What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

Recently, there has been a lot of criticism of the fashion business.

Consumers demand a change in their purchasing patterns as the harsh reality of sweatshops, unethical labour practises, and environmental devastation become more generally known.

So what exactly is ethical and sustainable fashion? And how do you participate? Find out by reading on!

The goal of sustainable and ethical fashion is to treat everyone engaged in the production process fairly, from cotton farmers to factory workers.

Additionally, buying fewer, higher-quality things will make them last longer and prevent them from ending up in landfills after just one season.

Continue reading if this sounds like something you'd be interested in finding out more about or perhaps even getting involved with.

The World Needs A More Sustainable Fashion Industry

The only thing we have is sustainable fashion. Our planet's future, the preservation of sufficient resources, and the defence of human rights all depend on the transformation of our polluting fashion industry into a more sustainable and circular one.

To address the changes needed, fashion producers, suppliers, brands, and retailers must all contribute.

Demand For Sustainable Fashion

The term "fast, toxic fashion" refers to the high-profit, low-cost, stylish apparel and accessories produced to fulfil consumer demand.

The ecology, waste, or human labour were not taken into account when making these clothes.

Consumers didn't bat an eye when this was a normal practise for years, but now preferences are changing and they want more ethical products.

Rise And Impact Of Toxic Fashion

Fast fashion has developed into its own beast, allowing customers to practically buy an item of clothing after seeing it worn on the red carpet, on social media, or on the runway.

Approximately 86 million people are employed globally in the $2.4 trillion fashion sector.

Global textile production per person increased from 5.9 kg to 13 kilogramme annually between 1975 and 2018.

In addition, annual global consumption of clothes has increased to 62 million tonnes, and by 2030, it is projected to reach 102 million tonnes.

Australian consumers now buy one piece of clothing every 5.5 days on average, wear it 36% less over the course of its lifetime, and produce 82 pounds of textile waste annually.

Fashion merchants are now producing roughly twice as much apparel as they did in 2000 due to this consumer demand.

Environmental Impact

The two materials with the largest per-unit emissions of glasshouse gases are textiles and aluminium.

8–10% of yearly worldwide carbon emissions are produced by the fashion industry (4-5 billion tons).

The energy source used in manufacturing is responsible for a significant portion of the large carbon footprint.

With 79 trillion litres of water consumed annually, the hazardous fashion business ranks as the second-largest industrial water user.

To put that into perspective, one cotton shirt uses 700 gallons of water, whereas one pair of pants uses 2,000 gallons. Additionally, the dyeing and processing of textiles contributes 20% of industrial water contamination.

Societal Impact

Workers are also impacted negatively by toxic fashion, with women in nations with emerging economies suffering the most.

Around 80% of clothing is produced by women between the ages of 18 and 24, mostly in low-income nations where women have limited access to rights. 2018 saw the U.S.

Argentina, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other nations were among those where the Department of Labor discovered evidence of forced and child labour in the fashion sector.

Due to their access to cheap labour, tax incentives, and lax rules regarding pollution, operations, and labour, developing nations make great locations for hazardous, fast fashion manufacturers.

What Does “Sustainable Fashion” Mean?

The term "sustainable fashion" generally refers to the production and consumption of clothing and accessories that is socially and environmentally responsible.

Because the phrase should not be confined to creating or purchasing new goods, the word "accessible" is included in this definition of sustainable fashion.

While advertisements for sustainability have given us the impression that we can purchase our way to sustainability, this is not the case.

We can choose to purchase more sustainably, but adopting sustainable fashion does not necessitate purchasing any new items.

There are alternative methods to participate in the sustainable fashion movement that don't include creating or buying anything new, such as wearing what you already own, shopping secondhand, and borrowing from friends or swapping with them.

Eco Fashion vs. Sustainable Fashion

The labels "eco-friendly fashion" and "green fashion" are crystal clear indications that the emphasis is on having a minimally detrimental, or even beneficial, global impact.

On the other side, sustainable fashion can be seen of as a more all-encompassing concept that unites ethical and eco-conscious fashion.

While some companies may refer to apparel that was created from recycled materials in sweatshop conditions as "sustainable clothes," this is not a true understanding of sustainability.

Consideration for people, the environment, and the rest of the living world is part of sustainable fashion (animals, plants, etc.).

Why is Sustainable Fashion So Important?

For a very long time, fashion has had negative effects on the social and environmental spheres. For instance, during the Industrial Revolution, we know that sweatshops as we know them now initially appeared in England; also, these early factories mainly relied on coal.

Slavery was mostly caused by the increased demand for cotton brought on by the industrialisation of the textile industry.

Fast fashion's relatively recent rise has played a significant role in the issues with modern fashion, including modern slavery, toxic contamination, and excessive carbon emissions.

Fast fashion: what is it? Fast fashion is trendy, affordable clothing that is created in big quantities extremely quickly. Zara, H&M, Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Uniqlo, GAP, Primark, and Fashion Nova are a few examples of fast fashion companies.

Why, exactly, is fast fashion so bad? 

The overproduction and overconsumption cycle serves as the foundation for the fast-fashion business model.

Fast fashion retailers can only provide low pricing because they create in such large volumes. Therefore, even though the firms don't make much money off of each garment, they can still make hundreds of millions or even billions because to their massive production.

About 840 million clothing are produced annually by Inditex, the parent company of Zara, and 3 billion by H&M. Even while some fast fashion companies are beginning to use a (modest) amount of recycled and organic materials in their designs, this level of production is inherently unsustainable.

Additionally, because fast fashion companies create in such big quantities, they may bargain with factories to lower pricing.

But regrettably, these negotiations keep safety standards low and pay low.

As brands compete to make clothing as rapidly and cheaply as possible in order to sell trendy items at low prices, the advent of fast fashion has also generated an industry-wide "race to the bottom."

Here are some figures to illustrate the current state of the fashion industry:

  • In 2015 alone, 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent were produced by the textile industry. This is greater than the aggregate emissions from all international aircraft, shipping, and maritime transportation.
  • The use of fossil fuels is crucial to the fashion business. Nearly 70% of all apparel is made of polyester or other synthetic materials derived from non-renewable resources like crude oil.

Fashion firms primarily employ synthetic fabrics since they are inexpensive to source, even if there may be instances where a tiny percentage of virgin synthetic fibres is required to lend some elasticity to items like socks.

(Performance synthetics may be important, at least temporarily, for categories like swimwear, but manufacturers can still employ recycled synthetics to cut down on the need for fossil fuel extraction.)

  • At present growth rates, the fashion sector is expected to absorb 25% to 30% of the world's remaining carbon budget by 2050.
  • For the production of textiles, 98 million tonnes of nonrenewable materials and 93 billion cubic metres of water are removed annually. That is true for each and every year.
  • Up to 35% of the world's microplastic pollution is caused by clothing made of synthetic fibres.
  • The fourth-largest "source of environmental strain" in the EU, according to studies from the European Environment Agency, is textile production.
  • Between 2000 and 2014, the amount of clothing produced annually more than doubled, reaching 100 billion outfits for the first time in 2014.
  • Every second, enough textiles to fill one waste truck is landfilled or burned.
  • Biodiversity loss is greatly impacted by the fashion industry.

    Read What is Ethical Fashion to learn more about the human costs of a fashion.

    However, any impact on the earth inevitably has an impact on people as well.

    We are all living things, and Earth is the only place we have ever known as home.

    However, not everyone is affected equally by environmental deterioration. For instance, the effects of environmental degradation and the climate crisis are disproportionately felt in communities of colour in the Global South.

    Environmental racism is a common term for this.

    What role does fashion play in racism against the environment?

    Well, when we consider where the majority of the pollution in the fashion industry occurs, it's not too difficult to realise this.

    Wherever items are made, contamination of the earth, water, and air occurs. The Global South produces the majority of the world's fibre.

    And the women of colour working in factories, whether in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or Los Angeles, California, are those most exposed to the harmful chemicals used for things like dyeing clothes, tanning leather, water-proofing shoes, and making textiles wrinkle-free.

    Plus, as the numbers above demonstrated, the fashion industry plays a significant role in the climate catastrophe.

    People of colour and the Global South are being disproportionately affected by the climate issue.

    According to a recent study by The Lancet, 92% of the world's excess glasshouse gas emissions originate in the Global North. (For 40% of the total, the US alone was accountable.)

    The Global South, however, will experience the most damage from climate change and have the least means to adapt or recover.

    People of colour in the United States are particularly affected by climate change, according to a Yale analysis.

    People of colour "tend to be more sensitive to heatwaves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation, and associated labour market disruptions."

    So there you have it—a simple summary of how the fashion business harms both people and the environment so drastically.

    On the other hand, switching to a more environmentally friendly fashion business can also have a hugely good influence on people and the environment.

    What Are the Benefits of Sustainable Fashion?

    Fixing the fashion business can also mean making big strides towards decarbonization and achieving the United Nations' climate objectives, as it is responsible for 8–10% of the world's carbon emissions.

    Cleaning up the garment industry's supply chain can result in considerable reductions in pollution throughout many global areas.

    We can start along the path to repairing the world and our relationship with the land by sourcing textiles for fashion from regenerative fibre systems.

    Additionally, given that 430 million people are anticipated to be employed by the fashion and textile sectors in some capacity, strengthening the supply chains in the fashion sector has the potential to significantly enhance the lives of many people.

    But what would a switch to sustainable fashion actually entail?

    What is Sustainable Clothing?

    … and shoes, accessories, and other fashion products?

    Reusing What Already Exists

    Why is sustainable fashion so expensive is one of the most often asked questions I receive.

    However, this is based on a limited understanding of sustainable fashion, as it is not necessary to purchase "clothing that has been produced responsibly."

    Therefore, having a mindful wardrobe might undoubtedly include having it, but it is not necessary.

    Your closet contains the most environmentally friendly clothing. Yes, the most sustainable solution is also the most economical.

    You may still make the most of what has already been generated if you want to change things up or add to your closet.

    Check for your neighbourhood thrift shops or other used clothing websites, borrow from or trade with a friend, or look at alternative models like leasing (though this is not the most preferable option with the impact of shipping, cleaning, etc.).

    What happens, though, when you want something fresh?

    The truth is that adjectives like "conscious," "eco," or "sustainable" have no inherent meaning because no outside agency controls their use.

    Thus, even if phrases like these can get you started in recognising goods created sustainably, they are insufficient on their own. So, here are a few things to look out for!

    1. Conscious Materials

    Don't let the complexity of the fabric world stop you from beginning to make more thoughtful decisions. Here are a few things to remember.

    Give recycled and reused materials top priority. (Fabric left behind by major textile/fashion enterprises is referred to as deadstock.)

    Recycled plastic bottle fabric (rPET) is a complex material. If they are truly created from post-consumer bottles, they are an improvement over virgin synthetic materials but still have significant drawbacks.

    Natural fibres are generally prefered to synthetic fibres like nylon and polyester.

    The worst natural fibre is conventional cotton, which uses a lot of pesticides and water.

    The more environmentally responsible option is organic cotton.

    Look for natural fibres with low environmental impact like hemp and linen. Look for fabrics made of Tencel and other Lenzing brands.

    Regenerative fibres are another option. These are fibres made from animals or plants, like wool or cotton, that are farmed or raised utilising holistic management techniques, or indigenous and traditional agricultural methods, which, among other things, trap carbon, improve soil health, and regenerate land.

    Visit fibershed.org to learn more about regenerating fibres and textile systems.

    Observe the packing materials the company utilises as well. Do they, for instance, employ recycled or compostable materials that may be made at home? Do they only use reused or minimal packaging? Maybe there isn't any plastic in the shipping?

    2. Natural or Low Impact Dyes

    Even though a garment is manufactured from a natural organic fabric, a synthetic dye may still be used to colour it sometimes.

    Additionally, synthetic dyes are made from petroleum, just like synthetic materials.

    They may also be exceedingly poisonous, carrying dangerous compounds and heavy metals like chromium, mercury, and lead.

    Some could argue that, in moderation, synthetic colours pose no risk to the wearer. But A, because there haven't been enough research, we don't yet know how chemicals affect the clothing we wear.

    And B, we should be concerned about how synthetic dyes affect the dyers themselves, the waterways in these communities, and the environment as global citizens and as people.

    Watch the documentary River Blue to find out more about the harm caused by the dyes and other harmful chemicals used in the fashion industry.

    So why are synthetic dyes still used if they are so dangerous? Like most everything in the fashion industry, it is primarily motivated by cost and ease of use.

    Natural dyes are much more expensive than synthetic dyes, which also attach to fabric more quickly and provide a larger range of colours.

    (If you find an organic cotton item being sold by a fast-fashion retailer, it was most likely dyed with synthetic dyes.)

    If only specific items are created with natural dyes, the firm will almost certainly mention it on its website and product pages!

    The discussion surrounding natural dyes is more complicated than it is with everything else that is sustainable.

    This is due to the fact that mordants, which are substances used to bond colours to fabric, can occasionally be hazardous.

    But because this is just an introduction, I'll stop there for the time being. I'll soon write a new post exclusively regarding dyes.

    There are also low-impact dyes that take less rinsing than traditional dyes, have a higher absorption rate in the cloth, and produce less effluent during the dying process because they don't include hazardous chemicals or mordants.

    Fiber-reactive dyes, which are low-impact synthetic dyes that interact directly with fabric fibres, are another class of low-impact dyes.

    Low-impact dyes are more frequently used than natural dyes by the majority of eco-conscious companies, especially the larger ones.

    Here is a list of organic fashion companies that use plant-based dyes if you want to buy something that was dyed naturally, though!

    3. Responsible Use of Resources 

    The majority of fabrics used in fashion are made from materials generated from fossil fuels, yet the majority of fashion is produced in facilities powered by these same fossil fuels.

    When it comes to sustainable fashion, this aspect is not discussed enough. However, in order for a garment to be considered eco-friendly, it should ideally be produced in factories that use renewable energy sources like solar or wind.

    Water and chemical use in apparel manufacture are other factors to take into account.

    Water utilisation (via methods like water recycling and water-efficient dyeing techniques) and harmful chemicals should be taken into consideration in truly sustainable fashion (through things like using natural dyes and organic materials).

    4. Ethical Labor Standards

    A fashion company that is truly sustainable must take into account individuals. Paying pitiful salaries, abusing your employees, and maintaining racist and sexist behaviours are not "sustainable." Contrary to what fast fashion companies often claim, sustainable fashion encompasses more than just recycled materials.

    5. Your Values

    Finally, there can be other factors that you search for. For instance, you could wish to support a company that makes donations to causes that match with your own.

    On the other hand, perhaps you'd want to solely buy vegan clothing.

    There are some additional factors that you may want to think about if they are significant to you. This article only serves as an introduction to sustainable fashion, thus it is by no means comprehensive.

    Moving Beyond Consumerism

    There is much more to sustainable fashion than what you buy or don't buy. Regardless of the businesses you choose to support, you can encourage the fashion industry to be more environmentally friendly. Here are a few ways to participate:

    • With the people in your sphere of influence, discuss these problems. Share any useful videos, books, podcasts, articles, or other materials with your friends, family, coworkers, or other people in your life.
    • Participate in your local, national, and international communities. You may learn from and follow these women of colour who are passionate about ethical and ecological fashion!
    • Activists for sustainable fashion can unite in groups. Perhaps your institution or high school has a sustainability or environmental emphasis group you might join. Even if they haven't brought up sustainable fashion yet, you can bring it up in the conversation.

      You might also become a member of the Remake Ambassador programme or a Fashion Revolution country team. (I represent Remake and heartily endorse the initiative.)

      • Participate in community service or thrift store activities. Is there a way you might donate your time or money to a nearby thrift shop or charity shop? Can you bring in more customers or assist them in sorting clothing? Consider your skills and how they can be able to help these charities or boutique stores.
      • Become an online activist. To find out more about the sustainable fashion movement, follow accounts like @fash rev, @remakeourworld, @ajabarber, @ssustainably_, or our account @consciousstyle. Send your followers posts from these accounts and others.
      • Commenting on social media posts from well-known fashion businesses and posing queries like "#whomadeyourclothes" and "Are you paying liveable wages" are alternative ways to engage in digital activism. What are you doing with the garments that your "takeback" programmes have given you? Are you reducing production and decarbonizing your operations?
      • If you recently bought a brand and aren't sure about it, you can write the company or leave reviews. Ask them what steps they are taking to address a couple of your main concerns.

        What Clothing Brands Are Sustainable?

        Even if you never buy items from a sustainable clothing brand, as we mentioned above, you may still support the sustainable fashion movement!

        Having said that, if you want to add to your wardrobe and can't locate any suitable options through secondhand sources, you could wish to buy from one of these labels.

        A solid starting point for figuring out whether a firm is adhering to more sustainable practises should be the list in "What is Sustainable Clothing" mentioned above. But occasionally, you might prefer to have the work done for you.

        Fortunately, we offer a tonne of mindful purchasing tips for various sustainable clothing subcategories. Here are a few well-known examples:

        Not every brand will adhere to every sustainability standard (though some certainly work to tackle a lot).

        Smaller brands, in particular, may face limitations due to time and financial constraints.

        Our existing systems have some drawbacks. For instance, while reusable packaging would be nice, it could not now be logistically possible given that textile recycling technology is not all that advanced.

        In summary…

        Environmentally friendly practises are emphasised in the design, production, distribution, and usage of sustainable fashion.

        In addition to letting impulsive wants pass, you can prioritise the following to green your wardrobe:

        Buying clothing produced locally, in renewable energy-powered factories, or using recycled, up-cycled, or deadstock materials, eco-friendly colours, and zero- or low-waste designs;

        purchasing secondhand or thrifted items; and

        By taking good care of them, having them repaired and tailored as necessary, and making adjustments to modernise their appearance to suit your current tastes, you may extend the life of your clothing.

        Some Final Advice for Your Sustainable Fashion Journey

        Here are some last pointers that I've acquired after working in this field for almost five years!

        Be kind to yourself. Sustainable fashion is difficult to understand because of all the greenwashing and the absence of standards or regulations.

        Ask inquiries, maintain a healthy amount of scepticism towards brand claims, and recognise that learning is a process.

        It's reasonable and acceptable to have second thoughts about some purchases after learning more about a particular aspect of sustainability.

        It's a voyage; there is no end in sight. trite and overused? Yes. True and applies to eco-friendly clothing? Yes, again. Nobody has all the solutions for sustainable fashion (and you shouldn't believe anyone who says they do). We are all resolving this.

        Discover your top priorities, whether they are organic or recycled materials, zero-waste design, or locally produced fair trade goods. Then, seek out companies that adhere to your core principles.

        Stop trying to be flawless. Making the best "100% sustainable" decision isn't the point of sustainable fashion (since such a thing doesn't even exist!). It's about improving ourselves and making wise decisions about what we choose to eat or not.

        Leave a comment

        All comments are moderated before being published

        Shop now