If Your Sustainable Fashion Doesn't Announce Itself, Does it Count?

shelly xu climate zero jacket
shelly xu climate zero jacket

In November 2020, dozens of high fashion brands came together to put the names of then-presidential and vice-presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the pieces they were selling. A sweatshirt from Thakoon, a hat from Victor Glemaud, or a pair of socks from Brother Vellies, said that you were loudly against Donald Trump and what his administration stood for if you wore them. In the months before that, activist T-shirts for transgender rights or Black Lives Matter were being sold and worn by thousands as protests broke out around the world. Fashion has always had a hand in helping people display their values for the world to see.

Lately, though, some consumers have been looking to express their concerns over the fashion industry itself using the same tactics. What was once a desperate plea from activists asking people to pay attention to poor conditions for garment workers and environmentally damaging overproduction, now has an ironic twist. Consumers are not only asking clothing brands to do better when it comes to their environmental impact, but also allow them to flaunt it when they do. In other words, they want to wear their sustainability on their sleeves.

Shelly Xu, designer of her eponymous zero-waste label, sells jackets that read "Climate refugees reverse climate change" down the back. Xu's jackets are created using recycled materials and are manufactured by climate refugees in Bangladesh. For her, the idea was to give customers something they are proud to wear.

"I see showing sustainability on a garment as an invitation to a conversation. It's a great way to pique people's interest and share a point of view, but you better have the rest of the story along with it. I'm a big believer of dialogue vs. monologue," she says. And it seems to be working. Her climate refugee jacket sold out in just a few weeks since launching her brand, and she's putting together a second run.

Loungewear brand Pangaia is even more explicit. On all of its clothing, there is a short paragraph of text that explains how the product was made. A T-shirt, for example, reads, "The Sakura print t-shirt is colored with environmentally friendly dye created using a recycled water system. The fabric is made from organic cotton." In April 2020, the brand's Botanica tracksuits sold out in under 15 minutes.

Marine Layer, a brand known for its focus on using recycled natural materials such as beechwood, has a shirt that simply says "Recycled," made from respun tees donated by the community. Other brands like sneaker company Cariuma have gone a more traditional route putting the messaging into their logo, a green leaf, which is displayed on every shoe in one way or another. Italian shoemaker Nomasei uses a hand emblem on its shoes to signify its ethical handmade production practices and transparency.

Putting aside the fact that more consumption is not a solution to overproduction, some of these brands are actually making it easier for customers to make a better choice on something they were probably going to buy in the first place. "As brands, it is our responsibility to make sustainable fashion easier for people to adopt," Xu explains. How much easier can it get than literally spelling it out for the buyer — especially if there really is no discernable difference from a less environmentally friendly garment?

There is a huge downside to making this a trend, however. There is no oversight committee that determines whether or not a brand is actually doing what it claims to. Recently fashion lawyer Hilary Jochmans, founder of PoliticallyInFashion, asked the FTC to get involved in the regulation of such labeling. "In the past nine years, there has been an exponential growth in sustainability claims by businesses," she wrote in a letter signed by brands and organizations including Sustainable Brooklyn, Wearable Collections, and The OR Foundation. The letter went on: "Without guardrails on this term, or data to substantiate these claims, there is a risk the term becomes meaningless, or even detrimental to efforts to promote healthy environmental practices."

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Just as you'd suspect, in celebration of Earth Day, several fast-fashion brands like Pretty Little Thing, Pac Sun, H&M, and even Forever21 have promoted 'sustainable' collections with some pieces touting graphics that say things like "eco-warrior," or showing a picture of a healthy planet. In a lot of ways, it feels like satire. None of these collections coincide with commitments to produce less, make overall production changes, or improve factory conditions in a way that is traceable or effective. It's greenwashing from the brands, and it might be virtue signaling from the people who wear the pieces. Like posting a black square to support Black Lives Matter without doing anything else to back it up. What does a shirt that says "Eco-warrior" mean if it's made with harmful synthetic dyes or by a brand that is contributing to overproduction?

In a similar way that the "GirlBoss" movement sold the ideals of feminism while hiding some decidedly anti-feminist practices, fashion brands know they can make money off sustainability — without proving any real commitment to the cause. "Any brand that displays sustainability in their garments should also be able to answer any consumer questions that dive deeper into what they do, who they hire, how they work," Xu explains.

This is all not to say that sustainable fashion is something new and trendy. That would be both hilariously behind the times and not even an accurate representation of how consumer interest has evolved for over a decade. What is trending for Earth Day 2021, though, is sustainable fashion that is literally labeled, on the outside, in a way that brags its sustainability bona fides. The reason a sweatsuit like Pangaia's or a jacket like Shelly Xu's, which spell out just how and why they are a more ethical choice, are so popular right now is because shoppers want to do better. And when they spend the extra dough to support the brands that do, they want credit for it. These items provide some peace of mind, promising the wearer they're on the right side of climate history, and make a convenient conversation starter to say what else they're doing to save the planet.