What is Sustainability? It’s More Than a Set of Rules

Last weekend, I stopped by a friend’s art booth at a local craft fair and we got to talking (more like yelling over the DJ’s loudspeakers) about sustainability, and more specifically about my work on this blog.

Inevitably, my friend asked the age-old question:

“So what is sustainability?”

I laughed. “Good question. You know, I’ve been meaning to write something about that,” I responded.

At first glance, the question seems straightforward. Surely there’s a definition, a universal standard, a way to measure sustainability in the fashion industry. But the reality is that defining sustainability and ethics remains ambiguous. The Good Trade posed a similar question a couple weeks ago and ultimately decided to amalgamate industry leader’s definitions into a post that left readers with a call-to-action to prioritize their own standards, then decide on a case-by-case basis.

This is good advice, and maybe the only honest advice someone working in the industry can give to laypeople/consumers looking to “shop ethically”…without launching into the blog post I’m about to write.

Yes, the ambiguity can be frustrating, and if you subscribe to contemporary social justice models that demand certain “rights” and certain “wrongs,” you may be tempted to throw the people who make nuanced claims out along with their “wishy washy” answers.

But the fact remains that when we ask questions about sustainability and ethics, we’re not asking a question about one system, but rather a large set of interwoven systems, from international human rights agencies like the UN to individual governments to regional cultures to garment industries to agricultural models to NGOs.

And we’re not working with one set of values, either. Ideas about autonomy, human agency, gender, appropriation, and power differ significantly across the world, and while it may be true that ultimately there is an absolute “good” when it comes to some of these discussions, it would be egotistical and short-sighted to make sweeping decisions based on a primarily Western conception of morality without engaging seriously with what’s happening on the ground.

Cultivating Personal vs. Systemic Ethics

Ethics as a field, while perhaps during its mid-century hayday made attempts to create some universal standards, is simply not equipped to make unchangeable moral assertions. It must be adaptable as it responds to changing attitudes and social progress. Rather than seeing this as a weakness, maybe we can learn to embrace it.

What I mean is that, while it still holds true that we can’t know how to achieve perfection in a world that requires some give and take (just consider the plastic straw conversation among disability advocates, or the essential use of synthetic compounds in the medical field), we can do one better than just going with what feels right.

It’s time to cultivate a love for complexity, and a humility that admits that the “best choice” will never be the perfect choice. This is slightly different than just “choosing our priorities,” because it still requires that we put in the work to understand our own limitations of insight, and to make adaptations that maybe don’t always suit our own preferences perfectly.

For example, I’m much more worried about rainforest degradation due to the cattle industry than fossil fuel use, gang violence, and ecosystem loss due to demand for “trendy” produce like avocados. It’s an easy choice for me because I don’t incorporate beef into my diet for financial and health reasons as much as sustainability ones. This allows me to happily eat my avocado toast like a true millennial without giving a second thought to the fact that my confident sustainability angle is actually a secondary reason for my lifestyle choices, and not really a sign of my moral fortitude.

So I can’t just un-self consciously apply my personal standard to how I shop if I haven’t done at least some foundational work to strengthen my moral muscle. To do so will make some difference – and in the grand scheme of things a move toward vegetarianism in this example is still better than nothing at all – but it will not do much to change my attitude toward the wider world, to make me a better systems thinker.

Flexing our moral muscles

When my friend asked me about sustainable fashion, I told her that it’s not one-size-fits-all. I went through what I was wearing:

  • My purse was made in a fair trade co-op, but with vegan leather, which is essentially plastic, a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry and not biodegradable.

  • My skirt was thrifted, a great way to keep something from the landfill but not produced in an ethical factory or with sustainable materials.

  • My shoes were made in an ethical factory, but with chrome-tanned leather, a polluting process using cow’s hide that can’t be traced, so it’s not clear if it’s a byproduct of the meat industry or a contributor to child labor.

In one “ethical” outfit, I was forced to make a number of compromises. I am glad that I know what (at least some of) those comprises are, because it means I have something to fight for, something to improve, and something to keep me humble.

“Shopping ethically” is no guarantee of my moral fortitude. It does much more to highlight my moral shortcomings, my overwhelm, my willingness to compromise at the slightest provocation.

So I told my friend that sustainability is just as much about looking at the world with my eyes wide open as it is about consumption itself.

It’s a catalyst for exploring injustices that occur within the garment sector and those that intersect with it, from issues of gender inequality to pervasive racism to size exclusion to xenophobia to colonialism.

It’s not so much about being an individual actor with individual choices that may or may not “make an impact,” but seeing myself, on the one hand, as a global citizen working to understand and ally with anyone in any place asking how to make the world better and, on the other hand, as an evolutionarily tribal social animal, in need of tangible relationships with people who challenge and encourage me.

You do you, with intention

I often visualize myself as a soft little doe drinking water from a creek in a Redwood forest. In an aerial image, I am practically invisible, but on the ground I can make an impact, because I understand my surroundings. My world is informed by generational experience and trauma, biology, and experiential knowledge nurtured within the little patch of woods I occupy on this planet.

I have a responsibility to employ what I learn to improve the livelihood of those around me – and to ensure a thriving planet for those who come after me – but to do that requires a rootedness in my own reality. I must understand my shortcomings and others’ motivations. I must judge in terms of both intention and outcome.

And I must cultivate my strengths. I have learned that I am not the strongest technical innovator. I don’t work in CSR at an international firm, infiltrate sweatshops or factory farms, or work with the most vulnerable in the garment industry’s supply chain.

I am a big picture thinker to a fault, and what I see in my own expression of ethical fashion is the potential to cultivate the type of community-minded universal empathy that helps me apply compassion and care to my neighbor, my client, my dad, local refugees, the marginalized at home and abroad and their oppressors with a consistency that approaches equity, because I believe that being seen is the first step in being changed for good.

Sustainability is many things, and it is worthwhile to explore the technical ins and outs of the industry. But to sustain the momentum, we have to be aware of the assumptions we make, and understand why we’re working toward our goals, not just what those goals are.

So, sustainability is personal, both in terms of making sure we’re accessing it from our own strengths and priorities and in terms of how we can best sustain ourselves in the fight.

But it still requires getting outside of our own heads for long enough to write the stories of thriving that serve as a blueprint for collective sustainability.

Small steps and big ideas, taken on together.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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