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The slow but steady race toward sustainability in fashion

In today’s consumerist and capitalist market system where large corporations seek to gain maximum monetary profit by manufacturing and selling as many products as possible, it is a hopeful sight to see small businesses earn money in an ethical and sustainable manner.

These small aspiring business owners believe that to start a business is not only to make a profit, but also to help communities and advocate for ethical practices. In the fashion industry, this comes in the form of  the sustainable fashion movement, which posits that beyond earning a quick buck, fashion businesses can progress toward a stage where they can clothe people stylishly in an ethically responsible way.

True sustainability

In recent years, there has been an observable spike in online stores that sell thrifted or sustainably made clothing. These brands feature curated secondhand finds or even clothing made from upcycled materials such as scrap or “deadstock” fabric. While the shift toward a more sustainable market is noble, it is in danger of being seen—unintentionally or not—as a hollow fad, rather than a movement rooted in helping the environment. With many cases of greenwashing—brands being not as eco-friendly as they claim to be—we must ask ourselves: what does it really mean to be a sustainable brand?

“A sustainable business, broadly defined, is any enterprise—whether small, medium, or large—which is able to continuously generate revenue in a responsible manner,” shares Raymond Paderna, an assistant professorial lecturer from DLSU’s Decision Sciences and Innovation Department, who is also an expert in fashion entrepreneurship and small business sustainability. 

In order for any business to become genuinely sustainable, he adds, they must ensure that their business not only considers the environment from conception until disposal of their product; they must also be composed of a diverse set of individuals, follow certain laws and ordinances; and lastly, they must value their relationships with different stakeholders such as their employees, suppliers and the entire community. A brand cannot claim to have “true sustainability” if these conditions are not met in their business model, he argues. 

Paderna believes that Generation Z—who, he notes, are slowly dominating the market—tend to be more critical consumers who do their research. As such, brands must make an effort to be transparent with their production process and to provide relevant details, rather than simply stating that their pieces are “responsibly” and “ethically” made. 

The road less traveled

One of the ways sustainable businesses can “walk the talk” is through circular fashion where, as described by Paderna, “at the end of [the products’s] life, the producer or the manufacturer will make an effort to take it all back.” This is done through reverse logistics, wherein recycled materials go through environment-friendly processes to create new, sellable products. Aside from this, ethical labor practices are part of this endeavor, ensuring that good working conditions and above minimum wage are offered to the employees. 

Companies such as Adidas have started adopting more sustainable measures, but the shift to sustainability may be harder for smaller businesses because of its costliness. A manufacturer has to ensure that every step and every condition of their production chain is founded on environment friendly and humane business decisions. 

At the end of the day, these businesses will still need to earn to stay afloat and pay their employees, and this is hard to reconcile with sustainable fashion practices, which are costly upfront and even more costly to maintain. This struggle further intersects to low- or middle-income countries like the Philippines, where money is not a daily guarantee. 

Consumers and entrepreneurs alike would opt for the cheaper and more accessible option: fast fashion. With fast fashion brands scrambling to produce garments which reflect current fads, this practice has made the fashion industry one of the biggest polluters in the planet due to its excessive use of questionably cheap raw materials and poorly made garments produced by people in poor working conditions.

With sustainable fashion’s slow, ethical, and intentional approach, it truly is, according to Paderna, “the road less traveled”.

SI’LO closes the loop of local fashion

SI’LO, formerly known as “Forth Co.”, is an online community which aims to connect individuals and sustainable brands together. The name SI’LO is a combination of two words, the Filipino word silo which means to “loop”, and the Spanish word circulo, which means circle. 

The collective, which aims to expand circular fashion in the country, began as a response to the growing number of individuals who are interested in sustainable fashion, but who may not know where to shop or how to determine if a brand is genuinely sustainable. Founded in 2019 by Sheila Fuentes, it has since expanded to an educational platform, offering masterclasses for brands who wish to explore sustainable ways to conduct their business. “Current practices in the fashion industry have a lot of negative impacts, so we need to correct all of this in order to protect the environment of our planet and to improve the lives of the people in the fashion industry,” Fuentes emphasized.

Through transparency and a commitment to ethical sustainability, Fuentes encourages sustainable fashion brands to reach out to a wider audience to help them realize how sustainability can improve their lives. “They are not just helping the people, but they are also helping themselves…It’s not only about buying. It’s about behaviors,” Paderna highlights.

The government also has a role in initiating sustainable choices toward the masses. Waste segregation and energy conservation, according to Paderna, are a few sustainability practices local government units can promote. “That’s how you form a critical mass. You begin with little steps,” he says.

Under unexpected circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic expedited people’s desire to make more sustainable choices. With factories around the world closing, Paderna notes that, “supply chains were disrupted because walang flight, walang dumarating. And marami are fearful baka ‘yung dumating na stock may [virus].”

(Supply chains were disrupted due to canceled flights. If the stock arrives, many are also fearful that it might carry the virus.)

Sourcing locally has also been a choice companies are making. Paderna cites designer Joji Lloren, who has collaborated with and provided jobs for weavers and fabric makers in Indang, Cavite.

For a more ethical future

The sustainable fashion movement shows a road less travelled that helps in reducing our waste. “[We can] teach ourselves not to be as conscious with fads or even trends; and try to switch to more classic pieces, so [that] they can be timeless,” Paderna says.

Nevertheless, not everyone has enough money to buy sustainable fashion, or even quality clothing items, which are generally more expensive. With this, Fuentes says we can recirculate old clothes by buying “secondhand items like in ukay-ukay, which is gaining traction already.” Furthermore, many do not even have the resources to know about the concept of sustainability. “It really does come from a position of privilege,” Paderna remarks. “People who don’t have the privilege [to know about this] outnumber us. So we have to spread the message to them.”

At the end of the day, Paderna believes that we as consumers play a huge role in shifting the demand for fast fashion items to sustainable fashion products instead. 

“If we don’t buy, at some point production [of fast fashion] will stop, or at least be reduced, so that’s my challenge to consumers as well. We cannot achieve true sustainability by pressuring only the manufacturers,” he explains.

Ultimately, the future of sustainable fashion in the Philippines is bright. Today, there are many ways to practice sustainability, such as by buying second-hand clothes or even limiting our purchasing in itself—breaking away from the perception of keeping up with the latest fashion trends. And as more and more Filipinos become more aware and embrace this more ethical way of being fashionable, our efforts toward true sustainability would be sure to progress.

By Patrick Adrian Chan

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