lit review sustainable fashion

Literature Review

Sustainable fashion is becoming an international “megatrend,” but consumers are frequently misled (Henninger 400). They are being told labels like eco-fashion, green-fashion, and ethical-fashion mean more than they do. There is no system in place to regulate the labels or ensure that sustainable items match consumers’ perceptions of what they are buying. Just because some people think that living wages for women workers is ethical, it does not mean that the company they are buying clothes from has the same interpretation. Academics today are studying what sustainable fashion means to both consumers and producers, exposing the inconsistencies and offering suggestions as how to better connect the two. Lijo John, Bin Shen, Sarah Bly, and Claudia Henninger all address what sustainable fashion means to them according to their research and how sustainable fashion is able to succeed as a business.

In Converging Sustainability Definitions: Industry Independent Dimensions, John argues that sustainability must be measured in four categories: environmental, social, ethical, and economical (John 208). John provides a holistic definition of sustainability that can be applied to any market or business model. John’s main point is that all four of the categories affect one another, and therefore must be kept in context. John created two models to show a company how to implement sustainability in the three different levels of building and sustaining a business: strategic, tactical, and operational approaches (John 218). His research shows that to be a successful sustainable enterprise, a company must put sustainability at the core of every decision they make. 

Henninger is able to build off of the general definition John provides, making a more niche definition for the sustainable fashion market particularly. In Henninger’s What is Sustainable Fashion, multiple academic sources are analyzed and compared to create a broad and general understanding of the term “sustainable fashion.” Shen argues, that there have been many studies about sustainable fashion as it relates to other things “[but] current studies lack an academic understanding of what sustainable fashion is from a holistic perspective” (Shen 401). Henninger says that a universal understanding of sustainable fashion for both the consumer and producer is “vital in order to avoid negative connotations such as greenwashing;” which is when a company exploits the eco-friendly aspects of their company for marketing purposes without real dedication to back up the claims (Henninger 401).

Henninger creates a matrix for brands and consumers to rate the sustainability efforts of a company or organization based on evidence from other academic sources. The matrix lays out the different elements people consider when thinking of sustainable fashion and a rating system that gages what level of commitment a company has for each element. 

Henninger gives an explanation as to what sustainable fashion is, and Shen adds on to that by explaining how sustainability is implemented into an existing supply chain. In Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain: Lessons From H&M, Shen gives a detailed explanation as to how complicated integrating sustainability into a supply chain can be. Shen uses previous academic sources to give the reader a better understanding of the triple bottom line and how social impact can become integral in a company’s success. Shen then concludes with the analysis of H&M’s eco-friendly line Conscious Action. Saying that H&M is more likely to prioritize human and economic well-being over environmental impacts (Shen 6246). H&M shows how hard it is for a company to meet all the elements of sustainability.

In comparison to Shen, Bly takes the same information, and shows how consumers perceive the definition of sustainability. In Exit from the High Street, Bly shows how early sustainable fashion consumers helped jumpstart the industry. Bly believes that the industry is able to remain relevant because of the consumers prioritizing sustainability over other motivators. But Bly’s research indicates that the motivations of these pioneers “is as much about reducing measurable environmental or social impacts as it is about incorporating broader concepts … to achieve goals beyond the pro environmental or ethical” (Bly 125). Consumers buy sustainable clothing for a range of reasons, all of which are important to take into consideration when creating a digital humanities project for consumers.  

All of these sources bring different understandings of the sustainable fashion market into a conversation. Shen shows the implementation of John’s sustainability definition. Shen uses H&M’s supply chain as an example to show how sustainability must be considered in every decision, proving John’s theory. Yet, Bly shows how the consumer demand for particular elements of sustainability continue to keep sustainable enterprises profitable. Both Shen and Bly build off of Henninger’s basic matrix in two different ways, but when brought together they give a full picture of the sustainable fashion market, from production to consumption. 

Shen determines in the case of H&M, that human well-being is prioritized over environmental well-being (Shen 6246). Showing that somthing like living wages are the most important element of sustainability. Yet, Henninger comments on eco and green materials, giving a focus on the importance of environmental impact. In contrast to both, Bly speaks to the unsustainable consumption of clothing which has less to do with the producer and more to do with the buyer. Even with four academic sources we see how vague the understanding of sustainable fashion can be. 

Our research shows that there are plenty of academics talking about what sustainability should look like in the fashion industry, and other industries too. The issue is, their findings are not being openly displayed for consumers. Most companies are not likely to broadcast what academics are saying about sustainability in the fashion industry for fear of scrutiny. This is where our project comes in. We will be able to use Bly’s research to connect us to sustainable fashion pioneers and influencers, who could help spread our message. Also, her research gives regular people a better understanding of what they can do to become more sustainable consumers. Shen’s research will help us show consumers what companies need to be doing to be able to claim sustainability. Our project is trying to bridge the academic conversations and the consumer conversations, so that everyone is able to have a clearer understanding of what sustainability looks like now and how it needs to look in the future to make real change.

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Works Cited

Bly, Sarah, Wencke Gwozdz, and Lucia A. Reisch, ‘Exit from the High Street: An Exploratory Study of Sustainable Fashion Consumption Pioneers’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, 39.2 (2015), 125–135 <https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcs.12159>

Henninger, Claudia E., Panayiota J. Alevizou, and Caroline J. Oates, ‘What Is Sustainable Fashion?’, Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management; Bradford, 20.4 (2016), 400–416 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/JFMM-07-2015-0052>

John, Lijo, and Gopalakrishnan Narayanamurthy, ‘Converging Sustainability Definitions: Industry Independent Dimensions’, World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development, 12.3 (2015), 206–32

Shen, Bin, ‘Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain: Lessons from H&M’, Sustainability, 6.9 (2014), 6236–6249 <https://doi.org/10.3390/su6096236>

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