What is sustainability in fashion ? The perspective of a luxury consignment CEO

Photo: Giji Gya at the Luxury Innovation Summit, October 2022. Photo by Matthew Croisier.

Sapere Aude Associates interviews DOWNTOWN UPTOWN’s CEO, Giji Gya.

Giji, you have been directing Geneva’s largest luxury consignment and ethical fashion boutique for almost 9 years and you come from a background in CSR/ESG and human security including with Fairwear in the fashion industry, or we prefer the word “style”. So what is sustainability in this industry?

Sustainability in fashion should be simple. It is about slowing down: that is, “slow-fashion”. Or rather, a sustainable style or lifestyle. What does this mean? What needs to be “slowed”? We need to slow down consumption, production, process flow, and most importantly, slowing innovation and technology that doesn’t use reviewed research or prudent forecast and governance.

One way to slow down consumption of new fashion, is of course second-hand. However, we are now running the risk of creating fast-second-hand and a saturated market, thus cancelling out the positives of second-hand!

OK, there would be a lot of opposition to many parts of this. So how about we look at the first aspect of consumption? We all know why we need to reduce consumption in fashion – with media reports quoting statistics about clothes in landfill. But how?

Well, with today’s society, consumption is often used to fill a gap left by: stress, un-happiness, competition, dissatisfaction with one’s status and even boredom. The psychological literature on this is in depth and fascinating, indeed there are marketing journals based just on this. Thus, slowing consumption is quite a challenge, as buying is a known psychological trait to address gaps.

In fashion, keeping up with the latest trends puts an enormous pressure on the consumer to constantly update their wardrobe. Either peer or work pressure and of course, social media has exponentially increased that pressure.

This pressure also has an economic aspect, such that fast-fashion has allowed relief of pressure by increasing access for consumers to a change of wardrobe almost daily. Current business models emphasize relief of a consumer’s “pain-points”, and fashion was quick to utilize the phenomenon that “fashion pressure” could be easily fixed by excess production at low prices.

Of course, this has created the three horrific challenges we face today: labour exploitation, biosystem damage and crime. In “sustainability speak” this is the S of social and the E of environment in Environmental, Social and corporate Governance or ESG (formerly CSR). What the concept of ESG misses, is crime. Also, ESG is still siloed, such that few processes and businesses are treating it as a holistic concept.

So the how is actually harder than we think, if sustainability is really to ring true. Why? Because we have to take consumer behavior and the psychological aspect of fashion and marketing into account. This is why greenwashing has become so prevalent lately, as the quick fixes or the brushstrokes across one aspect of ESG only, do not reduce consumption, they merely give permission to consume more! Thus we are not addressing the pain of non-sustainability.

So, WHERE is the how?

Ah. Extricating sustainability from its buzz word status does require effort!  We are not currently using a wholistic effort in our how, which means the social, environmental, criminal & governance aspects are still being treated separately. So, to address “how”, we need to look at: what governance is; how businesses and consumers fit into governance; and what is actually governing the allowance of exploitation in the social aspect, the allowance of damage to the biosystem and the allowance of crime. Essentially, excess consumption facilitates these negative traits. Fast production with no governance does not allow for labour rights. Fast process with no governance damages biosystems. Fast demand with no governance facilitates crime (corruption, theft and counterfeit). Fast innovation with no governance does not allow time for reflection and prevention of potential damages due to a process.

Could you be more concrete about governance?

Yes. Or rather the lack of governance.

Regarding production of fashion, we need to remember our human rights. To put it in a universal frame of governance then look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): dignity and rights, education and health, liberty and security, no slavery or servitude, equal protection of the law, right to an effective remedy, right to association, and particularly article 23 on work rights. Read any news about fast fashion and these rights are violated. So, governance needs improvement here. For the consumer, there is confusion over “how do I know if people are being violated?” A simple rule of thumb is, if it is cheap, it is pretty much guaranteed that there is violation of rights. Making fashion is NOT cheap, so, someone is being exploited somewhere. Unfortunately, upholding rights lays with each country’s government (or in Europe, additionally the European Court of Human Rights) and its laws. This is often used by businesses as an excuse to not abide by rights in their supply chains across multiple countries.

Regarding the process of fashion – here I count the materials – environmental laws and animal rights, there is no universal governance. The UN Environmental Programme was created in 1972, but is an “advocate”, not a governing body. Thus each country has to rely on its own government, which to an outsider, would seem ridiculous as the environment doesn’t stop at borders. So governance here is very weak. And for the consumer? Logically, a lack of governance and clear guidelines leaves the consumer confused. Fast fashion damages the biosystem. However, non fast-fashion can still be contributing harm to the biosystem through excessive use of raw materials, animal harm, processing raw materials, use of dyes and techniques for finishing materials that could be toxic and/or wasteful.

Ok. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Well yes. We are all stakeholders in this global game. What we need to do is to take time with innovation and technology. That is, the ways we are looking for « solutions » to the mess we have created. We seem to be in a race to innovate, in a race to produce unicorns (fast growth-fast revenue start-up companies). Instead, we need to be more prudent and create more checks and balances, to ensure that new processes, technology or innovative materials are not going to actually create a greater problem in the future. History is riddled with instances of lack of foresight and it seems that we as humanity have a difficult time in learning from the past.  We aren’t going to be contributing sustainability in future if we go off on an innovation track without thinking about the consequences.

If we take the “innovation” of the second-hand fashion industry, it has already begun to show problems, as I mentioned previously, of “fast-second-hand”. There are no problems in the production of second-hand per se, as items have already been made. However, there is the challenge that stolen and counterfeited goods are now being sold alongside authentic goods in the same marketplaces. This is due to the increased media attention and consumer demand for second-hand. Previously, counterfeit would be physically sold elsewhere to authentic items, now they are sold virtually alongside each other as there is no registration or regulation for authentication. There is also a lack of vetting of sellers of second-hand, hence stolen items exist in these online marketplaces. Governance is non-existent in the second-hand industry, so this needs to be addressed immediately.

There are also problems in the process, now that technology has come into the fold and selling second-hand online has become commercialized on a large scale – it is becoming like a fast-fashion market. Delivery and returns of online purchases in the fashion industry also have zero governance, and are a polluting and waste disaster growing exponentially. Not to mention fraud!  In some cases, governance to protect consumers – such as the right of return of online purchases in the EU – has created an irresponsible consumer effect of returns anywhere from 30 to 75% of purchases. So the consumer in their mind, is no longer “consuming” as they have returned items – out of sight out of mind. But the costs for the environment and businesses and the pollution and waste it creates, have not been factored into this governance by the EU and must be rectified immediately. So slow fashion also means consideration before you buy! Don’t buy just to return items.

Who then is actually responsible for sustainability?

We all need to be held accountable, because someone has to pay for the pollution, someone has to pay for the clean-up, someone is paying for violation of their rights. In the fashion industry,there is always a cost, and this not just the financial aspect. There are social costs and environmental costs – which have a financial cost! And we need to factor these costs into the DNA of sustainability thinking, this means into the DNA of consumption as well. So it is all three of the producer, the consumer and the governance body.

So back to the how?

Indeed. The how is just like responsibility, it takes a village. One of the positives today is technology and the access it gives. Social media allows agency for everyone’s voice and opinion on consumption in fashion. It allows access to business C-suites of fashion brands via social media critique and access to governance bodies through information and online communications. Something we did not have 20 years ago. We are all in control and responsible for our sustainability. So rather than waiting for guidelines or governance, we can all act immediately ourselves. Many voices make change!

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