What is sustainable fashion? Here is a simple guide, for both, consumers and brands. 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.
The following guide was designed to explain what is sustainable fashion. Sustainable fashion from both, the brand perspective and what sustainable fashion is for people.
In this guide, we’ll cover concepts such as second-hand fashion, the emergence of vegan and cruelty- free fashion, eco-friendly and eco-conscious fashion, slow and fair fashion, and the latest trend, upcycled luxury fashion.
To create this sustainable fashion guide, we’ve put together top minds in the field of sustainable fashion, from academia to business. So, in times of greenwashing, when brands hide behind certifications and fake labels, this is your number one guide to true and honest sustainable fashion. So here we go with ‘what is sustainable fashion?’
Let’s start with a fact about sustainable fashion! Truth be told, fashion cannot become absolutely sustainable. Why? Because the simple act of creating apparel consumes the planet little by little. Just like any other types of fashion, sustainable fashion also uses electricity and water.
Similarly, as a buyer, you’re not that sustainable by merely washing your clothes. You use detergent which pollutes the environment – no matter how eco-friendly it is – water and electricity.
So what’s the good part then? The achievement of sustainable fashion can be obtained in many, many ways. But first, we have to start by understanding what sustainable fashion means to the brands.
Second, we must approach the sustainable fashion topic with an open mind. By doing so, we’ll learn where you, as a buyer, stand from a sustainability point of view.
Third, only after you’ve learned about all different aspects of sustainable fashion, you should embark on the change, as a future sustainable fashion consumer.
Understanding what is sustainable fashion for brands is simple. It means creating apparel in a considerate way towards the planet, animals and people. It means to create fashion without leaving a harmful footprint that does damage the world we live in.
For you, who loves fashion and is also interested in becoming more sustainable, sustainable fashion encapsulates far more meanings. Also, sustainable fashion from a consumer perspective requires the understanding of the ways to achieve it.
In simple terms, sustainable fashion means thinking twice about what you buy. But, it also means understanding which side of the fashion world you are supporting through your purchases. It requires asking yourself some simple questions before buying another piece of fashion, such as:
- Am I going to wear this new garment or shoes to the extent of justifying its manufacturing?
- To the extent of justifying the killing of another animal?
- To the extent of justifying the pollution of another river and the cutting of another tree?
If you don’t know where and how to start your quest in becoming a sustainable fashion consumer, it’s alright. We are here to help.
To make this journey more manageable for you, we have listed some of the biggest pros and cons of the main approaches you can take when embarking on your sustainable fashion course.
1. Swapping clothes in three simple ways
a. Swapping clothes is one of the quickest and most sustainable fashion solutions, as it allows you all to give unwanted apparel a new life. The fastest way to do it is with the help of your friends.
Moreover, the garments you save by swapping over will avoid the landfill so here’s another win for the planet!
b. Now, you might say, I do not have friends, or my friends are not interested in swapping clothes. That’s also fine. We live in the digital era, with hundreds of online apps and Facebook groups that embrace this idea of swapping clothes.
Just go to Facebook, open the groups’ section and search for ‘clothes swap’ in your location.
c. The third option is for the braver ones. You can begin to organise private swapping events at your home. To start, contact at least 10 potential participants to ensure that you have a wide range of sizes. It is a critical step as you don’t want to have three participants with sizes at the opposite poles.
2. What is sustainable fashion? – Second-hand apparel
Once you’ve exhausted the swapping fashion solution described above, you can embark on the second-hand apparel to approach sustainable fashion.
It is my preferred solution to date because the apparel already exists, so it doesn’t require manufacturing. This way, you are always finding new brands, new clothes, and at the same time, you are avoiding the negative impact of fashion manufacturing.
However, there is a downside to buying second-hand fashion. It fuels fast fashion purchases by giving sellers money they can use to keep buying wasteful clothes.
So if you’re going down this route, make sure you only purchase high-quality second hand or exquisite vintage pieces, of course, if your budget allows it.
3. Understand and embrace the concept of slow fashion
The slow fashion concept is straightforward. It is the opposite of fast fashion, and from a brand perspective, it refers to being environmentally friendly by producing fewer fashion apparels or making them only on order.
More than that, from a consumer angle, slow fashion means buying less often and buying quality items so you can wear what you buy for a longer time.
However, there is a problem here as it might be that your fashion taste change over time, so the key here is only to choose the type of fashion that you see yourself wearing for a long time.
The advantage of buying slow fashion is that when it breaks, you’ll be compelled to fix it rather than throwing it away, given the money you’ve spent on it, and the role it has in your wardrobe.
4. Ethical and fair fashion choices
Before you buy new fashion, always make sure that the label you’re choosing is guaranteeing fair wages to its workers, and it improves their quality of life.
Google it; there’s no excuse to say ‘I didn’t know’ nowadays – in the digital era. Ensuring the minimum living wage would see lesser conflicts, more love, peace, and happiness in the world.
5. Careful with sustainable fashion certifications
There are many brands out there trying to exploit this new wave of sustainable fashion. There’s a growing number of organisations creating certifications after certifications, tricking new fashion labels into thinking that they must have them to appeal to conscious consumers.
The problem here is that some of those certificates are given to whoever pays for them and they mean nothing. Moreover, if a small family brand cannot afford those certifications, it doesn’t mean they are not sustainable, it means they couldn’t afford it.
Same applies to brands that have certifications over certifications. It doesn’t mean those brands are sustainable; it might just mean they’re trying to construct a sustainable image to hide something more sinister.
So always make sure you check the brand’s website. See where the materials come from, what is their philosophy, their idea about the future of fashion.
Check their social media channels, and even contact them with questions about their products and materials. 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 sustainable fashion certificates they have.
6. From vegan food to vegan fashion
Vegan fashion might not sound as posh as fashion lovers would like to. But, if you can ignore the name, vegan fashion is, in fact, sustainable and animal-friendly fashion.
It is eco-friendly by reducing the negative environmental impact caused by raising and feeding millions of animals.
It is cruelty-free by stopping the killing of animals and their suffering for your clothes. However, there’s a caveat here as well. In order to benefit from the vegan fashion branding, some brands will use plastic or other non-biodegradable fibres as a replacement to animal-based products.
Unfortunately, while this strategy is saving some animal lives, on the one hand, the plastic-based materials do more damage in the long term. By ending up in landfills and oceans, these materials directly contribute to eco-pollution and are indirectly killing millions of fish and animals in a short amount of time.
Vegan fashion labels that are also making sustainable fashion products use innovative materials such as Lenzing, Pinatex, Tencel, cork, seacell, leather from mushrooms, hemp, and other recycled materials.
7. What is sustainable fashion? – Local production
Local production is critical to minimise the global carbon footprint! Always buy sustainable fashion made by local artisans instead of garments made thousands of miles away. By merely having a t-shirt transported to you releases out a considerable amount of C02 in the atmosphere.
However, a note of caution here. It is not always true that if the label says ‘Made in Italy‘, that the product was made in that country.
In fact, in most cases, making only a part of the apparel is sufficient to allow the brand to use that labelling, so before you buy, ask. Most sustainable fashion brands that manufacture locally are always very expressive about their production practices, so it might be easy to find out.
8. What is Sustainable fashion – minimalist lifestyle
A minimalist lifestyle means having as little as possible fashion garments. Buying and using only what’s required also means in less manufacturing and less pollution, therefore less waste.
Having a minimalist lifestyle might be hard If you are someone who likes to change styles very often and you might get bored by not being able to experiment around with new outfits so don’t be too drastic with your initial choice.
Do it step by step. Start by discarding whatever you don’t consider essential, you no longer need, or it does not contribute to your idea of a more sustainable fashion closet.
Yet, for a while at least, consider keeping a second pair of sneakers until they wear out or until you buy the next sustainable fashion pair.
9. What is sustainable fashion? – The issue with organic cotton
While organic cotton sounds like next-level luxury material for a conscious buyer, there are positives and negatives with this material.
On the positive, organic cotton saves the planet from pesticides and other unnecessary toxic chemicals.
That means that in the long term, this material is far better for the land and the health of the local farmers. At the same time, choosing organic cotton means that the wildlife is protected as well.
However, it is essential to understand that the use of organic cotton requires enormous amounts of water. Also, the label of organic cotton is often misleading by making buyers think it is healthy for their skin.
Just like all cotton, even the most organic cotton is treated with toxic chemicals and dyed to the desired colour of the brand that’s buying it.
That is why, it is worth avoiding organic cotton and choose, whenever possible alternative fabrics such as fabrics from hemp, bamboo, Tencel, Lensing, and Pinatex, given their comparable if not better qualities and requirements for far lesser water.
10. The times of upcycled luxury fashion
The movement initially began with recycled fashion, however, the term didn’t sit too well with fashionistas. Recycled fashion was associated with used, low quality, or even dirty. But, the industry thinkers came up with a solution.
It is called upcycled fashion and, guess what, it works like magic. Upcycled fashion, makes the final products as unique, rare, almost like a new form of luxury fashion.
And that’s a great result as the benefits of using upcycled materials for a more sustainable fashion are tremendous. For instance, here are two of the most important advantages of upcycled fashion:
a. First and foremost, upcycled fashion is critical to waste reduction. Upcycled fashion is reusing materials that otherwise would have no purpose.
b. By its own nature, upcycled fashion reduces all sorts of 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.
c. Both recycled and upcycled materials are releasing microfibres in the environment. As these microfibres can’t be filtered out of the water, they all end up in oceans, causing pollution, killing fish and causing a lot of damage in the long term.
d. To upcycled materials, companies end up using more energy and chemicals than they would require in the case of using novel materials to create new garments.
For example, right now, Adidas is very popular for their collaboration with Parley in creating the Parley for the oceans edition of sneakers.
However, the process of recycling PET bottles requires large quantities of chemicals and double electricity.
That means that the creation of a sustainable fashion pair of sneakers might not 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.
A more rigorous approach to sustainable fashion
In our modern society, there is an acute need to produce in more sustainable ways, in all industries, not just fashion. Sustainability in fashion must include how we produce and consume apparel and accessories.
It is a trend that’s catching like fire as a growing number of clothing companies all over the world have embarked on their journeys of sustainability. Journeys that comprise the production phase, but also the encouragement to reuse and recycle.
Clothing companies are employing CSR managers and sustainability experts to realign their business models, production processes and bring new concepts that can push the businesses towards sustainability. However, despite the growing interest in sustainability in the fashion industry, to date, there is no universal definition of what sustainable fashion means.
Mostly, the issue is caused by the lack of introducing all the participants in the sustainable fashion process, from consumers to brands and policymakers. Thus, WTVOX and our experts have put together the most accepted definition of sustainable fashion to date:
“Sustainable fashion is defined as the manufacturing, marketing, and usage of fashion apparel and accessories in the most sustainable manner possible, with care for the environment, animals, and people. It is a process that involves continuous development at all stages of the product’s life cycle. It requires sustainable design, sustainable materials, sustainable manufacturing, sustainable transport, storage, marketing and finally, sustainable consumer reuse, repair, and recycling of the products.”
Exploring further the definition of sustainable fashion, we look at the environmental aspect. Here, the aim is to minimise any undesirable ecological impact of the product’s life cycle by:
a) Use the biodiversity, ecosystem, and all-natural resources of the planet, such as water, energy, land, soil, animals, plants, in the most efficient ways.
b) Always use renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, ocean, at every stage of the manufacturing and recycling processes.
c) Repair, reuse, and recycle the product and all constituent parts in sustainable conditions, with sustainable resources. From an ethical and human resources perspective, sustainable fashion practices must ensure that existing working conditions (be that on the field, in the factories), any part of the transportation chain, and in the retail stores, comply with good ethics and are done according to the most recent international codes of conduct (K Fletcher, 2013).