What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

The fashion industry has been under a lot of scrutiny lately.

With the harsh realities of sweatshops, unethical labour practices, and environmental degradation becoming more widely publicized, consumers demand change in their shopping habits.

So what is sustainable & ethical fashion? And how can you get involved? Read on to find out! 

Sustainable & ethical fashion is about using resources responsibly while ensuring that everyone involved in the process - from cotton farmers to factory workers - is treated fairly. 

It's also about buying less but better quality items, so they last longer and don't end up in landfills after only one season.

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in learning more about or maybe even getting involved with yourself, read on!

Fashion is a part of everyone's life, but many people are unaware of an alternative to the mainstream fashion industry.

Sustainable and ethical fashion focuses on creating clothing that does not harm the environment or exploit workers.

If you want your clothes to be sustainable and ethical, then keep reading!

Sustainable fashion means that the product you are purchasing is being made responsibly.

For example, your clothing can be sustainable if it is manufactured domestically, sewn by hand or using organic materials.

Ethical fashion is similar to sustainable fashion but goes one step further and ensures that workers are treated fairly while making the garment.

Sustainable and ethical fashion is a hot topic in the media right now.

Therefore, it's important to know what sustainable and ethical fashion means to make informed decisions about your wardrobe. 

Sustainable or eco-friendly, clothing makes smart choices for people and the planet by reducing environmental impacts across the entire lifecycle of products from raw materials to manufacture through use and disposal. 

Ethical fashion refers to fair practices for both people making the clothes and those who wear them; these may include labour standards (i.e., safe working conditions) or animal welfare concerns (i.e., no fur). 

When you hear the words "sustainable and ethical fashion," what do you think of? Some people might imagine that sustainable and ethical fashion is a new trend, but it's been around for decades. 

In fact, some of your favourite designers (like Stella McCartney) were ahead of the curve when they started incorporating sustainable and ethical practices into their designs.

Today we will look at what makes something truly sustainable – beyond just having an organic cotton t-shirt – as well as how to tell if a brand is truly practising ethically made fashion. 

Many people might use those terms interchangeably, but they actually refer to two very different things.

First, sustainable fashion refers to the process of making clothes that don't damage the environment or exploit workers. 

Ethical fashion is about how we treat our fellow humans, whether that means buying handmade items from local artisans or choosing a more environmentally friendly fabric like organic cotton. 

The first part of this paragraph was informative and gave a good general background on sustainable and ethical fashion. 

The second half was more specific with examples of what you can do as a consumer in your daily life.

It also stated the difference between the two, which I think is important for readers who may not have been familiar with these terms.

Sustainable fashion means that the product has been made in an environmentally friendly way.

In contrast, ethical fashion means that the product has been manufactured under fair labour conditions with consideration for both environmental impact and social responsibility. 

Sustainable and ethical fashion is a great option if you care about impacting your community or planet but want to look stylish doing it!

Let's get started!

The World Needs A More Sustainable Fashion Industry

Sustainable fashion is our only option. The future of our planet, maintaining adequate resources, and protecting human rights all depend on our toxic fashion industry evolving to more sustainable and circular fashion industry.

The fashion manufacturers, suppliers, brands and retailers must all do their part to address the changes required.

Demand For Sustainable Fashion

Fast, toxic fashion is the term for the high-turnaround, low-cost, trendy clothing and accessories created to maximize profit and meet demand.

These garments are created without consideration for the environment, waste, and human labour.

This has been the common practice for years without consumers blinking an eye; however, trends are shifting, and consumers are demanding more ethical goods.

Rise And Impact Of Toxic Fashion

Fast fashion has grown into a beast of its own that enables consumers to see a garment is worn on the red carpet, on social media, or on the runway and purchase it on their phone virtually moments later.

The fashion industry is a $2.4 trillion dollar industry that employs approximately 86 million people worldwide. 

Between the years 1975-2018, global textile production per capita increased from 5.9 kg to 13 kg per year.

Additionally, global consumption has risen to 62 million tons of apparel per year and is expected to rise to 102 million by 2030. 

The average Australian consumer now purchases one item of clothing every 5.5 days and wears the item 36% less over its lifecycle, generating 82 pounds of textile waste each year.

This consumption demand has driven fashion retailers to produce almost twice the amount of clothing they did in 2000. 

Environmental Impact

Textiles are at the top, along with aluminium, as the highest greenhouse gas emitters per unit of material.

The fashion industry produces 8-10% of annual global carbon emissions (4-5 billion tons).

A substantial amount of the high carbon footprint is associated with the source of energy for production. 

The toxic fashion industry is the second-largest industrial consumer of water, with 79 trillion litres of water per year.

To put it into the picture, it requires 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons for a single pair of jeans. It is also a source of 20% of industrial water pollution from textile dyeing and treatment. 

Societal Impact

Toxic fashion also impacts the workers with the most detrimental effects on women in developing economy countries.

Approximately 80% of apparel is made by women between 18-24, primarily in low-income countries where women have poor access to rights.  In 2018, the U.S. 

Department of Labor found evidence of coerced and child labour in the fashion industry in Argentina, Bangladesh, Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more countries.

Developing countries serve as an excellent host for toxic, fast fashion factories due to cheap labour, tax breaks, and lenient pollution, operation, and labour regulations. 

What Does “Sustainable Fashion” Mean?

Sustainable fashion essentially refers to garments and accessories produced and accessed in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. 

The word "accessed" is in this sustainable fashion definition because 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 more sustainably, 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 producing or purchasing 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.

On the other hand, sustainable fashion 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.

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. For example, we know sweatshops today first popped up in England during the Industrial Revolution, and these early factories were heavily reliant on coal.

The industrialization of textiles created a greater demand for cotton, which was a major driver for slavery. 

The relatively recent rise of fast fashion 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.

Low prices from fast fashion brands are only made possible because these brands produce in huge quantities. So while the companies don't make much profit from each garment, they can 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 production level can never be sustainable.

And, because fast fashion brands produce in such large quantities, they can negotiate prices down with factories.

But, unfortunately, 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 to offer trendy pieces at low prices.

Here are some statistics to paint the picture of the fashion industry today:

  • 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.
  • 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 fibres 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.)

  • The fashion industry is predicted to consume 25% to 30% of the world's remaining carbon budget by 2050 at current growth rates.
  • Ninety-three 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.
  • Garments made from synthetic fibres are responsible for as much as 35% of global microplastic pollution.
  • According to research by the European Environment Agency, textiles are the fourth-largest "cause of environmental pressure" in the EU.
  • Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and annual production exceeded 100 billion garments for the first time in 2014.
  • One garbage truck’s worth of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every single second.

For more on the human costs of a 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 same environment.

That said, not all people are impacted equally by damages to our environment. For example, communities of colour and 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 fibre production is 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 colour 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 colour 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 colour are impacted most by climate change in the United States.

People of colour are "more likely to be more vulnerable to heatwaves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation, and subsequent labour 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 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 fibre 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 fashion industry's supply chains 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".

So 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 want 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 themselves because any sort of third party does not regulate the terms.

So while words like this can help you start to identify sustainably-made pieces, they alone are not enough. So here are some elements to look for!

1. Conscious Materials

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.

Prioritize 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 fibres are preferable to synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon.

Conventional cotton is the worst of natural fibres due to its heavy pesticide and water use.

Organic cotton is a more environmentally conscious choice.

Hemp and linen are low-impact natural fibres to look for. Tencel and other fabrics made by Lenzing are also great to look for. 

There are also regenerative fibres. These are animal or plant-based fibres such as wool or cotton grown or raised using holistic management practices — or indigenous and traditional farming practices — that sequester carbon, build soil health, and restore land, among other benefits.

For more on regenerative fibres and regenerative textile systems, visit fibershed.org.

Additionally, see what materials the brand uses for its packaging. For example, do they use recycled materials or at-home compostable materials? Do they use minimal or reusable packaging? Perhaps the shipping is plastic-free?

2. Natural or Low Impact Dyes

Sometimes even when a garment is made from a natural organic fabric, it could still be coloured with a synthetic dye.

And synthetic dyes, just like synthetic fabrics, are derived from petroleum.

They can also be extremely toxic, containing heavy metals like chromium, mercury, lead, and other harmful chemicals.

Some people may say that synthetic dyes are not harmful to the wearer in small amounts. But A, we don't 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 create a wider range of colours.

(If you see a fast-fashion brand selling an organic cotton garment, it was probably dyed with synthetic dyes.)

When a brand uses natural dyes, they will most likely state it on their website and their product pages if only certain pieces are made with natural dyes!

As with anything sustainably, 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 that I will leave it there for now! I am planning to do another post all about dyes shortly.

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 less wastewater in the dyeing process.

And, then a category of low-impact dyes is fibre-reactive dyes, which are low-impact synthetic dyes that bond directly with the fibres 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 want to purchase a piece made with natural dyes, here is a guide to organic fashion brands using plant-based dyes, though!

3. Responsible Use of Resources 

Most fashion is 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. Still, for a garment to be eco-friendly, it should ideally be made in facilities 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).

4. 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?

5. Your Values

Finally, there may be additional elements that you look for. For example, maybe you want to support a brand that donates to causes aligned with your values.

On the other hand, perhaps you only want to purchase vegan fashion

There are several 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.
  • 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 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 is to comment on big fashion brands' posts, asking them questions like #whomadeyourclothes and are you paying living wages? What are you 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 purchased 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:

Not every brand will meet every single criterion for sustainability (though some certainly work to tackle a lot).

There are constraints that smaller brands, especially, may have given a limitation of finances and time. 

Some limitations 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.

In summary…

Sustainable fashion focuses on being designed, manufactured, distributed, and used in environmentally friendly ways.

To green your wardrobe, in addition to letting impulse desires pass, you can prioritize:

Purchasing clothes made locally or in facilities run on renewable energy or clothes made with low impact, natural and organic materials, recycled, up-cycled, or deadstocks materials, eco-friendly dyes, and zero- or low-waste designs;

Purchasing thrifted or secondhand clothing; and

Prolonging the life of your clothes by taking care of them well, mending and tailoring as needed, and making alterations to modernize their looks to match your current tastes.

Some Final Advice for Your Sustainable Fashion Journey

To close out, here are some tips and tricks I've learned after spending nearly five 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 scepticism 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 normal and okay.

It's a journey, not a destination. Cheesy and cliché? Yes. True and applicable to sustainable fashion? Also yes. No one has all the answers for sustainable fashion (and don't trust anyone who claims to)! We're all figuring this out.

Find what matters most to you, whether that's local fair trade production, recycled materials or organic fibres, zero-waste design or toxic-free production. Then, 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.

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