How do we know the sky is blue?

What makes a shoe one of those things we put our feet, or a croissant a delicious buttery pastry? We call things by their name on a daily basis as a way to communicate meaning from our brain to the brain of another and we do this so often without much thought as to the meaning of the words we use. With things like shoes and croissants it’s pretty easy to thoroughly understand the meaning behind ‘put your shoes on’ or ‘can you buy me a croissant’ but other things can be more complex.

There is an article getting around recently (that I am pretty sure I have mentioned before) that states that until recent times we never had a word for the colour blue. If the info from this is correct there is a good chance we never had any way to communicate the colour of the sky or the sea from our eyes and brain to the ears and brain of another before the advent of ‘blue’. It kind of hurts  to think about how one would communicate before ‘sky blue’ or ‘ocean blue’ came into existence but we must have got by even if it was a little confusing.

Why all this talk about shoes, nature and pastry? Well at the moment the world is kind of in the same place we were before we developed the word ‘blue’ when it comes to environmental protection and planning for our shared future. We all sort of know what we want the world to be like, just like we all would of known what blue looked like, but we can’t really nail the right term for the goals we are moving towards. Granted… the situation we are in with the environment is far more complex than differentiating turquoise from navy, but we are still in the same process of ‘meaning making’.

Want to know a secret? Defining our environmental concerns, goals, and plans is just as complex for those who are in the know as it is for the ‘average Joe’. Having spent a great deal of time over my academic career reading environmental/sustainability  based papers not even the academics can come up with a consensus on what the term ‘Sustainability’ actually means. It’s become increasingly more confusing since the ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Sustainability’ has been hijacked by marketing teams world wide.



Sustainability and the Fashionista.

I was delighted when the super babe Jennifer Nini of Eco Warrior Princess contacted me to ask if I would participate in her survey of 15 Ethical Fashion Bloggers to define what the eco fashion world means to me. Having chatted all things ‘defining’ with a few other eco-fashion types and been surprised with the diversity of their answers I could’t wait to see what Jennifer would uncover. Of course, like all her posts, the results were brilliant. They demonstrate just how much of our personal values, life experience, and world view can be wrapped up in the way that we make meaning of a term.

Sustainability literally means ‘the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed’.

That really doesn’t tell us anything at all does it? It’s worse still when the word ‘sustainable’ is combined with ‘development’ and taken in a literal sense of ‘supporting or upholding the act or process of developing’. This pretty much translates as ‘carry on with business as usual’ in the economic world. Of course the term sustainability means more than this in our current context. Having been developed from a 1713 forestry context of Nachhaltigkeit (the German term for sustainability) sustainability was concerned with preserving natural resources for the future. It was made famous in it’s current context by the Brundtland Report that looks at sustainability in the context of moving forward towards ‘sustainable development’. A development that:

meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Since then the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ have evolved (and been the source of heated debate) and while there is no hard and fast rules about what they mean (even in academic or governing  circles), there is a general consensus that they include the three dimensions, of social, economic, and environmental (and a fourth of political in some cases) and how we can best meet the needs of all these areas with our exponential population growth and finite resources without damaging the planet. Sounds tricky doesn’t it? The discussion surrounding the definition of Sustainability is enough to write a journals worth of academic papers, and it really isn’t fun to read, so we will end the discussion here. However, if you are interested there is a great paper here that really helps clarify the journey of the term ‘Sustainability’ from meaning not much to meaning too much.

Sustainability in Style.

What does sustainability mean to me in the context of fashion? This was the gist of  one of the questions Jennifer asked in her survey and it made me wonder if I have ever posted it on the blog before. Like my house, my current blog filing system is a mess, and something I promise to make more user friendly in the future (when Uni assignments aren’t eating my life) so in the mean time this is what sustainability means to me when it comes to fashion:

Fashion that takes into account the entire lifecycle analysis. From birth to death sustainable fashion should look at the way in which fibres are produced and the environmental impact of this process (chemical, non-reneweable resources, GM crops, energy, water, land degradation, transportation), the manufacturing processes  (chemical, energy, water,  transportation, packaging, frontline retail waste, eco-friendly marketing longevity of the product, quality of production), the home laundering process (how fabrics and garments can be laundered), and the disposal of items (biodegradable materials, recycling schemes, reuse/upcycling). A company that is trying to manufacturing in a sustainable manner understands the idea of looking at manufacturing as a closed loop system and aims to produce in this way.

Of course my views on sustainability will differ from others. My definition has a very ‘deep green’ look at the idea of manufacturing (which makes sense as I am an environmental scientist not a social scientist) in a more environmentally friendly way and somewhat excludes the social side of fashion. I sometimes use the terms sustainable and eco friendly interchangeably when referring to fashion as for me they are much the same thing, but sustainable fashion uses a more ‘systems thinking’ approach. Outside of a garment industry context my idea of sustainability branches out to look at social, political, and cultural factors, but in the context of fashion it is excluded as we have a whole other term for the social implications of the fashion industry. ‘Ethical fashion’. In my view ethical fashion is:

fashion that was made with social justice in mind. It is the fashion items that have been made using fair trade schemes, small business (hand made, local, etc), products that give back to communities/charities, and social enterprise schemes. Ethical can also include the exclusion of animal products and animal testing depending on the purchasers values.

Why differentiate between the two?

The reason for the differentiation between the two is that much of the focus in the garment industry is on human or animal rights. These human and animal rights are big picture sustainability issues world wide but in the context of the fashion industry they have been adopted (in my opinion) as the main focus sustainability issue and often overshadow the ecological nightmare of overconsumption of chemical-laden,  non-biodegrabale products. It is a testament to our  human nature that these issues take front and centre stage as we are empathetic creatures and we can associate with the feelings and emotions of other beings. So there is nothing wrong with putting animal and human rights in the ‘sustainable fashion’ category.  However, it does mean that many of the big (not so emotive) issues, like landfill, slip under the radar. Which bothers me as someone who often reflects on the Richard Carlson philosophy of  ‘will it matter in 100 years’; a question I ask myself often in regards to sustainable living. It is surprising how important landfill can seem when you think that it will likely be here 100 years from now cluttering up the place and polluting our resources, when most of the animal and people folk have moved on and been replaced with a new generation (who will inherit our piles of crap)! I also find, for me personally, that for example, looking at animal ethics as a sustainability issue sees companies that produce completely unsustainable petro-chemical based goods (like PU sandals or handbags) marketing goods as sustainable when they are really more of an ethical choice (unless of course the company uses a closed loop system and can recycle old bags into new products). 

What is important to you?

Ok.. so we have determined that defining stuff is tricky and that the diversity of the human spirit makes it pretty difficult to come to a consensus on terminology. All that really matters when you are shopping for garments and accessories is to shop consciously and based on your values. No matter what a company identifies themselves as (eco, ethical, sustainable, fair trade, handmade, locally made, etc.) ask yourself what is important to you. For me the most important thing to consider is that the best way to reduce your impact is to not shop at all, but unfortunately in this big, badass world, we occasionally need to buy stuff to eat, drink, be merry, and cover our nuddy behinds so we don’t get arrested for flashing!  Also getting dressed is so FUN! 🙂


Think your actions aren’t important? Pfffttt… you fool *slapping you in the face through the computer*. Check out this video below and feel the power of your consumer dollar and grass roots actions.

What world do you want to live in?

What do you value?

Share your thoughts with us please! Nothing better than a good discussion on context and meaning!

Ps. in the process of collecting these flowers from plants in my local area I found an avocado tree on public land loaded with fruit. Best scavenging score ever. Doing my avocado happy dance as I type. Avocados are the best.



%d bloggers like this: