We may feel better about buying clothes and goods labelled "sustainable." But not only is the actual definition of the word unclear, the truth is, none of us can buy our way out of climate changeby Emma Flynn / February 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
From coffee cups to menstrual pads, the buzzword du jour is “sustainable.” But what does that mean when used to describe consumer goods?
I first noticed the proliferation of sustainable products in Instagram advertisements; everything from runners and sandals, to lingerie and socks, cotton swabs and toothbrushes, water bottles, coffee cups, bags, jewellery, and lunchboxes. It’s as common in real life, the word often emblazoned across food and drink packaging. Seemingly everything I could ever need has a ‘sustainable’ counterpart available for purchase. In Ireland, companies whose services are as indispensable to the public as the national train service tout their use of recyclable coffee cups. Well, they’re technically recyclable—however, not at the current time because the facilities don’t exist.
Is there any level at which eco-washing isn’t happening? Asos, one of the world’s largest fast-fashion outlets, now has the option to sort through its products based on sustainability, promising either “recycled goods” or “sustainable fibres and fabrics.” But what each individual product offers, and their specific impact, is difficult to discern.
This is complicated by the word ‘sustainability’ not having one definition. In terms of product descriptions, it’s still relatively new and therefore very malleable. This malleability translates to a lack of consistency: fast fashion outlets, and brands in general, are following a trend without necessarily having any real interest in its morality, and the lack of regulation and standards within the ‘sustainability’ industry can leave consumers in the dark.
In many ways it is developing in a similar way to the fairtrade strand of grading supply chain accountability for goods like coffee and cocoa. In that case, it became more affordable for companies to operate an in-house spin-off bearing a synonymous title rather than actually comply with Fair Trade’s regulations, because the thing customers wanted was a way of quickly identifying something on product packaging that would offset their guilt.
In the same way, sustainability is just the latest aesthetically-pleasing buzzword. But even as more brands adopt the term, the fashion industry is increasingly structured to maximise speed and newness. “Dropshippers” are the perfect example of this. Third parties that allow companies to bypass stocking stock, but rather fulfil based on orders, they allow brands to react incredibly fast to trends.
The fact is, that living sustainably is the total antithesis of how an extractive capitalist society operates—because the real way we can live as sustainable consumers means not buying more, but reusing, repurposing, swapping, fixing, skill-sharing, going without. Unfortunately, the reality of sustainable living is something we’ve already known for a long time—it just doesn’t necessarily come with the same Instagram-ready aesthetic as algorithmically produced products created for social clout. It also goes entirely against the aim of a capitalist society in that these practices are not based on maximising profits.
While buying something “sustainable” will always be the easier option than making real change, then, the blame doesn’t, and shouldn’t, fall exclusively upon consumers. The sheer pace of modern production has conditioned us to feel entitled to the existence of something just because it is humanly possible to create it, no matter what the costs. Eating seasonally and locally, for example, means foregoing the presumption that any given product always exists in a shop.
What’s more, in many cases the “best” option is not immediately obvious. Where almond milk is a better choice than cow milk, for instance, we still have the ecological destruction almond farming is having on the bee population. Brands championing their plastic-free packaging sits alongside the destruction of the rainforest for the palm oil they contain. Meanwhile, PVC and polyurethane plastics have been rebranded to be “vegan leather.”
While these options are sold to us as a solution, existing barriers to sustainability—not least time, money, and accessibility—will be joined by a sense of complacency. The future of sustainable consumption relies on the harmful realities of our current consumption practices not being silenced and covered up. We need to see the photos of floating plastic monoliths in the middle of the ocean; we need to see the vast expanses of plastic recycling waste shipped off and abandoned for poorer countries to deal with; we need to see the skips of perfectly edible food that go uneaten because to give it away for free would reduce supermarket profitability.
Within the vague world of sustainable consumer goods, there are some positive trends: bulk purchase stores are popping up in the UK and Ireland, foodsharing apps like Olio allow people to give away items that would otherwise go to waste, initiatives like Marktschwarmer in Berlin connects the city’s residents to farmers and producers to offer local alternatives. The glass bottle deposit system in many European countries incentivises reuse, lowering of train fares and reintroduction of sleeper trains on busy routes discourages air travel, and the publication of books like How to Break Up with Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo are all reasons to be positive about consumers pushing for change.
Now, it is up to all of us to go further. We must take things back to a community level, where we collectively push for change. We must hark back to basics, reconnecting with the place you live and finding out what is available seasonally. And we must ask more questions, demand the answers, and not assume that a profit-based system has our—or the planet’s—best interests at heart.