‘Sustainability’ has become a bit of a buzzword these last few years, but what does it mean to support sustainable fashion? At its core, a sustainable fashion industry is one where clothing is produced or obtained in a way that doesn’t deplete resources to the point that the industry can no longer be sustained. Or, better yet, where clothing actually benefits the environment.
That’s right; an environmentally conscious, sustainable fashion movement can still have you looking fabulous. This is achievable while also clearing up polluted oceans and rivers, diverting waste from landfills, and regenerating depleted soils. Before this, we need to understand the problem with fast fashion and current supply chains and the benefits of slow fashion for a more sustainable, ethical clothing industry.
The difference between slow and fast fashion
One of the main differences between slow and fast fashion is how quickly the clothing is produced and consumed (discarded). Fast fashion manufacturers churn out cheap, low-quality garments at breakneck speed. They use splashy sales, bursting racks, bargain bins, and bulk buy discounts that encourage mindless consumption and a throwaway culture.
This kind of clothing is typically poorly made using inferior quality materials and wasteful processes. And because it’s readily available at cheap prices, there’s little incentive to care for garments properly. There’s no drive to ‘make do and mend’ as our parents and grandparents did. Instead, we’ve grown accustomed to tossing clothes in the trash, buying new ones, and endlessly repeating the cycle.
The trouble, of course, is that fast fashion isn’t sustainable. It depletes natural resources, reduces biodiversity, causes massive amounts of pollution, exploits, exhausts, and even kills workers, and creates huge piles of waste.
Producing and shipping all those natural resources, raw materials, synthetic fabrics, and final products around the world also generates horrendous amounts of greenhouse gases. Then there are the ubiquitous plastic garment bags, tags, and packaging materials that come with most online purchases.
Slow Fashion vs. Fast Fashion
How is slow fashion different? In short, slowing things down gives us a chance to rethink our relationship with consumption. The slow fashion movement strives to:
- Emphasize that quality is more important than quantity
- Reuse, upcycle, and recycle existing materials
- Make durable garments in a zero-waste manner
- Ensure that when clothing really has reached end of life, it is able to biodegrade without leaving behind microplastics or toxic chemicals.
Slow fashion advocates are pushing for a return to more eco-friendly habits from a time when fashion was sustainable.
The history of sustainable fashion
Historically, fashion houses had four or fewer seasonal collections each year. Spring, summer, fall, and winter collections were heavily anticipated and produced in small runs, minimizing waste. Fashion itself was also mostly for the elite. So, unless you were rich, you likely had a set of work clothes, a set of house clothes (old-school loungewear!), and in some households, a set of church clothes.
These clothes had greater value than most clothing today because they were generally higher quality and handmade locally using locally sourced materials. Clothing used to cost more relative to wages. This is why it was worthwhile to mend ripped clothes until they were beyond repair. Even then, textiles were repurposed, with little wasted. If textiles were thrown away, the materials would be biodegradable and free of toxic chemicals that didn’t harm the environment.
So, what happened to create the current fast fashion problem? Modernization moved the clothing industry away from these ideals. Handmade clothing gave way to machine-based, mass-produced fast fashion. Those early factories ran on coal and used child labor and slave labor. They also sourced cotton sourced from plantations reliant on slave labor.
From the 1950s and ‘60s onwards, consumerism increased alongside disposable income. Fashion became something achievable and desirable for the average person rather than just the elite.
In the late 20th Century, limits on textile imports also led to higher domestic costs of clothing production. In turn, this increased America’s reliance on cheap overseas labor. Following the 2005 World Trade Organization agreement, most clothes sold in America are made elsewhere, with companies taking advantage of more lax labor laws and fewer environmental safeguards.
The current state of the fashion industry
Today, fast fashion continues to rely on modern-day slavery and coal power, with the added insult of pollution from toxic dyes and microplastics. The difference is that the industry shifts the true cost of textiles out of sight of the average western consumer. This makes it harder than ever to be mindful of clothing sustainability.
Worse, where brands boast about sustainability, this often means making clothes using a tiny portion of recycled synthetic fibers under sweatshop conditions. Fashion is hardly sustainable if it continues to exploit and exhaust human resources. To be truly sustainable, the fashion industry must consider people, the planet, and other species.
Unfortunately, some less scrupulous fashion brands are trying to cash in on enthusiasm for sustainable clothing by greenwashing their wares. Many get away with it, but some regulators have started taking notice. In 2019, for instance, Norway’s Forbrukertilsynet (Consumer Authority) investigated H&M over its ‘Conscious’ collection, which is marketed as being more eco-friendly and sustainable than its other clothing. The investigators found little to suggest that this collection was actually any greener, with few specifics available about materials and manufacturing.
As for H&M’s recycling program, it’s largely a draw to get people into stores to buy more fast fashion. We still don’t know where those old clothes go, but it’s likely the clothing waste is simply shipped overseas with little actually recycled.
The true cost of textiles
There’s little place for polyester and other synthetics in a sustainable fashion industry. Sure, recycled polyester is a step in the right direction, but even clothing made from this fabric sheds microfibers when washed and dried, causing pollution of waterways and soil and harming wildlife and human health.
Conventional cotton (versus organic cotton) is arguably little better. Cotton cultivation typically requires massive amounts of land, water, and pesticides. It can lead to a loss of biodiversity, strips the soil of nutrients, and pollutes waterways. In some cases, it can even lead to human conflict as water sources are rerouted, used up, and polluted, preventing whole communities from accessing safe, clean drinking water and water for food cultivation.
Some textiles and fibers, such as leather, suede, wool, and silk, also involve the exploitation of other species. For many, a fully sustainable fashion industry is one without these animal-derived materials. Or, where they are present, they are used in small amounts and are typically reclaimed or sourced in a genuinely humane way.
Of course, the only way we actually know how our clothes are made is if fashion companies are transparent about their supply chains. Brands that are truly sustainable can demonstrate that all raw materials, processes, and labor are safe, fair, and environmentally friendly.
What does sustainable fashion have to do with corporate social responsibility?
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is slowly making headway in the fashion industry, and for good reason. CSR encompasses things like working conditions and the right to unionize and earn a living wage. It also puts the responsibility on manufacturers to stop using toxic chemicals that can harm workers, their families, and communities close to factories.
How fast fashion causes pollution
Historically, the fashion industry has been the second largest polluter. Only animal agriculture has a bigger negative impact on the environment. There are many reasons for this, including:
- Huge amounts of water going into the production of clothing
- Huge amounts of polluted wastewater entering rivers, streams, oceans, and groundwater
- Massive demand for synthetic fibers created from petroleum products
- The use of harmful chemicals such as azo dyes, chlorine bleach, and chrome in leather tanning
- Huge amounts of waste, both at the factory level as offcuts and at retail level as surplus product
- Throwaway fashion, where poor quality clothing cannot be or is not mended
- Fast fashion, where the industry promotes rapid turnover and clothing is sent to landfill after just a few wears
- Lack of recycling capacity or enthusiasm
- Problematic recycling that just shifts the environmental burden to poorer countries and communities.
Clothing factories tend to be located in poorer countries and poorer neighborhoods, where citizens and residents have little power to demand safe, healthy, eco-friendly manufacturing practices.
As in so many industries, unsustainable fast fashion places a heavy burden of poor health on those with the fewest means to seek medical care, let alone good health and wellness. Typically, the negative health effects of fast fashion have the greatest impact on women, people of color, immigrants, those living in poverty, and the LGBTQ2S+ community.
What does sustainability look like in practice?
To be truly sustainable, fashion brands need to show that their labor practices and production processes are non-toxic, fair trade, vegan (or close to), and carbon neutral or carbon positive.
To achieve this, the fashion industry needs to fully embrace low-impact natural and organic materials. Eco-friendly fashion cannot rely on the use of virgin synthetic materials. Instead, the balance has to tip towards recycled synthetic fibers (to an extent) and more sustainable natural fibers such as hemp, organic cotton, flax, or linen.
How natural fibers fit in with sustainable fashion
Natural fibers such as hemp present an exceptional opportunity to help regenerate soils, promote biodiversity, and sequester carbon. Given the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, we might anticipate seeing more hemp grown in the U.S. in the coming years. Prior to this, hemp was a controlled substance, making it impossible for commercial farmers to grow the crop in America. China still grows most of the world’s hemp, though some companies now source hemp stateside, helping to build a robust supply chain for organic, regenerative hemp fibers.
A sustainable fashion industry must also eliminate the use of toxic chemicals that pollute waterways, soil, and the air. At minimum, this means no chlorine bleach, azo dyes, or chrome tanning of leather. Eco-friendly dyes tend to require less water, and you can also look for Bluesign, GOTS, or OEKO-Tex certifications to avoid the most egregious chemicals.
Sustainability in fashion and textiles also means limiting the use of animal-derived materials. Not only do these fibers and textiles involve exploitation and cruelty (in most cases), conventional wool, silk, and leather tend to require huge amounts of land, involve routine use of antibiotics and hormones, and generate massive amounts of methane. Manufacturers then treat these fibers and textiles with toxic chemicals to prevent them from biodegrading.
Zero-waste design, deadstock fabrics, upcycling, and secondhand marketplaces
Other ways to reduce the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of clothing include using zero-waste or low-waste design. This is where care is taken to design and cut textiles in a way that minimizes or eliminates waste. Companies such as Blue Nile do this, which ensures that any scraps from one product are used to make others.
Sustainable fashion brands also embrace offcut or deadstock fabrics. These are textiles that already exist and would otherwise be wasted. Deadstock fabrics also enable designers to produce unique or limited run pieces. In turn, this helps satisfy consumers’ desires for something other than a mass-produced garment.
Another way to make fashion more sustainable is to give clothing a second chance at life. This might mean brushing up your sewing skills and upcycling a pair of jeans into jean shorts or a tote. Or it could be as simple as checking online marketplaces or local thrift stores for secondhand clothing instead of buying new. Secondhand clothing is also a great way to save on costs.
Finally, some clothing companies are trying to create a circular economy by enabling customers to return old clothes for recycling or resale. Check out PACT’s Give Back Box (view here). Beware greenwashing from the likes of H&M, though; a significant amount of unusable secondhand clothing gets shipped overseas, putting the burden of waste on countries with fewer resources.
Some of my favorite brands base their entire business model on recirculating lightly used clothing. UpChoose baby clothing is a great example of this approach.
What you can do right now to make more sustainable clothing choices
To begin your sustainable fashion journey, give yourself time to reflect on your current wardrobe and patterns of consumption. Is shopping a hobby, for example, rather than a necessity? Maybe there’s a different activity you can do that brings you joy without resulting in a bulging wardrobe full of unnecessary purchases.
- If you need new clothes, don’t jump at the first sale you see. Make more mindful choices and:
- Invest in fewer, higher quality pieces that will last longer and be easier to mend
- Choose capsule wardrobe pieces that you can dress up or down to work for a variety of occasions
- Look for clothes that carry GOTS or OEKO-Tex certification
- Choose clothes made in certified Fair Trade factories, without child or slave labor
- For technical wear, check for Bluesign certification or items made with GRS certified recycled materials
- Avoid clothing made with PFCs, also known as forever chemicals
- Seek brands that show true efforts to service sustainability.
How to identify sustainable fashion brands
Sustainable fashion brands are those that account for all environmental and social impacts of their clothing production and operating processes. Ideally, this means a clothing brand carries out a robust lifecycle assessment for its clothing collection and publishes an annual environmental impact report.
This level of transparency is still rare, though. So, in the meantime, learn how to spot sustainable fashion brands.
How to spot sustainable fashion efforts
- Choose sea over air freight, source materials, labor locally, and ship without plastic packaging.
- Run their factories on renewable energy, installing solar arrays and wind turbines, or switching energy providers while also trying to conserve energy too.
- Recycle water and harvest rainwater for non-potable uses.
- Support their workers to travel to and from work on foot, by bike, on public transport, or by carpooling.
- Only use sustainable materials, rather than just launching a token organic cotton collection or one hemp t-shirt.
- Invest in regenerative fashion, sourcing raw materials from farms with regenerative organic certification (ROC). This means your clothing may actually help support biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Coyuchi is a good example of this, sourcing its materials from farms enrolled in the Fibershed program, which supports regenerative agriculture that helps sequester carbon and build robust regional economies.
- B Corps (Benefit Corporations) which must satisfy certain sustainability standards and show annual improvements to maintain or increase their score.
- Lay out public commitments to sustainability and have a track record of meeting targets. If a company boasts on its website that it will phase out plastic by 2020 but two years later is still using plastic polybags, be suspicious.
Online resources for identifying sustainable wear
Need help finding sustainable fashion brands? Good On You is a website that rates thousands of different brands on their sustainable fashion initiatives. You can also check out DoneGood to find eco-friendly manufacturers dedicated to sustainable production and distribution.
Better yet, contact companies to ask if they have an environmental report, can ship your purchase plastic-free, can make your favorite t-shirt design using organic cotton, and so forth. The more we all push fashion brands to be sustainable, the faster change will happen.
There are billions of people living on Earth, and everyone needs clothes. By taking responsibility for where we get those clothes, we can all play a part in making fashion sustainable.
This website is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or lifestyle habits, always consult your doctor or physician first.