“Sustainable;” it’s a word that we hear often enough, but do we actually know what it means? It must have something to do with the planet, right?
Yes, yes it does. Since it’s a word that marketers just love to use with reckless abandon, we thought we’d break it down. Sustainable means thinking about the future; it’s about creating systems that can survive and thrive in the long-term.
So let’s talk about things that won’t survive and thrive in the long-term: fossil fuels would be one of those things. Fossil fuels were formed from prehistoric plants and animals that lived hundreds of million of years ago. Once we take the last drop out of the ground and burn it, poof, it’s gone. That would be an unsustainable resource.
Most people think about the environment when they think of sustainability. We, and the United Nations, think about sustainability in three parts: Environmental, Social and Economic. Let’s discuss:
We shall begin with the most obvious one, environmental sustainability. This is about creating systems keeping in mind that the planet only produces limited resources and, so far, we’ve only got this one planet to live on. This is why fossil fuels are doubly unsustainable — we’re using a resource that we can’t replenish and the burning of that resource causes global warming, which can lead to oceans rising, which can lead to us not having a home to live in. (We’re located in Manhattan, an island, and we’re only a stone’s throw from the water, so we’d really be in trouble!).
One major red flag to note about sustainability in the apparel industry, some apparel companies love to throw that word around, especially when it comes to something that comes from a natural material. One of the biggest abuses of the term that we have come across is clothing made from bamboo. That stuff is NOT sustainable. We’re sorry to have to break the news. Companies are cutting down all kinds of native forests to grow the stuff and its only the base material in an otherwise highly toxic process. So how come companies are selling this stuff as sustainable?! We’re as outraged and mystified as you are, but now you know.
Now we’re ready to talk about social sustainability. Remember, we’re still talking about systems that can work over time.
Let’s think about a social systems or decisions that are not sustainable. Ooh, here’s one we might have all experienced, if we stay up late every night, for a few days we might be able to function just fine, but if we continue this behavior, let’s say three hours of sleep a night, we will no longer be able to function at our best. That’s an unsustainable social system.
Social sustainability plays a huge role in clothing production because clothing is an industry still very much made by people (in fact, one out of every six people on the planet works in some part of the apparel industry). Social systems of labor that are sustainable are systems where the workers are earning a wage that they can reasonably live off of. This means that the wage can cover food, living accommodations, health care and education. That is called a living wage. Now again we’ve got some bad news. Today only 2% of our clothing is made by people who are receiving a living wage. Ahh! Now let’s combine these two horrible facts, 1 in 6 people in the world work in the clothing industry, only 2% of them are receiving a living wage, now it gets even worse, 80% of those people are women.
In conclusion, the clothing being presented to us today is responsible for an enormous amount of unrelenting poverty for the world’s poor women. Surely, we can create a better system than that.
Creating a product that doesn’t destroy the environment and treats the people who make the product fairly is all well and good, but in order to keep doing that we also have to carry products that allows us and the factories and farms to keep going. And that is economic sustainability. Of course we don’t often think about economic sustainability when we think about business, because traditionally businesses have exclusively been in the business of making money. Zady is a social enterprise, which means we are a business that is trying to tackle a global problem. We can’t continue though if we don’t make a sustainable profit from the products we carry.
As you can see you, as a citizen and a consumer, have a big role to play in all of this. You have the power to vote with your dollars for a sustainable future.
So there you have it. No more confusion over sustainability. To create long-lasting systems we need to consider people, planet and profit.
Originally published at zady.com on July 30, 2015.