer purchasing would have a serious effect on the bottom line of every company. I cannot imagine that any stockholder or CEO would be happy with that effect. Embracing sustainability as an industry wide practice is completely antithetical to the core value of the entire business: making money and lot of it based on perceived need for the continual desire for something new. The industry is not going to embrace something that, if implemented, could spell the end of the fashion business as we know it. That was a bitter pill for me to swallow, as someone working in that business.

    It used to be that designers put out Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collections, 2 a year. Now there are so many “seasons” and we are continually bombarded with something new. I love the very old school European idea of saving to buy an amazing pair of shoes, bag or what have you and having it be timeless and wear it until. My personal style heroes are people who seemed to live that idea.

    So if everyone who pays attention to fashion or even a casual observer were to just stop shopping, the industry would grind to a halt and the out of control consumption would stop. Great, right? Wrong. The other side of the above point is that we have millions of people employed worldwide by manufacturers and any other facet of fashion garment and accessory production. A great many of these folks are gainfully employed and not being exploited. They are just workers who need their jobs. So if a crazy business like fashion starts to slow down and layoffs happen, people lose their jobs and their ability to support their families.

    Slowing down an out of control business that wreaks such havoc environmentally and many other ways or have massive layoffs and factory closings that result in job loss, quality of life loss for individuals and even set backs in development for emerging countries? It is a horrible Catch-22 to which there is no easy answer. I try to buy my clothing with conscience as best I can.

    I love fashion and love smaller and unique designers. Production for them is done locally in many cases and you are supporting smaller companies with local workers. I buy a lot of vintage. Great stuff is timeless and unique and it already exists. I try and think about everything I buy from not just a desire based point of view but what brought it to be for sale in front of me. I like Ms. Starbucks’s distinctions (read her thoughts in detail at her website) and the points she brings up. There is no standard and I’m not sure how there can really be.

    When I was sourcing, I just tried to find beautiful and amazing stuff that no one had ever seen and have it be from companies that I felt had a greater mission than just profitability. There are some amazing people out there in the world!!! It’s a very serious and complicated issue that has no set answer but keeping a dialogue open and not being afraid to admit faults so that they can be addressed and changed is key. So is transparency in information and intent.

    Thanks, Laura

  7. I don’t believe there is a problem with the environment. The green politics is just another way to control people with fear and guilt. The problem with the world around us is that we care so little about each human being that the environment is just a reflection of that. In order to clean up the environment people need to clear up their lives. Get off drugs and alcohol and get involved with life and all the goodness it can offer. Give thanks to God for everything we have and take care of those you love. If fashion is a statement of beauty then we should celebrate it. Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder it is a universal truth, that radiates light to those who choose to show it and those that choose to see it. By the way the photography was beautiful. If the industry wants to sell fashion attached to the Green concept then it has to be genuine and not just another way to make money. Its genuine approach will be fresh and will sell. Don’t neglect the age group that approaches the end of life, or the poor, or the homeless, the handicapped, or the hardworking middleclass. Perfection in spirit as well the physical has universal appeal. There is beauty in all aspects of our lives. Bring it out for people to see. Theres a challenge!

    cathy from United States
  8. Some really interesting points. There is still alot of confusion about what sustainability actually is and there is plenty of green washing going on. Whilst there is plenty of options in the luxury/ high end fashion, there is still a long way to go with the more affordable and high street fashion. There needs to be a change in attitude to value quality and well made clothes that will last but these clothes need to be available and affordable by all.

  9. Stella McCartney is certainly a pioneer in terms of marketing the “green” angle. But sustainable? Debatable. Faux leathers are petroleum based products. Man-made materials are more often harmful than natural products like real leather. Of course, I’m not going to get into the whole debate about fur because that’s a whole different issue. But my point is that fashion can only be relatively sustainable when you rethink the processes involved in large-scale manufacturing (the most resource consuming and therefore the most environmentally affecting).

    I’m all for buying “eco” products but I’m still buying the same brands I was before I got all educated on the subject of sustainability and I probably will continue buying these brands. Because I’m lazy. And because “eco” products are sold at a premium. Yes, prices will go down with time but really, who has THAT kind of time on this planet we’re slowly destroying.

    My point is this. Humans are creatures of habit. So if environmental issues are a concern, there’ll be things for consumers to do that are done once in a while and left alone for a while so they can get on with their lives (i.e. switching to energy efficient lightbulbs) and there’ll be things large-scale manufacturers in the fashion industry (actually almost all industries) should be doing right now. Don’t change the consumer. It’s too late for that. Change the process.

    Cheryl from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia