How important is style in determining environmental sustainability?

Not too long ago, when consumers thought about environmentally-friendly fashion, the image of a neutral-colored hemp shirt was what came to mind. Now brands from Stella McCartney to Gucci are considered environmentally sustainable in some way or another. They have done this by switching materials, reducing plastic, and implementing various sustainability initiatives like recycling and emissions offsetting. However there is one thing that persists across most brands, regardless of the level of environmental sustainability. It is the promotion of trends — clothes that are stylish for a particular time but ultimately become "unfashionable" and discarded. Can brands be considered sustainable even if they are designed to be trendy? What about brands that don't produce responsibly but make clothes in timeless silhouettes and colors; are those brands sustainable?

Oak + Fort is one brand doing timeless clothing perfectly. Their clothes can look good on almost anyone, and they are simple enough that they can be dressed up or dressed down to fit any aesthetic or personal style. Also, absolutely nothing from the brand is environmentally-friendly. Most Oak + Fort clothes are made with synthetic fabrics, and the company's transparency regarding their supply chain is pathetic. An ex-employee claims the brand buys wholesale clothes on the cheap from the Asian market and then rebrands them and markup the price. Oak + Fort made a feeble attempt to acknowledge its environmental impact by releasing a Sustainable Goods Capsule Collection in partnership with Hallotex, a manufacturer of eco-friendly yarns and fabrics. Unfortunately, that collection only included four unisex sweatshirts and hoodies with the word "sustainable" printed on the front. Yikes.

To determine the importance of style in achieving environmental sustainability, let's analyze the differences between Oak + Fort and H&M. Oak + Fort doesn't even pretend to care about responsible business practices, whereas H&M recently collaborated with Billie Eilish — an outspoken environmental activist — and was voted the most transparent brand according to Fashion Revolution's 2020 Transparency Index. On the other hand, Oak + Fort's aesthetic is considered "classic", and even though H&M has gone through a recent update to make their clothes appeal to more consumers, the Swedish retailer is still primarily geared towards a younger crowd who wear neon and crop tops. Other than sustainability initiatives and style, both brands are similar in price and quality.

Oak + Fort's timeless aesthetic alone cannot make the brand environmentally-friendly. However, it could also be argued that a brand that produces recycled clothes based on what is trendy at the moment is not environmentally sustainable either. The long term wearability needs to be accounted for when discussing the environmental impact of fashion. Oak + Fort has an aesthetic that makes its clothes extremely wearable, and it is implied that their clothes are not meant to be single-wear or disposable. Oak + Fort pushes sales, but for the most part, they don't push trends the same way other brands do. H&M has a whole "trending now" section on its website featuring "summer must-haves" for "$20 and under". On the other hand, all of Oak + Fort's clothes, in their basic silhouettes and neutral colors, are pretty much guaranteed to stay in style for at least the foreseeable future.

When it comes to environmental sustainability initiatives, H&M clearly wins in this category. Despite claims of greenwashing and lackluster ethics, H&M has made goals that line up with the Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the United Nations. However, the brand's rapid rate of production has undermined its environmental-friendly practices.

In the end, excessive inventory is something that both Oak + Fort and H&M struggle with, meaning neither brand is truly environmentally-sustainable. Nonetheless, comparing the two brands highlights the need for style to be factored into the sustainability equation. H&M can't claim to be environmentally-friendly when they keep pushing new trends every season or week. Oak + Fort can't claim to be sustainable when they are not implementing any operational changes. Maybe the two brands can merge and become one brand with environmentally-friendly operations producing timeless clothes. Until then, it's up to consumers to analyze their style and make purchases that they won't regret in the near future.

*This is a rewritten version of an article from May 2020*