Jan 31, 2024
by Karl Smith
Have We Reached Peak Sustainability?
by Karl Smith
Jan 31, 2024

With new legislation coming into force, new breakthroughs in material innovation and circular engineering, and a stream of new brands making Earth-friendlier ways of creating their entire USP, it feels like we’re at a serious tipping point with sustainability in the fashion and footwear industries.

And we are. But not, perhaps, in the way we’d like to be.

Despite all the progress made in 2023 – and, undoubtedly, much progress was made across the board – we are still confronted with an ugly truth: last year, fashion consumption looked on track to increase by 60%. Ballooning from 62 million tonnes consumed in 2022 to an estimated 102 million by 2030, these figures paint a very different picture to the one held up in celebration (and in expectation of reward) by the industry.

In short: we’re still buying too many clothes.

The temptation here, of course, is to lay blame at the feet of consumers. They’re the ones doing the buying after all, and if the industry is making such lengthy strides toward genuine betterment then surely Fashion itself can’t be at fault?

And there’s a degree of truth to this, of course. But consumers are very much the end point of the cycle, and if the messaging on sustainability isn’t cutting through, we can’t just point to the millions of people buying clothes and shoes all over the world and chastise them for “not getting it.” As an industry, there’s no room – or time, for that matter – to hold up our hands and say we did all we could; we have to ask why it isn’t working. If this is it, if we’ve not just reached a plateau but actually started to move backward, then where have we – brands, manufacturers, media, marketing departments – failed?

It’s not just a question of whether we’ve reached “peak sustainability,” but – if so – also a question of how that has been allowed to happen.

Does “sustainability” have an image problem? Are consumers experiencing fatigue from an onslaught of green-focused messaging? Have numerous greenwashing scandals sewn distrust of the entire project? Are people more nihilistic than we expected when faced with the possibility of impending doom? Is the message itself either unclear or just plain wrong?

“The word Sustainability feels very shallow and so greenwashed,” says Isaac Larose, founder of the progress-minded brand Eden Power Corp. “Sustainability messages won’t solve the issues. We need systemic changes.”

In Larose’s opinion, then, it’s not the end-user at fault and getting sanctimonious with consumers won’t help the cause.

“People care,” he continues, “but in the reality of daily life it’s really hard to change patterns and resist temptations when you have companies spending millions to get you. The whole system makes it hard to have access to responsible options that are affordable and easily accessible. This burden can’t be on the end consumer.”

Natural Fiber Welding’s head of Product for Footwear, Alan Lugo, comes at the issue from a similar perspective: “Something I’ve talked about in conversations with others is the idea that the progress which the industry is making on “sustainability” or “preferred materials” is growing or being adopted at such a slow rate, or at least such a slow effective rate, that the continuous growth of the brands and the industry at-large are canceling out any possible movement,” he suggests. And in this sense, once again, it’s the industry that’s holding itself back – giving with one hand and taking with the other – rather than the straw man consumer keeping progress at bay.

And in this sense, too, it’s perhaps no surprise that the message is getting lost.

Consumers not only have access – should they want it – to all of the relevant data, but they also see new products rolled out on the daily, pushed by some of the biggest brands in the world, all while sounding off about the importance of the mission to reduce waste and emissions. In some cases, even using that quasi-progressive, morality-coded language as a way to push sales harder and faster.

That fashion and footwear brands often have a “conscious,” “green,” or “sustainable” line of product – perhaps featuring recycled materials at some low percentage marker – without even a thought to slimming-down their regular offering or to bringing the rest of their selection up to the same code, is a tacit invitation to buy more disguised as the chance to buy “better.”

In effect, it demonstrates that their true intention lies – as it always does – with sales, rather than systemic change. It’s not that people are asking, “What’s the point?” and pushing on regardless, it’s that consumers can do exactly as they’re told – make choices that are labeled as better, more progressive options – and still, through no real fault of their own, their only contribution is to further unsustainable consumption.

“Have we reached Peak Sustainability? Surely the answer must be no, simply because no-one can predict the future and see what will happen in 10 years, 20 years, 100 years, or 500 years time. I’m a glass half full person, so I’d lean towards no.” – Jonathan Cheung

Circularity specialist Paul Foulkes-Arellano also notes this sharp divide between the words and deeds of the industry: “Trying to promote sustainable fashion as making better purchasing choices is hard enough,” he says, contemplating the difficulty of cutting through the noise. “But trying to stop fashion brands from overpromoting and buying huge unsaleable inventory is impossible right now. They are desperate for sales at all costs to keep their jobs. That attitude has to change, otherwise the dumping of 100 billion garments per annum continues unabated.”

It’s not that it’s hard to pinpoint a reason why consumers should care – why, if the brands and manufacturers aren’t following the rules, they should curb their own bad habits – when, in fact, studies have consistently shown that people are willing to pay more for next-generation materials and for more conscious fashion options on the whole.

Instead, the issue is the prevalence and power of “greenwashing” – a marketing tool so insidious and so pervasive it has people convinced that they’re buying better even (or especially) when they’re not.

Not, as Larose, notes, that this absolves the consumer altogether: “As always,” he says, “nothing will change until the people demand it.” A notion seemingly backed-up by a 2021 Zalando report which, according to the Sustainable Fashion Forum, “found a disconnect between consumers’ intentions towards sustainability and their actions… reveal[ing] that while 72% of respondents stated that reducing food, plastic, and water waste is important, only 54% said the same about fashion.”

It’s a strange disconnect, really. On the one hand you could say it’s a question of priorities: as SSF rightly notes, clothing is tied explicitly into self-image in ways that food, plastic, and water are not. There’s also a domino effect at play whereby people spending more on sustainability elsewhere might decide on fashion consumption choices as the place to save money. (And, of course, there’s a global cost of living crisis that could easily be tied to rising consumption of cheaper, sub-par goods without a parallel rise in like-for-like spending.)

But, the thing is, food, plastic, and water are all intrinsically linked to the fashion industry in various ways – all three are, in some way or another, a vital part of the garment production cycle – either present in the materials of the final product or integral to the manufacturing processes which create it.

“If sustainability is going to move forward, it needs to be simpler,” says Eric Liedtke, co-founder of circular fashion brand UNLESS. “It needs to be real and it can’t always be asking the consumer to compromise their tastes and needs for their values. Too much of sustainability is finger wagging – telling the consumer to buy less, wear something less desirable, to learn a new accounting method, or to pay more. These are not winning propositions.”

According to Liedtke, the burden remains squarely with the industry – both in terms of the bigger brands who must own up to and alter their behaviors, and in terms of the upstart brands for whom “sustainability” is a load-bearing pillar of the business.

“Winning,” Lietdke suggests, “is getting the consumer to buy better by giving them better options,” rather than scolding them into change that feels like a one-sided compromise. “Why do we expect consumers to compromise their tastes and their wants for their values? Why can’t they have it all? They can with EVs. They can with plant-based foods. And they will be able to with the regenerative fashion movement.”

Sustainability has definitely become confusing, and with eco-anxiety at an all-time high I think the image has become exhausted now.” – Joey Pringle, Veshin Factory Co-Founder

In terms of turning things around, though, reaching the peak isn’t the same as reaching the Point of No Return. Although, as with so many things, the first step toward fixing the problem is admitting that you have one in the first place – something that the fashion industry, having worked so hard to convince the world it’s changed, isn’t exactly keen on.

“The answer is to take a long view backwards and ask how we got here,” offers Liedtke. “The ‘hype’ cycle of celebrity endorsements, collaborations, owned brands, limited editions, etc. all came about in the last five to seven years. And now, I believe, we are witnessing the end of that cycle – as seen at McDonalds happy meals and Stanley water bottles. And so, the question for me is, what’s the next movement?”

It’s the same question that NFW’s Alan Lugo comes back to time and time again. “In terms of the concept of Peak Sustainability, yes, I think it has happened – but only in terms of marketing. The sad truth, though, is in terms of actual progress, or even proper education at the ‘everyday person’ level, we are maybe only 5% there… so, we have to ask ourselves, is there an analogue to that from another industry or from the past? Where (or when) has it occurred, where a particular topic was so overused and so misused that people got burnt out on it before the “thing” was ever actually even delivered?”

Sustainability has definitely become confusing, and with eco-anxiety at an all-time high I think the image has become exhausted now,” suggests Veshin Factory’s Joey Pringle. “The holistic massage is there and we are shifting to the greater good, but the way it’s being delivered in the mainstream is very tick-box capitalistic. Ultimately everything needs to just slow down and become way more conscious.”

For Pringle, then, the path forward is in “Trying to learn the right questions to ask rather than relying heavily on the labels,” leaning away from “sustainability” as a marketing gimmick pushed on the consumer and much harder into sustainable practices as a back-end standard for the industry.

“The economy and fashion needed to bounce back from COVID, but it’s clearly up and running again now. Moving forward, it just needs to slow down – become more circular and have a more human connection to it. Rather than trust the words you see, start putting money behind the people who are speaking transparently from the heart.”

And, of course, therein lies the problem: more than anything else, consumers rely on the word of brands and manufacturers to tell them – honestly and explicitly – about their sustainable credentials. The brands and manufactures, however, seem far more keen to obfuscate those details in favor of some vague, marketable version of progress.

It’s not, perhaps, that we’ve reached “Peak Sustainability,” and more that we’ve found ourselves at a Sustainability Saturation Point – a pivotal moment where perception needs to shift dramatically. Brands, manufacturers, and consumers all have their part to play, but – at the end of the day – it’s a shift that needs to happen from within to have any hope of taking root without.