What Is Sustainable Fashion? – The Ultimate Sustainable Fashion Guide

Ana Alves

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What is sustainable fashion? If you are like me, increasingly disappointed at the state of fashion, then you must be looking for ways to fix it.

But, after ten years of practising sustainable fashion and trying to be a better consumer, here’s what I have learned.

The first step is to define what is sustainable fashion and understand its constituent parts.

Sustainable fashion is a generic term used to describe all activities designed to shift the existing fashion industry from its unethical, wasteful, and inconsiderate approach towards an industry, based on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.


In This Sustainable Fashion Guide, You’ll Learn

– The definition of sustainable fashion.
– What does slow fashion mean?
– What is ethical, fair trade, and eco-friendly fashion?
– What is vegan, cruelty-free, and upcycled fashion?
– Is vegan fashion sustainable?
– What does make a fashion label sustainable?
– The best sustainable fashion brands.
– What are sustainable fashion certifications?
– Is thrifting considered as sustainable fashion?


Sustainable Fashion According To Whom?

Sustainable fashion brands

The above definition shows that sustainable fashion, as a concept, must include not just activities and materials used, but also the resulting products.

However, this blend is what causes the confusion to what is sustainable fashion and the many definitions we have to date.

Simply put, the answer to ‘what is sustainable fashion’ differs according to who you ask.

For example, we’ve asked consumers what does sustainable fashion mean to them.

Most respondents defined sustainable fashion as a way of preserving resources in the process of supplying, manufacturing, transporting, selling and consuming fashion products.

Others described sustainable fashion as ways of making and consuming garments, with consideration towards people, animals, and the environment.

Constituting Parts Of Sustainable Fashion

three pillars of sustainability in fashion

To answer ‘what is sustainable fashion’, we have to detail on the many terms that construct the general concept.

Terms such as ethical fashion, fair trade fashion, eco-friendly fashion, and so on.

These terms are describing different aspects of sustainable fashion activities, sustainable materials, and the results – sustainable fashion products.

For example, ethical fashion and fair trade fashion focus on the welfare of people working in fashion.

While fighting against child labour, to give genders equal rights, and all other social justice aspects relating to fashion, the welfare of workers (people) contribute to the greater goal of sustainability in fashion.

Similarly, ‘vegan-fashion’ term is, in general, used to describe fashion. products manufactured without the use of materials of animal origin.

Or, in the case of ‘cruelty-free fashion’, used to describe products that contain animal-based materials but obtained without any cruel means.

Nevertheless, just like in the case of ethical fashion, these terms are describing not just products but also sustainable fashion-related activities.

However, with a focus on the use of animals in fashion such as animal farming, animal exploitation, and other animal-related activities in the fashion industry, which again, fall under the main category of sustainable fashion.

‘Eco-friendly’, ‘eco-conscious’, and ‘green fashion’ are popular terms used to describe the environment-related facets of sustainable fashion.

Climate change, plastic pollution, fashion waste, reckless use of resources, and all eco-related issues that impact fashion.

The Changing Nature of Sustainable Fashion

Fast fashion vs slow fashion

It is important to understand that new sustainable fashion terms appear every day.

Some of the more recent ones are ‘slow fashion’ – at the opposite of ‘fast-fashion’, used to describe slow manufacturing processes and resulting products.

Slow fashion is in most cases made by expert artisans, and it is called ‘artisanal fashion’ – another term belonging to the general concept of sustainable fashion.

‘Circular fashion’, describes all processes that can help the industry create fashion products from discarded materials.

Recycling, reusing, and putting them back into the production system of fashion, in a circular or closed-loop process.

Similarly, ‘upcycled fashion’, looks at fashion made from discarded parts resulting during the manufacturing process. Cuts, left-overs, remaining parts, and so on.

‘Conscious fashion’ is another new term that has emerged, looking at both, consumers’ choice for sustainable fashion, and at designers’ choice to be ethical and sustainable in their manufacturing and material choice.

Connected Landscapes Of Sustainable Fashion

sustainable fashion definition

Another important thing to realise is that all these terms describe above are interconnected and related, in their goal of achieving sustainable fashion.

For example, the main goal of ‘ethical fashion camp’, if we can call it like that, is to support people.

From underaged and underpaid workers in Asian factories to highly skilled local artisans, they all fall under the general term of ethical fashion.

But, as the local artisans and craftsmen create high-end slow fashion products, often from upcycled materials, we see here how three categories are intersecting to achieve the same goal.

Similarly, a fashion label can be considered ethical for not using animal leather, but by using vegan leather from fair trade producers across the world.

All these terms mix and combine, and in the end, regardless of the activities employed, the materials used and the resulting products, they all fall under the bigger category of sustainable fashion.

Is It Possible To Achieve Sustainable Fashion?

Yes and no. Sustainable fashion is more of a goal than a product, a pathway, or a set of actions.

Right now, the fashion industry is not entirely sustainable.

The simple acts of fashion production and consumption deplete and wear away the resources of this planet, little by little.

Just like it is the case with all other types of fashion, making sustainable fashion requires people, electricity, water, and so on.

Washing your clothes, regardless of how sustainable they are, requires water and detergent that pollute the environment.

Your Role In Sustainable Fashion

Swap clothes

The first step in becoming a more sustainable consumer is to understand what constitutes sustainable fashion as a whole.

By now you should be familiar with all facets of sustainable fashion: ethical, slow, vegan, eco-friendly, fair trade, locally produced, recycled, upcycled and so on.

You also know that all these terms intersect all levels, from materials to activities and final products.

The other important part is to know your role, as a consumer of fashion, and what you can do to be a part of this positive change.

First and foremost, you must be aware of the impact of your consumption.

It might sound very simple but the easiest way to achieve sustainable fashion is to think twice before you buy.

Ask yourself simple questions such as:

  • How long am going to wear these shoes?
  • Does my usage justify manufacturing them?
  • If so, does it justify the killing of another animal?
  • Or, the pollution of another river?
  • The cutting of another tree?

How to practice sustainable fashion?

Armed with the answer to what is sustainable fashion, you can now embark on consuming sustainable fashion products.

For that, you need to know and choose sustainable fashion labels.

Based on the above answer to what is sustainable fashion, an ethical label or conscious fashion designer continuously engage in work that improves their offering (products) at all stages.

These stages comprise design, the supply of raw materials, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, storage, marketing and sales, consumption, and what happens post-consumption.

The main aim of a sustainable fashion brand is to:

  • Minimise the negative impact of fashion on the environment and its natural resources such as water, energy, soil, animals, plants, and other ecosystems.
  • Improve the working conditions of people involved in the production of clothing and accessories.
  • Ensure an economic balance within the whole system by engaging in fair trade practices.

You, as a consumer of sustainable fashion, apart from asking yourself the questions above, you can do the following things:

  • Check to see is the product you want to buy is sustainably produced?
  • Check if the label is ethical and sustainable? Just because a brand is selling vegan products, it does not mean it is also sustainable.
  • Increase the lifespan of your clothing and accessories by repairing, remaking, upcycling and reusing your products. It is actually very fashionable right now to wear upcycled or second-hand garments.

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And, the subject of upcycled and second fashion takes us to the next question:

Is Thrifting Sustainable Fashion?

pre-owned luxury

Swapping clothes or thrifting fashion is often seen as an effective approach to sustainable fashion.

Because the garment already exists, there is no need to manufacture it again.

With thrifting, you can rest assured that you’re sustainable in your choice, as you’re not buying new clothes.

It is a tremendous way to avoid the negative impact of fashion manufacturing.

However, there is a downside to thrifting and buying second-hand fashion.

While doing good for the planet, you might be doing harm to you.

The problem stems from the difficulty of assessing the quality and the condition of the garment you’re going to procure this way.

Some garments, made from animal leather and plastic will start leaching in time.

Those toxic chemicals affect your skin and hormonal balance, so you have to be very careful with what you buy.

If you are going down this route, make sure you stay away from animal leather and plastic.

Also, check out our selection of best second-hand clothing online stores.

Back to thrifting as a way to be a more sustainable fashion consumer, see below our three steps simple guide to swapping clothes.

Swapping clothes in three simple ways:

  1. Friends – This is the simplest way is to swap clothes. You can always swap clothes with your friends and share garments with each other. This way you’ll always have new clothes to wear without buying anything new!
  2. Apps and Social Media – If you don’t have any friends willing to swap clothes with you, there are other ways. Thankfully, we live in the digital era, and there are hundreds of online apps and Facebook groups embracing the idea of swapping clothes. Go to Facebook, open the groups’ section and search for ‘clothes swap’ at your location. You’ll be surprised to see how many people are swapping clothes online!
  3. Swapping Events – This option is for the braver ones. You can either join thrifting events in your area or organise your own private swapping events. To start, contact at least 10 potential participants to ensure that you have a wide offering and several sizes to exchange. Also, be careful not to have three participants with sizes at the opposite poles. Also, make sure you ask them to invite their friends to the event, and take it from there.

What Does Slow Fashion Mean?

Slow fashion movement

Let’s now detail on the constituting parts of sustainable fashion. Starting with slow fashion, and what it means.

The slow fashion concept is straightforward as the opposite of fast fashion.

Slow fashion refers to producing and consuming fewer fashion apparels.

It is all about choosing quality over quantity. Fashion labels working on the basis of made-to-order often follow this concept.

You can practice slow fashion by simply buying quality items, less often, and wear what you buy for a longer time.

Buying quality items compels you to repair them when they break, rather than throwing them away.

That’s because often you spent a considerable amount of money quality items.

However, the problem of slow fashion is that your fashion taste tends to change over time.

So, it is important to choose the type of fashion you see yourself wearing for a long time.

Minimalistic fashion

What Is Ethical & Fair Trade Fashion?

local fashion production

Ethical fashion and fair trade fashion refer to the socio-economic aspect of sustainable fashion. Simply put, it looks at people in fashion and their welfare.

Both facets of sustainable fashion look at ways to improve the working conditions of people involved in the fashion supply chain and seek to ensure fair trade practices within the product’s lifecycle.

How can you support ethical fashion?

If ethical fashion is what speaks to you from the entire sustainable fashion concept, then here are some ways you can contribute and help.

  • Make sure the label you choose guarantees fair wages to its workers –  This improves their quality of life. You can either Google it or follow sustainable fashion reports. Ensuring the minimum living wage would see lesser conflicts, more love, peace, and happiness in the world.
  • Support Local Producers – As a critical way minimising the global carbon footprint, always buy sustainable fashion made by local artisans. The simple act of having a t-shirt transported to you from thousands of miles away releases a considerable amount of C02 in the atmosphere. Think twice.

Sustainable Fashion Certifications – Common Mistakes

Sustainable fashion certificates

Although the purpose of a certification is to build trust between the buyers and sellers, the deal with sustainable certifications in fashion has always been a tricky one.

There’s a growing number of organisations creating certifications after certifications, tricking new designers and fashion labels into thinking that they must have them to appeal to conscious consumers.

The problem is that most of these certificate giving companies have financial interests at heart.

Therefore, these sustainable fashion certificates are indiscriminately granted to whoever pays for them.

It is a minefield where large corporations amass certificates after certificates, while small family labels that cannot afford or are unwilling to pay for those certifications, are left out, and made to look as unethical or unsustainable.

As a sustainable consumer, do not always rely on certifications.

Check the certificate issuer. Is it independent? Or it is a commercial enterprise.

Organic clothing

Always cross-reference between different sources of information.

Check the fashion brand’s website and social media channels.

See where the materials are coming from. See if their philosophy resonates with you.

What is their view about the future of fashion?

Check their presence of dedicated marketplaces for sustainable fashion.

Finally, contact them with questions about their products, the materials they use, and so on.

If you don’t get an answer, there’s no doubt they have something to hide, and that’s a bad sign, no matter how many certificates they have.

What Is Vegan Fashion?

vegan fashion movement

Another popular term that has taken the world of fashion by storm is vegan fashion.

In general, vegan fashion refers to clothing and accessories made without the use of any animal-based materials.

Therefore, vegan fashion is also cruelty-free by nature.

Vegan fashion activists look at stopping the killing of animals and their suffering for clothing and accessories.

They argue that animal farming for fashion is what makes the industry the second most polluting in the world.

However, some argue that vegan fashion is suffering from a lot of greenwashing.

The argument comes from the idea that many vegan fashion labels, PETA approved, are using PVC and other plastic-based leathers that are very bad for the environment.

Therefore, they argue, vegan fashion saves animals with one hand and poisons them with the other.

However, while most vegan brands we’ve investigated use PVC and other oil-based materials, there are vegan fashion labels out there that have sustainability at their core as well.

Those brands are using real vegan leather, made from plants, fruits, and other organic materials.

To learn about the difference between animal leather, faux leather and vegan leather see this article.

Is vegan clothing environmentally friendly?

There’s a caveat here. In order to be considered a vegan fashion labels, many brands use plastics and other non-biodegradable fibres in replacement to animal-based materials.

Unfortunately, while this strategy is saving some animal lives, on the one hand, the plastic-based materials damage the environment at scale.

These plastic-based materials end up in landfills and oceans, directly contributing to eco-pollution.

Also, such plastic pollution is indirectly killing millions of fish and animals by entering their food chain.

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Nevertheless, although vegan fashion is not always environmentally friendly, it remains the more sustainable option when compared to animal-based fashion products.

Vegan fashion is also more eco-friendly due to its capacity for reducing the negative environmental impact caused by animal agriculture.

Also, thanks to the recent advancements in the fashion industry, the number of sustainable, biodegradable, and plant-based vegan alternatives is on the rise.

Moreover, the number of vegan fashion labels that have started to sustainable materials in their production is on the rise.

These vegan labels create sustainable fashion products from innovative materials such as Lenzing, Pinatex, Tencel, cork, leather from mushrooms, hemp, and other recycled materials.

What Is Upcycled Fashion?

Upcycled luxury fashion

Upcycled fashion or upcycled clothing is described as the use of discarded materials during the apparel making process and their incorporation into new garments.

Upcycled fashion main elements are based on recycling, reusing, and repurposing of materials.

When it comes to Upcycled fashion, opinions are split.

There are voices arguing that upcycled fashion is a new form of luxury fashion.

Others argue that upcycled is a new word for recycled. It is, according to them, just a twist of words.

To a certain extent, both camps are true.

The upcycling movement has its roots in recycled fashion.

However, when it comes to fashion, there is one big difference between recycled and upcycled materials.

The simple inclusion of upcycled materials in the making of the garment adds uniqueness to the final product.

As old fabrics carry their own stories of usage, wear, and life, upcycled fashion is more than just a new way of reviving old fabrics and turning them into new clothes.

The final upcycled fashion product is always unique and rare. Therefore, it could be argued that upcycled fashion is a new form of luxury.

Does upcycling fashion help the environment?

The benefits of using upcycled materials for a more sustainable fashion are tremendous.


  • Upcycled fashion is critical to waste reduction.
  • Upcycled fashion is reusing materials that otherwise would have no purpose.
  • Upcycled fashion reduces carbon and gas emissions, from manufacturing to transport and so on.

But, like with all sustainable fashion solution described above, upcycled fashion also has environmental issues we cannot ignore.


  • Both recycled and upcycled materials can release microfibres in the environment. These microfibres can’t be filtered out of the water. As such, these microfibres end up in oceans, causing pollution, killing fish and causing a lot of damage in the long term.
  • Upcycling some materials is harder than others. For that, companies end up using more energy and chemicals than what otherwise would have been used in case of novel materials.

One success story of recycling and upcycling materials to create new products is Adidas Parley Sneakers.

These popular Adidas sneakers are created in collaboration with Parley and made out of upcycled fishnets from the ocean.

Adidas Parley upcyled sneakers

Although Adidas Parley recovers fishnets and other plastic waste from the ocean, the upcycling process requires large quantities of toxic chemicals, water, and electricity.

In the end, the creation of these sneakers might not be eco-friendly after all.

But, it also might be more sustainable if the product can last more than a season, assuming that the product is not featuring a time-bound design.

What’s Next For Sustainable Fashion?

Slow fashion movement

In the modern era, there is an acute need to produce in fashion in sustainable ways.

Back to the question of ‘what is sustainable fashion, the complete answer must also include how we produce and consume products as well.

The number of companies embarking on sustainable fashion is growing fast all over the world.

From the use of cruelty-free materials to upcycling, reusing and recycling, we are on the verge of a massive change.

Clothing companies are employing CSR managers and sustainability experts to realign their business models.

New production processes are created, aiming to push the businesses towards sustainability. But, labels seeking to succeed, must follow the next three steps:

  1. Respect biodiversity, the ecosystem, and the natural resources of this planet.
  2. Use renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, ocean, at every stage of the manufacturing and recycling processes.
  3. Repair, reuse, and recycle the products and all constituent parts in sustainable conditions, with sustainable resources.


We adore fashion. We truly do. But, as much as we love fashion, we also love our mother nature, people, animals, and everything that this planet has to offer.

That is why it has never been more important to understand what is sustainable fashion and how to become be an active participant in this change for better.

These are times of misleading marketing and greenwashing overuse of terminology, and fake certifications.

That is why, we hope that this ultimate guide in sustainable fashion helps you know what sustainable fashion means from various lenses such as manufacturing, branding, and even from your (consumer) perspective.

By now you should be very familiar with sustainable fashion concepts such as vegan and cruelty- free fashion, eco-friendly and eco-conscious fashion, slow and fair fashion, and the latest sustainable fashion trend, upcycled fashion.

By now you know why sustainable fashion is critical for the environment, animals and people, how to live more sustainably, and what you can do to support the sustainable fashion movement.

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  1. It is an exciting possibility for anyone trying to square the circle of fashion and sustainability.