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Is it time to break up with the word ‘sustainable’?

Photography By Danny G / Unsplash
Published 26.08.21

I’m over sustainability.

Well, the word at least. While the concept is of course admirable, the term itself has been hijacked. Everywhere I look, a brand or product is calling itself sustainable. “I’m chocolate made from sustainable cocoa”, “I’m a sustainable sneaker”, “I’m ice cream made from sustainable cream”. Slapped on every second item, “sustainable” has lost any true meaning, especially when so few of the things that claim the title actually are.

Sustainability burn out

Ironically, the result of this over-serve of “sustainability” is hardly a greater understanding of the term. Instead, most individuals are left confused, overwhelmed and even more lost over how to make responsible choices.

So, what are we actually talking about here? Broadly, the term “sustainability” is made up of three core pillars: economic, environmental and social (or profits, planet and people). The UN World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. From an environmental perspective, it generally means producing goods or services in a way that avoids depleting natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

However, there are many definitions of sustainability and the use of the word isn’t governed by fixed parameters or regulations (neither are words like “eco”, “conscious”, “ocean-friendly” or “clean”) and it is thus interpreted differently depending on the industry, product or brand in question. As a result of this flexible definition, using the word “sustainability” is a convenient tool when greenwashing.

Take oil and gas companies for example. Many are trying to reinvent themselves in a greener light, adding conservation narratives to their websites and making pledges to sustainability and clean energy (though not in a meaningful timeframe). On the whole, it has to be said that companies responsible for the extraction of fossil fuels and the resultant pollution of the planet are categorically unsustainable.

The fashion industry is plagued by similar false promises, brands claiming to be sustainable while continuing to use synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels and operating under fast-fashion business models which are environmentally detrimental and exploitative of workers.


Sustainability sells but some aren’t buying it

The influx of sustainable businesses points to a consumer trend. According to Cult’s Futures Pulse Report, consumer spending on goods and services branded as “ethical” increased almost tenfold in two decades, reaching record highs in 2018. The same report said that, globally, 60 per cent of participants reported making more environmentally friendly purchases since the start of the pandemic.

Brands that have been getting away with profiting from poor practices have seen the market shift and they want a piece of the pie. Knowing that sustainability sells, they use the word to misrepresent their brand or product and entice customers who are genuinely trying to do better. This is bad for customers, but also for the brands that are spending the time and money to do better by putting true sustainability at the core of their identity and practices. With such misuse of the word, some have decided to reject the word altogether.

“We’re really trying to step away from actually using the word sustainability. Not because it’s not the goal to sustain ourselves as a brand, but because we want to drill into the specifics of what that actually means,” Maggie Hewitt, the founder of Maggie Marilyn, told RIISE last year. “I think sustainability is such an umbrella term that it allows businesses to be vague [about their environmental impact],” she continued.

Maggie Marilyn

Co-founders of Foile, Alexandra Grima and Su Tuttle, shared a similar sentiment. Speaking about the launch and development of their refillable beauty brand, they stressed “sustainable” is not something they’ve called their business. “It’s a beautiful ideology that people have put onto the brand but it’s not a claim we’ve actually made ourselves. Our commitment is to be progressive…[and] we’re quite careful as to what we actually claim to do.”

The founder of womenswear label Esse Studios, Charlotte Hicks, shared a similar view of the word “sustainable”. It’s a huge buzzword in the fashion industry right now, but she concedes it’s hard to pin down exactly what sustainability means: “I think we’re all fully aware that sustainability is a very complex, multifaceted word. But we’re not doing it for the buzz. We’re doing things that we’re passionate about for the greater good of the women we’re dressing and trying to leave the world in a somewhat better place,” she said.

Tama Toki, the founder of New Zealand health and beauty brand Aotea, was unapologetic about his feelings towards sustainability: “I feel as though the term ‘sustainable’ is actually bullshit. Because it’s really an oxymoron that is being commercialised to sell something.”

Moving away from a word and towards meaningful action

Though these brands have rejected the word, they aren’t turning their back on the ideology of what it means to operate a business that considers its impact on the environment. Rather than obsessing over a label, they’re showing sustainability in action: being conscious of resources used, rejecting harmful manufacturing practices, exploring solutions to the use of virgin and finite materials, and being transparent about their operations.

These actions aren’t perfect, but the point is that they’re not supposed to be. Most of the brands, founders and individuals I have interviewed in the “sustainable” business space don’t claim to be at the pinnacle of environmental perfection. They’re humble about their sustainability efforts and realistic about where they need to improve, and, above all else, they remain committed to continual learning.


How to avoid getting duped by sustainable spin

In a paradoxical (and ideal) future, we wouldn’t need a word to describe a business or brand that is doing the right thing because it would be the norm, not the anomaly. But that is unlikely to happen so, as consumers, what can we do?

Stop obsessing over the word ‘sustainability’

Focus instead on a brand’s actions and what they are actually doing to have a positive impact on people and the planet. Are they measuring and offsetting their carbon emissions? Have they sought certifications from credible external organisations to verify their claims? Are they exploring circular solutions, like biodegradable materials or refillable products? Are they operating in a way that contributes to solving climate change?

Consider a business’s overall ethos

Try and find out more about their “why” and what they really stand for. Why are they in business and what is their motivation to make a certain product or sell an idea to consumers? Do they accept a new business model, one that considers their impact on the planet above profits? Do they acknowledge that part of the cost of being in business is ensuring what is taken from the earth is replenished or accounted for in some way? Brands that have this at their core don’t need to get into semantics.

Look for transparency

Brands that are really committed to sustainability are transparent about how they are run and provide as much information as possible about their supply chain. This can also mean that they’ve identified areas that need improvement or established a plan to transition away from a harmful practice. If you feel like there isn’t enough information available, reach out via email or a web chatbox and ask questions.

If you don’t know something, learn more about it

This could send you down a never-ending rabbit hole, but if you look at a label or read the “about” section of a brand’s website and find a claim you don’t understand, do some research. Find out what that certification means. Read up on that weird-sounding fibre you’ve never heard of and learn about how it is grown and produced. The more you know, the more informed your decisions will be and the easier it will become to sniff out the greenwashers.

Decide on your own definition of sustainability

If the word is in danger of being corrupted and losing its intended meaning, then decide on your own definition and apply that reasoning to brands or products calling themselves sustainable. Consider what’s important to you as a consumer – after all, it’s your money.

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