Sustainable Fashion Explained: everything you need to know
Sustainable fashion has been moving into the mainstream for years, but we’ve now reached a tipping point, where those both on the inside and the outside of the fashion industry can no longer ignore its presence.
The media buzz around sustainable fashion throughout 2019, particularly in the aftermath of Fashion Week events drawing focus on sustainable issues, has created an overwhelming amount of messaging. There’s a great deal to digest and in some cases, consumers are having conversations about fashion they’ve never had before.
What is sustainable fashion?
So, what does ‘sustainable fashion’ mean? In short, sustainable fashion is the opposite of ‘fast fashion’. What this means is that, instead of the wasteful ‘take-make-buy-discard’ cycle of mass-produced, disposable clothing from retailers and brands that value profit over people and the planet – the sustainable alternative aims to minimise impact on the environment, and perhaps even regenerate it.
The fast fashion model is not environmentally sustainable because it creates damaging ecological effects at every stage of its supply chain. From growing cotton with vast amounts of water and pesticides and creating polyester fibre from crude oil (polyester is plastic just like water bottles and straws), to dying and treating fabrics with toxic chemicals that pollute water sources, to constructing garments with shocking amounts of unrecyclable textile waste.
Then there’s the carbon cost – transporting products across the world in ships, planes and trucks with no option to offset. Not to mention the singe-use plastic packaging produced by the fashion industry.
Plus, it doesn’t end on the shop floor – once in the hands of a consumer, the laundering process of a garment actually has a larger impact than its production, with all the water and energy it uses and the microfibres it releases. Then, once the garment is no longer wanted, the majority of people simply throw it away into landfill.
The sustainable fashion checklist
Sustainable fashion is a term that incorporates brands and designers who are creating clothing that could include the following characteristics:
- Organic, natural, biodegradable fabrics
- Recycled clothing or repurposed materials
- Non-toxic dyes
- Zero waste pattern cutting methods
- Plastic-free packaging
- Traditional or community craftsmanship techniques
- Slow fashion models – seasonless, timeless pieces and limited collections
- Circular economy models like rental or closed-loop recycling
- Vintage / thrifting and buying second hand
Sustainable fashion is also often referred to as ‘ethical fashion’ but these are not interchangeable terms. Ethical fashion describes products that also incorporate the above points, but in addition, ethical values include the social side of fashion.
For example, fair pay and good working conditions for garment workers, which sustainable fashion does not necessarily take into account.
Vegan fashion or cruelty-free fashion is also not to be conflated with being ‘sustainable’ either. While avoiding leather, fur, cashmere, wool, silk, snakeskin and feathers is more ethically sound, it doesn’t guarantee a brand’s eco credentials – for example, many vegan alternatives to leather and wool are made from plastic.
A brief history of sustainable fashion
It’s hard to pinpoint the origin story of the sustainable fashion movement, as its happened hand-in-hand with environmental activism over the last 30-40 years.
The fast fashion crisis is a thoroughly modern problem – in the first half of the 20th century, clothing was valued in a drastically different way, with comparatively higher prices, a make-do-and-mend mentality, a slower trend cycle and mostly local made-to-measure shopping model.
In the 1960s, with rapid globalisation, technological advancements and the explosion of fashion as an entertainment industry, demand for mass-produced, cheap, trend-driven clothes soared, and while clothing manufacturers lined their pockets and consumers revelled in the latest looks, there was little research on the dire consequences for the planet.
The UN didn’t even define the word ‘sustainability’ until 1987, and by then, we were already drowning in a sea of clothing despite some small ‘eco’ efforts by brands like Patagonia and Esprit in the 1990s.
While key news stories like Nike’s sweatshop scandal in 1991 or the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 drew widespread attention to the problems with the fashion industry, fashion has generally been much slower to adapt than other industries like food, health and beauty because the very nature of fashion is change and newness.
But the good news is, consumer attitudes are changing (most millenials now say they would pay more for sustainably made goods); the time is now for brands to really make the shift, and for governments to include fashion in the climate change conversation.
Why is sustainable fashion important?
Scientists are in almost unanimous agreement that our planet is in a state of climate emergency. At our current rate of carbon emissions, we have less than 11 years to halt irreversible environmental damage caused by a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures.
How does this apply to fashion? Because the clothing and textiles industry is widely cited as being one of the world’s most polluting industries, with many claiming it’s second only to oil. If we’re going to fight climate change, fashion needs to clean up its act, and fast.
Sustainable fashion is fighting back against this exploitation of the world’s resources and destruction of its habitats by creating an eco-friendly alternative which limits damage. From saying no to pesticides and excessive water usage by utilising only organic fibres, to recycling plastic and textile waste into new materials, the new generation of climate-positive sustainable fashion brands are proving that business can do good, and look good too.
Sustainable fashion myths
There are a lot of ideas about the world of sustainable fashion which could put people off from converting to a more ethical and earth-friendly shopping habits. But most of those are complete misconceptions, and we can prove it:
Myth: Sustainable fashion is just not fashionable
Gone are the days of hemp ponchos on hippies, there’s a whole new world of fashion that is as design-led as it is sustainable. From high-end designers like Stella McCartney, Christopher Raeburn and Margaret Howell who compete with traditional luxury fashion on a more eco-friendly scale, to creative young fashion graduates experimenting with innovative new fabrics and techniques – the new generation of sustainable fashion meets consumers where they feel comfortable.
Myth: Sustainable fashion is too expensive
Contrary to popular belief, sustainable fashion can be just as affordable as shopping on the high street. While investment in high quality handmade clothing can be expensive (because of the time, skill and materials involved in creating something that’s made to love and last), there are mid-priced sustainable fashion brands all over the internet, like People Tree, WAWWA and Vildnis.
Remember, slowing down your consumption saves a lot of money too, and rediscovering what you already own or trying second-hand alternatives also has a huge positive impact on the planet.
Myth: Sustainable fashion is not widely available
A lot of people simply don’t know where to start when it comes to shopping ethically, with so many buzzwords and mixed messages out there. Shoppers who traditionally visit brick-and-mortar stores or big name online retailers are also stumped for where to shop when their trusted brands are no longer aligned with their values, and sustainable brands simply don’t have the same marketing budgets to get in front of the people who need them.
But we are living in a time of unprecedented abundance. We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to sustainable fashion and it’s easier than ever to access it from anywhere around the world – click here for just a taste of the brilliant modern brands who are doing fashion differently.
Top Tips For Shopping Sustainably
It can be hard to tell if a brand is sustainable on first glance, especially when the big names are spreading greenwashing messages that confuse and mislead, but here are some telltale signs to look out for when you’re shopping:
- Fibre content
What is the garment made from? You can find this on the clothing label or in the online product description. Look out for fabrics with natural origins to avoid plastic, like Tencel, Viscose, Organic Cotton and Linen, and ideally stick to single fibre content rather than mixed fibres, because this makes the garment easier to recycle at the end of its life.
Is the brand certified with the Fairtrade Foundation? The Global Organic Textiles Standard? Maybe the Soil Association? Is the brand a member of the Fair Wear foundation? These sorts of certifications are unbiased measurements that help give clout to words like ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’, ‘ethical’ or ‘eco friendly’.
- Fashion Revolution Transparency Index
How does the brand rank on the report? This gives an indication of how much they are telling the truth about their claims of sustainability by opening up information about their supply chain. Read the 2019 transparency index.
- Compare Ethics Verification
Use our shopping page as your first port of call for brands verified for various categories including Recycled, CO2 Neutral, Plastic-Free Packaging, Organic, Closed Loop and Low Chemical Use.
The best sustainable fashion brands
Finding clothing with sustainable values which doesn’t compromise on style is no mean feat – but with more choice of sustainable fashion brands than ever before, we’ve curated some of our favourite labels to get you started.
Birdsong is a slow fashion brand based in the UK that produce quality womenswear in small batches with an aim to support female garment workers in disadvantaged communities with fair pay for enriching work. They’re currently crowdfunding to be able to create more size-inclusive collections for sustainable fashion lovers in sizes UK 6 -24.
Know the Origin
Know the Origin offer organic and fairtrade clothing for men and women, and they share a totally transparent insight into their production with traceable supply chains so you are confident in your knowledge that your purchases aren’t harming people or the planet.
WAWWA is a PETA-approved vegan fashion brand which creates unisex t-shirts, sweatshirts and accessories organic cotton, recycled polyester and water-based inks. They also work with Fairtrade-certified suppliers and pay the Living Wage to ensure the people making and selling their clothes are empowered rather than enslaved.
Goose Studios aim to create affordable ethical fashion which doesn’t cost the earth. Their fun, wearable tops and t-shirts utilise 100% GOTS certified organic cotton and plastic free packaging, plus a PETA-approved and Fairwear Foundation ensured supply chain.
Fanfare is a contemporary womenswear brand whose fabrics consist of organic and recycled materials, including end-of-roll to reduce textile waste. Their products are all made in the UK, and they guarantee fair wages and good working conditions for everyone involved in the process.
ETHCS is a streetwise, graphic-led fashion brand who only work with manufacturers with ethical certifications that ensure there is no modern slavery in their supply chain, and factories which use sustainable energy generated from wind and solar power.