Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Fashion
This article is the most comprehensive guide to sustainable fashion online.
In this article, you’ll learn about sustainable fashion and its importance.
We’ll review key facts about sustainability in fashion, such as greenwashing and how to deal with it.
You’ll learn what makes a fashion brand “sustainable” and the eight facets of sustainable fashion: eco-friendly, vegan, slow, conscious, and so on.
What Is Sustainable Fashion?
Because of its eight constituent parts, sustainable fashion has multiple definitions – more about this later.
To date, the most accepted definition states:
Sustainable fashion is an all-inclusive term describing products, processes, activities, and actors (policymakers, brands, consumers) aiming to achieve a carbon-neutral fashion industry, built on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of sustainable fashion (also defined as Eco-fashion and Re-fashion) is as follows:
… a movement and process fostering changes to products and the fashion system, pushing towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. Sustainable fashion concerns more than just addressing fashion textiles or products.
According to a study in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management, sustainable fashion is comprised of:
… local sourcing and production, transparency across the supply chain, traceability of work processes and raw materials, environmentally friendly raw materials, safe working conditions, and fair wages.
5 Reasons Sustainable Fashion is Important
One of the most asked questions is, does the world need sustainable fashion?
It does, without a doubt, and here are the top 5 reasons:
1. Sustainable Fashion Creates Less Waste
Globally, one garbage truck of textile waste is dumped at a landfill or burnt every second.
In comparison, sustainable brands focus on quality clothing products from long-lasting materials.
Moreover, sustainable fashion brands rarely follow fast fashion trends.
2. Sustainable Fashion Ensures Fair Wages & Proper Working Conditions
Cheap fast fashion garments are made possible by harsh working conditions for garment workers.
Most fast fashion brands produce garments in developing countries where workers are paid less than a living wage.
Poor safety and health conditions, long working hours, and the constant pressure to produce all create an environment of worker exploitation.
Frequent child labor accusations have also been brought against fast fashion brands.
On the other hand, sustainable clothing brands prioritize fair wages and safe working conditions for all employees.
3. Sustainable Fashion Reduces CO2 & Other Greenhouse Gases Emission
Fast fashion has a huge carbon footprint from material creation, manufacturing, transportation, and even textile waste decomposing in landfills.
For example, most fast fashion clothes are made from petroleum-based materials.
Think acrylic, nylon, and polyester; production and disposal require significant energy.
On the other hand, sustainable fashion utilizes biodegradable materials from natural or recycled fabrics.
These materials require little to no chemical treatment, less energy, less water, and no pesticides or fertilizers to grow.
4. Sustainable Fashion Saves Water
The fashion industry is one of the largest water consumers in the world right now.
The water is consumed not only for washing garments but also during manufacturing, dyeing, and finishing processes.
To put that into perspective, it takes about 2,720 liters of water to make one cotton shirt and a whopping 7,000 liters to make one pair of jeans!
On top of consuming water, clothing production impacts the environment by polluting freshwater with toxic chemicals that find their way into waterways.
In comparison, most sustainable fashion brands have “water on budget” policies that limit water usage during clothing production.
Moreover, sustainable fashion prioritizes organic textiles made from linen, hemp, and organic cotton, which require little to no water during production.
5. Sustainable Fashion Saves Animal Lives
Animals are vital to our ecosystem, each playing a key role in ensuring Earth is habitable.
As such, any threat to wildlife and other animals’ safety should concern us all.
Leather bags, shoes, fur coats, and other goods made from animal leather, feathers, and wool, affect animal populations and, thus, the survival of humanity on this planet.
In comparison, clothing brands that are cruelty-free and vegan protect animals.
These companies use leather and fur alternatives in their products, saving animals from exploitation and death while preserving the ecosystem’s balance.
The 8 Parts of Sustainable Fashion
Sustainable fashion is an all-encapsulating term that can sometimes be hard to pin down.
The following activities – defined in their terms – are all parts of the greater sustainable fashion movement.
- Ethical and Fair-trade Fashion.
- Eco-friendly or ‘Green’ Fashion.
- Vegan and Cruelty-free Fashion.
- Slow Fashion – as in slow manufacturing.
- Upcycled Fashion.
- Thrifting, Swapping, Sharing, Renting Fashion.
- Circular Fashion – reuse of discarded and recycled materials.
- Conscious Fashion – consumers’ role.
1. Ethical and Fair-trade Fashion
Ethical and Fair-trade are two great examples of sustainable fashion.
Ethical and Fair-trade activities (in fashion) are related to the welfare of industry workers.
That is, child labor, gender rights, safe working conditions, fair-trade manufacturing, and all other social justice aspects.
Ethical Fashion and Fair-trade Fashion can be further detailed based on the activities conducted.
Ethical Fashion companies, activists, and brands deal with people and their mental or physical welfare.
On the other hand, Fair-trade organizations and brands ensure the creation and maintenance of supply chains where farmers, and manufacturers, get a fair share of the cut in exchange for their products.
Together, both terms cover the socio-economic aspects of the fashion industry.
As such, all actors involved in these actions seek ways to improve working conditions, wages, and fair trade practices.
2. Eco-friendly and Green Fashion
Both terms are used for environmental problems caused by the fashion industry.
Waste creation, water and soil pollution, and reckless resource use accelerate the global climate crisis.
Over 90% of clothing brands use plastics and other non-biodegradable fibers that cause environmental damage at scale.
For example, every year, over 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester fibers that eventually end up in oceans, killing animals or people by entering the food chain.
3. Vegan and Cruelty-free Fashion
Vegan and Cruelty-free Fashion terms describe products manufactured without using materials of animal origin or obtained without cruel means.
Similarly, all activities undertaken by vegan and cruelty-free fashion campaigners aim to bring to consumer attention industrial animal farming and animal exploitation for fashion.
However, there are arguments that vegan fashion causes more damage than good.
The argument states that most PETA-approved ‘Vegan Fashion Brands’ use PVC and plastic-based alternatives to animal leather, which saves animals from sacrifice but kills them by polluting their environment.
More recently, proponents of the vegan fashion movement insist that for a vegan clothing brand to qualify as a ‘sustainable fashion brand,’ it must also pay attention to its environmental impact.
Most cruelty-free and vegan clothing brands achieve it by using leather alternatives made from plants, fruits, mushrooms, or even in the lab.
4. Slow Fashion
Slow Fashion is a recent term adopted to describe a way of manufacturing fashion, somehow at the opposite pole of ‘fast fashion.’
Compared to industrial en-mass manufacturing, slow fashion is produced by expert artisans hence the use of ‘artisanal fashion’ to describe the same thing.
However, it is not just the use of finite materials and wasteful manufacturing practices that depletes the planet’s resources and creates pollution.
Fashion consumption and garment maintenance play equally important roles in achieving sustainable fashion – more about that below, in the ‘Conscious Fashion’ section.
5. Upcycled Fashion
Upcycled Fashion is a term that describes reusing and repurposing textiles, materials, and garments to re-create fashion.
This facet of sustainable fashion upcycled is very popular amongst contemporary fashion designers and celebrities, to the point of seeing a new form of high-end luxury fashion.
As old fabrics carry their own stories of usage, wear, and life, Upcycled Fashion is more than a new way of reviving and turning old fabrics into new clothes.
The inclusion of upcycled materials in the making of new garments adds uniqueness to the final product.
As such, creating couture via Upcycled Fashion ensures that the final piece is always unique and, thus, rare.
However, the opinions are split regarding how relevant Upcycled Fashion is to achieving sustainability in fashion.
The benefits of using upcycled materials are tremendous:
- Upcycled Fashion helps with waste reduction.
- Reuses materials with no purpose and would otherwise end up in landfills.
- Reduces carbon and toxic gas emissions resulting from manufacturing and transport.
On the other hand, upcycling has environmental issues that can’t be ignored:
- Upcycled garments release twice the number of microfibres that pollute oceans and the food chain, killing animals and people.
- Upcycling requires more energy and chemicals than what otherwise would have been used in the case of novel materials.
6. Thrifting, Swapping, Sharing, Renting Fashion
Secondhand clothing, swapping, sharing, clothes, thrifting, and renting fashion are great examples of sustainable fashion.
Available in thrift stores and second-hand shops, thrifting is a tremendous way to avoid the negative impact of fashion manufacturing.
The garments already exist, so they are unnecessary to manufacture them again.
Moreover, there is no use of toxic chemicals, the release of greenhouse gases, or the use of a pesticide for a new collection.
However, there is a less discussed downside to renting, thrifting, swapping, and sharing all similar forms of second-hand and vintage fashion shopping.
Ilaria Urbinati – a celebrity fashion stylist that has Rami Malek, Dwayne Johnson, Armie Hammer, Bradley Cooper, and John Krasinski amongst her clients – explains:
“WITH one hand, you’re doing good for the planet. WITH the other hand, you’re doing harm to yourself.”
The problem stems from the difficulty of assessing the quality and the condition of the garment you will procure this way.
Little by little, animal leather or plastic garments will release toxic chemicals on your skin.
In time, these substances will affect your hormonal balance, showing on your skin, hair, nails, etc.
7. Circular Fashion
Circular Fashion is another great example of sustainable fashion.
The term describes ‘closed-loop’ systems, or manufacturing approaches aiming to recover discarded materials and waste and reintegrate them into production.
There are many types of circular fashion innovations.
But the most common form of a ‘closed-loop’ system in the fashion industry is recycling polyester and other plastic-based materials and putting them back into fashion production.
8. Conscious Fashion
Conscious Fashion is the most popular example of sustainable fashion, seen as consumers’ way to fight the problems caused by Fast Fashion.
Above all, the environmental impact of fashion depends greatly on consumers’ choices and for long they’re using their outfits.
Since the emergence of fast fashion, garments have been used half as much compared to 15 years ago.
This is caused in equal measure by the lower product quality and the insatiable desire to buy and showcase the latest trends.
Therefore, Conscious Fashion proponents aim to educate consumers on the value of choosing slow over fast or on how to care for their garments.
For example, washing and drying a pair of jeans is 2/3 of the total energy consumed during the garment’s life.
In the case of underwear, the laundry process alone takes more than 80% of the total energy used.
The takeaway is that regardless of sustainability, washing garments requires electricity, water, and detergent.
How To Achieve Sustainable Fashion
All sustainable fashion examples described above are interconnected and related.
They all aim to achieve a more sustainable fashion industry and a cleaner, safer world.
However, while these terms and categories intersect, there is a lot of conflict and confusion.
This complexity makes it difficult to achieve sustainability in fashion.
In this section, I will detail two main areas of consideration critical in achieving sustainable fashion:
1. What Makes A Fashion Brand Sustainable?
2. What is Greenwashing In Fashion?
Without further ado…
1. What Makes a Fashion Brand Sustainable?
Imagine this: A clothing brand is considered “ethical” for ensuring proper working conditions and fair wages for garment workers.
However, if the same ethical label uses plastic and other synthetic materials, it falls into the non-eco-friendly category.
Moreover, the brand becomes unethical from an animal welfare angle if it uses animal leather.
So for a label to be considered sustainable, performing one of the mentioned activities is insufficient.
It must abide by as many terms as possible to ensure environmental and social sustainability.
2. The Issue of Greenwashing
In very simple terms, greenwashing happens when companies claim they are doing good for the environment (or social justice) while they are not!
According to Wikipedia:
Greenwashing, also called “green sheen”, is a form of marketing spin in which marketing IS deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies, are environmentally friendly.
Greenwashing in fashion often happens through deceptive certifications.
The purpose of certifications in fashion is to build trust between buyers and retailers.
However, for a company to ‘obtain’ one of these certifications, producing a single organic cotton t-shirt is often sufficient.
In reality, sustainable fashion certificates are granted to whoever pays for them.
It is a minefield where large corporations amass certificate after certificate.
At the same time, small family labels that cannot afford to pay for certifications are left out and made to look unethical or unsustainable.
There are a few things you can do to ensure the garment you buy is not ‘greenwashed’.
- Check the certificate issuer – is it an independent or a commercial enterprise?
- See where the materials in your product are coming from.
- See if the brand’s philosophy resonates with yours.
- What is the brand’s view on the future of fashion?
- Check if the brand is on dedicated vintage clothing and sustainable fashion marketplaces.
- Finally, ask the brand questions about the materials used and see how open and prompt they are.
- If you don’t get an answer, that’s a bad sign, no matter how many sustainable certificates they have.
What Can You Do For Sustainable Fashion?
Our main role in sustainable fashion is to be aware of our fashion consumption’s impact on the environment.
By now, you should be familiar with the most popular examples of sustainable fashion: ethical, slow, vegan, eco-friendly, fair trade, recycled, upcycled, etc.
You also learned the best ten sustainable fashion companies right now, brands you can trust and support.
As you keep exploring and shopping, ensure the brands you’re buying from are minimizing their negative impact on the environment while improving the working conditions of their people.
Increase the lifespan of your clothing and accessories by repairing, remaking, upcycling, and reusing your products.
Buy from sustainable clothing companies that respect biodiversity, the ecosystem, and the natural resources of this planet.
From brands that use carbon dioxide-free and renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and ocean, at every stage of the manufacturing and recycling processes.
With a carbon footprint accounting for over 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s no secret that the fashion industry is destroying the environment.
A change is needed, from creating more awareness towards sustainable fashion practices to taking an active role in making a change.
Glorious achievements, as changes do not come easy – not in the fashion industry.
Any change that deviates from the industry’s economic projections is rejected or, at best, postponed.
The only viable solution is a slow shift from fast to sustainable fashion without impacting finances too much.
Keep up with the latest in fashion, beauty and style!
Now it’s your turn…
Do you think policymakers should step in and enforce sustainable fashion practices as they did with automobiles’ toxic emissions?
Which of the eight constituent parts of sustainable fashion is the most important to you and why?
Please comment below so others can benefit from your expertise and knowledge.
Championing sustainability and veganism from Sao Paulo to London, Ana Alves is a dynamic force in the fashion and beauty industry. With a decade-long writing career, Ana's compelling narratives on sustainable fashion have graced the pages of Forbes, Wired, Vanity Fair, and more. Ana's journey spans key roles at Unilever and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, where she honed her marketing acumen. As an Editorial Contributor at WTVOX and Fashion & Style Editor at The VOU, Ana shapes the discourse on sustainable fashion.