The fashion industry is one of the most profitable industries in the world. And with that status, comes also the fact that it is the second biggest polluter. The level of pollution from the fashion industry is right behind the one from the oil industry. This might come as a shock to you but you have no idea how much impact that sweater you bought at your go-to store took to make (and to get there). In this article, we'll go through all the aspects that you need to know about sustainable fashion and a few other concepts that gravitate around it. Here is all you need to know about sustainable fashion and a complete guide:
Before the industrial revolutions, fashion was not as we know it today. Making a piece of garment was a process that involved a lot of time. But with the revolution came technology and with that came the sewing machine. That marked a big line between the two eras.
To understand better the importance of sustainable fashion and why this trend is spreading so quickly around the world, we need to understand fast fashion. Fast fashion is used to describe a business model that is based on replicating high-end fashion from catwalks to affordable stores. Basically, they do mass productions of the clothes and then sell them at a low cost.
Before, fashion brands or designers use to make only four seasons per year. In this logic, there was one collection per season: summer, spring, autumn, and winter. This makes sense right? Clothing changes according to the weather. As people started to use clothing as an expression of themselves, they started buying cheap items to accomplish that goal. This was in the late 60s and early 70s. By the 2000s fast fashion was booming. And people could get clothes that resembled the last hip designer's catwalk for $5.
This business model started thanks to the industrialization of the manufacturing process of clothes, plus the new materials discovered like polyester and nylon, and of course, the new format of supply chains followed by the cheap labor made the perfect environment for fast fashion to thrive.
Most of the fast-fashion brands became as profitable and as big as they are now thanks to three factors. Two of those are causes and one is the effect and the reason for their success. First, using the cheapest materials they can find. This means they use the lower-in-cost material, making the decisions based on their pockets, leaving aside the environmental and social cost of the materials. Second, they don't care who makes the clothes, they just want the finished product. Inexpensive labor is a must for fast fashion to survive. Most fast fashion items are manufactured in inhuman conditions, and most of the time even kids are put to work. These two factors result in a cheap, low-cost item of clothing so everyone can purchase them.
So low-cost labor and low-cost material equal a low-cost item. Unfortunately, this is not a win-win situation. Setting aside for a minute the human rights issues, low-quality clothing is the true result of this equation. This means that the life expectancy of the piece is very low, is kind of having a disposable piece of clothing. How different is this from using single-use plastic? They all end up in the same place, a landfill.
It gets even worst. Sorry to break it to you, but the big brands of fast fashion actually dictates what are you wearing and when. Yup! Sorry, but is true. With the decrease in quality, instead of choosing better quality materials and having a better and more lasting product, what they do is simply make more, and fast! So every month or so there is a change in the fashion trend...and you will fall in love with the style and get a few pieces. An so the cycle continues.
Luckily, the focus is shifting. We are all becoming more aware of how our decisions as consumers have an effect on how business models change. So we have the power to demand better environmental and social practices in the fashion industry.
Let's see what else is out there.
What is this new branch of sustainability that is coming knocking on our doors?
Sustainable fashion is a movement that focuses on forging a change in the way fashion is produced and consumed. This system tries to push the boundaries of classical fashion consumption showing how damaging it can be to the environment and how they neglect human rights. It is basically a movement that moves forward environmental and social justice. Sustainable fashion not only takes concern in how the products are made or with what materials, it is a holistic movement that takes the whole fashion system and redefined its priorities. From water pollution to animal cruelty and labor rights, sustainable fashion tackles every step and every corner of the fashion system.
Sustainable fashion puts back the power on the consumer's hand by educating them for them to be able to make better choices. Sustainable fashion takes into consideration the various stakeholders that make the fashion system work, i.e: consumers, users, producers, and all living life on earth that might be affected by its practices. That is why we say sustainable fashion puts back the power on the consumer's hand. It is up to the users and the buyers to take on the responsibility and is its the public sector's duty to make a change on a policy that demands the fashion industry to follow environmental and socially friendly practices.
The movement's origins are interlinked with the environmental movement. In the 90s researchers started to add "green issues" as they called sustainability and environmental issues at the time, into the fashion industry. Putting in the spot all the different consequences of how the fashion industry was treating natural resources. And how even though some raw materials used in clothing were natural, the way they were sourced and treated were affecting directly to their near ecosystem.
So, to be sustainable in fashion a brand or a manufacturer needs to take into account a few factors, mostly environmental and social aspects. What do we mean by this? to be defined as sustainable, an item of clothing, shoes, or accessories need to be manufactured (with all that implies), distribute, and marketed respecting sustainable and social-friendly practices. The issue here is not only with what materials are made your clothes, but what is the impact of using those materials? how are they being produced, sourced, and treated?
The answer that sustainable fashion is aiming for is more complex than it seems. For the fashion industry to stop being as damaging as it is, there needs to be changed in every step of the supply chain. So let's start understanding what is the problem with this supply chain.
The fast fashion's supply chain needs to follow some guidelines for it to be a success. Meaning, for it to be as profitable as it is right now. The main thing is the supply chain needs to be very short and very flexible, and this presents a few problems. For the supply chain to be flexible, the industry needs to have complete control over it. From the raw materials, design, and logistics. This is basically why fast fashion is so successful, the manufactures can control how and in what timeline things are done. In theory, complete control of a supply chain can be beneficial, but not when money is in the line.
Vertical control over the supply chain makes it easier for those in charge to make bad decisions regarding human rights and environmental practices. Since they own or directly control the fields where the raw materials are planted, they can use whatever chemicals and agricultural practices that are best for a fast and cheap result. The same thing happens with the shops where the clothes are manufactured, they can hire cheap labor and violate labor rights to get the product done cheaply.
We are always saying that our choices matter, which is completely true. But there is a bigger stakeholder that needs to be held accountable in this matter. And that stakeholder is fashion companies.
Fashion companies have the responsibility of changing the production, distribution, and marketing of their products. By making a few changes and enabling transparency towards their practices they can move into a more sustainable pattern of production.
It is not enough for fashion companies to launch "sustainable collection capsules", we need a change in the whole chain and in the way they are treating environmental and human resources for them to be considered sustainable.
Having said this, there are other alternatives that help to move towards more sustainable practices in fashion.
Ok so now that we know the basis of sustainable fashion, let's talk about other concepts that revolve around it.
Ethical fashion is a term used to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and consumption. And it works as an umbrella term that describes ethical practices inside the fashion supply chain. From working conditions for the manufacturers to fair trade, sustainable practices, and animal rights.
Ethical fashion is just a part of sustainable fashion, they complement each other. The difference between them is their main focus. For sustainable fashion the focus point is the environmental impact, this does not mean it doesn't take into account the human rights and the animal rights side of things. On the other hand, ethical fashion is focused on the well-being of the fashion workers and the implications for them on every step of the supply chain.
Let's talk about the three most important things:
There are concerns about how workers are treated in the fashion industry. To be more precise garment workers face inhumane work conditions, mostly in South East Asia. There is child labor, and adult exploitation, poor pay, and awful and unhygienic work conditions.
With an Ethical Fashion approach, workers would have a decent paycheck and treated within the labor rights guidelines. Respecting their pay, the hygienic and safety conditions for workers.
As we know now, natural fabrics are not always sustainable. For example, cotton is the main fabric used in fashion but needs a lot of pesticides to keep it growing, and these chemicals can be dangerous not only for the environment and for the people who live near that areas.
These agricultural practices are not at all sustainable. And from an Ethical point, there are a few things that can be done. First, raw materials can be organically grown. This way they would affect less to the environment and the farmers that are in charge of the growing. Second, they can make sure the plants they are growing belongs to the environment they are in, and not just because is cheaper to bring a type of plant somewhere it'll destroy an ecosystem.
And lastly, animal rights need to be protected. The fashion industry farms animals to supply fur or wool for making clothes and most of the time they don't care about the conditions these animals have to endure during their lives just to be useful for the industry.
There are alternatives. We can still use wool in a more ethical way, or even better, use an alternative to wool and animal-sourced materials. Ethical fashion also means to take care of the animals that are giving us what we need, and do not exploit them.
So this leads me to the three pillars of Ethical Fashion:
This means basically how clothes were made. This is taking into consideration not only the environmental side of the impact but also the human and animal rights that are being left aside.
How do we buy our clothes? Or better yet what do we buy. As consumers, we have the power to change the way brands and fashion companies are managing environmental and ethical issues.
This is what happens with our clothes after we stop wearing them. Buying more clothes means having more clothes that then end up in the landfill. And here is an ugly statistic for you: 75% of fashion supply chain material ends up in a landfill. And as those low-cost fast fashion garments have low quality, they will break, and then we will toss them away, transforming them into trash.
So as you can see there are many things we as consumers can do to make a change. A good way to start is by transitioning to Slow Fashion, is not that complex, you'll see.
Slow fashion is based on the principle of going against high-paced consumerism. It is considered an alternative to fast fashion. So it is not exactly sustainable fashion but it has a lot in common with it. Especially regarding the issues both want to take. The main core of slow fashion's objective is to re-think consumerism, putting a stop to the nonsense consumption of clothing without thinking if we actually need it, where did it come from, and is it going anywhere after I stop wearing it.
Slow fashion is not only about the consumer and their choices, it also includes a change in the line of the process of production and how every brand decides to do their business. Slow fashion is completely different than "regular" fashion, it comes from another starter point. Slow fashion basically tries to portray life through fashion (of course with a holistic point of view). It is not centered on the necessity of having things but on the real urgency of preserving what we have. This fashion concept respects the fact that we are not the owners of the earth, and with that, of the resources earth gives us. Slow fashion has in mind the scarcity and the vulnerability of nature and it is thought to fit humans life as it is and respecting the hands that made every garment.
In slow fashion there are not hundreds of identical items, they are not massed produced, they are made in let's say and pre-industrial way. But don't get me wrong this doesn't mean they are all artisanal products, they are just not as massive as fast fashion. This way slow fashion brands reduce their environmental impact and stick to their philosophy.
Where did the term come from? Well, it came to be quiet naturally. When people started to get more acquainted with the slow food movement that cared about the sourcing of food and the way it was processed, they started to see a necessity of the same method in fashion. This termed was actually coined by Kate Fletcher who is a fashion sustainability pioneer.
For the slow fashionists, the necessity of a decrease of mass productions and fast fashion is imperative to fight climate change. This movement fights not only against the pollution caused by mass production but also against the globalized fashion trends and styles this has as a consequence. Slow fashion creates almost unique pieces that can set different trends for different people. They treasure the individuality and the importance of expressing your identity through fashion.
Slow fashion also helps to build a new relationship between the buyers and the items. Your treasure something more if you know you can't go and buy a new one. Or if you know who manufactured that garment and who are you helping thrive when you recommend that piece of clothing. Slow fashion has a more human take on things. It is not only a brand selling the same shirts every brand is selling, is someone selling you something you can enjoy and cherish.
Slow fashion is a great way to reduce the amount of environmental impact we have. Although, it comes with a few contradictions. Fast fashion is way more affordable than slow fashion, make into some kind of elitist option. Options (most of the time) are for people with the privilege of having them. Low-income people can only afford what they can afford. So sometimes they can't make different decisions on what they consume.
Having said that, slow fashion has proven to us there is another way to handle different points of the supply chain in fashion. From production to consumption, slow fashion gives us a healthier and more thoughtful way to handle fashion items.
One way to start is trying second-hand shops. This way you'll have a variety of items that may fit your style. Check out our article that includes a guide on how to shop second hand: The New Retail. How to Buy Second-Hand Clothes That Fit My Style.
So until now, we've talked about the different approaches to fashion sustainability. And now, the concept of circular economy is something we need to keep in mind.
First, let's understand what it means. The term circular fashion is brand new, it hasn't been around for much but it has had quite an impact. It comes linked to the concept of circular economy, which means in the words of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “The circular economy refers to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; aims to rely on renewable energy; minimize, tracks and eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design.”
This concept merged with the fashion industry and then it came to be known as the term Circular Fashion. This concept is based on the principles of circular economy, there are sixteen of them according to Green Strategy:
As you can see the principles are divided into what companies can do and what we the consumers can do to maintain a circular fashion system.
Basically, circular fashion provides garments, shoes, accessories with the intention to be used and to have a long circular life. Whether this means reparation, or simply long-term usage of the items. And by circular life, this also means to return to where they came from, back to earth.
So it is the companies responsibility to design products that follow these guidelines to assure that the environment is being kept safe. And they can assure this by managing how clothes are made and with what materials are made and with what purpose. Fast fashion has no place here. Since the clothes made by the fast fashion industry are not thought and design for having a long life and are mostly made of chemically filled and non-biodegradable materials, you need to find somewhere else to get your clothes.
The basis of Circular Fashion is that the items need to be worn as long as they can, and when they are no longer in conditions for you to use them, you need to be able to pass them along, this way you will be stretching that item's life.
And of course, there are going to be times when the garments can't be fixed or passed along to someone else. That is why it is also important the materials which they are made of. The components of the materials should be recycled and reused for new products or new purposes. And if it is not fit for reuse, the materials should be able to biodegrade.
Circular Fashion also implies promoting the local economy by using using the extended life cycle of the fashion products as new business development tools. For example, there is an increasing trend among designers to reuse materials to create new pieces and there are tons of jobs that could be saved if we started fixing out clothes instead of tossing them right away.
By following these guidelines, fashion products won't have a negative effect on the environment. Because it is big.
Following recent research about the impact of the fashion industry on our environment, the sum of the greenhouse emission from the textile industry each year is larger than the ones emitted from all the international flights and maritime traffic combined. So if you felt guilty about taking a plane, you should rethink how are you purchasing your clothes.
Scientists affirm that the fashion industry, taking into consideration the whole supply chain, has an annual carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2. That is the second-largest footprint there is in the world. The first place goes to the oil industry. But what is crazy is that at least is very clear how the oil industry is affecting the world, with the carbon emissions the oil spills, and the air pollution that causes. But how hard it is to grasp the idea that the sweater you are wearing right now is polluting the environment in ways you can't even imagine.
And sadly, the impact of the fashion industry is not decreasing. It is even increasing year by year. This is why we need to make a change now, we still have time.
Unfortunately, there is an environmental impact at every stage of the production chain. This means that clothes have an impact on every step of their "life". From the pesticides used in the fields where the cotton is grown, to the manufacturing of non-biodegradable fibers from oil derivates, to the logistic of getting the finished product to the stores.
Research shows that even though every part of the production chain in the fashion industry has an environmental impact, the biggest one occurs during the production stage. The carbon footprint resulted from these first stages account for 70% of the carbon footprint
New calculations show that the biggest climate impacts, therefore, occur during production and now account for 70% of the carbon footprint for an item of clothing.
This number is very important to keep in mind. Not much because of the particularity of it but mostly because of how high is it. This number being this high means that it does not matter that much if we handwash every piece of clothing we have to save water because the carbon footprint is already embedded in the product.
It is not all bad. Even though we can not virtually control how the clothes are made, we can act around this information. We can do mostly two things:
Now that we know that the fashion industry is so harmful to the environment let's see what is actually being done by the ones responsible.
First of all, the increase in the volume of Slow and Ethical Fashion brands is very promising. These types of companies and movements have been working towards a better system for fashion production and distribution. By applying the principles of these more environmentally friendly practices we are changing the way the fashion industry works.
Another thing that is very powerful is to learn more about it and with information comes power. We can start asking companies and the industry overall to apply more environmentally friendly practices.
And since the consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of the fashion industry, more and more mainstream companies are talking about their impact and how are they managing it. Hopefully this will to more sustainable and ethical practices.
The UN in 2018 established (alongside stakeholders of the industry) the "Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action" This charter is designed to help key players in the fashion industry identify which climate actions to take and which initiatives and programs could support them in their climate change relief. Basically, they are trying to help them be more sustainable.
And here a few of the commitments that the different stakeholders agreed to:
So as you can see by now, changing our consumption habits is very important. But the real change comes from a reshaping of the fashion industry as a whole.
We cannot let the fashion industry as it is right now. We need to demand companies and brands to be more sustainable and to be transparent with the processes that are involved in making our clothes.
And this brings me to an issue that is becoming more common in the Fashion Industry, Greenwashing.
Basically, Greenwashing is a term used to identify practices that try to give the wrong impression about environmental management. It is usually used as a marketing tool to paint a (misleading) picture of organizations, brands, people, policies, and projects as environmentally conscious and friendly. Most of the time this is used where the reality is far from that. With the rise of the environmental movement, and people asking for answers, these tactics are becoming more popular amongst businesses in an attempt to keep their now woke customers happy. Sounds crazy right? spending so much money on "environmental makeup" instead of changing the way they do things. But sometimes it is easier to pull the marketing guns instead of losing a bit of profit by doing the right thing.
Greenwashing happens everywhere, and now it is happening more and more in the fashion industry. But it is a little harder to detect than the other industries. In fashion, you have to be aware of what they are saying because the truth is behind what they are not saying.
Brands will try to say anything for you to buy their products, but remember publicity and marketing are always hiding some sometimes ugly truth. When you suspect a brand is greenwashing the best way to unveil the truth is to look for numbers. What do I mean by this? Instead of trusting the billboard saying "eco-friendly materials were used" read the tag on the items of clothing and check out what percentage of the materials are recycled or environmentally friendly.
If the company or brand is doing something towards fighting climate change and being more ethical it will be on their webpage. Keep an eye for environmental goals and tracking, look for quantifiable goals such as how much water their practices are saving or how many trees do they plant, and prove. Remember that committed brands set high standards that can be tracked with science and not only look good on their web.
Whenever you see the word natural in any item of clothing, remember natural does not mean environmentally friendly. The term "natural", unlike the term "organic", is not regulated. Any product can be described as natural even if it contains as little as 1% naturally sourced, plant-based, or mineral ingredients and up to 30% synthetic ingredients. In the case of fashion, they can say 100% made by natural threads, that doesn't mean they are ecofriendly.
Also, there are some 100% natural materials that are not good for the environment. And I don't mean they are bad in their natural state, but the massive production and processes to make them into clothes can be very damaging. For example, bamboo fiber is natural but it depends on how it is sourced. So it not only has to say natural ingredients or fibers, but they have to be ethically sourced. This is vital for choosing where and what you buy. And it is not that hard to find the info, you can check out Higg Materials Sustainability Index. There you'll find the different material´s impacts compared, they do an amazing job with environmental data.
Most of the time, brands can say whatever they want about their products. But they cannot fake standard certifications. So look up for seals that you know that are trustworthy in the industry. Here is a shortlist of the most common certifications:
The more you get to know the materials with which your clothes are made with the better decisions you can make when you are buying your new outfit!
Sometimes there can be a brand that is the most green there is: vegan, cruelty-free, use recycled materials, use organic materials, etc. But they don't respect ethical labor standards. So this is one of the most important things that we have to keep in mind when we are trying to unveil greenwashing.
You can search for the hashtag #Whomademyclothes, this was an initiative by Fashion Revolution to inspire people to think deeply about these issues.
Another tip I can give you is to keep an eye on brands that have a holistic view of sustainability. They should be communicative with their work and their environmental protection goals. This way you know they are committed to the cause.
So the problems about the fashion industry and its impact on the environment are very complex and cannot be resolved by a single action. It needs to be taking care of in a holistic way.
That is why I think the Three Rs System is a perfect tool for you to put in motion.
So let's revisit what are the three Rs and how can we apply them to fashion.
Reducing is essential to the waste hierarchy, reducing what is consumed as well as reducing what is produced. The logic behind it is based on that if there is less waste, then there is less to recycle and reuse. It is critical to pay attention to this when thinking about our waste reduction.
To reduce our waste, we need to begin with an examination of what are we using, and what it is used for. As I always say, we have the power to make a change and it all starts within. So let's see a few simple ways you can reduce your fashion consumption.
1. Buy only what you need. Since every two months or so there are new trends on the shops for you to buy is so easy to get tempted by them. So make a list of priorities. Is it winter? Well, you'll need a coat and a beanie, already have two? Good! you are all set.
2.Buy only what you don't have. This one is tricky. We live in a society where everything revolves around consuming and having more is a sign of social status. We need to get rid of that misconception. Is not how much you have is what you have and how you use it. So next time you are about to do an impulsive shopping spree, think about all the consequences that decision can have on the environment.
3. Buy things that will last. Maybe there are some things that are out of your budget but think of it as an investment. If you buy an item that will last 5 or 6 times more, then it will be worth it. Buying things of quality are a way better financial and environmental decision.
Reusing is basically increasing the useful life of an item or material. Learning to repurpose items and materials is an essential step in the waste management hierarchy. Keeping a box of things you can repurpose (not hoarding though) is a good way to start to reuse. Using second-hand clothing is right in this category. You can take a look at our posts on The new retail. How to buy second-hand clothes that fit my style.
So let's talk about second-hand clothes.
While fast fashion is expected to continue to grow 20% in the next 10 years, secondhand fashion is poised to grow 185%. Second-hand is here to stay. So let's dive into this new trend that is revolutionizing the market and your closets.
The secondhand market is growing 21x faster than the regular market. Most brands are visiting the possibilities of investing in this new approach because this trend came to stay. By 2028 the secondhand market is set to skyrocket in value, meaning that fast fashion will be in downfall. And how did it became a successful trend? Well, it is driven by the consumers. As well as the rise of online resale and the need for more sustainable shopping choices.
We need a global fashion industry that conserves and restore the environment. Secondhand clothing is the perfect way to start.
Buying second-hand clothes increases the number of owners an item will have, extending its "wearable" life cycle. The life of an item has dramatically shortened in the age of fast fashion. And this happens because brands increase the number of collections they release, creating an urge of consumption to the consumer, so they will toss their 5month old clothes to the back of their closets and never wear them again. Plus, fast fashion is not known to produce high-quality clothes, on the contrary, fast fashion is characterized by using low-quality materials to make disposable clothing. So embracing second-hand clothing could mean a pushback from the consumers against fast fashion.
You can start by reviewing what you have in your own closet. Do you wear all of those items? How long since you wore that cocktail dress, uh? It is important for us to remember to use what we have because even though those clothes are not in a landfill, they are still waste. This means your clothes need a new owner. And this brings me to the third R system.
The third R is in that position for a reason. The best and most effective way to reduce waste is by not creating them. If we fail to prevent the waste from being produced and we also fail on reusing or re-purposing the items we already have, we need to put in motion the next step of the waste management hierarchy. So when we recycle something that we are doing is transforming it into a raw material that can be shaped into a new item. Although, there are a few materials on earth that cannot be recycled. That is why we need to try not to get here. Let's look at it as our last resource.
So whenever you find yourself in a situation that you have no choice on what to do with an item, check out its materials and try to recycle them. You can also take the matter into your own hands and make cleaning rags out of old t-shirts and pants. It might be fun!
We need a global fashion industry that conserves and restore the environment.
If you are interested in this subject there is a lot to learn. Check out our most recent post on What is 'Sustainable Fashion', and why is it important?