Why using sustainable materials doesn’t make you sustainable

Within the last 12 months, sustainable fashion has grown into a household name.

Consumers are fast adapting their purchase behaviours towards more environmentally and socially conscious brands, and brands are catching on.

But in order to adapt to this increasingly conscious market, fashion brands already in the sustainable fashion space, and those looking to get involved, are incorporating sustainability lingo into their marketing wherever possible, in an attempt to increase their chances of winning over these consumers in such a highly competitive field.


Do you Speak Sustainability?

‘Ethical, ‘sustainable’, and  ‘eco-friendly’ are terms that have been thrown around so often that we have become desensitised to their meaning. What’s more, is that brands seem to willingly use sustainability jargon in their marketing with no real explanation as to what it means.

The lack of regulation in sustainable fashion allows brands to speak about sustainability freely, without any consequence to making false and misleading claims.

We’ve since been seeing brands coming out of the woodwork, calling themselves sustainable and claiming to use sustainable products - but does this inherently make them a sustainable brand?


What is True Sustainability?

For a business to be truly sustainable, the supply chain is the most important area to focus on. This looks at the end-to-end process of how garments are sourced, produced, manufactured and distributed to ultimately end up at your front door.

The starting point within this is the sourcing process, which involves selecting the materials, products and services needed from a supplier to create the products or garments you wish to sell. 

From time to time, we see brands using the term sustainably sourced’ in their marketing, which focuses on building strong, long-term relationships with suppliers to ultimately contribute to a greater level of environmental responsibility.


Sustainable Sourcing

By definition, sustainable sourcing isthe integration of social, ethical and environmental performance factors into the process of selecting suppliers'. It symbolises a commitment to a much bigger picture of sustainability, by going further than just using sustainable fabrics, to ensure that the sourcing process in its entirety works off sustainable practises.

Sustainably sourced isn’t to be confused with ethically sourced’. Although not vastly different, ethical sourcing focuses more on protecting the wellbeing of workers, through abiding by human rights regulations and taking all social and environmental aspects involved in the process into consideration.

Unlike ethical sourcing, sustainable sourcing involves purchasing products and services that have sustainable qualities and preferences. Brands who use sustainably sourced fabrics should also be committed to following green guidelines, and undertake the responsibility of their suppliers’ environmental, social and ethical practises.

It may seem like something quite trivial, but using fabrics and products that are sustainably sourced is an integral part of running a sustainable business.



Whilst fast-fashion brands like H&M may bring out ‘sustainable collections’ created using ‘sustainable materials’, does this give them permission to call their products sustainably sourced?

Absolutely not. 

What H&M fails to mention is that a fabric might be sustainable in nature, but if the way it is sourced isn’t sustainable, it counteracts all the environmental good it does. 


Cactus Leather Collection

Take its most recent Cactus Leather collection, which, much to our dismay, earned the brand huge sustainability street cred from fashion consumers. 

Cactus itself is considered a sustainable material, as it acts as a natural part of the ecosystems in which it grows, and only uses a necessary level of natural resources to harvest.

H&M was therefore highly praised for using this material to create garments, as it’s a far kinder alternative to conventional animal-derived leather.

However, we do know that H&M as a brand is not sustainable. They are notorious for being ethically corrupt, by avoiding responsibility to simply ensure the wellbeing of their workers, even refusing to pay them a basic living wage.


H&M's Supplier Relationships

H&M does provide a list of suppliers on their website, but the transparency stops there. 

There’s no mention of the relationship they have with their suppliers, the precautions they take to ensure the safety of their workers, or details of any sustainable sourcing practises whatsoever.

It proves that whilst a brand may be using sustainable fabrics, the ways in which they are sourced may be more harmful than what it’s worth.

Fast fashion brands bank on letting the trendiness of sustainable materials speak for themselves, so they’re less likely to be called out on the unsustainable practises they still employ. 

It’s a testament to the entire facade that fast-fashion brands stage by introducing eco-friendly collections to rectify years of wrongdoing. So, how about we leave the cacti out of it, and actually put some credibility to our claims?


Compared to H&M, sustainable jacket brand Paynter is like another world. 

Not only does Paynter create each collection in very limited batches, they curate every step of the process to share with their customers, which includes the sourcing and manufacturing process of their garments. 

The London-based label only sells their garments in a total of three drops per year, which allows them to take the time in between to research and discover better product designs and more sustainable sourcing options, to incorporate into their future collections. 


A More Considered Approach

Paynter’s founders make sure to visit each factory themselves, giving them the opportunity to meet every person who is involved in the process. They even know their suppliers on a first-name basis. H&M could never. 

But, what really stands out is the way that Paynter speaks about their garments in comparison to H&M

Across Paynter’s entire website, you’ll barely find remnants of the words ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ or ‘eco-friendly’. Phrases like ‘made to order’ and organic lay in its place, with focus instead being on the journey of each jacket, with every step being recorded in detail. 

Brands like Paynter don’t need to prove that they’re sustainable or ethical through the language that they use, because their business model and supply chain does the talking for them. H&M on the other hand, are constantly trying to convince us that they’re the good guys.


The Consumer Revolution

So, without regulations, where does this leave us?

As consumers, the only way to put an end to the constant greenwashing of fast-fashion is to show support for brands who turn their words into actions.

With so many options to choose from, consumers have the power to decide those who succeed and those who fail within the sustainable fashion space; which includes newly converted fast-fashion brands. 

We’re all for second chances, but when fast fashion brands solely use sustainability for publicity purposes rather than genuine intentions, they really should just stick to what they know.


Separating Sustainability Fact From Fast Fashion Faux-Pas

Whilst several certifications exist in sustainable fashion, such as the EU Eco Label and GOTS Certified, not all brands may have earned their stripes just yet, so it’s important to look for more meaningful claims that go beyond the surface level language we’ve become so used to seeing in fashion marketing. 

This is where terms like ‘sustainably sourced’ come into play, those that infer deeper, more legitimate commitments to sustainable practises, that fast-fashion brands are forced to avoid using with ill intention. 

A lot can also be taken from how brands speak about their products. Usually fast-fashion brands will overuse generic sustainability phrases that have no meaning, because they have nothing interesting to say about the garments they sell. 

In truly sustainable brands, there will be language that’s fuelled with passion and honesty, working off the premise that what they’re doing is actually making a positive difference. 

The only way we can see more of this, is by supporting smaller, more authentic brands as they fight for sustainability. Fast fashion brands are huge corporations for a reason, so don't be tricked into thinking that their sustainability front is for any other purpose than profit. 

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published