The A-Z of Sustainable Fashion

Melissa Watt

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Sustainable fashion is seizing ‘the moment’…or, is it?

From green carpet awards to fur-free fashion weeks and Instagram feeds to Reddit discussions on ethical consumption, sustainable fashion is everywhere.

However, the sustainable fashion movement has brought to light a lot of new terms and many consumers are still to learn what those words mean.

Enter this simple A-Z guide which will equip you with all the latest sustainable fashion lingo, designed to help you make a more informed consumer choice.

Appropriation Of Culture

African sustainable fashion

Cultural appropriation, or better said cultural misappropriation, is the selection of elements from one culture by the members of another culture.

The process is controversial, especially when the members of the dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures without due credit.

The fashion industry is no stranger to cultural appropriation.

Big fashion labels are often borrowing cultural elements such as patterns, designs and intellectual property from local artisans and craftsmen.

The process takes place without their permission, without crediting them, or without any financial reimbursement.

On the contrary, sustainable fashion aims to appreciate and support, rather than culturally appropriate, regional techniques and crafts.

Sustainable fashion involves and collaborates with local communities.

Sustainable fashion respects traditional customs and culture, and most importantly, it is paying local artisans for their work – so they can continue to pay homage to their heritage.

Boycotting Fast Fashion

Boycotting Fast Fashion

As an industry that thrives off pollution, animal cruelty and labour exploitation, many conscious consumers are refusing to buy into the fast fashion model.

Now, shoppers and influencers alike have begun to turn to boycott as a method of peaceful protest against fast fashion and to demand radical change.

By refusing to support fast fashion brands, they believe that their purchases make them no longer complicit in an unsustainable industry.

Circular Fashion

Circular Fashion

As an intuitive alternative, the circular economy is the opposite of the traditional linear economy.

In simple terms, the circular economy seeks to extend the lifespan and functions of products, for as long as possible.

Rather than being disposed of after one use, circular fashion creates a regenerative closed-loop system, in which clothes are continually reused, renewed, recycled and repurposed into other products.

Circularity can take place at every stage of the industry, from sourcing and transporting, to manufacturing and marketing, and even product disposal.

Dhaka Tragedy & Fashion Revolution

Fashion Revolution who made my clothes campaign

Nothing exposed the failures of fast fashion like the news of the Dhaka tragedy.

In 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh killed 1,138 garment workers and injured 2,500 more.

Fast fashion labels were found littered in the debris, making the likes of Primark complicit in the fourth-deadliest industrial disaster on record.

The result of such tragedy was a rallying sustainable fashion movement called ‘Fashion Revolution’ and its trademark “who made your clothes”.

Ever since, a ‘Fashion Revolution Week’ takes place annually, in April, to commemorate the tragedy and inspire systemic change.

Eco-conscious Fashion

Eco-conscious fashion

Beyond its socio-economic impact, the fashion industry takes a heavy toll on the environment.

It is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, as vast quantities of energy are required in the production, manufacturing and transportation of the billions of clothes produced each year.

The fashion industry is further responsible for 20 per cent of water pollution worldwide through textile treatment and toxic dyeing.

Moreover, fast fashion is one of the main culprits for soil degradation, desertification, and deforestation.

Sustainable fashion seeks to remedy fashion’s carbon footprint by producing a fairer, cleaner industry for both the planet and the people.

Fairtrade Fashion

Ethical fashion

The Fairtrade mark is a useful indicator of a company’s ethics and is unique in protecting farmers and factory workers as well as the environment.

It is important to remember that the Fairtrade logo covers more than just bananas, tea, and coffee beans.

The clothes you buy can pass through hundreds of hands before they end up in your wardrobes.

From cotton farmers to weavers to dyers to embroiders to delivery drivers, fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry which employs hundreds of thousands of people.

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The sad truth is that the fast fashion business model depends on the exploitative labour of garment workers.

In fashion, Fairtrade profits are used to support textile workers and improve the livelihood of local communities.

Other useful certifications to look out for are B-corps, Fair Wear Foundation, Global Organic Textiles Standard and Soil Association.

It is also essential to note, however, that as small sustainable designers often lack the financial means to apply for certifications, not sporting the logo does not necessarily mean they’re not fairtrade.

Always, if unsure, please contact the brand in advance before you buy.


Greenwashing in fashion

As consumer demand for sustainable alternatives has risen, so too has the number of greenwashing claims.

Greenwashing describes the practice of making misleading marketing claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service.

The leading cause of greenwashing comes from companies spending more time and resources claiming to be “green” rather than radically restructuring their business model.

A 2010 study conducted by TerraChoice found that 95 per cent of consumer products claiming to be green were found to commit at least one of the “Sins of Greenwashing”.

Sadly, greenwashing places the onus on consumers to read between the lines of misleading marketing campaigns.


African fashion heritage and craftsmanship

Fashion is a practice as old as time.

Asia and Africa both boast a rich textile history, as traditional techniques have been handed down through generations.

But in a globalised world where fashion is produced at lightning speed, these methods of weaving, looming and embroidering are increasingly at risk.

At the opposite pole of fast fashion, sustainable fashion seeks to empower local communities and encourage the preservation of authentic textile heritage.


Sustainable fashion innovation

As an antidote to fast fashion, sustainable fashion is continuously searching for new original solutions.

The number of companies embarking on sustainable innovation is on the rise.

Companies like LVMH, Fashion for Good, FabLab, Reshape and WTVOX, lead the ‘innovate for fashion’ conversations, through investments in start-ups rethinking the ways we source, produce, package and dispose of our clothes.

Recent projects have included developing new biotechnological fibres, QR fashion labels and AI styling services.

These sustainable initiatives are proving a source of comfort and hope in times of environmental uncertainty.

Knowledge & Awareness

Sustainable fashion books

Knowledge is transformative. Raising awareness about the fashion industry’s wrongs promotes the search for solutions.

Luckily, there are so many ethical fashion resources and magazines out there to help you embark on your sustainable fashion journey.

Some of my favourites include Wardrobe of Tomorrow marketplace dedicated exclusively to sustainable fashion designers from all over the world.

There you can filter designers based on your values.

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Another excellent resource is the Good on You app, which filters brands according to their sustainability efforts.

I also recommend the Wardrobe Crisis podcast and Lauren Bravo’s ground-breaking guide, ‘How To Break Up With Fast Fashion’.

Be sure to pass your knowledge onto others; educating others raises the profile and demand for sustainable fashion.


Gender fluid fashion

Fashion will only be sustainable if it embraces diversity in all aspects, and gender is one of them.

While fashion is the highest form of creativity and self-expression, it has been lacking freedom or imagination when it comes to genders.

Rather old-fashioned, most of the world’s fashion labels have characterised their creations for male and female only, as evidenced by the fashion week separate catwalks.

However, influenced by rising social movements which reject the existing gender identity norms, this line has started to fade away.

Fortunately, supported by fast-growing gender fluid parenting movements, more fashion labels are embracing the idea of gender fluidity.

You can check out some of the most amazing gender-fluid fashion designers here.

Maintenance & Care

Care for clothes

By definition, sustainable fashion advocates for maintaining existing wardrobes.

The most sustainable act of fashion is to take care of your current clothes.

Washing clothes on the right temperature setting and storing them properly goes a long way in lengthening the lifespan of our garments.

Instead of throwing them away when they rip or stain, opt for tried and tested repairs.

Try darning socks, resewing hems or patching up ripped jeans.

Making friends with your local tailor also gives you access to a whole wealth of knowledge and expertise.

Natural Materials

Natural fashion

Natural fibres, like linen or hemp, have long been associated with sustainable fashion.

Championed for their timeless aesthetic and biodegradable quality, natural fibres are generally eco-friendlier than synthetic, plastic-derived ones.

That’s because they don’t take hundreds of years to break down in landfill or depend on the abstraction of fossil fuels.

Synthetic fibres, on the other hand, contain thousands of nasty microplastics.

Every time we wash textiles containing fibres like polyester and nylon, around 1,900 microfibres are released into the water.

These microplastics eventually find their way into the oceans and our food chain.

Like most things, sustainable fibres aren’t exactly straight forward.

Cotton production requires a lot of water while bamboo processing uses chemicals, so some natural fibres are better than others.

Organic Fibres

Organic fashion

Organic fibres describe crops farmed without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, genetically modified organisms or other artificial chemicals.

As it stands today, only 0.7 per cent of global cotton is farmed organically.

In fact, the standard cotton production uses approximately 16 per cent insecticides and 7 per cent pesticides, of the world’s entire chemical output. That’s insane!

This so-called conventional practice is equally harmful to humans, animals and the environment. A more sustainable future will see the rise of organic farming.

Price Fairness

Fairtrade fashion

Sometimes the price is just too good to be true.

According to Deloitte Access Economics for Oxfam, a mere 4 per cent of the cost of a garment makes it way back to the workers.

So, when t-shirts can sell for as low as £2, profit margins are usually coming from outsourced, exploitative labour and cheap, poor-quality materials.

That’s not to say that a high price point is a foolproof indicator of ethics, though ridiculously low prices are often a valid disqualified.

What’s more, is that a low price tag isn’t always a bargain.

Calculating the cost-per-wear determines the real price of a garment.

A £60 skirt worn 30 times works out at better value than a discounted dress that’s only worn once.

Far from being expensive, sustainable fashion prices reflect the actual value of our clothes, the time and effort that went into making them and the price paid for securing a more sustainable future.

Quality, Durability, & Slow Fashion

Slow fashion movement

In this disposable fashion age, no fast fashion products are designed for existing a lifetime in your wardrobe.

Like it or not, fast fashion is designed to shrink, fade away, rip apart after just a few tries.

This forces shoppers to repurchase into a vicious cycle of consumerism.

At the opposite end, slow fashion is famed for it’s high-quality, enduring, luxury feel which is created to stand the test of time.

Moreover, sustainable quality describes more than just the material.

In the fashion industry, it ensures quality across the entire industry, from working conditions to customer service.

Renting Fashion

Renting fashion

Before Covid19, 2020 was predicted to be the year of renting, and for a good reason.

Gone are the days where wedding tuxes and party dresses were the only occasions for renting.

Rental services are now available for everyday wear, from office meetings to brunch dates.

The environmental benefits are enormous, placing a far lesser strain on the earth’s resources and preventing clothes from being tossed to landfill.

The billion-dollar industry is estimated to grow by 10.6 per cent by 2023, meaning it’s diverting revenue from the fast fashion industry.

Second-hand Fashion

Second-hand fashion

It can often feel like fast fashion is only ever going to get faster, but the second-hand market is putting this to the test.

According to Thredup’s annual fashion resale report, the resale market has grown 21 times faster than apparel retail in the last three years.

It is soon expected to overtake the apparel market.

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See, second-hand shopping is also sustainable fashion in a nutshell.

It works by giving a new lease of life to a previously used (pre-loved) garment.

Clothes once destined for the landfill are increasingly finding their way into the baskets of happy Depop and eBay shoppers.

Swap shops are too on the rise while vintage fashion is thriving.

Thrifting is somewhat of a treasure hunt, but the thrill of finding a unique, glove-fitting garment simply cannot be replicated by a fast fashion purchase.


Transparency in fashion

The onset of globalisation saw the fracturing of fashion production, as manufacturing was outsourced to thousands of factories around the world.

This made it even harder to trace fashion supply chains.

The most ethical brands will be entirely open about their business model and labour practices, faults and all, and will actively strive to achieve optimum sustainability goals.

Without this transparency, brands cannot be held accountable, eliminating the possibility of change.

Upcycled Fashion

Upcycled Marine Serre fashion

While mending seeks to restore garments to their original state, upcycling is all about creatively transforming the look and purpose of a garment.

Cropping, embellishing and tie-dying are all great ways to spruce up your wardrobe.

Upcycling is the sustainable alternative to throwing away perfectly good clothes, as you re-imagine your style again and again.

Vegan Fashion

Vegan fashion

Vegan fashion is all the rage right now.

Defined as clothing which is not tested on, or derived from, animals, vegan fashion is not necessarily sustainable.

Yes, it is cruelty-free and ethical for that reason, but its sustainability is still questioned.

In an industry move away from fur and leather, faux PVC alternatives are taking the fashion world by storm.

The issue is that they are derived from plastic, creating a much more significant environmental problem in their wake.

A new middle-ground is being forged by innovations in plant-based alternatives, such as pineapple leather, which is both biodegradable and animal-free.

Women In Fashion

Stella McCartney sustainable fashion influencer

The existing fashion industry (and its future) is inherently female.

According to campaigners Labour Behind the Label, approximately 80 per cent of garment workers are women aged between 18 and 35.

Less than 2 per cent of these workers earn a living wage.

Gender inequality is widespread, demonstrated by the gender income gap and a disproportionate number of male factory managers and fashion CEOs.

Of the 540 Bangladeshi, Indian and Cambodian workers interviewed by Fashion Revolution in 2017, 60 per cent reported gender-based discrimination.

Over 15 per cent reported being threatened, and 5 per cent had been hit.

Sustainable fashion seeks to resolve gender inequality by empowering women and bolstering female livelihood.


Vivian Westwood

Research shows that 97 per cent of any clothes your purchase are made overseas.

However, the transportation of clothes from one factory to another, and then from retailers to consumers is hugely polluting.

When you then factor in the journey taken from the cotton farm to the garment factory to the warehouse to your doorstep, via ship and plane, that’s a lot of carbon emissions!

The same goes for delivery returns and second-hand cast-offs that are shipped abroad.

The latter is especially damaging, as it stifles the development of domestic textile trade in recipient countries.

Supporting local designers and artisans is ultimately more sustainable for both the planet and the local economy.

You As A Conscious Consumer

Conscious fashion consumers

Whether you’re a fashionista or a convenience dresser, clothes are part of your everyday life.

Your fashion choices turn you, directly or indirectly, into either a sustainable fashion supporter or stuck in a consumerism-driven industry.

In a supply and demand economy, a sustainable future depends on you and your slow and mindful consumption.

As part of the problem, we too can be an agent of change so take action now.

Lobbying politicians, holding brands to account, and wearing your ethical, conscious values, grant us all a stake in the future of fashion.

Zero Waste Fashion

Zero waste fashion

The fashion industry is a notoriously wasteful one and the problem is threefold.

In the design and manufacturing stage, 15 to 20 per cent of the fabrics are wasted as deadstock.

In the retail environment, where trends are constantly changing, brands are often left with overstock, which is either discounted, burnt or sent to landfill.

Of those bought, 3 in 5 garments will end up in a landfill or incinerator within a year.

An estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing is sent to a UK landfill each year.

To remedy this, sustainable fashion endeavours to design waste out of all three stages.

Such feat is achieved by using cutting techniques which maximises the use of fabric and repurposes all leftovers.

Moreover, by shifting to made-to-order fashion, brands will only produce what they can sell.

Finally, it requires the redesigning of delivery packaging to produce as little waste as possible.

But, most importantly, sustainable fashion requires a shift in the global mindset.

Learning that reusing, re-selling, renting, swapping, and recycling garments is the new normal, instead of discarding them to the rubbish tip.

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A decade of fashion; here’s to the next one.

The past decade has been turbulent – and defining – for fashion: child labour, climate crisis, gender inequality, animal cruelty, and reckless plastic pollution, just to name a few.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the beginning of this decade does not look too good either.

That’s why finding media that reports with rigour and integrity at heart is difficult in critical times.

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In these times, independent fashion media magazines are increasingly silenced by commercial ownership and social media misinformation.

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  1. bullze

    23 April 2020

    This makes a lot of sense