At its core, sustainability is a generation's ability to meet their needs without compromising future generations' potential to obtain their own respective needs. While many think of environmental resources when they think of sustainability, it’s important to remember that sustainability also commonly refers to economic and social resources, as well.
Sustainability is ever-evolving, but the term as we know it today rose in importance in the late nineteenth century largely as a conservation movement in response to the destruction of wilderness and overconsumption of natural resources. As technology, machinery, and automation exploded and globalization swept the world, so did our ability to extract resources. While this fed the needs of a growing global population, it also caused and continues to cause unprecedented destruction of once beautiful areas. The natural environment is inherently tied to economy and culture; by preserving the wilderness, people can also preserve their customs and heritage for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability is a broad topic that encompasses many parts of society. However, when it comes to environmental turning points, there are some major sustainability milestones that have had a marked effect on society.
SUSTAINABILITY TODAY: HOW CONSUMERS FEEL
Ever since it was first thrust into the mainstream, sustainability has remained at the forefront of public attention. In fact, sustainability is more important to consumers than ever before. The World Wildlife Fund has found that Google searches referencing sustainable goods have increased by 71% since 2016. Furthermore, 50% of consumers have redirected their loyalty to companies that align with their values, with the number one reason for change being the protection of the environment.
Not only will consumers retain brand loyalty to those companies prioritizing sustainability, but they are willing to pay more for products that reflect that. According to a 2020 McKinsey consumer survey, 60% of consumers are willing to pay more for a product with sustainable packaging.
Businesses are increasingly changing their practices in response to consumer demands. In the fashion industry, 60% of businesses state that their commitment to implementing sustainability was the company's top priority. However, according to the 2018 BSR/Globescan survey, only 33% of businesses surveyed are actually implementing sustainable strategies. This disparity between companies' alleged values and real actions, called “greenwashing,” is a cause for concern amongst consumers, and it isn’t the only reason shoppers are feeling disillusioned.
Greenwashing, or the exaggeration of a company’s environmental credentials, seems to have become the norm in recent years. There are different levels of greenwashing, spanning from misguided marketing to claims that completely lack credibility. At best, this could mean using generalized terms such as “eco” and “natural” without using quantifiable data or examples to back it up. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a company is not sustainable at all, just that they are struggling to communicate transparently. However, vague terms such as these could be an indicator that they are doing the bare minimum.
On the other hand, some brands excel at communicating their sustainability projects and backing them up with statistics, but use this as a means to cover-up other negative environmental impacts they may have. For example, large energy companies may be “carbon-neutral,” but actually contribute more directly to the planet’s carbon footprint than most other companies. They can be carbon-neutral by paying for carbon offsets rather than actually addressing and mitigating the greenhouse gas output of their operations.
LOSS OF FAITH
It's clear that consumers care about sustainability, but do they believe companies actually care as well?
According to a BCG climate and sustainability consumer survey, over 70% of consumers are disillusioned about what businesses are doing. Customers are suspicious about the motives of big business and wary that what these businesses claim they value is merely a marketing tactic to improve sales and reputation. Shoppers are increasingly aware of phenomena like greenwashing, leading to a more discouraged attitude surrounding sustainability - especially sustainability in the private sector.
Between 2000 and 2019, material consumption rose by over 65% globally, totalling 95.1 billion metric tons according to the UN. Consumer culture and fast fashion are part of the problem. Fast fashion is the practice of mass producing clothing at a rapid pace and selling that clothing at a cheap cost. Due to industrialization and cheap labor, production of clothing can happen in as little as minutes, which enables companies to constantly keep up with the newest trends. Usually these brands offer hundreds if not thousands of styles that are constantly in flux to entice shoppers to buy something new. Furthermore, it's considered normal for these companies to rip off designers and copy fresh trends from celebrities or social media.
So how do you tell what fast fashion is? Tell-tale signs of a fast fashion company include:
Fast fashion practices lead to cheap clothing that is not durable and long-lasting. Often products are made where labor costs are low, which enables the product cost to remain low as well. This creates inhumane workplaces with long hours, unsafe working conditions, low pay, lack of child labor laws, and more. Typically these companies source from complex supply chains that are nearly impossible to trace - these large companies likely don’t even know their own supply chain! Overall, fast fashion has a horrible environmental and social impact and contributes to the prevailing consumer anxiety about sustainability.
HOW BRANDS CAN BUILD TRUST
It makes sense that consumers are increasingly disillusioned by companies and lack trust in sustainability. However, this is not a hopeless cause. The next step is for brands to increase transparency around their business practices and supply chains in order to build trust. Supply chain transparency enables consumers to see how raw materials are actually sourced, and gives insight into every step of a product’s journey.
Transparency should extend to include companies' production methods, material sourcing, labor standards, manufacturing practices, emissions reports, water use, and worker compensation. Knowing the full scope of a businesses practice is still rare (even for the businesses themselves), but transparency will allow consumers to accurately judge companies and will allow companies to better improve their own supply chains. When the entire production process is shared honestly with consumers, consumers can begin to trust companies. Over time, as more businesses transition towards increased transparency, consumers' faith in sustainable supply chains will be strengthened.
Rather than dwell on climate anxiety, consumers can be a part of the solution by practicing climate optimism and advocating for transparency and sustainability, especially in the fashion space. Brands and consumers working together to create transparency are ushering in a new era of sustainability based on facts, trust, and a commitment to preserving the planet.
Written by Neesha Basnyat - Sustainability Writer for Koraru
Neesha Basnyat is a an experienced sustainability writer and researcher specialising in biology, sustainability, CSR, and ESG analysis and reporting. With an educational background in Biology and Environmental Science and over 6 years of experience in the sustainability field, Neesha loves everything green, from shoveling compost to calculating emissions or researching the best new standards in the sustainability space.
Header image by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash