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What Is Sustainable Fashion – A Comprehensive Guide + 10 Must-Know Designers

Did you know that the fashion industry’s carbon footprint accounts for around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions?

But, as a solution beyond carbon emissions, sustainable fashion is the best solution to reducing our impact on the environment and protecting animals and people.

However, after 10 years of trying to be a better consumer, I have learned that changes, especially in fashion, don’t come easy.

First, beyond environmental perspectives, there are economic perspectives that stop the industry from changing.

That is, any small change to achieve sustainable production, costs brands huge amounts of money.

Second, not just brands but consumers are reluctant to change as well.

In particular, when they’re unsure of what sustainable fashion is, or what it stands for.

Sustainable Fashion Definition

With hope, more will embrace it as the only way forward, in this article, I’ll define sustainable fashion and then detail its constituent parts.

Without further ado, sustainable fashion is…

…An ‘all-encapsulating’ term that describes a wide range of activities, processes, and products employed by fashion actors, aiming to shift the current fashion industry from its unethical, wasteful, and inconsiderate approach towards a carbon-neutral model based on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.

Main Parts Of Sustainable Fashion

As an ‘all-encapsulating’ concept, sustainable fashion comprises several other related actions and activities defined by their own terms.

Some of the most popular are:

1. Ethical and fair-trade fashion
2. Eco-friendly and ‘green’ fashion
3. Vegan and cruelty-free fashion
4. Slow fashion
5. Recyclable and upcycled fashion
6. Thrifting, sharing, renting fashion
7. Circular Fashion
8. Conscious Fashion

1. Ethical and fair trade fashion

Ethical and fair trade are the most used terms relating to sustainable fashion.

Ethical and fairtrade activities are relating to the welfare of people working in fashion: child labor, gender rights, safe working conditions, fair trade activities, and all other social justice aspects.

Ethical fashion looks at people in fashion and their welfare and fair trade look at ethical supply chains, both terms encapsulate the socio-economic aspects of the fashion industry.

Both terms look at ways to improve the working conditions of people involved in the fashion supply chain, wages, and seek to ensure fair trade practices.

2. Eco-friendly and green fashion

These terms are used to describe environmental problems such as climate change, plastic pollution, waste, or reckless use of resources.

Nowadays, most fashion brands use plastics and other non-biodegradable fibers that damage the environment at scale.

Around 70 million barrels of oil a year are used to make polyester fibers in our clothes and these plastic-based materials end up in landfills and oceans, polluting and killing animals by entering their food chain.

In contrast, an eco-friendly company uses organic cotton, recycled cotton, hemp fiber, materials from recycled bottles, and other low water usage materials such as Lenzing, Pinatex, Tencel.

Moreover, thanks to recent advancements in materials we see the replacement of plastics with biodegradable natural fibers and plant-based alternatives.

3. Vegan and cruelty-free fashion

Vegan and cruelty-free fashion activities (and products) bring to light animal farming and exploitation for fashion.

These terms also describe products manufactured without the use of materials of animal origin or obtained without cruel means.

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.

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 leather alternatives known to pollute the environment.

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

For a fashion brand to qualify as ‘genuine vegan’, it must pay attention to its environmental impact and carbon footprint as well.

Most brands do this by using leather alternatives made from plants, fruits, and other organic materials.

4. Slow fashion

Apart from manufacturing, there are other ‘acts of consumption and maintenance’ that deplete the planet’s resources, little by little.

Slow fashion term describes slow manufacturing processes and resulting products, somehow at the opposite pole of ‘fast-fashion’.

Slow fashion is made by expert artisans hence the synonym ‘artisanal fashion’ used to describe the same thing.

The environmental impact of fashion depends greatly on conscious consumers and how long they’re using their garments.

With the fast fashion trend, garments tend to be used half as much as compared to 15 years ago.

This is due to the intentional lower fabrics quality, but also a result of endless seasonal collections released by the industry.

In general, if a garment is used over a few years it has a lesser environmental impact than a garment used once and discarded.

In fact, a recent study has shown that just washing and drying jeans is two-thirds of the total energy consumed during the jeans’ life.

Similarly for underwear, about 80% of the total energy used takes place during the laundry processes.

Washing your clothes, regardless of how sustainable they are, requires electricity, water, and detergent.

It is how we, silently, deplete and pollute the environment.

5. Recyclable and upcycled fashion

Upcycled fashion is based on recycling, reusing, and repurposing of materials in fashion.

However, when it comes to the use of recycled material for fashion, the 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 material as a new type of raw material.

To a certain extent, both camps are true as for once, 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 are tremendous.


It helps with waste reduction.

Reuses materials that have no purpose and would otherwise end up in the landfill.

Reduces carbon and gas emissions, from manufacturing to transport and more.

But, as a potential solution to sustainability in fashion, upcycling 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 the case of novel materials.

6. Thrifting, swapping, renting fashion

Often associated with secondhand clothing, swapping clothes, or thrifting fashion is often seen as an effective approach to achieving sustainable consumption.

Available in charities and second hand shops, thrifting is a tremendous way to avoid the negative impact of fashion manufacturing.

The garments already exist, therefore there is no need to manufacture them again, and thus, there no release of greenhouse gases or use of a pesticide for a new collection.

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.

7. Circular fashion

Another recent term is ‘circular fashion’, and is used to describe closed-loop processes that help reintegrate waste and discarded materials in production.

Circular fashion works by recycling polyester and other plastic-based materials and putting them back into the fashion production systems.

8. Conscious fashion

One of the most recent terms is ‘conscious fashion’, used to describe consumers’ choice for sustainable materials and fashion products from designers that respect the environment, animals, and people.

The Conflicting Facets Of Sustainable Fashion

All sustainable fashion terms defined above are interconnected and related, with a common goal of achieving a more sustainable industry and a cleaner, safer world.

However, while these terms and categories intersect, there are lots of conflicts and confusion.

For example, an ethical clothing label is considered ethical for ensuring proper working conditions and fair wages for its garment workers.

However, if the same ethical label uses plastic and other synthetic materials, it falls into the non-eco-friendly category.

Moreover, if it uses animal leather, the brand becomes unethical from an animal welfare perspective.

So in order for a label to be considered truly sustainable, it must mix and combine as many as possible terms and activities described above.

Certification Issues In Fashion

The purpose of any certification in fashion is to build trust between buyers and retailers.

However, the story of sustainable fashion certifications is a very tricky one right now, with ramifications reaching communities in Europe and China.

There’s a growing number of organizations creating certifications and tricking emerging designers into thinking that they must have these certificates in order to appeal to consumers.

For a company to ‘qualify’ for one of these certifications, it is often sufficient to produce just one organic cotton t-shirt, shoes, or pair of jeans.

Unfortunately, these sustainable fashion certificates are 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 trust such certifications.

Check the certificate issuer. Is it an independent or a commercial enterprise?

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 on 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.

Top 10 Sustainable Fashion Companies In 2020

1. Patagonia

Let’s give credit where credit is due!

From all the fashion companies on this top 10, Patagonia is by far the most popular right now and a leader in ethical practices.

The American apparel brand works hand in hand with retailers, communities of farmers, charities, and other organizations such as Fashion Revolution and the Environmental Protection Agency, seeking to make the circular economy the new normal.

The brand has an anti-marketing approach to sales, prioritizing carbon emission, and other sustainability issues over costs of clothing production.

The brand is actively fighting to improve the quality of life for its workers and to protect the natural environment by using only organic fiber and solar energy where possible.

2. Stella McCartney

Delightful in their stylistic duality, Stella McCartney’s creations resemble titanic collisions of nature with artificial forces in juxtaposed clashes of spirit and matter; light and dark, high and low, priceless and worthless, wasteful and carrying, haute-couture and fast fashion.

Stella McCartney’s eponymous and timeless compositions are contradicting and conspiring silhouettes of pure sensuality, urban sophistication, and modern ethical motifs of conscious luxury.

Through exquisite blends of purposive and meaningful stylistic messages and irresistibly sharp tailoring, Stella McCartney’s compositions communicate a new world of shape-shifting, mutating, and evolving narratives of contemporary humans.

3. Nanushka

In a splendid clash of Eastern with Western cultures – the designer’s primary source of inspiration from many spiritual journeys of various places and times – Nanushka is a contemporary fashion house composing informal, modern, and versatile forms of subtle shades and relaxed silhouettes for the modern fashion lovers.

Designed in Budapest and produced in Europe, Nanushka’s effervescent confidence, easiness of style, subtle femininity, and flair are tastefully matched with an equally important ethos of eco-conscious, ethical, and animal-friendly functional values, for a cleaner industry and a safer tomorrow.

4. Ailanto

Ailanto is a sustainable fashion brand created by the twin brothers Iñaki and Aitor and recognized for its superbly handcrafted pieces in unique prints, rare designs, and use of noble materials.

Iñaki has a degree in Fashion Design from the Fine Arts University of Barcelona.

Aitor has a degree in Landscaping and Botanics, hence the brand’s name Ailanto – an ornamental tree known as the ‘tree of heaven’.

The founder’s passion for fashion, art, and nature is reflected in the brand’s creations inspired by the worlds’ most famous painters, sculptors, and landscape artists, particularly the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

5. Moda De La Maria

Moda de la Maria is a sustainable fashion label run by Maria Ruseva, a Moldovan-born designer with over fifteen years of experience in the fashion industry.

By blending traditional tailoring and hand-finishing techniques, the designer creates unique pieces that deliver a fresh and contemporary reinterpretation of classic fashion styles.

Each piece is made from natural fabrics and painstakingly hand-prepared by Maria in her workshop in South-East London, as couture statements designed for women who wished to stand out from the crowd.

Our most favorite creations from Maria’s collection are the ‘permanent pieces’, designed to be worn all year round.

These ‘deceptively simple’ pieces are executed in soft, pastel colors and finished with buttons and fastenings made from natural materials.

6. Trame Di Stile

A creation of Claudia Aureli, founder and stylistic director, Trame di Stile is an Italian sustainable clothing label of rare craftsmanship.

Every piece that goes into Trame di Stile creations, from the woven yarns to the final garment is carefully selected with an obsessive attention to detail.

With unmatched dedication to quality and use of natural fabrics, Trame di Stile has become a label known for its elegance, refinement, and sustainability.

Trame di Stile’s collections are stunning plays of lights, colors, and shades, assembled creatively to ignite one’s deepest emotions.

Black, as the earth and reinvention of every season, indigo as the color of celestial bodies and the universe, and green as the color of nature, hemp, nettle yarns, and other natural fabrics, reminding of the classic and pure countryside tones.

Delicate, elegant, and sustainable, every Trame di Stile piece is breathable, anti-microbial, protects from UV rays putting the wearer on a delicate and harmonious journey of alignment with nature.

7. Helder Antwerp

A creation of designer Ramona Stoica, Helder Antwerp is a Belgium-based high-end sustainable clothing label of Romanian heritage.

The label is known for its excellent compositions and plays of contemporary feminine sensuality beautifully built on one’s desire to showcase its strength and independence.

Ramona’s unique prototyping skills are showcased through hand-designed prints, unmatched styles, and color palettes.

With rare collections of sensual silhouettes, Helder Antwerp is tapping into one’s need to state its independence but with a subtle, romantic undertone.

Passionate and artful perspectives are portrayed through the brand’s conscious choice for responsible manufacturing techniques, sustainable materials, innovative and future-proof fabrics, and unique tailoring skills thanks to Romanian master craftsmen.

8. Intis

While on the peaks of Machu Picchu, the founder of IntiS heard nature’s call for freedom, beauty, and ethical values.

Born from a deep passion for elegance and style, IntiS draws its roots and inspiration from the rare Peruvian heritage.

In the ancient Inca Empire, ‘Inti’ symbolised the primordial source of warmth and light, the protector of people, the source of life.

IntiS, the brand name, is a modern interpretation of Inca’s ‘God of the Sun’.

Often represented as natural, timeless, and even iconic IntiS’ couture pieces are based on slow fashion attributes.

Sustainable, ethically made, supporting local Peruvian communities of expert artisans.

9. JeanneSousan

JeanneSousan creates a new luxury experience through an inspirational choice of colors and exquisite fabrics, saturated with original details, almost like a unique ritual of sensuality.

The designer pairs ethnic-styles with extraordinary craftsmanship to accouche made-to-order fashion couture that celebrates one’s stylistic uniqueness and ethical values.

JeanneSousan’s concept of luxury is further portrayed by one-of-a-kind and exceptional pieces, rising from emotionalized uniformity and arbitrariness of creations.

The label’s futuristic conscious-oriented perspective of design sees one’s need for uniqueness, ethics, and authenticity as the new emotional values at the core of pure luxury.

JeanneSousan’s collections consist of ‘Archetypes’ refined continuously.

Each creation is one-of-a-kind, customized to perfection to match each client’s specific taste, body shape, and even ethical values; almost like precious pieces of art and artisanal craftsmanship that will feed your soul for a lifetime.

10. Lungomare

Lungomare was born on the beaches of the Riviera Romagnola, where summer, ancient culture, and good food never ends.

The label recalls memories of yellow sands and colorful seaside explosion, beautifully blended with fascinating winter melancholy, scents of maritime pines, and tumultuous wave sounds.

Lungomare is more than a fashion label but a vision between contemporaneity and nostalgia.

Driven by an ethos of creating unique garments, beyond the concept of time and seasons, each piece is born to be worn and re-worn, again and again, perfect for now, tomorrow, and forever.

Lungomare’s ‘Made in Italy’ creations are relaxed, comfortable, and gender-free, designed to be worn by both him and her on different occasions and moments in life.

Your Role In Sustainable Fashion

By now you should be familiar with most of the facets of sustainable fashion: ethical, slow, vegan, eco-friendly, fair trade, recycled, upcycled, etc.

You also know that all these terms intersect in several ways, from materials used to activities performed, and to the final products.

Your role, as a consumer of fashion, is to create positive change.

First and foremost, become aware of the impact of your fashion consumption.

It might sound very simple but the way to support sustainable fashion is to be aware of what you buy in shops by asking yourself questions such as:

What are the emissions or environmental impact of this product?

Is it made from raw material or contains pesticides?

For how long am going to wear this?

Does my usage justify manufacturing them?

Does my ‘need’ justify the killing of an animal?

The cutting of another tree, or the pollution of another river?

Armed with such answers, make sure you only choose sustainable fashion products.

Ensure that the brands you’re buying from are minimizing their negative impact on the environment and 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 if 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.

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

What’s Next For Sustainable Fashion?

In the modern era, there is an acute need to produce in fashion via sustainable practices, ideally, free from greenhouse gas emissions.

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:

Respect biodiversity, the ecosystem, and the natural resources of this planet.

Use carbon dioxide free and renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, ocean, at every stage of the manufacturing and recycling processes.

Repair, reuse, and recycle the products and all constituent parts in sustainable conditions, with sustainable resources.