Why “Sustainable” Brands are not Sustainable

Why “Sustainable” Brands are not Sustainable

I’ve been manufacturing apparel for the last decade and have witnessed every detrimental effect of the apparel manufacturing process. Even the most “green” or bluesign approved factories, cannot control their impact on the environment. Despite what many brands may claim:

Sustainable brands do not exist.

Far too often, the meaning of buzzwords get misconstrued, so here’s a reminder of what “Sustainability” actually means,

The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance

Why I Am Critical of The Word “Sustainable”

A lot of brands make unsubstantiated sustainability claims, while others go into more detail. It doesn’t matter. The rise of “greenwashing” has completely devalued the meaning of the word “sustainable”. The general public blindly associates sustainable labeled products with being good for the environment. As a reminder, all sustainable products harm the environment.

I want to break down two of the most successful environmental sustainable product claims.

Note: I’m not against the use of recycled synthetic and organic plant-based fibers. The point is, just because brands make sustainability claims does not necessarily equate to less harm.

Sustainability Claim: Recycled Polyester

Recycled polyester (rPET) is produced by melting down existing plastic and re-spinning it into new polyester fiber. Although your 100% rPET pants are from 5 plastic bottles, the process to make your pants also

1)Leaks tons of microplastics into water systems

2)Wastes water due to the inconsistency of rPET fibers

3) Wastes energy due to the inconsistency of rPET fibers

4)Are likely dyed with the same harmful chemicals used in most textile manufacturing

Even companies that use minimal toxic chemicals throughout their supply chain like Patagonia admit that all polyester release microfibers into the environment.

What Patagonia* does not admit is that the rPET production process is incredibly wasteful of water and energy due to their brand standards. If manufactured perfectly, the production process of rPET can use upwards of 50% less energy compared to virgin polyester. A statistic that brands love to market. The untold truth is that the majority of factories do not process rPET fibers and fabric on the first pass. rPET is significantly harder to whiten(needed to produce yarn) and color match to brands’ stringent color and fabric standards. In turn, manufacturers are forced to reprocess and dye rPET multiple times to meet brand standards. The reprocessing can negate the water-saving claims of rPET products and may even use more water to achieve a brand’s standard.

Of course, Patagonia is not alone. All brands want color, fabric, and garment perfection, but it comes at a hidden cost to the consumer and the environment.

Verdict: Recycled polyester is harmful to the environment and depletes natural resources, and thereby does not support long-term ecological balance. Recycled polyester is not sustainable.

Sustainability Claim: Organic Cotton

Organic cotton claims to be produced with less harmful pesticides and water than traditional cotton. The good news is organic cotton undoubtedly uses fewer chemicals to grow. That alone can be a reason to buy organic cotton.

The bad news is organic cotton can use more water to produce vs. conventional cotton due to crop yields. Traditional cotton is genetically modified to yield more production per plant. In contrast, organic cotton originates from non-GMO seeds. To get the same amount of fiber from an organic crop, cotton farmers have to plant more organic plants, which means more land is used, and of course, more water is needed.**

Similar to recycled polyester, just because cotton is grown organically does not mean it was manufactured responsibly. The use of organic cotton with traditional dyeing and finishing processes is a common practice which negates any sustainability claims in the growing process.

Verdict: Organic cotton is harmful to the environment and depletes natural resources, and thereby does not support long-term ecological balance. Therefore, organic cotton is not sustainable.

Attention All Brands: It doesn’t matter how much organic or recycled products you use. You are harmful to the environment and deplete natural resources, and in no way do your products support long-term ecological balance, so please stop using the word sustainable.

Yes, some brands do less harm than others. Yes, some brands are more guilty of “greenwashing” than others. But no brand deserves to be categorized as sustainable now that the word has been misconstrued and devalued.

The industry needs to own up to the truth about environmental sustainability claims and be responsible.


*I hate to call out Patagonia because they are better than 99% of “sustainable” Brands, but it proves the point. Even they can do way better. Their Founder once said,

“Everything we personally own that’s made, sold, shipped, stored, cleaned, and ultimately thrown away does some environmental harm every step of the way, harm that we’re either directly responsible for or is done on our behalf.”

Although Patagonia does a great job exposing their truths in the small print, their marketing deceptively depicts their product as sustainable and good for the world. They aren’t.

** I’m well aware that many reports state organic cotton uses less water. However, due diligence will reveal the research is funded by third-party organizations that run the organic cotton certification programs. One prominent organization frequently uses its funded research to back up claims.

Jon K.

Jon Kirsner, MBA, MSBA, is a supply chain professional with a decade of experience in sustainable manufacturing. His industry experience has exposed him to the truth of the sustainable fashion and consumer goods industries. He does not write as a journalist but as an industry expert and passionate advocate.

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