The word “sustainable” is vague, confusing, and frankly, a bit overused — the word’s use in the fashion industry is no exception, so this article will break down the confusion around the commonly asked question: what is sustainable fashion?
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What Does “Sustainable Fashion” Mean?
Sustainable fashion essentially refers to garments and accessories that are produced and/or accessed in an ecologically and socially responsible manner.
The reason that the word “accessed” is in this sustainable fashion definition is that the term should not be limited to making or buying new things. While sustainability marketing campaigns have led us to believe that we can buy our way to sustainability, it’s not that simple.
We can certainly choose to shop in a more sustainable way, but getting involved with sustainable fashion does not require buying anything new.
Wearing what you have, shopping secondhand, and swapping/borrowing from friends are other ways to engage in the sustainable fashion movement that doesn’t require the production or purchasing of anything new.
Eco Fashion vs. Sustainable Fashion
“Eco-friendly fashion” and “green fashion” are terms that make it very clear that the focus is on leaving a minimal negative — or even positive — environmental or planetary impact.
Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, can be viewed as a more holistic term that combines eco-conscious and ethical fashion.
While some brands may use “sustainable clothing” to refer to clothing that was made from recycled fabrics in sweatshop conditions, this is not a true understanding of sustainability. [For more on this, read 7 types of greenwashing in fashion.]
Sustainable fashion encompasses consideration for people, the planet, and the rest of the living world (animals, plants, etc.).
Why is Sustainable Fashion So Important?
Fashion has been causing harmful environmental and social impacts for a long time. What we know as sweatshops today first popped up in England during the Industrial Revolution, and these early factories were heavily reliant on coal.
Plus, the industrialization of textiles created a larger demand for cotton, which was a major driver for slavery.
The relatively recent rise of fast fashion, though, has been a huge part of problems in fashion today like modern-day slavery, toxic pollution, and excess carbon emissions.
What is fast fashion? Fast fashion is trendy, cheap fashion that is produced very rapidly in large quantities. Examples of fast fashion brands include Zara, H&M, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Uniqlo, GAP, Primark, and Fashion Nova.
Why, exactly, is fast fashion so bad?
The fast fashion model is built on an endless cycle of overproduction and overconsumption.
Cheap prices from fast fashion brands are only made possible because these brands produce in huge quantities. While the companies don’t make much profit from each garment, they are able to profit hundreds of millions or even billions because they produce so much.
The parent company of Zara alone (Inditex) produces about 840 million garments per year and H&M produces 3 billion annually. Even as some fast fashion brands start to incorporate a (small) percentage of recycled and organic materials in their collections, this level of production can never be sustainable.
And, because fast fashion brands produce in such large quantities, they are able to negotiate prices down with factories. These negotiations suppress wages and keep safety standards low.
The rise of fast fashion has also sparked a “race to the bottom” for the industry as a whole, as brands try to produce garments as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to offer trendy pieces at low prices.
Here are some statistics to paint the picture of the fashion industry today:
1) Textile production was responsible for 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent in 2015 alone. This is more than the emissions from all international flights and maritime and shipping combined.
2) The fashion industry is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. The vast majority of clothing — nearly 70% —is made from polyester or other synthetic fabrics from non-renewables like crude oil. While there may be cases where a small percentage of virgin synthetic fibers are necessary for adding some stretch to things like socks, fashion companies largely use synthetic fabrics because they’re cheap to source. (For categories like swimwear, performance synthetics may be necessary — at least at the moment — but brands can still use recycled synthetics to reduce the demand for fossil fuel extraction.)
4) 93 billion cubic meters of water and 98 million tons of non-renewable resources are extracted each year for textile production. Yes, that’s every single year.
5) Garments made from synthetic fibers are responsible for as much as 35% of global microplastic pollution.
6) Textiles are the fourth-largest “cause of environmental pressure” in the EU, according to research by the European Environment Agency.
7) Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014 and annual production exceeded 100 billion garments for the first time in 2014.
8) One garbage truck’s worth of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every single second.
9) Fashion has a massive impact on biodiversity loss.
For more on the human costs of fashion, read: What is Ethical Fashion?
Of course, though, any impact on the planet is an impact on people. Earth is our only home as humans and as living beings, we are all part of this very environment.
That said, not all people are impacted equally by damages to our environment. Communities of color and communities in the Global South are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and the climate crisis. This is often called environmental racism.
How exactly is fashion implicated in environmental racism? Well, it’s not too difficult to see this when we look at where most of the pollution in fashion takes place.
The pollution of waterways, the air, and the soil happens where the products are being produced and where fiber production takes place: largely, the Global South.
And, those most exposed to the toxic chemicals used for things like dyeing garments, tanning leather, water-proofing footwear, and making clothing wrinkle-free are the women of color working in factories whether that’s in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or in Los Angeles, United States.
Plus, of course, big fashion is a huge part of the climate crisis as the statistics above showed.
The climate crisis is impacting the Global South and people of color disproportionately. A recent report by The Lancet found that the Global North is responsible for 92% of excess greenhouse gas emissions. (The United States alone was responsible for 40%.) Yet, countries in the Global South will face the most devastation from climate change and have the least resources to adapt or recover.
And as a report from Yale explains, people of color are impacted most by climate change in the United States too. People of color are, “more likely to be more vulnerable to heatwaves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation, and subsequent labor market dislocations.”
So, that is a brief overview of how the fashion industry has such a massive negative impact on people and the planet.
But the flip side of this coin is that shifting to a more sustainable fashion industry can also have an immensely positive impact on people and the planet.
What Are the Benefits of Sustainable Fashion?
With the industry responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions, fixing fashion can also mean making significant progress on decarbonization and reaching global climate goals
Cleaning up the fashion supply chain can also mean significantly reducing pollution in many communities around the world.
Sourcing textiles for fashion from regenerative fiber systems can put us on a pathway to restoring the planet and our relationship to the land.
And with 430 million people estimated to work directly or indirectly for the fashion and textile industries, improving the supply chains of the fashion industry can mean significant improvements in the lives of many.
But what exactly would a shift to sustainable fashion mean?
What is Sustainable Clothing?
… and shoes, accessories, and other fashion products?
Reusing What Already Exists
One of the most common questions I hear is “why is sustainable fashion expensive?”
But this is built on a narrow view of sustainable fashion — sustainable fashion does not require buying “sustainably-made clothing”. While it certainly can be part of having a conscious wardrobe, it is not required.
The most sustainable garment is the one hanging in your closet! Yup, the most affordable option is the most sustainable option.
If you are looking to add to your closet or switch things up, you can still make the most of what has already been produced.
Borrow from or swap with a friend, browse your local thrift stores or some secondhand fashion sites, or consider alternative models like rental (though this is not the most preferable option with the impact of shipping, cleaning, etc).
But what about when you want something new? The reality is that terms like “conscious”, “eco”, or “sustainable” don’t mean anything in of themselves because the terms are not regulated by any sort of third party. While words like this can help you start to identify sustainably-made pieces, they alone are not enough. Here are some elements to look for!
The world of fabrics is quite complex, but don’t let these complexities deter you from starting to make more conscious choices! Here are some things to keep in mind.
- Prioritized upcycled and repurposed materials. (“Deadstock” is fabric leftover by large textile/fashion companies.)
- Fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles (rPET) are complicated. They’re a step up from virgin synthetic materials (if they’re genuinely made from post-consumer bottles), but still have some problems.
- In general, natural fibers are preferable over synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.
- Conventional cotton is the worst of the natural fibers, though, due to its heavy pesticide and water use. Organic cotton is a more environmentally conscious choice.
- Hemp and linen are low-impact natural fibers to look for. Tencel and other fabrics made by Lenzing are also great to look for.
6. There are also regenerative fibers. These are animal or plant-based fibers such as wool or cotton that are grown or raised using holistic management practices — or really indigenous and traditional farming practices — that sequester carbon, build soil health, and restore land among a number of other benefits. For more on regenerative fibers and regenerative textile systems, visit fibershed.org.
Additionally, see what materials the brand uses for their packaging. Do they use recycled materials or at-home compostable materials? Do they use minimal or reusable packaging? Perhaps the shipping is plastic free?
Natural or Low Impact Dyes
Sometimes even when a garment is made from a natural organic fabric it could still be colored with a synthetic dye. And synthetic dyes, just like synthetic fabrics are derived from petroleum.
They also can be extremely toxic, containing heavy metals like chromium, mercury, and lead, among a number of other harmful chemicals.
Some people may say that synthetic dyes are not harmful to the wearer in small amounts. But A, we don’t actually know the impact of chemicals on the clothes we wear yet because there haven’t been enough studies. And B, as global citizens and humans, we should care about the impact of synthetic dyes on the dyers themselves, the waterways in these communities, and on the planet.
To learn more about the impact of dyes and other toxic chemicals used in the fashion industry, check out the documentary River Blue.
So if synthetic dyes are so harmful, why are they used? As with most things in the fashion industry, it’s largely driven by price and convenience. Synthetic dyes are significantly cheaper than natural dyes, they adhere to fabric quicker, and can create a wider range of colors.
(If you see a fast fashion brand selling an organic cotton garment, it was probably dyed with synthetic dyes.)
When a brand is using natural dyes, they will most likely state it on their website and/or on their product pages if only certain pieces are made with natural dyes!
As with anything in sustainable fashion, there are more complexities to the conversation with natural dyes. This is because mordants, the elements used to adhere the dyes to the fabric, are sometimes toxic themselves. But this is an introductory post so I will leave it there for now! I am planning to do another post all about dyes in the near future.
There are also low-impact dyes that do not contain toxic chemicals or mordants, require less rinsing than conventional dyes, and have a higher absorption rate in the fabric, which means that there’s less waste water in the dyeing process.
And, then a category of low-impact dyes is fiber-reactive dyes, which are low-impact synthetic dyes that bond directly with the fibers of a garment.
With most eco-conscious brands, especially bigger ones, it’s more common to see low-impact dyes rather than natural dyes.
If you do want to purchase a piece made with natural dyes, here is a guide to organic fashion brands using plant-based dyes, though!
Responsible Use of Resources
Not only is most fashion made from fabrics derived from fossil fuels, but most fashion production is made in factories that get their energy from fossil fuels.
This element is not talked about enough when it comes to sustainable fashion, but for a garment to really be eco-friendly, it should ideally be made in facilities that are powered by renewable energy sources like wind or solar.
Another element of fashion production to consider is water and chemical use. Truly sustainable fashion should be mindful of water use (through things like water recycling and water-efficient dyeing practices) and toxic chemicals (through things like using natural dyes and organic materials).
Ethical Labor Standards
A truly sustainable fashion brand must also consider people. It’s not “sustainable” to pay poverty wages, exploit your workers and perpetuate racist and sexist practices. Despite what fast fashion brands might try to portray, sustainable fashion is more than just recycled fabrics.
For more, read What is Ethical Fashion?
Your Own Values
Finally, there may be additional elements that you look for. Maybe you really want to support a brand that donates to causes aligned with your values. Perhaps you only want to purchase vegan fashion.
There are a number of other things that you may want to consider that are important to you. This post is just an introduction to sustainable fashion and certainly does not cover everything!
Moving Beyond Consumerism
Sustainable fashion is about far more than what you do or don’t buy. You can push for a more sustainable fashion industry no matter what brands you choose to purchase from. Here are some ways to get involved:
- Talk about these issues with your circle of influence. Share documentaries, books, podcasts, articles, or other resources that you found informative with friends, family, coworkers, or others in your life.
- Get active with local, national, and global communities. Here are some women of color sustainable and ethical fashion activists to follow and learn from!
- Join a group of other sustainable fashion activists. Perhaps there’s an environmental or sustainability-focused group at your university or high school you can join. Even if they’re not talking about sustainable fashion yet, you can bring in that element to the discussion. You could also join a Fashion Revolution country team or the Remake Ambassador program. (I am a Remake ambassador and highly recommend the program!)
- Volunteer or engage with local thrift stores. Is there a way that you can give time or money to a local charity shop or thrift store? Can you help them sort clothes or bring in more shoppers? Think about your talents and how that might intersect with what these nonprofits or boutique shops need.
- Be a digital activist. Follow accounts like @fash_rev, @remakeourworld, @ajabarber, @ssustainably_ , or our account @consciousstyle to learn more about the sustainable fashion movement. Share posts from these accounts (and others!) with your followers.
- Another way to be a digital activist: Comment on big fashion brands’ posts asking them questions like #whomadeyourclothes and are you paying living wages? What are you really doing with those clothes you receive from your “takeback” programs? Are you taking steps to decarbonize and reduce production?
- And finally, you can email brands or leave reviews if you recently made a purchase from a brand that you’re not so sure about. Pick a few of your top concerns and ask them what they are doing to address those issues.
What Clothing Brands Are Sustainable?
As we touched on above, you can still be part of the sustainable fashion movement even if you never purchase from a sustainable clothing brand!
That said, you may want to purchase from one of these brands if you want to add to your closet and can’t find good options through secondhand sources.
The above list in “What is Sustainable Clothing” should provide a good foundation for determining if a brand is following more sustainable practices. But sometimes, you may just want the work done for you.
Thankfully, we have plenty of conscious shopping guides for tons of categories of sustainable fashion. Here are some popular ones:
- 200+ Ethical Fashion and Lifestyle Brands to Love
- Best Affordable Ethical & Sustainable Fashion Brands
- Sustainable Loungewear and Pajamas You’ll Want to Live In
Not every brand will meet every single criterion for sustainability (though there are certainly some that work to tackle a lot). There are constraints that smaller brands, especially, may have given a limitation of finances and time. There are also limitations that exist within our current systems. For instance, textile recycling technology is not that great yet and while reusable packaging would be great, it might not be logistically feasible at the moment.
Some Final Advice for Your Sustainable Fashion Journey
To close out here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned after spending nearly 5 years in this space!
Give yourself grace. With all of the greenwashing and lack of standardization or regulation, sustainable fashion is confusing. Ask questions, keep a healthy dose of skepticism of brand claims, and understand that it’s a learning process. You might regret some purchases after learning more about a certain area of sustainability and that’s totally normal and okay.
It’s a journey, not a destination. Cheesy and cliché? Yes. Totally true and applicable to sustainable fashion? Also yes. No one has all of the answers for sustainable fashion (and don’t trust anyone who claims to)! We’re all figuring this out. [Check out these free sustainable fashion courses + other resources for learning about sustainability in fashion]
Find what matters most to you, whether that’s local production or fair trade, recycled materials or organic fibers, zero-waste design or toxic-free production. Look for brands that meet your top values.
Don’t seek perfection. Sustainable fashion isn’t about making the most perfect “100% sustainable” choice (that doesn’t even exist!). It’s about doing better and being thoughtful about what we choose to consume, or not consume.
That’s all for now, but for much more reads and recommendations on sustainable fashion, as well as other areas of sustainability, check out my weekly newsletter The Conscious Edit.