“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

Among the events and talks at Sydney's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, one panel in particular brought this famous Coco Chanel quote to mind. Future Talks 2 was hosted by local sustainability initiative, Clean Cut Fashion, moderated by Harper's Bazaar chief Kellie Hush, and featured Ramon Martin of Tome, Lucy King of Country Road Group and Sigrid McCarthy of Ethical Clothing Australia. What followed was an illuminating discussion on how to interpret what sustainability means for a fashion label. None of this would be particularly noteworthy, but for the fact that at this year’s festival, three labels identified as sustainable. Which is significant, as just a few years ago, there were none.

In fashion, sustainability is no longer simply thought of in terms of an added cost. Everyone on the Future Talks panel defined the sustainable fashion movement in terms of the positives and opportunities it brought their businesses. While discussing issues such as supply-chain transparency; responsible design; local production and ethical labour conditions, the overwhelming feeling was that industry collaboration and shared information would be keys to the future.

The definition of “sustainable fashion” is a hard one to pin down. While the “s word” is thrown around a lot, few people actually understand the semantics of sustainability, and this inability to grasp the concept is a fundamental challenge in the crusade for responsible apparel production.

At its core, sustainability is about safeguarding the indefinite lifespan, diversity and productivity of our biological systems. It seeks to maintain the environment’s capacity to endure.

“Sustainable fashion” is an umbrella term for design, supply, production and operations that prioritise a decrease in the social and environmental costs of business. Put simply, it is a design philosophy that thinks of the future.

It matters, because for all its picture-perfect collections, the apparel industry is not so clean cut. According to an oft-cited study, it’s the second dirtiest industry in the world after oil.

At Future Talks 2, Ramon Martin of fashion dynamo Tome discussed an industry shift that places less emphasis on silhouette and more on what brands represent, and what they mean to consumers.

He spoke of “soul” and how the genesis of a piece was as influential as its cut. Like with food, people want to know where everything comes from. “People now buy fashion to buy into the story of a brand; the soul of a company,” he explained. “How will they feel in these clothes, what will they respond to, beyond the fit? Who we are as a brand? That’s what people are buying into.”

This sentiment was echoed by Lucy King, who heads up sustainability at Country Road. “We have to think about the true cost of a piece of clothing,” she said.

King emphasised the conglomerate’s focus on “emotional responsibility”; the way a piece of clothing makes the customer feel. Country Road wants customers to feel at ease knowing that their style doesn’t compromise their social conscience.

This frontier has been adopted at the high end as well. Kit Willow sees the question of sustainability as an opportunity to innovate. The former head designer at Willow debuted her sustainable label, KitX, at MBFW. It was a comeback for the designer, and a coup for local sustainability. Her N’5 collection featured cascading layers of linen, silk and hemp in contrasting tones.

For established and emerging designers alike, where does one begin to make sustainability a seamless part of the industry? Ramon Martin’s advice to young designers is a great starting point, “Be clear about your story. This is what we’re doing and this is how we’re doing it. And it will resonate.” After all, if fashion has taught us anything, it’s that people will follow confidence.