The fashion industry has long learned the mastery of buzz words and phrases. X is the new black. Manscaping. Metrosexual. Recessionista. Chiconomics. It. Goes. On. Each of these have been dreamed up to grab your attention, to help you decide where to spend your money. Whether the words and phrases I encounter provide amusement or leave me with a sense of wanting to punch the person peddling them, there’s one almost-universal truth: I understand what they mean. The use of ‘recessionista’ may make me lose all faith in humanity, but what it’s communicating is clear. There’s one term, however, whose definition has continued to elude me.

Sustainable fashion.

Look at that phrase. It’s grandiose, all encompassing, unclear. It’s the choose your own adventure of fashion terminology.

So this morning, by way of a Melbourne fashion week (MSFW) business seminar, I sought out understanding, I sought to finally comes to terms with what sustainable fashion actually is, as opposed what I solely imagine it might be.

So what the heck is sustainable fashion?

The answer?

The short answer is that there is no answer.

The long answer is that there isn’t a universal truth. Manscaping may encompass a few places that chaps can place a razor, but the universal truth is that manscaping involves the tidying, trimming of removal of hair from a gent’s publicly-unseens.

For the layman, there is no such universal truth for sustainable fashion. There is no one thing that it is, nor a select group of things that it encompasses. Instead, there are plenty of things.

Across a broad spectrum of speakers this morning we heard from the likes of government ministers and fashion label owners, and each opted to frame the idea of sustainable fashion within what it meant to them. Like any modern conversation about religion, I came away with a sense that sustainable fashion is all about the personal relationship one has with one’s worldview.

Take the politician, the Honourable Louise Asher, who waxed lyrical about the growth of Victoria’s fashion retail sector. In part, she was addressing sustainable (growing) fashion retail. Unsurprising given that she’s the Minister for Innovation, Services and Small Business.

To John Condilis, the managing director of Australian denim label Nobody, sustainable fashion was about ethics, employment, and local craftsmen. He talked about great programs such as helping to refugees find employment within Australia. His personal relationship with sustainable fashion can be best summed up as being about the sustainability of a country’s manufacturing industry.

To Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer, it was – mein gott – about every single aspect of the company, from its coat hangers to its farms. And none of that should surprise you, given just how large the company he represents is. It should also not surprise you that its scope was limited in the interest of the needs of his company: donating unwanted clothing for use as compost was addressed, but the ability of a fashion retailer to make a product you can keep for the next 20 years of your life strangely got not a mention. What did get a mention were grander concepts of global warming, carbon footprints, reduced packaging and – I really hope he was joking about this one – the carbon neutral bra.

To Tullia Jack, a Master of Philosophy Candidate tackling this very topic, sustainable fashion was about meeting our own fashion needs without affecting future generations’ ability to meet their own.

And that’s is easily the closest I came to a good definition of sustainable fashion. It’s a broad definition, but it highlights why no one is quite wrong about what sustainable fashion is, and why a government minister can define the opening of Zara as a hallmark of sustainability and a local label owner can also accurately talk about the need for local fashion production. And there in lies the universal truth about coming to an understanding of what sustainable fashion is.

It’s a broken term. A term that encompasses all too much. That is so hard to come to understanding about that the odds are most people have by now tuned out of this article (it was the bra that did it). It’s simply too hard for the layman to understand what sustainable fashion is. And that’s a real problem if there’s accuracy to Marks & Spencer’s figure that around 71% of consumers can be regarded as having an ambivalent attitude towards sustainable fashion.

It’s also a problem because sustainable fashion is a real issue or, more accurately, a series of real issues. In its current state it represents everything from the need of sweatshop conditions to no longer exist anywhere in the world right through to the need for us to all have wardrobes that aren’t full of rubbish fashion. But these two things aren’t the same and aren’t even related, hence they shouldn’t be able to fall under the one umbrella term.

And there you have it: why it isn’t possible to accurately define sustainable fashion. More importantly you can now see why the concept of sustainable fashion has failed to resonate with the majority of consumers – for one of the first times the fashion industry has come up with a rubbish buzz phrase. It encompasses far too much and its use needs to cease. Each of the issues it currently represents need to be separated, and we need to tackle each one at a time. We need to have environmentally / eco friendly fashion sit as a separate concept to labour conditions. We need to address animal welfare separately from local manufacturing. We need a massive reframing of all the arguments. Once separated, we can all have our personal relationship with what appeals to us. We can champion the causes we feel are relevant. Until that happens we risk finding ourselves in a situation where we go to a event out of a genuine desire to understand exactly what sustainable fashion is, only to have the sudden urge to punch the guest speaker because he informed us that the concept resulted in the creation of the carbon neutral bra. And that’s a concept even worse than the recessionista.

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