What Is Sustainable Fashion And Why Is It Important?

Rueen Amiriara

Sustainable fashion is the hottest topic in fashion at the moment. The term appears everywhere.

Brands use sustainable fashion as their philosophy.

Experts as a production method.

Academics as a theoretical concept.

But what is sustainable fashion?

And why is everybody talking about it?

Here is a simple, yet comprehensive, explanation of what sustainable fashion means in various contexts.

I have also detailed on why sustainability is so critical for the future of fashion and global welfare.

What does ‘Sustainability’ mean?

Environmental, social and economic sustainability

The term ‘sustainability’ refers to any system designed to exist in a balanced state.

In an ecological context, sustainability is achieved when all that is taken from the environment can be renewed.

However, over the past century, humans have disturbed the ecological balance.

The invention of tools and technological advancements enabled us to consume natural resources at an accelerating rate.

Energy consumption 1800-2018

Source: Vaclav Smil (2017). Energy Transitions: Global and National Perspectives. & BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Today, we consume 20 times more energy than the pre-industrial revolution era.

More than, 95% of this energy is sourced from non-renewable resources, such as oil and gas and coal.

As part of the natural environment, our survival depends on ecological sustainability.

What is sustainable development?

Sustainable development is the path to sustainability.

Brundtland Commission was the first to define ‘Sustainable Development’ in its famous report, ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In this context, sustainability means sustaining a healthy economic, environmental and social system for human development.

The three dimensions of this proposed system – economic, environmental and social – are called ‘Pillars of Sustainability’.

In this line:

  • Economic sustainability aims to accumulate and use natural and financial capital sustainably.
  • Environmental sustainability is mainly focused on biodiversity and ecological integrity.
  • Social sustainability seeks to improve political, cultural, religious, health and educational systems.

Sustainability is only achievable through a system that embraces all three pillars.

As such, an economic system can remain balanced in the long term only when the pace of consuming the resources remains at the same level as their renewal, and at the same time, a sustainable economy requires a stable social construct.

Sustainable Fashion Appears In Various Terms

sustainable fashion and other terminologies like eco-fashion, ethical fashion, green fashion etc

By applying the concept of sustainability to fashion, ‘Sustainable Fashion’ can be defined as a system in which supply, production, and consumption of fashion products have been designed in a way that ensures environmental, social and economic sustainability.

As the definition implies, sustainable fashion is not limited to a mere product, but it is a philosophy that also embraces design processes, supply chain strategies, and consumption practices.

There are several terms that are being used by brands, practitioners, and academics to explain the different notions lying beneath the concept of sustainable fashion.

Such as eco-fashion, ethical-fashion, organic-fashion, green-fashion, vegan-fashion and so on.

This variety of terms and in some cases inconsistency of definitions stem from the novelty of the topic of sustainable fashion which leaves this concept open to interpretation.

Complications Of The Path Towards Sustainable Fashion

The immaturity of sustainable fashion as an emerging concept has made our path to the development of a more sustainable industry a challenging topic of debate.

To date, in the context of sustainable fashion, the fact that there is no general standard or guideline in regard to the responsibility of corporations or consumers, adds to the confusion in defining sustainable fashion and prioritising its initiatives.

In this light, though, there have been some efforts in providing primary tools for standardising apparel manufacturing processes around sustainable production and consumption.

One such tool is The Higg Index by The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, leading alliance for sustainable production in the apparel, footwear, and textile industry.

Moreover, the definition of ‘fashion’ – meaning ‘trend’ in general and the change of style and the replacement of old with new in particular – denotes some discrepancy with the concept of sustainability.

Fashion at some level poses the idea of excessive consumption, whereas sustainability implies minimising consumption to the level of necessity.

This perspective sees sustainable fashion as a self-contradictory term, urging a fundamental change in the development of sustainable fashion.

Sustainable Fashion As A Movement

sustainable fashion - consumers are aware of sustainability issues related to fashion

Since the UN’s “Our Common Future” report in 1987, the catastrophic impact of human activities on the environment has been the centre of many debates.

Today, more studies and reports are warning us from the reduction of natural resources and the spread of pollution as the consequence of our production and consumption patterns.

As such, consumers have become more conscious of their health, social well-being, the vulnerability of our planet, and the consequence of their actions on the wellness of the next generations.

Along with these changes, all industries have been affected by the initiatives of sustainable development and compelled to take action in this direction.

In particular, in the apparel industry where the production and consumption of fashion products involve toxic wastes and harmful environmental effects in all stages, making the development of sustainable fashion not only an opportunity but also a necessity.

The Fast Fashion Effect

sustainable fashion - fast fashion and excessive fashion consumption

Moreover, a big part of today’s excessive production and consumption of fashion products stems from the appearance of ‘Fast Fashion‘.

Fast fashion is defined as a strategy in which the profitability of fashion retailers is being maximised by the implication of agile supply chain systems which allow them to capitalise on fashion that has not reached to their competitors.

Over time, the implications of this strategy have heightened impulsive fashion purchases and shortened the lifecycle of fashion products to the level that fashion products are now considered as disposable commodities.

Because of this trend, many of today’s inexpensive fashion items are being discarded only after being worn just a handful of times.

In fact, thanks to such practices, fashion has been introduced as one of the most polluter sectors.

The Importance OF Sustainable Fashion

As a response to these problems that are threatening the future of fashion, sustainable fashion has emerged as a new concept and has become a growing subject of interest for scholars, practitioners, and consumers.

Many believe that the future of fashion depends on its ability to adopt sustainability and embed this concept at its core.

Although achieving sustainability by its definition is not possible as the dynamic characteristic of nature defies the concept, a more sustainable institution embraces human nature at a very high level.

This is because it has the ability to satisfy both our egoistic and altruistic needs.

Therefore, sustainable fashion has the potential to empower consumers’ feeling of fulfilment by making more conscious choices and their consumption of sustainable fashion products.

What About Consumers?

As the concept of sustainable fashion remains immature and complex, some practices took by corporations could be misleading and in some cases have turned to ‘greenwashing‘.

Nevertheless, nowadays consumers are more aware of the environmental and social issues associated with the production and consumption of fashion, than ever before.

The sustainable fashion movement – which to certain extent stems from the higher levels of awareness – is now generated demand from consumers and stakeholders who indirectly pressurise corporations and urge them to take genuine actions towards environmental, social and economic welfare.

In this light, sustainable fashion has created a great opportunity for fashion brands and designers to contribute to sustainable fashion movement and position themselves as the leaders of this emerging landscape.

Sustainable Fashion In Macro And Micro-Level

However, there is a need for more conversations, assessments, and reassessments as we are merely at the development stage. To achieve sustainable fashion it is important to have both macro and micro perspective.

The macro perspective sees sustainable fashion from a systematic point of view.

In this view, all the players in this landscape including suppliers, manufacturers, regulators, and consumers, work together in synergy and interdependently towards a higher level of welfare.

Whereas, the micro view investigates what actions from these players would lead us towards sustainable fashion.

In the following series of ‘Sustainable Fashion’ articles, we aim to empower fashion consumers by giving them a better understanding of the overall landscape and the latest development and initiatives.

WTVOX – ‘Voicing the Future of Fashion’

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  1. Thanks for introducing the Higg Index. This is a good step forward in standardizing the metrics for the industry