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?
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 had a long history of environmental and social issues.
In fact, the word sweatshop was first coined in 1850 during the Industrial Revolution and cotton production for textiles was a major driver for slavery hundreds of years ago.
Not to mention, these textile and garment factories were heavily reliant on fossil fuels and much of this cotton was grown with industrial agricultural practices.
Fast fashion, though, has worsened fashion’s exploitation of labor and environmentally extractive practices today. Why? Because fast fashion’s cheap prices and poor quality make their clothing disposable, creating an endless cycle of overconsumption and overproduction.
Further, fast fashion brands produce extremely large quantities of clothing, which leads to insane levels of waste. Plus, these huge order quantities give them the power to negotiate prices down with factories, which keep wages and 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.
For more on the human costs of fashion, read: What is Ethical Fashion?
There are endlessly more reasons why the fashion industry today is terrifying, but let’s shift focus here onto the solutions!
What Are the Benefits of Sustainable Fashion?
We’ve covered 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.
With the industry responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions, fixing fashion can also mean making significant progress on decarbonization and averting the worst of the climate crisis.
It’s estimated that 430 million people work in fashion and textile production in some capacity.
So, 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.
Additionally, see what materials the brand uses for their packaging. Do they use recycled materials or at-home compostable materials?
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!
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.