20/20 VISION: Can fashion be faithful to sustainability?

by | Mar 23, 2021

As a lover of words, meaty and meaningful, it pains me that so many “just-right” words have been overworked and overused to the point of becoming stale shadows of their former selves. There are countless examples of words being reduced to near impotence. Many we drop mindlessly like incredible, awesome, amazing which are now colloquial ghosts, worn out and tired.

The COVID-19 era has had its fair share of these overused-to-death words. I’m looking at you unprecedented.

There’s another word suffering a similar fate, one we use daily at Twyg. That word is – you guessed it – sustainability. It’s currently under the spotlight which is not the same as being under a microscope. In our world, we define it as a way of living consciously to meet our needs in a way that makes sure that future generations can meet theirs.

While we make it our daily mission to understand everything that is meant by this buzzword, many fashion and clothing brands have co-opted it in order to tick boxes or worse, greenwash consumers. The result is that the word is now so muddy, its meaning lost, and it has become so easy for the lazy and the lying to lather themselves in it. Being sustainable has become a shield to hide behind, rather than a gateway to transparency.

The process is consciously planned and thoroughly considered

That’s why I’m such a fan of Cape Town-based brand, Me&B, founded and run by mother-daughter duo, Betina Swart and Kelly Gibberd. They recently explained their manufacturing process to me: from patterning to packaging, the process is consciously planned and thoroughly considered. They’re honest about the challenges and what they’re doing to  improve. Theirs is a benchmark against which I’ll be holding other brands to going forward.

Me&B designs for the full size curve, adamant that styles stay the same for every size, instead of adjusting garments for larger sizes. They regularly create imagery with models of all sizes, even customers. The mother-daughter team empower their staff to create small home businesses and have adjusted their working hours to suit their all-women work force.

We don’t talk enough about the loss of skills

I was also in conversation with John Lehman of Human By Nature, another example of someone willing to speak honestly about sustainability. It goes beyond his working with CMT’s in local communities (as far as possible), watching them grow as his brand grows. John works with an expert septuagenarian pattern-maker to pass these skills on to tomorrow’s craftspeople. (We don’t talk enough about the loss of skills and its impact on the sustainability of the local fashion industry.)

John believes that it’s important to remember that sustainability is multi-faceted and goes beyond just how a garment is made – sustainability lies within how an industry ecosystem operates. When his personal life brought him to South Africa a few years back, he was daunted by starting a brand in a foreign city. (It’s a well-known industry insight that, because of local limitations, brands are often secretive about their manufacturing hook-ups.) Instead of hitting brick walls, he recounts how Robyn Keyser (founder of Artclub and Friends) drove him around, introducing him to suppliers.

John has paid it forward. After working with a dye house to develop capabilities for new techniques, John has gladly shared the details with the industry. This means more brands can dye their collections locally, which has helped the factory grow its business. I often think about how still, standing water breeds disease, while running water is safe to drink.

Me&B and Human By Nature, alongside many other big and small brands, are grabbling with adopting sustainability practices and with adapting their business model to allow for this. South Africa has given birth to a number of brands, like Sindiso Khumalo, that naturally and intuitively operates with a conscious and compassionate rhythm. Similarly, Asha : Eleven and Amanda Laird Cherry (including its celebrated menswear brand, ALC Man) have been working towards sustainability since inception. They don’t claim to have all the answers. They don’t promise they’re getting it all right. But they are taking an honest look at every step of their value chain and having open conversations with their consumer.

They keep me faithful to fashion, an industry that means the world to me but means monstrous things for the world we all share

This is how we return meaning and credibility to the word that is fast becoming fashion’s North Star. Achieving full and absolute sustainability is impossible. But brands that have a frank and open conversation about their back-end operations, that deal in specifics and trade in transparency, convince me that we’re moving in the right direction. They keep me faithful to fashion, an industry that means the world to me but means monstrous things for the world we all share.

As consumers, it becomes our responsibility to honour them with our purchasing power, as far as it is within our means. But our responsibility doesn’t stop there. Insist on real transparency from brands. Hit them up in their DMs (because a brand that isn’t willing to engage with you on what they’re doing, isn’t deserving of your support). Do a little research and ask specific questions that demand specific answers.

Above all, don’t expect perfection – because promising that is almost always greenwashing. Rather expect an honest commitment to ongoing progress and a willingness to peel back the curtain, empowering you to make buying decisions that help shift the fashion industry away from the superficial and towards the truly sustainable. This way, one day we won’t need a buzzword. It will simply be the way things are done. Oh, what an incredible, awesome, amazing day that will be!

[See Ky’s shoot here.]

Bio

KY BXSXHFF (they/them): Ky is a Cape Town-based mythmaker and multi-hyphenate, working in fashion, film and phrasing. They create mythologies which seek to re-interpret the past as a way to re-imagine a possible future, working as a creative director, stylist & fashion writer, wordsmith and filmmaker. Their directorial debut and the first in a series, CABIN FEVER, was released in 2020. Their monthly column, published on Twyg, 20/20 VISION, does not promise to have all the answers – but it does promise to ask all the tough questions. It’s as just as much about unlearning what’s problematic as it is about learning solutions for community-based living that’s built on a foundation of sustainability (beyond the buzzword). It asks only one thing: that you look at the future with clear eyes: not what is or what has always been; but what should be and what can be. Where to from here? Let’s work that out together! 

Image credits

  • Ky talking to the Me&B team supplied
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