What is Sustainable Fashion & How to Be A Sustainable Fashion Brand

What is Sustainable Fashion & How to Be A Sustainable Fashion Brand

Sustainable fashion is a journey to create clothing that not only looks good but also does good.

Sustainable fashion brands are working hard to minimise their impact on the environment and improve their social, economic, and environmental business practices.

This blog post will give you some tips on being sustainable as an individual or as a company.

Sustainable fashion is a new movement in the industry, one that prioritises environmental and social impact.

Sustainable brands are all about giving back to their communities and promoting sustainable practices to consumers. 

But what does it entail? First, of course, there are many areas of interest in sustainability.

Still, I will focus on the four most important aspects for brands: manufacturing, design process, materials used in production, and consumerism.

Sustainable fashion is a huge topic in the industry.

It's all about making a difference and being mindful of your choices regarding what you buy, where you shop, and how much you consume. 

To be a sustainable fashion brand, there are five things that every company should do: reduce consumption, reuse materials from other industries or products, recycle materials from production processes for new use in clothing design again - reduce consumption again!.

Improve transparency with consumers on their environmental footprint so they can make conscious decisions about who they want to support with their dollars and cents (you!), provide education to each employee on sustainability practices, including recycling techniques and ways of reducing energy usage at workspaces- improving transparency again!, increase awareness by educating people through social media.

Sustainable fashion is a movement that has been gaining traction over the last few years.

It is a way of designing and producing more environmentally friendly, ethical, and sustainable clothes for future generations to come. 

The benefits of being a sustainable fashion brand include having higher production quality with less waste, better working conditions for employees, contributing to positive environmental change by reducing pollution, and saving money on ongoing costs such as water usage. 

Consumers who want to support sustainable fashion can buy from brands with eco-friendly practices or purchase second-hand clothing from thrift stores.

Sustainable fashion has always been about being aware of the impact your clothes have on the environment. 

It's about making small changes to be more sustainable in everything that you do.

Whether it is choosing pieces made with organic materials, opting for second-hand clothing or simply being mindful of how much you purchase at a time, there are many ways to be more sustainable when getting dressed every day! 

The best way to become a sustainable fashion brand is by setting goals and sticking to them.

You can't just say, "I want my company to be eco friendly" without taking action towards this goal!

Make sure you're following all the guidelines listed above, not only for yourself but also for your employees as well - because sustainability starts from within.

The fashion industry is an unsustainable business model, but there are many ways to be sustainable.

Sustainable fashion is the practice of reducing your environmental impact by making sure you follow a few guidelines. 

Three main principles make up this way of life: Reducing consumption, Reusing materials and Designing for durability.

This blog will outline how to design clothing that lasts longer and shows you some brands that have made it their priority to create clothes that help the environment. 

Let's get started!

What Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?

In a nutshell: sustainable and ethical fashion is an approach towards sourcing, manufacturing and designing clothes that maximises the benefits to the fashion industry and society at large while at the same time minimising its impact on the environment. 

The two concepts overlap in ideology, but they each have slightly different concerns, both equally critical to the future of fashion.

We love fashion as much as the next person: fun outfits, glamorous accessories, individuality… what’s not to love?!

Well, devastating environmental damage and severe human rights abuses, to name a couple. 

Fashion, as it turns out, is a whole lot more complex than pencil skirts and shoulder pads, and with all the greenwashing, it certainly doesn't make it easy to find ethical and sustainable clothing.

While the road towards sustainability, in general, isn't easy, it's now critical that we all learn what qualifies as truly sustainable and ethical fashion.

This article teaches you just that, from examining raw materials used to the practices implemented down the supply chain.

We hope to educate you (and ourselves) on the problematic status of the industry as it currently stands and provide you with the knowledge necessary to judge whether a clothing company or item is truly ethical.

Call it a fashion framework.

Use the quick links below to navigate the article, especially if referring back to it (as we hope you'll do!) in your future searches for sustainable brands

What To Consider

1. Buy less and buy better

It may be a cliche, but the mantra “buy less and buy better” is key when you consider that a staggering 100bn garments are being produced globally every year. 

Before making a purchase, sustainability consultancy Eco-Age's chief brand officer Harriet Vocking advises that you ask yourself three all-important questions: "What are you buying and why? What do you need? Will you wear it at least 30 times?"

2. Invest in sustainable fashion brands

Buying better can also mean supporting designers promoting sustainable practices, including the likes of Collina Strada, Chopova Lowena and Bode, who all use upcycled textiles in their designs. 

Narrowing your search for specific items can also help, whether that’s seeking out brands producing activewear more sustainably (such as Girlfriend Collective and Indigo Luna), swimwear (including Stay Wild Swim and Natasha Tonic) or denim (Outland Denim and Re/Done).

3. Shop second-hand and vintage

With second-hand and vintage now increasingly accessible thanks to sites such as The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective and Depop, consider buying preloved items when looking to add to your wardrobe. 

Not only will you extend the life of these garments and reduce the environmental impact of your wardrobe.

As a result, you can also find one-of-a-kind pieces that no one else will own. Look to the likes of Rihanna and Bella Hadid — both vintage aficionados — for inspiration.

4. Try renting

Instead of buying a new dress for that wedding or BBQ this summer (Covid restrictions permitting, of course), it’s now easier than ever to rent something to wear instead. 

According to one study, an astonishing 50m garments are bought and worn just once every summer in the UK alone — a dirty habit we need to quickly ditch, given that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned and landfilled every second.

5. Avoid greenwashing

As consumers become ever more aware of their environmental footprint, greenwashing—brands using vague, misleading or false claims to suggest it's more eco-friendly than it is—is becoming increasingly prevalent. 

Look beyond buzzwords such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘conscious’ and ‘responsible’ to see if brands have detailed policies to back up their claims.

6. Know your materials

Understanding the impact of materials is crucial when it comes to making more sustainable purchases.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid pure synthetics such as polyester—which makes up 55 per cent of clothes globally—as these are derived from fossil fuels and take years to break down. 

Not all-natural materials are made the same: organic cotton, for example, uses significantly less water than conventional cotton and doesn't use harmful pesticides.

Look for certifications from the Global Organic Textile Standard (for cotton and wool), Leather Working Group (for leather) and Forest Stewardship Council (for viscose) to ensure the materials used to make your clothes have a lower impact on our planet.

7. Ask who made your clothes

With the pandemic highlighting the extreme difficulties garment workers face worldwide, the people who make our clothes must be paid a fair wage and have safe working conditions.

Therefore, seek out brands who openly disclose information about their factories and policies around wages and working conditions.

8. Look for scientific targets

To find out if brands are serious about reducing their environmental impact, a good place to start is checking whether they have committed to scientific targets. 

Brands who have signed up to the Science-Based Targets Initiative, for example—which includes Gucci-owner Kering and Burberry—must have goals for reducing CO2 emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

9. Support brands who have a positive impact

Eco-minded brands such as Mara Hoffman and Sheep Inc are starting to consider how fashion can positively impact the environment rather than just reducing its impact. 

Regenerative agriculture—farming practices such as no-tilling and growing cover crops — is a growing trend within a fashion that aims to restore soil health and biodiversity.

10. Watch out for harmful chemicals

Hidden chemicals that are used to treat our clothes are a serious concern, polluting local waterways and posing a risk to garment workers.

Keep an eye out for the Made in Green by OEKO-TEX and Bluesign certifications, which set out requirements for chemicals used during the manufacturing process.

11. Reduce your water footprint

Given that the production of textile uses an astonishing 93bn cubic metres of water annually — the equivalent of 37m Olympic swimming pools—we should all be more conscious about the water footprint of our clothes. 

As mentioned previously, organic cotton uses significantly less water than conventional cotton (91 per cent less, according to one study), while the use of low-water dyes also reduces water consumption.

12. Be conscious about vegan fashion

While animal-derived materials such as leather and wool come with environmental and ethical concerns, vegan alternatives, which often contain synthetics, can also be harmful to our planet. 

Luckily, exciting innovations are entering the market, such as Bolt Threads' Mylo leather, made from mycelium—the roots of fungi—which Stella McCartney has already adopted.

13. Take care of your clothes

Extending the life of your clothes is crucial for lowering the environmental footprint of your garments and ensuring they don't end up clogging landfill sites after just one or two wears. 

Ensure your clothes last as long as possible by not overwashing them (which will also lower your CO2 emissions and water consumption), as well as repairing them instead of throwing them out.

14. Avoid microplastic pollution

As it's difficult to avoid synthetics altogether (nylon and elastane are still required in activewear and underwear to get that all-important stretch), washing clothes can release thousands of microplastics into our waterways and oceans, causing harm to marine life that ingests the tiny particles. 

Luckily, there’s a simple solution: investing in a microplastics filter such as a Guppyfriend washing bag, in which you can put your synthetic garments or a Cora Ball that you put in with your laundry.

15. Ensure your clothes have a second life

When clearing out your closet, being conscious about how you dispose of your clothes will help stop them from ending up in a landfill. 

Re-selling your clothes or organising a clothes swap is the best way to ensure they'll have a second life, as well as donating to charities and organisations that are looking for used clothing.

For worn-out pieces that can no longer be repaired or reused, look for recycling schemes specifically for those items, where possible.

The Problem With Fast Fashion

We live in a world where artisan coffee costs more than a T-shirt.

This is the world of fast fashion, and it's a major problem. 

Merriam Webster defines fast fashion as "an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasises making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers."

Fast fashion has essentially turned four seasons into 52, one for almost every week of the year. So designs go out of style as fast as they come in. And they're so cheaply made it's no surprise to find a hole after one wear.

But no sweat(shop) because if it wears out, it's mere pocket change just to buy a new one.

Fast Fashion’s headliners include stores like H&M, Forever 21, Primark, Zara, and Target (yes, even Target).

While pulling back on consumption is one solution, conservative shopping habits alone aren't enough to eliminate fashion's unglamorous dark side that looms beneath all the satin and sequins.

Problem #1: Human Rights Violations

Let's start with the problem that most people are vaguely aware of—namely, the working conditions of millions of people. 

According to the Fair Fashion Center, back in 2016, 150 million lives were touched by the global apparel industry daily. Most of these people do not receive a living wage and work in terrible conditions.  To name but a few of the ethical violations:

  • unlivable wages
  • child labour
  • modern slavery
  • migrant exploitation
  • gender discrimination (the majority of these workers are young females)
  • verbal, sexual, and physical abuse
  • forced overtime (on average, workers in Bangladesh work 60 hours per week while earning ⅓ as many wages as other Asian garment factories… and they often work over the legal limit of 60 hours a week)
  • hazardous work conditions

As Lucy Siegal says, “Fast fashion isn’t free.  Someone, somewhere, is paying.”

It wasn't until the 2013 Rana Plaza incident (where a Bangladesh-based garment factory collapse killed 1,135 people and injured 2500 more) that people started paying attention.

This single event sparked the Fashion Revolution movement.

If you haven’t seen it already, The True Cost documentary is utterly eye-opening. 

For an even more in-depth look at this issue, see the Garment Worker Diaries, a podcast and data collection project that records and presents interactive reports on the working conditions of workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India.

And make no mistake, these human rights violations happen across the ENTIRE supply chain:

  • Raw material production: Unfair labour practices for farmers and processors and exposure to numerous chemical pesticides and plasticisers, negatively affecting human health. 

This study found 61% of Pakistani cotton pickers experience related health problems like skin irritations, coughs, headaches, and more.

  • Garment manufacturing: More unfair and unsafe working conditions (i.e.Rana Plaza) in countries with no union representation or workers rights. This is particularly relevant in Asia and specifically China, where about 40% of clothing was made in 2016 (though that number is declining).
  • Post-production (sales, wear, use): Fashion as a whole isn’t known for being very diverse or inclusive. While diversity and inclusion may pale in comparison to the slave-like conditions of the production side, it’s still a major problem. 

Fashion's focus on rail-thin, white models has created all sorts of body image issues across the years and either marginalised or totally ignored minority groups.

Problem #2: Complex Supply Chains And Lack Of Transparency

A friend of ours who works in sustainability monitoring for a fashion company says that every business that makes anything has contributed to modern slavery in some (even if small way) because it's so difficult to have full visibility about all supply chain elements.

The process to produce one garment is incredibly lengthy and complex, with many hand changes along the way.

Essentially, a seed-to-shelf supply chain includes all the following steps:

  • Sourcing raw materials for every fabric involved (this includes farming techniques as well as soil and seeds used)
  • Spinning raw materials into fibre
  • Fabric dying and prepping
  • Design
  • Garment production (don’t forget all the added components like thread, buttons, and zippers- where did all those come from?)
  • Finishing touches (adding tags, pre-shrinking, etc.)
  • Shipping to sellers across the world
  • Shipping to buyers across the world

We're talking tons of different hands and production bodies involved here.

Plus, keep in mind that all this typically changes for every season and garment, so each brand isn't always dealing with the same list of suppliers.

Even the most well-intentioned brands would likely be complicit along their supply chain somewhere simply because they don’t even KNOW every step. 

It’s almost impossible to keep track.

Problem #3: The Rate Of Fashion Consumption

The scale and unrelenting desire for economic growth within the fashion industry are mind-boggling huge.

Yet, capitalism keeps the engine moving.

On the production side, it keeps people employed (however dismal that employment is) and has raised many's overall living standards.

On the consumer side, it tells us, "have it all; you deserve it".  #TreatYoSelf, after all. 

Globally, we consume 80 billion pieces of clothing each year (up 400% from two decades ago). 

North America is the largest textile consumer globally, with each person buying 80 pounds per year. They're followed closely by Australia's annual clothes consumption rate of 60 pounds per person. 

This is partially proportional to the explosion of the population growth (more people = more clothes).

But it’s also greatly due to overconsumption and unsustainable shopping habits cultivated by fast fashion.

People all over the world are striving toward the consumption levels of developed countries. On average, shoppers purchase 60% more clothing every year, which lasts only half as long as it did 15 years ago.  This unchecked growth business model operates with no regard to the social and environmental implications.

Problem #4: Chemical Use In Fashion Production

When you think of pollution, you think of carbon-spewing factories, oil refineries pumping gas and other harmful visuals.

You don't think of the fashion industry. 

Yet, the fashion industry has been called out as one of the most environmentally damaging industries.

According to the WWF, approximately half of all textiles are made from cotton. Unfortunately, when conventionally grown, cotton happens to be the dirtiest crop requiring the largest percentage of chemicals: 25% of the world's insecticides and 18% of the world's pesticides.  

In fact, the cotton required to make an average t-shirt (about 9 ounces) is grown with an average of 17 teaspoons of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

Toxic chemicals are not just used to grow the fibres; they are also notorious for their presence in the dyeing and processing of textiles. 

These chemicals include heavy metals (like nickel, lead, and chromium), phthalates (which are known carcinogens), and formaldehyde.  

Not only are these chemicals dangerous to growers and manufacturers, but to us as wearers!  Surely, fashion can’t be worth the price of wearing formaldehyde

Problem #5: Water Waste & Water Pollution

All those chemicals don’t just disappear after dying and production. 

They spell an enormous amount of runoff and pollution for rivers and oceans.

For example, in Dhaka, Bangladesh's leather tanneries dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into Buriganga, which is the city's main river and water supply.

Post-production, even our wearers, are still polluting waterways. Every time we wash clothes with synthetic fibres, tiny bits of microplastics make their way into our pipes, waterways, and eventually the ocean.

There, they get eaten by fish and other marine life, which in turn gets eaten by us. So microplastics are becoming a huge issue.

One way you can prevent this is by using the Guppy Friend microfiber catching laundry bag.

Fashion is also the second-largest consumer of water globally, between 6 and 9 trillion litres per year. 

Again, we'll point the finger at conventional cotton here, an incredibly thirsty crop. The cotton used in one pair of jeans requires almost 2000 gallons of water.

But there's plenty of water in the world, right?  Eh, not so much. We're already seeing the devastating effects of cotton farming. For example, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk 15% due to cotton farms drawing on it for water.

Problem #6: Textile Waste

Most clothing has a terrible end-of-life outcome, and fast fashion certainly doesn't encourage a circular economy. In addition, according to the EPA, textiles have one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material.  

Let's consider all the ways fashion generates physical textile waste.  First, there's all the wastes trimmings and scraps that come from production. 

Next, there's what's called "deadstock", or clothing that's made, put on shelves, but doesn't actually sell before going out of style. Finally, fashion companies typically burn this excess rather than donating or recycling it.

We, consumers, are equally irresponsible about disposing of our unwanted clothes. Americans only recycle or donate 15% of their unwanted clothing, and the Fair Fashion Center estimates that 21 Billion tons of textile waste are sent to landfills annually. Furthermore, since 64% of modern fabrics contain plastic in some form, these will never biodegrade.

Of that small percentage that does get donated, less than 20% of it gets re-sold. Instead, the rest gets shipped overseas to for-profit textile recycling companies.

Problem #7: Climate Change

All this leads to the dreaded double C: climate change.  The fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint.

First, tons of fossil fuels get used in production (petroleum-based fabrics), manufacturing (coal-powered processing), and distribution (gasoline which transports the majority of clothes halfway around the world).

We’ll complete the anti-cotton trifecta here and point out that global cotton production alone produces 220 tons of CO2 per year.

Second, all that clothing that gets thrown away rather than recycled, reused or composted also contributes to GHG emissions

Even natural fibres like organic cotton are no more sustainable than synthetics if they are in a landfill. There they'll biodegrade anaerobically and release methane gas, the most potent of all greenhouse gases.

Solutions: What To Do About Fast Fashion As A Consumer?

A lot of these problems stem from the supply side. So what can we do as consumers?

We can use our buying power to make a difference.  We (and so many others) have said this before, but it's so important to remember: Every time we make a purchase (of ANYTHING), we are casting a vote for the types of products we want to see made and subsequently the type of world we want to live in.

By supporting ethical brands that produce sustainable products, we essentially say we want more of those products.  Fast fashion thrives only because we keep supporting it.

You don't need to change the industry overnight single-handedly. Instead, start with the "low hanging fruit" and implement easy consumer changes that don't require much more than a brief moment of mindfulness before buying.

Here are some things you can do in order of impact!

1. Don’t Buy Any Clothes At All

The most sustainable fashion buying decision you can make is to do what you already have through proper care and simple repair techniques.

According to Fashion Revolution, “If we want to see fashion become a force for good, we’re going to have to change the way we think about what we wear and why we wear it. 

We need to love our clothes more. We need to look at them as precious heirlooms and as trusted friends.”

Learn how to REALLY take care of your things. A few simple ways to extend the life of your wardrobe:

  • Wash your clothes less often: Did you know one wear doesn't necessarily mean something is dirty?! Shocking! Treat every item of clothes (except maybe your ethical undies)  like your favourite pair of sustainable jeans… they just don't feel the same after a wash.
  • Wash on cold: Saves energy and preserves the colouration of your clothing much longer.
  • Handwash rather than machine wash: Again, it saves energy and won't shred and stretch your clothes like washing machine agitators.
  • Line dry instead of machine dry: Probably the single biggest source of fabric wear-and-tear (far more than actual wear). Think about your dryer’s lint trap for a second; all that came from your clothes.

If something does get stained or damaged, learn how to fix it yourself. Fashion Revolution has many how-to resources for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending jumpers so that minor functional issues don't mean you have to throw them away. Learn proper stain removal techniques for all sorts of stains, too.

If you're time poor or a little clumsy with a needle and thread, find someone who can fix it for you (even if it costs a tiny bit more than just buying a new one).

If you're someone who likes to stay up on the latest trends, get creative with upcycling and repurposing things you own into fresh looks. You can become your DIY fashion designer! Or again, commission a crafty friend into custom making something for you.

The capsule wardrobe concept and Project 333 demonstrate how few items of clothing you need to create a diverse and comprehensive closet.

2. Borrow, Swap, And Rent Clothing

Swapping clothing with friends is a great way to freshen up your everyday look without buying anything. Get a group of friends together and hold a closet swap event.  That's a way not only to be fashionably eco friendly but just have some fun.

Got a fancy fundraising event coming up but nothing suitable to wear? Rather than buying something specific you’ll never wear again, rent and lease clothing from stores near you.

Or browse the many online clothing and dress rental companies offering an endlessly sustainable wardrobe from the comfort of your couch.

Or just rock what you have and know that you are awesome for doing so!  Fashion is 9/10 confidence anyway.

3. Buy Used Clothing

If you like getting clothes, at least challenge yourself to #NeverBuyNew. 

There is a whole world of preloved and vintage clothing out there at your disposal (and for absolutely bargain prices).  Ripped jeans are trendy anyway. So why shouldn't those rips have a real story? Giving a second life to garments already in existence is a great way to both satisfy your inner fashionista and stay more sustainable.

With so many great online thrift stores, you don't even have to leave your home or sift through endless racks that smell like your grandmother's basement.

If you have clothes you no longer wear, close the loop by donating them to thrift stores or selling used clothes online for a bit of cash on the side.

As they say, one man's latest season trends are another man's aesthetic.

But again, donating is not a fix-all solution but rather a last resort. Composting cellulose-fibre garments is a better option with tons of environmental benefits, especially for worn items or with no resale/thrift value (like most fast-fashion pieces).

Compost your natural fibre clothing, but ensure it is 100% natural because even small synthetic blends are not compostable. Compost is by first shredding the fabric into small bits, then removing any tags, zippers, buttons, and other embellishments (which you save for reuse or donate to a local sewist).

4. If You Absolutely Have To Buy New…

…do it consciously. Really scrutinise the options out there and opt for the best quality you can afford.  

This doesn’t mean breaking the bank on a new pair of designer jeans; you can easily extend the life of your wardrobe on a budget by buying classic designs that aren’t subject to whimsical in-and-out trendiness.  Some things just never go out of style or season!

Implement simple quality checks by looking at the stitching. If the seams are messy or the edges unfinished, avoid them. For visual guides about the sorts of stitching, you should be looking for, check out this Zine by Fashion Revolution.

Most of all, choose brands that take sustainability and ethics seriously. Acknowledge that no brand is 100% sustainable but do your absolute best to decipher which brands are the real deal and make the most impact by doing more right than wrong. Learn which things are simply non-negotiable. 

This is where we hope to help.

Read more

What is Sustainable Fashion + Why Does it Matter?

What is Sustainable Fashion + Why Does it Matter?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

Is Fast Fashion Ethical?

What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?

What Are the Three Pillars of Sustainability?