What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown about in the eco-apparel world, often without thinking about the real meaning behind it. It’s a broad concept, with lots of different elements to it, and it can get complicated.

In this post, we look at exactly what sustainable fashion is, what it involves, and how you as a consumer can embrace the concept yourself.

How can we define sustainable fashion?

The definition of sustainable fashion (sometimes referred to as ‘eco fashion’ or ‘green fashion’) is the production, sale, and purchase of clothing that is deemed to have a minimal impact on the planet and its natural resources.

It is also something that everyone plays a part in, from the original manufacturer of a product and the brand that sells it, right down to you, the consumer.

Sounds simple, right? But in practice, sustainable fashion can actually get quite complicated.

What are the main elements of fashion and sustainability?

There are lots of different factors to consider when we’re talking about sustainable fashion and how it contributes to climate change.

There are broad topics to consider like second-hand clothing, fairtrade products, organic cotton, vegan production, recycled clothing (we plan on tackling these topics in more detail in other blogs to come). But the easiest way to look at it is by breaking it down into two parts: the production and sale of clothes, and our own habits as consumers. Let’s start by looking at the industry itself.

Fashion is inherently wasteful. The fashion and textiles industry alone accounts for 8.1% of the entire planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

To understand this we need to look at the end-to-end process of creating and selling clothes. This will help us understand where manufacturers and brands can make changes to help shift towards producing and selling eco clothes.

The fashion supply chain

The fashion supply chain is a complicated one, comprising the following steps:

  1. Design & development
  2. Raw material sourcing and harvesting
  3. Processing
  4. Manufacturing
  5. Transportation
  6. Retail
  7. Use
  8. End of use

One item of clothing runs through each step, from the moment it is designed right down to when it ends up with you, the consumer. Each step takes a toll on the planet, generating carbon emissions or consuming huge amounts of natural resources. As you can see, once a piece of clothing has been used, it inevitably ends up being discarded.

Fashion and sustainability should go hand-in-hand. If we really want to embrace sustainable fashion, the steps above need to be a circle instead of a straight line. Once a piece of clothing has been used, it needs to end up somewhere other than landfill.

It might be reused in another function, for instance as insulation for a building, or it might simply safely biodegrade.

While there are many parts to this process that need to be looked at in fine detail we can break down the issues that brands and manufacturers should consider into four main areas:

  • Energy: the creation of artificial fabrics demands a massive amount of energy, as does washing, ironing, and drying them.
  • Water usage: producing clothes requires a lot of water, not to mention the aforementioned need for washing them too.
  • Chemicals: when you create fabrics and materials, a number of chemicals are required. Raw materials like cotton or jute also use high amounts of pesticides and fertilisers to grow and refine them.
  • Waste: where there’s fashion, there’s waste. A lot of waste fabrics or offcuts, not to mention used clothing, eventually end up in landfill somewhere. Around 85% of all textiles discarded in the US ends up in landfill or, even worse, simply burned.

Now let’s flip the perspective on its head to find out how we as consumers can be more sustainably-minded when it comes to our clothes buying habits. 

How can you be more sustainable?

By now, you should have a clearer idea of what sustainable fashion is — and why it matters. But what can you do about it? There are many things to consider from changing your buying habits to switching to buying sustainable clothing. Below  we go into more detail on a few tips to bear in mind.

Embrace slow fashion

Slow fashion is, as the name suggests, the opposite to fast fashion. It means shopping thoughtfully and sensibly, embracing an awareness of the supply chain behind your clothes.

Many slow fashion brands use slower production methods to minimise carbon emissions, or only create clothing in small batches to reduce their usage of raw materials. Many even hand-make their clothing, rather than relying on energy-consuming machines.

Where fast fashion emphasises the rapid production of clothing, almost always at the expense of the planet and generating huge carbon emissions, slow fashion adopts a more delicate approach.

Naturally, slow fashion is often more expensive than fast fashion. For those on a budget, buying slow is often out of the question. But if you can buy slow, it does go that little bit to help the planet, so it’s all worth it.

Buy fewer clothes

Buying less is a simple way to embrace sustainable fashion. The concept is simple: the more you buy, the more you consume, the more eco-waste is generated in the production of your clothes. Buying less means less waste — simple.

This approach requires a little thought. Buying less means building an ‘essential’ wardrobe of clothes that you can wear for a variety of occasions.

It takes work, and depending on how many clothes you have now, it might mean getting rid of a lot. If you do, make sure you donate it to a charity shop or sell it second-hand online!

Only shop with sustainable brands

Buying sustainably means actively searching for and shopping with brands that embrace sustainable principles. Recycled fabrics, eco-friendly production methods, zero-waste policies — these all go towards a green, eco-conscious fashion brand.

However, not all brands have entirely sustainable principles. One might use recycled materials, for instance, while at the same time using production methods that generate high carbon emissions.

Get started with our blog all about the most sustainable fashion brands.

Embrace second-hand style

Buying second-hand or vintage clothing is a great way to be more sustainable with your fashion.

Because the products have already been made, buying second-hand saves the need for a new product to be made.

Vintage shops are a great place to find high-quality second-hand pieces, although they can be a bit expensive. For a cheaper option, try your local charity shop.

The one downside of buying second-hand is that it creates a market for consumers who might buy clothing to sell on again, without thinking about their purchase.

Opt for fair fashion only

Brands that embrace fair fashion give back to the people and communities that make their product.

This often takes the form of safe working conditions, fair pay, strict child labour restrictions, and community initiatives. Many brands give money back to the surrounding regions and people that live there, for instance providing education to poorer communities. In short, it is fashion for good.

Fair fashion brands often display fair trade fashion certificates on their websites, but be warned: the requirements for each certificate are complex, and so,these can be misleading.

Further to this, displaying such a certification requires a fee. Consequently, many smaller (but no less environmental) fashion brands cannot afford to display their fair fashion credentials.

Be wary of greenwashing

As consumer concern for environmentalism increases, many brands are seeking to cash-in on this by making false claims about or exaggerating the eco-friendliness of their products. This is known as ‘greenwashing’, and often involves brands using buzzwords like “sustainable” or “responsible” to mask their .

Greenwashing is problematic because it tricks well-meaning consumers into buying products that aren’t actually good for the planet. As such, it’s up to consumers to do their research and check if their chosen brands are actually walking the walk, instead of just talking the talk.

Look for supply chain information, ingredients lists, official certification from regulatory bodies, and so on. It takes a bit of time, but if you really want to embrace sustainable fashion as a consumer, it’s worth it.

Is vegan fashion worth it?

Vegan fashion refers to apparel that is made without using any material derived from animals, such as leather, fur, wool, or skin.

The benefits of vegan fashion are obvious: by not using animal-related products, you can prevent the needless suffering or deaths of animals. This, in turn, helps keep the natural ecosystem in place, minimising our impact on the planet.

Of course, this isn’t always as simple in practice. Some brands use non-biodegradable materials instead of animal-derived ones. These inevitably end up in the rubbish after use, defeating the point of sustainable fashion.

Not all brands are this way though. Smart shopping is important when it comes to sustainable fashion. Look for vegan apparel retailers that use recycled materials, or even new, unconventional ones such as mycoworks or cork.

It is expected that, by 2030, there will be more than 148 million tonnes of waste from fashion and textiles. That’s clearly a lot, but as consumers, we can all do our bit collectively to help reduce that. When buying fashion, buy sustainably — look for eco-friendly brands with green initiatives, and try to buy only what you need, not just what you want.

Buying sustainable fashion takes a bit of work, but when it comes to the planet and our futures, it’s all worth it.

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