Framing Sustainability as a Journey and Not a Destination
Updated: Feb 24
Over the last decade, sustainability has grown from a fringe movement to an important goal for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike. But what is sustainability, and how can brands practice sustainability without greenwashing?
The important thing to remember is this; sustainability is a journey, not a destination.
What do we mean when we talk about sustainability?
The International Institute for Sustainable Development defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable design means not depleting your own resources or labor force so that you can continue to create indefinitely.
For brands, sustainability is about doing business in a way that prioritizes the triple bottom line; people, planet, and profit. Creating sustainable products requires looking closely at every step of your supply chain, considering the entire lifecycle of the product, and understanding the different ways that your decisions can make an impact.
This means that sustainability is multi-faceted and almost always imperfect - and that’s ok. Brands looking to move towards sustainability shouldn’t think about it as a goal that can be checked off and set aside, but rather as a constant commitment to doing the best that you can.
Sustainability in practice can look like a lot of different things. Every business has unique values, priorities, and resources. What you care about as a brand and the experience that you want your products to provide will heavily influence sustainable design and decision making.
From jeans that take less water to dye and leggings made from recycled plastic bottles, to plastic-free makeup and green cleaning products, there are a million ways to incorporate sustainable practices into your brand. Whether you go all in and overhaul your operations at once, or you take it step by step to incorporate eco-friendly practices over time - there isn’t just one right way to be a sustainable brand.
Here are some tangible steps that brands can take towards sustainability today:
1. Using eco-friendly materials
Not all materials are created equal. Raw materials or ingredients should be renewable, low-carbon, require as few chemical and water inputs as possible, and should be able to be either biodegraded or recycled at the end of their life. Fashion designers can look for all-natural fibers like organic cotton, hemp, and wool or opt for eco-synthetics like econyl or tencel. Third-party certifications like GOTS, OEKO-TEX, and the Global Recycled Standard exist to help designers and shoppers identify sustainable materials with confidence, and Fashion For Good’s “Five Goods” report offers tools for deciding which are the most eco-friendly for your designs. For consumer product designers, the material options are much more expansive. This guide by Ecosalon as well as this one from Reggs Design Studio offer some inspiration for sustainable materials to begin with, but it certainly doesn't stop there. Different types of plants, wood, stone, and metal all have different environmental implications, and some materials are only ecologically sound when used in the right context - so be sure to do your research. Finding the right materials is important for designing any product, and a crucial part of incorporating sustainability into your brand’s operations. Taking the time to ask questions about where things come from and how they’re made is all it takes to determine how to create an environmentally sound design.
2. Adopting zero-waste practices
Americans send over 267.8 million tons of stuff to the landfill each year - that’s about 4.5 pounds per person per day. Eliminating waste at all levels of the supply chain is a big way to reduce your carbon footprint and make the most of precious resources. Designers should think about how much and what kind of waste is created in the production process. Apparel industry professionals say that 15-20% of textiles used to produce clothing ends up on the cutting room floor. As this roundup of zero-waste fashion designers explains, there are multiple ways for cutting down on that waste including zero-waste patterning, upcycling or recycling materials, and incorporating circularity. Packaging is another area where designers can reduce waste. Most plastic packaging is designed to only be used once, and less than 14% of it gets recycled. In order to combat plastic pollution, brands should look to replace or eliminate all single-use plastic packaging with biodegradable, reusable, or easily recyclable alternatives. Today, even big brands like Unilever and Clorox have pledged to drastically reduce their plastic waste. With the frightening prediction that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, it’s clear that now is the time for brands to move away from the linear take-make-waste model and start to eliminate waste at all levels of the supply chain.
3. Choosing quality over quantity and making it to last
If fast fashion is the antithesis to sustainability, then slow fashion is the solution to a world that’s overwhelmed by cheap clothing. A study by McKinsey consulting group found that globally, shoppers purchased 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment for half as long. Whether you design clothing, toys, home goods, or other consumer products, going for quality is one important way to ensure sustainability. Even if you use a less-than-ideal material and ship the product in single-use plastic packaging, something that’s designed to last for 10+ years will likely have a lower carbon footprint than something that’s made from sustainable materials but only lasts for a short time. When designing for quality, brands should think about how durable a product is, whether it feels timeless enough for the customer to want to use it for a decade or more, and if the customer can easily repair it to prolong its life. Prominent brands like Patagonia have made quality a key issue for sustainable shoppers, and industry trends are slowly starting to shift. In order to foster brand loyalty and further encourage a shift in the way we shop, designers should always take quality into account.
4. Circularity and closing the loop
Circularity has emerged as a leading strategy for sustainable design, and rightly so. Circular design simply means that the brand takes into account what will happen at the end of a product’s life - Can it be biodegraded? Reused by the consumer? Can the brand recapture the product to resell it or create something new? In a linear model, products are designed with a take-make-waste mindset that encourages the exploitation of non-renewable resources as well as the mounting piles of waste in our landfills and oceans. In a circular model, all of the materials are reclaimed and given a new purpose, without polluting the planet. Brands such as H&M, Stella McCartney, and others have introduced circularity as an important goal for the fashion world, while sustainable design institute Cradle to Cradle applies circular solutions to architecture and product design. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.” Brands can implement circularity through take-back and resale programs as well as by using recycled materials and investing in technology that will enable the recycling and reuse of more types of materials than ever before.
As you can see, there are a number of different ways for brands to practice sustainability. The solutions laid out above are general guidelines that can (and should) be interpreted to fit your brand’s values, resources, product goals, and target market.
That’s the beautiful thing about sustainability; there’s always some aspect of it that’s within your reach. Brands can start with what is attainable for them now, and then improve on that in the future. At the end of the day, sustainability is all about learning, growing, and implementing new practices so we can all do better together.