What is Sustainable Fashion + Why Does it Matter?

What is Sustainable Fashion + Why Does it Matter?

In the past few years, you've probably heard a lot about sustainable fashion. It's not just a buzzword anymore - it's something that people are taking seriously as they realise the extent of our environmental crisis. 

What is sustainable fashion? And why does it matter?  Read on to find out! 

The word "sustainable" means different things to different people, so let's start with what we mean when we use it in this context. 

Sustainable fashion refers to clothing and accessories made from materials that can be used indefinitely without causing harm to the environment or its inhabitants (including humans).

This includes using recycled fabrics and natural dyes whenever possible, avoiding toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.

It may mean clothing made with organic cotton or recycled materials, but for others, sustainable fashion could be defined as fair trade and living wages for textile workers.

Regardless of the definition, you hold true to yourself; there are many reasons why sustainable fashion matters. 

Sustainable fashion is a movement that aims to reduce the negative impact of clothing and textile production on our environment. It's important because we only have one Earth, and we need to take care of it.

This post will discuss sustainable fashion, why it matters, and how you can get involved!

Big-name brands are hopping on the bandwagon, and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their shopping impact.

But, unfortunately, this issue will not go away anytime soon, so we all must understand what sustainable fashion means and why it matters. 

Sustainable fashion means clothing that has been produced in socially responsible ways - fair labour practices, environmentally-conscious processes, etc., while also being created with recycled materials or organic products when possible. 

It's a whole new way of looking at our clothes and considering how they came to be part of our wardrobes...and this blog post will give you the inside scoop! 

Sustainable fashion is a term used to describe clothing and accessories made in ways that do not harm the environment or contribute to human exploitation.

It's about making conscious choices when we shop, and it's also about how we work within our own communities. 

The world of sustainable fashion has grown exponentially over the past few years - both in mainstream media and online - which means more people than ever before are talking about this topic!

But, as with any hot topic, there can be some confusion around what exactly "sustainable" means; here's a brief overview of why sustainable fashion matters (and how you can get involved). 

Sustainable fashion is the future. With all of the pollution and waste our world faces, it's important to know what sustainable fashion is and why it matters. This blog post will explain everything you need to know. 

Sustainable fashion is trending now more than ever because people finally realise how much damage we've done by over-consuming fast fashion trends.

Not only does this harm our environment, but it also hurts garment workers who face unfair conditions for companies to produce clothes at an extremely low cost. 

The first step towards fixing this problem begins with knowing what sustainable fashion means, which is exactly what I'm going to cover in this blog post!

Let's get started!

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

Beyond producing more environmentally conscious goods, sustainable fashion demands a complete paradigm shift in how people view fashion and consumption. 

As a response to fast fashion, nonprofits, consumers, and retailers are shifting to slow fashion. Slow fashion advocates for an ethical garment manufacturing process that respects people, the environment, and animals. 

World Resources Institute, one of the top environmental research nonprofits, suggests that companies must slow down, test, and invest in closed-loop business models that reuse textiles and maximise their useful lifecycle rather than emphasising speed and profit. 

Additionally, governments must emphasise sustainable fashion with greater regulations and restrictions.

For example, toxic fashion companies should not be able to outsource their operations overseas to curtail production, pollution, and labour regulations. 

There must be widespread, mandatory, basic labour and environmental conditions proposed by an international authority that fashion manufacturers must adhere to and otherwise be cited and shut down.

Why Most Of Fashion Today Is Not Sustainable

The word sustainable is defined as "capable of being sustained."

Therefore, the sustainable fashion industry must operate in ways that can continue working for years and decades to come.

Unfortunately, this is not true of today's dominant 'fast fashion,' which refers to clothing that's intentionally designed to be consumed quickly at low prices, leading shoppers to view clothes as being disposable—wearing them just a few times before throwing them out or moving on to newer and trendier cheap clothes.

The fast fashion cycle is far from sustainable because it depletes the Earth's natural resources at exponential rates, exploits workers worldwide, and results in an overwhelming amount of waste.

In contrast to traditional fashion houses that only have a few seasonal collections per year, fast fashion brands may churn out as many as one new collections per week (or more) in efforts to drive continuous, mindless consumption.

"In contrast to traditional fashion design houses that only have a few seasonal collections per year, fast fashion brands may churn out as many as one new collections every week, in efforts to drive continuous, mindless consumption."

1. The Rana Plaza tragedy sparking global awareness:

Today, the slow and sustainable fashion movement is on the rise in large, spurred by the biggest garment industry disaster the world has ever seen—the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh (2013).

This globally known tragedy resulted in over 1,100 deaths, showing many just how costly their cheap clothing is in the western world.

But, as it turns out—there are just many social and environmental costs from fast fashion hidden behind the glossy facades of clean and pristine fashion stores.

2. Shedding light on “The True Cost” of fashion:

Shortly after the factory collapse, a documentary film called The True Cost was released, bringing to light even more information about the devastation caused by the fashion industry.

Following these tragic events and a deeper understanding of the industry's true costs, many activists and organisations began tirelessly bringing attention to the problems caused by fast fashion, encouraging both consumers and brands to change their ways and be accountable to the social and environmental impacts of their choices.

After all, as Fashionista's Whitney Bauck said in a podcast:

“Regardless of what your background is, we can all agree on some really basic things—no one should die to make a T-shirt, and we shouldn't be pouring toxins into our planet.”

Sustainable Fashion And The SDGs

Major organisations are creating guidelines and coalitions for sustainable fashion practices. For example, the United Nations has launched the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, which is an initiative of United Nations agencies and associate organisations committed to contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals within the fashion industry. 

The Alliance supports coordination between UN organisations working within the fashion and promoting projects and policies that ensure the fashion industry contributes to progress towards the SDG targets

The Alliance works in all aspects of the fashion industry, including raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

The goal is to change the path and perception of the fashion industry from one that is contributing to environmental and social destruction to one that is a model of successful, intersectional implementation of the SDGs. 

How To Be A Sustainable Fashion Brand

To be a truly sustainable fashion brand, you must consider all aspects of the value chain. 

The brand must not only be low waste and limit its emissions, but it must also promote greater environmental conservation and restoration, advance global gender and pay equity, and invest in research and practices that will drive a sustainable standard

Below are best practices to follow to build a sustainable fashion brand:

1. Planning

  • Begin with extensive research and planning
  • Before release, ensure your practices are well thought out, achievable, and maintainable

2. Environmental Considerations

  • Build factories in areas free of critical species and restore and develop on damaged land where possible

               -- Power with renewable energy if geographically and politically available

               -- Adhere to local environmental regulations, improve if they are not at the highest standard

               -- Use non-toxic dyes and detergents

               -- Install catchment systems to prevent microfibers from infiltrating waterways

3. Resource Considerations

  • Calculate resource demand, including initial extraction
  • Avoid fabrics that are highly water, land, and energy-intensive
  • Seek to create quality, lasting goods

4. Waste Considerations 

              --  Discover ways to repurpose fabric waste

              --  Create a discounted line of “mistake garments”

  • Use eco-friendly packaging
  • Close the loop of the garment’s lifecycle
  • Take back garments at the end of life
  • Establish a repair or upcycling program

5. Social Considerations

  • Ensure your manufacturing promotes SDG advancement, including SDG 1: No Poverty,  SDG 5: Gender Equality, and SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • Incorporate into company’s mission building up local community, economy, and contributing to greater rights
  • Adhere to the greatest local work regulations, improve if they are not at that highest standard
  • Pay workers livable wages with reasonable working hours
  • Provide adequate break times
  • Ensure factories have adequate lighting, windows and ventilation
  • Ensure the fabric is sourced from ethical manufacturers that pay workers proper wages and provide proper working conditions

What To Look For To Support Sustainable Fashion

1. Low impact natural and organic materials:

Natural materials such as hemp, linen, cotton, silk, wool, leather, and cellulose fibres (i.e., synthetically made fibres originating from plant sources, including viscose, rayon, lyocell, etc.) are generally preferable over virgin, petroleum-derived synthetics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon.

This is because natural fibres are biodegradable and can compost cleanly back into the soil (assuming there are no harmful chemical residues left in the fabric), unlike synthetic fibres that will not biodegrade and instead sit in landfills, continually leaching toxic chemicals and fumes.

Some natural materials are more sustainable than others, with hemp, linen, and organic cotton generally being among the most environmentally friendly.

Some wool and plant fibres can even be grown in regenerative ways, meaning able to regenerate healthy soils and sequester carbon (which helps combat climate change).

As cellulose fibres come from plant-based origins, some are extracted from destructive harvesting, which aggravates deforestation.

In addition, many are made in ways that produce toxic chemical byproducts in the manufacturing phase.

Pro tip: Where possible, keep an eye out for organic certifications (like GOTS) for plant-based fibres and ethical indications and standards for wool, such as ZQ-certified wool.

Also, for cellulosic fabrics, look to prioritise lyocell or Tencel, a branded fibre by Lenzing, an industry leader innovating environmentally-conscious fibres.   

2. Recycled or deadstock materials:

Using pre-existing materials to create new clothing is always a great choice because it does not require the extraction of new resources from the Earth but rather makes the most use of materials that may otherwise go to waste.

Pro tip: Look for fabrics made of recycled fibres (e.g., recycled nylon, recycled polyester, recycled cotton), clothes made of up-cycled materials (repurposed fabric), or clothes made from deadstock fabric (materials created, never sold nor used and would otherwise be thrown away).

3. Eco-friendly dyes and Bluesign or OEKO-TEX certifications:

Whether you're looking at natural fibres or synthetic ones, it's also important to consider the environmental impact of the dyes and textile treatment processes.

Many dyes and finishing processes involve egregious amounts of water and the use of toxic chemicals.

Pro tip: Eco-friendly dyes include ones from digital printing that require less water, natural, plant-based dyes, and certified non-toxic dyes. You can also look for the Bluesign or OEKO-TEX 100 certifications.   

4. Zero or low waste design:

A lot of waste in the fashion industry comes from cutting out patterns, so some sustainable fashion brands are designing patterns that result in zero wasted material.

In addition, brands may strive to minimise the amount of water and energy used from the manufacturing process; reduce waste by eliminating excessive plastic packaging when transporting from the manufacturer to the warehouse and the customer; and ship in bulk and using recycled or biodegradable shipping materials.

Pro tip: Look for brands that prioritise minimising byproduct waste in their manufacturing process and excessive packaging materials during transport.

Locally made clothes and ones made in renewable energy run facilities:

The fashion industry has a high carbon footprint with all of the dyeing, sewing, and shipping involved.

Some brands tackle this by making clothing closer to where it will ultimately be sold rather than shipping overseas. Others lower their carbon footprint by installing solar panels and wind turbines to provide their offices and factories with renewable power.

Pro tip: Support local makers that source fibres from the region and ones that produce their clothes in renewable energy powered facilities.

5. Second hand or durable clothes:

Instead of opting for fast fashion that is cheap and meant to be thrown away quickly, you can be a more sustainable fashion consumer by also responsibly caring for your clothes to prolong their lives or buying secondhand, which keeps clothes out of landfills for longer.

Buying higher quality, more durable clothing that you can envision yourself repeatedly wearing throughout the years (even if it's a little more expensive) also helps as it means that it may last in your wardrobe for longer.

Finally, taking good care of your clothes can make a big, positive difference as well, since much of the environmental impact (e.g., water and energy use) from our clothes' lifecycles may come from this care-taking stage.

Pro tip: Choose secondhand clothes first, prioritise durable, high-quality clothes you know you'll wear throughout the years, wash clothes in cold water, and hang them to dry.

Mending holes, spot cleaning stains, and making simple alterations are other ways to keep your clothing out of the landfill for longer.

Sustainable Fashion Brands

Many fashion brands have committed to sustainability. Patagonia was one of the early adopters of sustainable fashion with organic cotton, recycled materials, fair trade, product repair, and secondhand Worn Wear collection. 

Though their clothing items are incredibly popular, they create them to intend that consumers will only need one jacket, pullover and urge their customers not to buy more than they need.

LLBean is also a long-standing adopter of product accountability with a lifetime return and repair policy.

1. Petite Lucette: Green Business Bureau Member

Petite Lucette is a sustainable fashion brand that launched in 2014 to create an organic line of products and has joined the Green Business Bureau to expand upon its sustainable initiatives. 

Sustainability was already at the core of their business model, and they discovered over time that organic was the only option to be less water and resource-intensive.

As a result, they are constantly seeking ways to expand as a sustainable brand and are developing a line to be released in Summer 2022 made completely from recycled yarn. 

Petite Lucette also takes social accountability seriously and has a strong, personal relationship with their family-owned and operated manufacturer in Portugal.

They visit the facilities multiple times a year to evaluate their workers' working conditions and level of happiness. 

Additionally, they recently partnered with Kids O'Clock, a secondhand children's clothing marketplace in London, to help close the loop of a garment's lifecycle and reduce the amount of new clothing being created.

2. United By Blue: Wholistic Accountability

United By Blue is another sustainable brand that has put holistic accountability for its operations and products into action and pledged to remove a pound of trash from the ocean with each item purchased. 

They have attempted to source each material as sustainably as possible and even reflect each source in product descriptions. As a result, customers can understand what their product is composed of and read information about the factories that produced them. 

They hold their factories to the highest social standards and have received multiple certifications and awards.

Further, they provide a lifetime guarantee during their products’ determined lifetimes and commit to providing repairs when their products do not function as intended. 

They committed to zero plastic in 2020; however, they were forced to readjust their plans with the pandemic and have now set their task force back on track.

Understand The Sustainable Fashion Consumer

There are numerous ways consumers can incorporate sustainable fashion into their lifestyles. As easy as other shifts eco-conscious consumers have made, such as reusable bags, straws, and containers, these steps can improve the overall quality of life and set a precedent for manufacturers to abide by. 

Below are the top ways consumers can live a sustainable fashion lifestyle:

  • Buy less clothing
  • Buy higher quality items built to last
  • Buy versatile, staple clothing items 
  • Buy from transparent brands
  • Wash clothing with cold water to prevent the release of microfibers and plastic into waterways
  • Use biodegradable, non-toxic detergent that will not pollute the waterways
  • Repair or repurpose clothing when possible

Hope for a more sustainable future in fashion

With all of the above said, fashion can be made more sustainable in numerous ways—from using organic materials using biodegradable dyes to engineering patterns that create zero waste.

The sheer number of different ways to improve the industry, though, means that shopping “more sustainably” can prove to be overwhelming at first, with a multitude of factors to consider.

My recommendation is to think about which social or environmental concerns you feel most passionate about and then prioritise those focuses as your entry point into sustainable fashion.

The industry is still learning how to elevate its social and environmental standards best. Because the movement is still evolving, it helps us focus on continuously doing better rather than striving for and expecting perfection right now.

Summary

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

Sustainable fashion is the only option for a future with a healthy planet, adequate resources, and equal human rights.

Consumers have shown that sustainable fashion is a priority for them, and brands are beginning to adjust their practices to meet the demand. 

Fashion brands must take into account the environment, resources, waste, and society in their practices.

Consumers have the power to be sustainable fashion consumers and incorporate sustainable fashion into their everyday lives. 

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

  • 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 deadstock materials, eco-friendly dyes, and zero- or low-waste designs;
  • Purchasing thrift 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 modernise their looks to match your current tastes.

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