Nomenclature in Fashion Sustainability Research

sus·tain·a·bil·i·ty

səˌstānəˈbilədē/

noun

the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

“the sustainability of economic growth”

avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

“the pursuit of global environmental sustainability”

Sustainability; Ethical consumption; Greenwash; Responsible consumption; Organic clothes; Environment; Free trade; Neoliberal economic paradigm; Global apparel industry; Trade policy; Labor markets, Trade liberalization, Green textiles

After a read through the available contemporary literature and research, the discourse around fashion sustainability as a whole seems to be conducted within the Tower of Babel at the present time. This is in large part due to a diachronic evolution of the nomenclature of fashion sustainability vis-à-vis business and design, which has seen new terminology introduced that reflected changes in the world and the broader scope of factors for consideration. This was necessitated by a widening focus on what the term engendered, and an accommodation of a greater focus on social responsibility. Unfortunately, with the inclusion of new terminology, there was no concurrent removal of terms previously used. This has resulted in the plethora of nomenclature currently in common parlance regarding fashion sustainability. The broad swath of definitions covered by “sustainability” at first seems daunting, and this is only exacerbated by the variety of interpretations at the classroom level. This is largely a result of the scope of the need for sustainability within the fashion industry, which is equal parts vast and amorphous, and by necessity must incorporate specific terminology that is unique to various sectors of the industry. Design, manufacture, transport, retail and disposal all have their own unique considerations to consider and classify.

     The wide array of descriptors is a reflection of the vast scope of the problem itself. There is a residual agglomerate vocabulary that has accumulated as a result of the multi-layered theoretical and practical discussions happening simultaneously, and independently in all of the component streams of fashion. As well, there is the constant adjustment and re-adjustment to new variables and re-definitions of what sustainability can entail. Also, the relatively recent introduction of ethical criteria into the definition of what sustainability can entail, offers yet another new perspective with which to judge the marketing and sustainability of a product (Siegle 2011), and add yet more layers of complexity. Another complicating factor is that many terms are poly-words and are therefore unavailable for reference in a standard dictionary (Glavič & Lukman 2007), or are so new that they are not defined at all. Gam & Banning note that the existing terms themselves are vague to begin with: eco-friendly, green, environmentally friendly etc… (Gam & Banning, 2011: 205). If you throw in sleazy greenwashing that attempts to sell product that may have one component that is environmentally sound, but also may incorporate toxic processing as “sustainable” then the picture gets even more blurred.

     Bamboo for example requires toxic chemical processes to render it soft enough to extrude into fibre, which results in: “…High-impact waste emissions to both air and water”. This negates the prolific and fast growth of the material (Fletcher, Gorse & Hawken 2012: 14). Mitchell and Ramey identify the seven “sins” of greenwashing as set out by Canadian environmental marketing and consulting firm TerraChoice: “…The hidden trade-off, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, lesser of two evils, fibbing and worshiping false labels.” and conclude that: “…More than 95% of the 4,744 green products identified in the (TerraChoice) report were guilty of at least one of the seven greenwashing sins” (Mitchell & Ramey 2011).

     According to Stephens et al, within the research field of “sustainable supply chain management” (SSCM), there are two “broad senses” in which sustainability is understood within supply chain research and practice: responsibility and continuity (Stephens, White & Mason-Jones 2016: 2). The first relates to social and environmental practices and the second to business continuity and the viability of the supply chain in the face of global disruption and uncertainty (natural disaster, political upheaval and terrorist threats). They identify the following areas for further research to try an amalgamate the “broad senses” of supply chain sustainability:

     “…Globe-spanning chains of increasing complexity; increasingly informed and conscientious consumers; motivated and powerful non-governmental organizations (NGO); and the effects of global environmental, social and political change (and turmoil) on the successful management of global supply chains” (Stephens et al 2016: 3).

The authors also say that “‘sustainability’ is usually followed by the question: “when you say ‘sustainability’, do you mean supply chain continuity or environmental issues?” (Stephens: 2016: 3). The same term can refer to two completely different phenomena within the same sector under observation.

     Adding further confusion is Ehrenfeld’s observation in Flourishing, A Frank Conversation about Sustainability regarding the relational nature of the term “sustainability” itself: “…The most important characteristic of sustainability is that the word, by itself, refers to nothing in particular. It gathers meaning in a practical sense only when the output is named.” And that: “…This dissonance has serious consequences because it leads to a term that can mean different things to different people depending on the static outcome they seek. It has lost any real meaning” (Ehrenfeld and Hoffman 2013: 16) all of which has produced an imbrecated and at times confusing amalgamation.

Ehrenfeld, John, and Andrew Hoffman. Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Fletcher, Kate, Lynda Grose, and Paul Hawken. 2012. Fashion & Sustainability: Design for Change. London: Laurence King.

Gam, Hae Jin, and Jennifer Banning. “Addressing sustainable apparel design challenges with problem-based learning.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 29, no. 3 (2011): 202-215.

Glavič, Peter, and Rebeka Lukman. “Review of Sustainability Terms and their Definitions.” Journal of Cleaner Production 15, no. 18 (2007): 1875-1885.

Mitchell, Lorianne D., and Wesley D. Ramey. “Look how Green I Am! An Individual-level Explanation for Greenwashing.” Journal of Applied Business and Economics 12, no. 6 (2011): 40-45.

Siegle, Lucy. To Die For: is Fashion Wearing out the World?. HarperCollins UK, 2011.

Stephens, Victoria Louise, Gareth RT White, and Rachel Mason-Jones. “Problematising the Concept of ‘Sustainability‘ in the Supply Chain through Systematic Literature Review.” (2016).

@Mark O’Connell 2017, all rights reserved, no reproduction without authorization

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