Embracing Evolution: Sustainability is not Currently Green, it's Beige
Courtesy of Mathilde Hiron
“If I’m doing my job right, you shouldn’t see any of the sustainability in my shows. It should just look like the most luxurious, glamorous show. I don’t want it to look like sustainable fashion – I want it to look sexy and effortless and easy.”
Stella McCartney concisely expressed what most of the fashion industry feels towards sustainability - we don’t want to see it. There is a specific aesthetic that comes to mind when talking about sustainable fashion: beige, bland and boring. It is no wonder that designers want to stray away from these tags since it does not represent their creative vision nor attract the market towards their designs. There are several reasons why sustainable fashion is associated with what we call the beige aesthetic, and this article aims not only at exploring the reasons behind it, but also proposing that there is an immediate need to change the way in which sustainability in fashion is perceived.
Courtesy of Gina Grnw
The perception problem
Let's start at the beginning, we first need to understand not only why sustainable fashion is perceived to be, as we said, beige, bland, and boring, but also why this is a problem. Looking at multiple collections, there are very practical reasons for this aesthetic to prevail across “sustainable brands''. Now, this positioning is problematic, and frankly, outdated. Today, no brand is 100% sustainable. However, what brands can, and some are currently doing, is implement sustainable and ethical practices within their value chains. It is here that we see that many of these practices also lead to a particular aesthetic. By avoiding dyes, textiles maintain their crude colors, by avoiding trends, garments take on classic designs, and by appealing to multiple ages, genders, and communities, the styles lack identity. While we applaud brands for using practices with a reduced environmental impact, this approach is limited as it lacks uniqueness and identity - key components appealing to the vast majority of the market.
Today more than ever, fashion is about self-expression, it is a key element in the discussion of evolving identities brought about by the revolution of social media, the freedom of gender-expression and the fight to appropriate individual narratives or collective experiences. As younger generations find themselves looking for brands that align with their values, the proposal of beige, bland, and boring is not only outdated, but it also blocks the opportunity for growth and evolution within the industry. For the industry to survive, sustainability needs a radical rebrand.
As the industry must evolve to adopt sustainable practices, we must change this perception for both designers and consumers so it can be implemented across the board. Sustainability needs to create a financial incentive for it to be viable in the long term, as such, it must be something that brands can sell rather than hide.
Courtesy of SaveStudios
Challenges of sustainable practices
This in itself is a very controversial matter as it has led to two different things: greenwashing and greenhushing. As a response to market demand for sustainability, brands have been responsible for greenwashed campaigns, marketing products as “eco-friendly”, “responsible”, and even “sustainable”. Not only these things mean very little in this context, but most of the time it was untrue. As a result of popular backlash, greenhushing became a very common practice, where companies would rather say nothing than expose themselves to being canceled. Paradoxically, it has been shown that communicating on your environmental and social impact, even if it is not a positive one, generates a positive reaction from consumers who can now trust the brand to be transparent.
So, what should a company do to stray away from the beige aesthetic and cater to consumers looking for sustainable products without greenwashing or compromising their aesthetic?
Courtesy of Akhl
Risks and Opportunities
First, we must understand why a company might find it in their interest to adopt sustainable practices and be transparent. There are several risks and opportunities associated with these practices and we will review them shortly just to provide evidence that there is real value in transforming the way in which we approach fashion today.
On the one hand, not being sustainable has many climate-related risks such as having a value chain that is exposed to climate change phenomena such as droughts, flooding, storms, and tornadoes to name a few, and which can lead to a shortage at sourcing level. Furthermore, under the EU Green Deal framework, the company might lose its capacity to attract financing, as banks and institutions are moving towards greener investments or activities (such as those classified by the EU Taxonomy). Finally, there are several regulatory requirements that will not only generate enormous structural changes and costs, but will also limit a company’s capacity to sell within certain territories such as the EU. On the other hand, being sustainable can be a source of opportunity, opening new markets and attracting investment, generating the structural changes needed to continue to operate in the long-term by accounting for climate change and regulatory requirements.
Courtesy of Noa Azarzar
It is easy to see why companies must evolve, however, they also have a responsibility to their shareholders and customers to maintain their vision and unique points of view. It is then that we need to collectively understand that, as brands evolve, so should the meaning and aesthetics associated with sustainability. Today sustainability can take any shape, color, design, and aesthetic. Sustainability is not in itself a defining property, but an approach to design and production that involves practices that reduce the social and environmental impact.
This concept is not a new thing, there are thousands of designers that implement sustainable practices and that are loyal to their aesthetic values. It is important to give these designers the place they deserve within the industry and to learn from their practices so that they can be implemented across the value chain. Sustainability is something that today is demanded by the market, therefore, if we manage to re-brand it so that it is no longer associated with a particular aesthetic, we will manage to successfully create a market incentive for big brands and houses to implement it across the board. It is important for brands to communicate on the things they have done wrong, but also the things that they in fact have done right. This is not promoting greenwashing, quite the opposite! We want brands to be able to profit from generating positive impact, so they continue to do so.
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