If you were to pick the most talked-about topic in fashion today, it would surely be “sustainability.” It’s the hot-button issue, one that comes hand-in-hand with other, much less charitable concepts, like the inevitable rise of “greenwashing.” It’s practically an industry of its own at this point, and a real problem for making any kind of progress.

In this sense, “sustainability” defines the present-day industry not because of its altruistic ideals, but because of the ways that word is leveraged.

Instead of an end in and of itself, it is used by brands and by the industry for clout, to feign a sense of conscience. Brands who burn their unsold product or make a habit of questionable labor practices will talk a big game about their “sustainability goals,” using their lofty aims for the future as a shield to hide present-day actions. Because sustainability is about what comes next, it can be used to sweep what’s happening right now under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind.

This is the nature of “greenwashing”: a way of painting over the cracks so that people don’t realize your house is on the verge of collapse. And, for as long as “sustainability” remains such a nebulous concept with so little concrete meaning, it will continue to be a problem for the industry – a problem disguised as progress.

You’ll hear about exciting new developments in plant-based materials, “green” methods of production, and the sustainable future of digital fashion almost daily, all of which are good things, of course. But they are also obfuscations of a sort – unclear and undefined in any real terms, and in many cases, completely counterproductive. Encouraging consumers, privy only to the top-line for the most part, to presume the best.

Once the smoke clears and you can see the mirrors, even the term itself is questionable: “Greenwashing” is a little too cuddly and soft around the edges. It’s a clever way of neutralizing something far more nefarious even when it’s positioned as critique.

Considering the kind of practices we’re talking about here – huge amounts of wastage, the burning of unsold products, vast amounts of water and CO2 used on a daily basis – the word doesn’t quite seem up to the task of holding anyone to account. It’s not unlike the way the fuel industry colluded to popularize the personal “carbon footprint” back in the early ‘00s and shift the responsibility from oil and gas companies onto ordinary people. When it comes to sustainability, even the critical terminology has been washed.

But there is at least some good news. Back in mid-February, France officially moved to ban the destruction of unsold goods, which, as the home of some of the world’s biggest and best-known luxury brands, is no small measure. This is a welcome and far-too-rare case of lawmakers following through on progressive proclamations with possible downward effects on big-ticket business revenues.

Yet, as positive and well-intentioned as this law appears, its scope is considerably narrower than necessary in order to bring real change on a meaningful level. While a slew of luxury brands are headquartered in Paris, where they sell most of their goods is another thing entirely. France may be the progenitor of personal luxury, but it is far from the industry’s biggest marketplace. As The Fashion Law astutely notes, neither China nor the US have any such measures in place.

It’s also worth mentioning that this measure took two years after its original passing by the French government to be enacted, at a time when knowledge of product destruction is more widespread, and public criticisms have already stemmed the practice.

In short: good, but too little, too late. Rien ne change jamais.

Moves toward a sustainable future come in all shapes and sizes. An end to burning unsold goods is only half a solution. It’s a useful guide on what not to do, rather than a holistic plan of action.

Elsewhere, other ideas are taking root, like transitioning away from the use of animal products at an industrial level. While once the near-exclusive domain of hemp-trousered liberals with no relevance to the fashion industry, this is now a mainstream concern. Plant-based materials and recycled synthetics are popular not just among niche brands with an eco-conscious USP, but also with major fashion houses who have typically put their stock in the luxury value of fur and leather.

In recent years, Prada has developed and expanded its re-nylon program, Gucci and Hermès have been taking mushroom leather seriously as a choice in many of their products. As of February 2022, Hugo Boss has entered into a $5 million strategic partnership with HeiQ Plc based on the Swiss firm’s AeoniQ technology, “a continuous cellulosic filament yarn with performance levels matching polyester and nylon fibers.”

This may sound like Hugo Boss is playing catchup with its French and Italian peers, but the move boasts a level of scalability that other technologies do not necessarily provide. More than this, the “sustainable, circular, and closed-loop recyclable cellulosic yarn” is also part of a wider plan to “ultimately substitute oil-based fibers, such as environmentally persistent polyester and nylon.” However, this announcement came very shortly after a few labor rights scandals relating to some of the brand's suppliers and factories.

This is the issue with greenwashing: It’s not “fake.” There is, potentially at least, real progress to be made with the introduction of these new initiatives. The problem is displacement and distraction, a “look over here” gesture that draws attention away from action elsewhere. It is useful not only to appear to be doing one good thing, but also to push considerably less good things to the periphery where they might be forgotten.

It would be more heartening to see mainstream and luxury labels taking a stand on sustainability issues if the messaging were not so contradictory. If the industry did not so frequently give with one hand, only to take with the other. To see big-name fashion houses and sportswear brands touting the progressive, ecological possibilities of sustainable fabrics – and even embracing the concept of smaller production runs that generate less waste – whilst clamoring to join the NFT marketplace is discouraging, to say the least.

It’s all very well to make grand statements about new ways of thinking. Just like material solutions, the blockchain does of course have great potential to generate sustainable solutions for the industry. In fact, StockX recently announced plans to use blockchain technology in an effort to make their own marketplace systems more ecologically sustainable. But regardless of what it might bring in the future, right now, it’s producing huge carbon emissions. “A single Bitcoin transaction,” as PCMag notes, “is estimated to burn 2,292.5 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power a typical US household for over 78 days”: a reminder that, just because something is digital, it isn’t necessarily sustainable. NFT sneakers do not exist in a vacuum.

Eventually, inevitably, fashion’s penchant for sustainable optics over actual sustainability gains will hit an impasse. It has to. Greenwashing, after all, doesn’t actually get anything clean. Whether that eventual blockade comes from legal issues or moral outrage is yet to be seen. Sooner or later, the industry will have its hand forced, and there will be no more distractions.

To find out how you can personally make an impact, visit Highsnobiety's Time for Climate Action resource link provided in partnership with Leaders for Climate Action.

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