Sustainable fashion: trend of the future or marketing buzz?
Sustainable fashion, also called eco fashion, is a part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability. It can be seen as an alternative trend against fast fashion. As Fashion Potluck is a big supporter of sustainable fashion, we have conducted an interview with Mayya Saliba, an award-winning designer and sustainability consultant who focuses on Circular Economy. She has shared her perspective and thoughts on the subject with us.
FP: There is a present misconception that sustainable fashion only fits the ‘granola-eating, vegan, and yoga-practicing’ lifestyle. Is that a challenge for the fashion industry and how is it possible to change the consumer’s mindset?
Mayya: Even though many sustainable brands are trying to balance fashion and sustainability, most of sustainable fashion’s aesthetics and communication often falls in the “eco” visuals and lifestyle, which only appeals to a certain niche market. The main drivers for customers remain design, price and social added value. I believe the challenge to normalize sustainable fashion lays in elevating it to the art form while designing with restrictive sustainable standards. This is also what I find most exciting in my work.
FP: Studies show that, while 60 percent of millennials are interested in sustainable clothing, only 30 percent say they have actually purchased it. If sustainability is so in, why aren’t more people buying ethically made clothes?
Mayya: I think there might be two reasons for these percentages. On the one hand, millennials do not necessarily have the buying power to buy sustainable clothing, as these are often quite expensive. However, that can also be questionable, knowing that many millennials would save up or wait to buy designer pieces. On the other hand, I believe that the sustainable market lacks diversity and misses out on the “cool” factor (refer to the previous question). Recent studies have shown that many luxury fashion brands do not communicate their sustainable improvement in a direct way to avoid being classified as “eco”, which says something.
FP: Where is sustainability positioned in the luxury fashion and how does the price of sustainable fashion reflect on its demand?
Mayya: In the luxury world, the price reflects mostly the branding and it doesn’t mean the manufacture or materials are more expensive. Fashion lovers spend enormous amounts of money on designer brands. Many buy luxury pieces and think of buying less as a sustainable standpoint.
Regarding the prices, if a sustainable fashion brand wants to create high street products, then yes, they need to lower the prices. Especially when H&M and other high street brands can offer that same organic t-shirt at 11 euros.
However, do keep in mind that demand is related to prices. If the demand for sustainable materials and textiles grows, chances are their prices will drop. Replacing conventional raw materials for better alternatives and more sustainably sourced materials encourages more players to use these alternative materials in their collections. The crave-ability for a certain kind of material leads to a certain kind of agriculture. This creates a new wave of improvements as well as improve the overall environmental performance across the industry.
FP: Using eco-friendly materials made from eco-friendly fibers is a method of becoming more sustainable. Since these materials also go through intense processes of dying, are these actually fully biodegradable as they tell us?
Mayya: There are sustainable prints and dyeing processes. So, it really depends. If they do not use sustainable processes and the products aren't produced in an ethical manner, I would say the extent to which this piece is sustainable is questionable.
FP: Thrift shopping is one of the most popular activities when it comes to implementing an eco-friendlier purchase behavior. However, a study shows that the aged garments have an increased shedding of microfibers. Does this mean that second-hand clothes are not as sustainable as most of us think?
Mayya: Well, most of the vintage clothing starting from around the 60’s have more amounts of plastic, as it was huge back then. And clothes deteriorate, so they shed more. Just as clothes that are created now, will shed later… this is the cycle that is perpetuated. For example, if we stop recycling plastic waste for fashion, will plastic companies feel the pressure to stop producing it and find alternatives? As long as there are no policies implemented, I’m afraid there are no black or white answers. My take is to re-use the garments or resources that are already there and design in a better way for the future.
FP: On the one side, sustainable brands can effectively use social media to promote themselves. However, on the other side, platforms as IG promote consumerism and fast fashion. Do you perceive social media more as a positive, or as a negative factor in leading fashion to a more sustainable path?
Mayya: I believe that social media and the internet are a powerful tool to reach people and bring awareness. I think they have highly contributed to the hype about the negative impacts of the fashion industry. We do live in a time of consumerism; however, I get the feeling this might all slow down, also because we are running out of resources. Reusing our resources will come as a necessity at some point, not as a choice.
FP: Due to media pressure, a lot of fashion companies use sustainability as a marketing buzz. How can a consumer know a company is actually sustainable?
Mayya: Most of the time, they can’t really tell, unless they dig deeper, which takes time, dedication and research. Sustainable standards are quite broad, they cover social and environmental aspects, and the fashion supply chain is very complex going from agriculture, raw material, textile, trims, production, packaging, delivery, transport etc. Some certifications cover social and environmental standards, some companies can be transparent about their supply chain, which can help. Mostly it is about seeing the big picture and being pragmatic. If it’s organic, it doesn’t mean it was produced in an ethical way. Also, vegan cotton doesn’t mean anything J I think there is a lot to do with communicating sustainability- which can be improved and simplified. And I can understand the struggle of people who are not trained in sustainability or are from another industry.
FP: Does a consumer have a power in changing the fashion industry? If so, which?
Mayya: I believe so, by making better choices, asking the right questions, caring about the environment they live in and how their clothes are produced. If the demand for better fashion rises, companies will follow the demand. It also goes both ways: if companies start offering better alternatives, people will want more as well.
FP: As an expert in fashion sustainability, what are your thoughts on the future of the fashion industry and where do you see sustainable fashion in the next 10 years?
Mayya: There is a growing interest in the improvement of environmental and social performance, the extension of products’ lifespan, the delivery of innovative solutions and technology, and in multi-disciplines collaborations.
Even though sustainable fashion is an undeniable trend, it has been so far a niche-market. Buying decisions are still based on two key drivers: design (brand, style) and price, which are prioritized over social and environmental ethics. A study led by LIM College professors Robert Conrad and Dr. Kenneth M. Kambara revealed that Millennials are more interested in a product’s brand name and its uniqueness over sustainability when considering which fashion items to purchase. The professors polled 685 students and alumni (ages 18–37) from LIM College, RMIT University in Australia and London College of Fashion. In a press statement, Dr. Kambara added: “There are only a handful of eco-friendly brands, and none have the scale or variety of fashion offerings to meet Millennials’ requirements for ease, price/value, and uniqueness”.
Increasing consumers’ awareness of responsible fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore. Sustainability’s definition is broad. It can be interpreted in many ways and applied on various levels, making its communication often lost and unclear. From the consumers’ perspective, there is the misconception that prices reflect a true price-quality ratio and that outsourcing the production necessarily means poor environmental and ethical regulations, which aren’t necessarily linked. In reality, many luxury items’ production costs are similar to those of high street, with a similar quality, durability, and (un)sustainable standards. Most of sustainable fashion is seen as “preachy”, boring and consisting of basics. Sustainability is often a marketing strategy, while it should be an integral part of the planning system. Even big labels that are making moves towards being green aren’t shouting about their efforts. For example, Gucci has recently swapped out PVC for slightly more eco-friendly polyurethane for its popular Dionysus shoulder bags. Rather than use the word “sustainable”, Gucci describes it as a “material with low environmental impact” on its website.
To rekindle momentum, the industry needs to innovate and to invest jointly to tackle the unresolved challenges in the value chain with new solutions.
I believe the future economy will be defined by connectivity and collaborations, learning from each other in order to adapt to an ever-changing environment. To achieve lasting impact at scale, the industry needs change through leadership, innovation, and collaboration. My motivation is to expand the limits of what we thought was possible together with partners, the rest of the industry and customers - because only collectively can we evoke greater change.
Born in Brussels, Mayya is an award-winning designer and sustainability consultant with a focus on Circular Economy. In 2016 she received the German National Award - Ecodesign Young Talent, presided by the Federal Environment Minister Dr. Barbara Hendricks. Granted by the Federal Environment Ministry and the Federal Environment Agency in cooperation with the International Design Centre Berlin (IDZ), the award recognizes and honors pioneers in the field of ecological design. Her most recent work, an embroidered bag made of pineapple waste, was commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is currently showcased at the V&A's "Fashioned from Nature" exhibition.
Check her work HERE.