Definitions: sustainability, environmental sustainability, and responsibility

*These definitions were created by The Green and Blue Journal based on research on the environmental impact of the fashion industry.*

There are a lot of terms flying around when discussing fashion and its’ impact on the environment, the most common one: sustainable fashion. What does this term mean, though, and how does it differ from environmentally sustainable fashion and responsible fashion?

The most widely accepted definition for sustainability is “meeting our own needs without compromising future generations' ability to meet their own needs.” While the term is most often associated with protecting the environment, sustainability refers to social equality and economic development as well. Sustainable fashion is clothing and accessories that can serve people, benefit the economy, and have minimal impact on the planet. A sustainable fashion brand aims to be socially inclusive, make a profit, and protect the environment — not putting any criteria above the others. Profits are not put above people or planet, people are not put above planet or profits, and the planet is not put above profits or people. It can be just as much a threat to sustainability to prioritize environmental initiatives over social equality and economic development as it can be to put money first.

As the environment has become a more prominent topic in the fashion industry, sustainability is increasingly present in brand advertising and publications, and the term seems to be confusing consumers. This has led to two outcomes; consumers believe they are buying something that is not what they think it is, and consumers expecting more from brands despite doing what they claim. The first is called greenwashing — when a retailer claims to do something but does not live up to its advertising. An example would be a clothing label that says it is sustainable but chooses money-making initiatives at the expense of people and the planet. The second outcome from not adequately understanding environmental terms is what could be referred to as over-activism. This phrase, which may or may not have just been made up, describes consumers or activists that are overly harsh on brands that, in reality, are practicing what they preach. It may refer to shoppers who accuse a store of greenwashing for using the term "sustainability" in their marketing, but, the store is doing what they claim, consumers are just confusing sustainability with environmental sustainability.

Environmental sustainability is similar to regular sustainability, but with the focus solely on the planet. Social equality and economic development are considered but are not the priority compared to preserving the environment. It is difficult for a for-profit business to be environmentally sustainable. More typically, you will see non-profits, non-governmental organizations, and volunteer groups promoting environmental sustainability. Fashion Revolution is a great example of this. The international non-profit, which aims to educate consumers about the fashion industry and hold brands accountable, even has the tag line “people and planet over profits.” Fashion Revolution makes an excellent watchdog organization, but risks demanding too much from clothing brands that need profits to pay investors, expand collections, or stay in operation. Due to criticism from groups and consumers that expect environmental sustainability, some brands have started to drift away from using the “s-word” altogether to avoid confusion. That is where responsible fashion comes in.

Responsible fashion is fashion made the “right” or “responsible” way. People and the planet receive ethical treatment, but there is no accounting for future needs. Usually, responsible fashion means no sweatshops, no illegal logging, and more; it does not necessarily imply a brand goes above and beyond to create an environmentally-friendly business. Though some publications, brands, and consumers use the term interchangeably with sustainable fashion, the critical difference between the two is innovation. Sustainable fashion involves some new ways of thinking about the fashion industry and making improvements. Responsible fashion would more accurately describe brands that care for the world now but do not explicitly aim to create a better tomorrow. An example of responsible fashion is organic cotton clothing, which is better than synthetic clothing but does not address new issues like excessive water-use that arise from cotton growing. Clothes made of chemically recycled fabric and colored with an innovative non-toxic dye are sustainable. Responsible fashion is about choosing the better of two choices; sustainable fashion involves changing the way a brand, or industry, operates.

As consumers learn more about the fashion industry's inner workings, more terms will come out to describe every type of business and every stage of environmental and human protection. It’s getting a bit confusing already, so it is just as important for consumers to know what these terms mean, as it is to know which brands are living up to their marketing and which ones are only playing us for fools.

*The Green and Blue Journal focuses on environmentally sustainable fashion, which means this website looks at the fashion industry’s impact on the environment before accounting for people and profit.*