What does it mean to be a sustainable brand?

Sustainable is a popular buzz word at the moment, with lots of businesses claiming they and their products are sustainable. Yet there is no certification for this, there’s no set of criteria laid out or process you can follow to confirm your business or products as ‘sustainable’. So what does this mean and how can you tell?

While there are some certifications for certain products or aspects, like GOTS for organic fibres, B-Corp looks at purpose as well as profit or ISO14000 looks at environmental management.

But there is no overall stamp of approval to allow you to easily see what is truly a sustainable product versus what is simply greenwashing. I’ve ranted about this before as it’s a source of much frustration.

So what can we look at if we want to know if a product is sustainable? I’m going to focus on the fashion industry as that’s what I know best, but I guess similar principles apply to all products. There are a number of elements we can look at.

Raw materials

First we look at both the materials used and how it is produced. Natural fibres are likely to be better than man-made in most circumstances as man-made are often made from oil-based plastics. So although we know cotton is very water intensive (organic cotton uses up to 91% less water to produce than non-organic), at least it breaks down and will biodegrade, unlike synthetic fabrics.

There are alternative, newer fabrics such as tencel or lyocell. These are made from bamboo, so they are made from a natural material but tend to require quite a lot of chemical processing to make yarn from the bamboo fibres. Technology is getting better all the time on this, which makes it difficult to compare but they are marketed as more sustainable options.

Single-fibre products are easier to recycle then composite fabrics. For example, 100% cotton is easier to recycle and process than a fabric that’s a cotton/ polyester mix. That’s because cotton and polyester require different processes to recycle them but it would be very difficult to separate the different materials once they are together as a yarn. So while it may be possible to recycle once they’ve reached their end of life, you’ll end up with a lower grade product at the end, rather than a nice 100% recycled cotton that could be used to make clothing again.

I know recycled plastic has its supporters for clothing, and it’s a popular option for making fleece jackets. I realise it’s probably better for plastic to be recycled as clothing than it is for it to end up in landfill or dumped somewhere in Asia, but my concern is that it will release micro-plastics when washed, which is not good for the environment. So I would prefer to see plastic recycled into non-washable or non-clothing items, but that's my personal preference. 

Design for sustainability

Then there are things you can do in the design phase to make your products more sustainable. 

For clothing, having fewer sizes can reduce waste. In children’s clothing this would mean having dual-size clothing, or for adults you would cut your clothes in a way to allow you to have small, medium and large as sizes, rather than 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 etc… It reduces the number of items made, and reduces the number of items likely to be unsold at the end.

Designing items to be unisex also helps them to be used for longer, and therefore be more sustainable. Unisex clothing, particularly for children, is easier to pass on to siblings, friends and family to be used again – thereby reducing the need to buy more new.

And needless to say, making quality items that last longer is more sustainable than buying poorly-made items that won’t last as long and will need to be replaced more frequently.

How an item of clothing is designed can help minimise fabric waste when the pattern is cut.

Then when the product is made, again the number of different materials is an important consideration. An item made from one type of fabric is going to be an awful lot easier to take apart and recycle the constituent components than one that’s made up of lots of types of material. Imagine a coat made from a wool mix material, lined with a polyester-based material, with a metal zip, plastic poppers and leather detailing. That’s a lot of different elements to separate before each can be recycled.

You also need to think about any special coating or treatments on the fabric that might make it harder to be recycled. Waterproofing and non-creasing and other features like that are generally added by treating the fabric with specific chemicals, but doing so can also make the fabric and the garment harder to recycle at the end of its life.

How and where the products are made

This is probably the one most people think about but they consider sustainability of products – how and where their products are made.

Obvious considerations are things like, how the factory is powered. Due to the general progress on decarbonisation of the national grid in the UK (meaning more power in the UK is generated from green methods, rather than from fossil fuels), manufacturing in the UK can often result in a lower carbon footprint than manufacturing overseas. But, having said that, some overseas factories that are dedicated to sustainable manufacturing may have solar panels to make them green.

And you also need to look at transport of your goods. Clearly the closer they are, the less distance they need to be transported once made. This is another reason why UK-made products often have a lower carbon footprint. If goods are coming from abroad, ocean freight is more sustainable than airfreight, but it’s a lot slower (think 3 months!) so small quantities of fast fashion items that are needed quickly, may be flown over, which is probably the least sustainable option.

Retailer operations

And finally we look at how the retailer operates – what packaging do they use? Are they making efforts to reduce or eliminate plastics? Do they have lots of extra, unnecessary tags, branding and packaging that gets thrown away?

Even here, the options are not clear cut. Paper mailing bags are increasingly popular (we use them!) but paper and card are energy-intensive processes to make and recycle, and they are also heavier than their plastic counterparts, so more fuel is needed to transport them and while most heavy goods vehicles still use diesel, this is a bad thing.

I know there are also lots of bio-plastics, but since these are all quite new it’s difficult to compare as their environmental impact depends on the processes, chemicals and energy required to make them.

And at the end of the product lifecycle, what measures are taken to support the recycling? We’ve come a long way on post-consumer take back schemes on certain products – white goods and batteries, for example. But we’ve yet to make much progress in other areas.

I would love to be able to offer a take back scheme for our clothes, but at the moment I’m not aware of any way of recycling the fabric or where to send it. (Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to offer clothes made from our recycled clothes?) So the best we can do at the moment is promote the resale of pre-loved items in our Facebook group - The BeebooBUZZ.

So, how many brands achieve all of these? Very few, I imagine.

Then, how many of these boxes does a brand have to be able to tick to call themselves ‘sustainable’? Are some criteria more important than others? Or is it simply about a mindset and a commitment to do better?

I don’t know the answer to all this, but I’d be happy to hear what you think. What do you look for in a ‘sustainable’ brand? 

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