What is Sustainable Fashion?
Sustainable fashion is an all-inclusive term that refers to products, processes, activities, and stakeholders (policymakers, brands, consumers) aiming to achieve a carbon-neutral fashion sector based on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.
Sustainable fashion is also a global movement that aims to create a perfect balance in the design, manufacturing, and usage of garments to clean and regenerate the environment, support the livelihood of local communities via fair wages, and ensure clothes biodegrade beautifully into mother nature.
Sustainability in fashion concerns the use of eco-friendly materials to create fashion goods and the entire product lifecycle, including the production, consumption, and recycling aspects.
Sustainable fashion also addresses the carbon footprint created by the global fashion industry, air pollution, water consumption and water pollution, workers’ health, and the impact on the millions working in this industry globally.
As an all-inclusive term, sustainable fashion covers products, processes, activities, and stakeholders (policymakers, brands, consumers) aiming to achieve a carbon-neutral fashion sector based on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.
To better understand the concept of sustainable fashion, we will review the following related concepts in this article:
- Ethical fashion
- Fair Trade
- Recycled Fashion
- Slow Fashion
- Circular fashion
- Traceable fashion
Sustainable Fashion Definitions
The most accepted definition of Sustainable Fashion states that:
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.
Wikipedia has a similar definition of sustainable fashion (also defined as Eco-fashion and Re-fashion):
Sustainable Fashion is 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.
Sustainable Fashion Vs. Fast Fashion
With shopping evolving into a form of entertainment in the age of fast fashion, customers are contributing to what sustainability experts call a throwaway culture.
Customers discard fashion goods rather than recycling or donating them, resulting in a considerable environmental burden.
In comparison, sustainable fashion products satisfy the socio-economic needs of people and brands and environmental concerns.
Harmful Impact of Fast Fashion
The global fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water every year — enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people.
Around 20% of sewage water worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment industries.
Nearly 87% of cloth waste is incinerated or disposed of in landfills.
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Approximately 1.7 billion tons of CO2 is used by the fashion industry.
Every year, half a million tons of plastic microfibers are dumped into the ocean, the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles ending up in our food chain.
What is the Origin of the Sustainable Fashion Movement?
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013, one of the biggest garment industry disasters the world has ever seen, gave birth to social movements pushing for a more sustainable fashion industry.
This tragedy resulted in over 1,100 deaths, showcasing to the Western world how costly cheap clothing is, adding to fast fashion’s social and environmental costs.
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.
With a deeper understanding of the industry’s actual costs, activist groups started encouraging consumers and brands to change their ways and be accountable for their choices’ social and environmental impacts.
What Are the 8 Pillars of Sustainable Fashion?
Sustainable fashion is an all-encapsulating term comprising eight key parts.
- 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.
As a solution, green-fashion companies advocate the replacement of plastics with eco-friendly, biodegradable, and natural fibers that feed the environment.
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 essential roles in achieving sustainable fashion – more about that below, in the ‘Conscious Fashion’ section.
5. Upcycled 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.
- 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 who 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 excellent 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 how 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.
Why is Sustainable Fashion 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. Reduces Waste Creation
Due to urbanization, population growth, and consumer shopping patterns, the global production of municipal solid waste will rise to 3.4 billion metric tonsby 2050.
Sustainable fashion brands are critical in reducing waste generation by manufacturing premium apparel from long-lasting materials.
This enormous waste is created by fast fashion companies that launch weekly fashion trends and fulfill them with poor-quality, low-priced products.
In comparison, sustainable brands focus on quality clothing products from long-lasting materials.
Moreover, sustainable fashion brands rarely follow fast fashion trends.
2. Ensures Fair Wages and 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 fashion brands prioritize fair wages and safe working conditions for all employees.
3. Reduces CO2 and Greenhouse Gases
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. 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. 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.
Most Asked Questions in Sustainable Fashion
What Does Sustainable Fashion Mean in Simple Terms?
Sustainable fashion refers to clothing designed, manufactured, distributed, and used in environmentally friendly ways.
Ethical fashion, a related term prevalent in the conscious consumerism world, refers to clothing made in ways that value social welfare and worker rights.
Because environmentalism goes hand in hand with socially equitable practices, however, ethical and sustainable fashion are intricately tied together.
How Sustainable is the Global Fashion Industry?
The word sustainable means “capable of being sustained.” Therefore, a sustainable fashion industry must operate in ways that can continue working for years and decades.
Unfortunately, this is not true of today’s industry, dominated by ‘fast fashion’ manufacturing, which refers to clothing intentionally designed to be consumed quickly at low prices, leading shoppers to view clothes as disposable – wearing them just a few times before throwing them out or moving on to newer and trendier cheap clothes.
The current fast fashion cycle is far from sustainable because it depletes the Earth’s natural resources exponentially, exploits workers worldwide, and results in an overwhelming amount of waste.
In contrast to traditional fashion houses with only a few seasonal collections per year, fast fashion brands churn out as many as two new collections per week in a continuous cycle of production, consumption, and waste creation.
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, performing one of the mentioned activities is insufficient for a label to be considered sustainable.
It must abide by as many terms as possible to ensure environmental and social sustainability.
What is Greenwashing?
In straightforward 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 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 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.
Is There Hope for a More Sustainable Future in Fashion?
The fashion industry can be produced sustainably – via organic materials, biodegradable dyes, and engineering patterns that create zero waste.
But regardless of how many sustainable materials we use, shopping behaviors must also change to address social and environmental concerns.
The fashion industry is still elevating its social and environmental standards, and you can help by shifting towards a green, eco-friendly, and sustainable wardrobe.
What Can I Do for Sustainable Fashion?
The primary role of sustainable fashion is to be aware of fashion consumption’s environmental impact.
By now, you should be familiar with the most famous 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.
Fortunately, positive changes in the fashion landscape are happening: more ethical brands, customers demanding sustainable clothing brands, and even a dedicated, ethical clothing search engine.
Sustainable fashion focuses on clothing designed, manufactured, distributed, and used in environmentally friendly ways.
To support sustainable fashion, you should:
- Purchase locally-made clothes from factories run on renewable energy or clothes made with low-impact, natural, and organic materials, recycled, up-cycled, from deadstock materials, eco-friendly dyes, and/or zero- or low-waste designs.
- Purchase thrift or second-hand clothing.
- Prolong the life of your clothes by taking care of them well, mending and tailoring them as needed, and making alterations to modernize their looks to match your current tastes.
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.