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What is sustainable fashion?

Definition

“Sustainable fashion”, also referred to as “ethical fashion”, “green fashion” or “eco fashion”, is an approach of designing and manufacturing clothes in a way that both the ecological and social (on workers and communities) impact remain manageable by our planet and humans, and allow the process to repeat itself (ideally) indefinitely.

Why the Fashion Industry Needs to Transition Toward Sustainability.

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on the planet and is responsible for 10% of total global carbon emissions. Only one industry does worse: oil.

Today the environmental impact of the fashion industry has irreversible consequences:

  • Health and well-being of farmers and workers.
  • Air, soil and water pollution in cities which are highly dependent on manufacturing.
  • Plastic released into oceans through use of polyester and other synthetic fibers.
  • Acceleration of global warming through the CO2 generated by both the manufacturing and transportation processes.

Why the Fashion Industry Needs to Transition Toward Sustainability.

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on the planet and is responsible for 10% of total global carbon emissions. Only one industry does worse: oil.

Today the environmental impact of the fashion industry has irreversible consequences:

  • Health and well-being of farmers and workers.
  • Air, soil and water pollution in cities which are highly dependent on manufacturing.
  • Plastic released into oceans through use of polyester and other synthetic fibers.
  • Acceleration of global warming through the CO2 generated by both the manufacturing and transportation processes.

Sustainable Fashion Manufacturers Use Eco-Friendly Raw Materials.

The amount of cotton needed for one pair of jeans can take up to 20,000 liters of water to produce.

The production of raw material is responsible for the highest proportion of the environmental footprint left by the fashion manufacturing process.

Sustainable fashion manufacturers give preference to raw material requiring less water, fewer pesticides, and which are also easier to recycle or repurpose:

  • By avoiding polyester which is made from petroleum as a raw material, and is the most widely used material in the fashion industry.
  • By choosing organic cotton over non-organic, which represents 16% of global insecticide use.
  • By searching for alternative plants which require less water and fewer chemicals than cotton, such as soy, hemp or bamboo.
  • By using recycled material such as PET plastics and used clothes.

Optimizing the Manufacturing Process.

This can be achieved by:

  • Designing clothes that are easily recyclable.
  • Choosing suppliers who follow the guidelines set out by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), Bluesign, and Fair Trade.
  • Adopting new energy and water-efficient techniques.
  • Going the extra mile by offering resale and repair services, like Patagonia does.

Optimizing the Manufacturing Process.

This can be achieved by:

  • Designing clothes that are easily recyclable.
  • Choosing suppliers who follow the guidelines set out by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), Bluesign, and Fair Trade.
  • Adopting new energy and water-efficient techniques.
  • Going the extra mile by offering resale and repair services, like Patagonia does.

Reducing the Carbon Footprint of the Transportation Process.

A cotton T-shirt using raw material grown in India, manufactured in China, then sold to a US consumer has had to travel 10,000 miles. It may make sense economically, but not environmentally.

The transportation process is the second source of carbon emissions. The more manufacturers reduce the total distance traveled by clothes from the production to the final sale, the lower the impact.

Read more about why local fashion is more sustainable.

Sustainable Fashion Starts With Sustainable Design.

Some designs of yesteryear remain fiercely here and now: the Wassily Chair designed in 1925, the Rolex Oyster designed in 1926, the Vespa designed in 1946. All of these design icons remain largely unchanged. Fashion too has its enduring icons: Levi’s jeans, a trenchcoat by Aquascutum or Burberry, a dress by Chanel.

 

State-of-the-Art Design

Icons of fashion have certain things in common: the design is simple, elegant, and fit for the purpose of the garment. The best raw materials are used and great care is taken during the production process.

 

Designed to Be Repairable

Once produced, garments, shoes or accessories were designed to be repaired if necessary, and the skills were available in the marketplace for this to happen. They were considered worth repairing given the added longevity such repairs would guarantee. Repair was often a necessity and throwing something out was not even considered as an option.

 

Designed to Last

Clothing and accessories were seen as an investment, something to be looked after carefully, something that could be handed down from one generation to the next. The testimony of this can be seen in today’s healthy obsession with ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’. The classic look of past generations endures and while modern fashion brands often imitate or recreate certain pieces and styles, many seek to own original items. Of course some icons of the past are still being made today with the same loving care as when they were conceived. Classic style never dies and today’s manufacturers are coming back to this concept.

The 3 Pillars of Sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability, Social, Environmental and Economic, also referred to as ‘people, plants and profits’ are inextricably intertwined.

environmental icon

Environmental

It can be said that without the environmental pillar, the other two pillars cannot exist. Perhaps in the past, people put profits before the planet when considering manufacturing and the damage is being seen and felt now. It’s time to take action and many companies are taking up the challenge.

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Social

Respect for the workforce is also seen as fundamental, with ever increasing regulation of the labor industry which guarantees fair working conditions and upholds basic rights for all.

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Economic

Profitability and growth are necessary for a company to survive, and yet clothing manufacturers are seeking to fulfill this aim whilst considering the other two pillars. Practices are being put in place that protect the environment, both in the acquisition and processing of raw materials such as fabrics and dyes, as well as in the garment manufacturing process, reducing emissions and harmful waste.

Sustainable Fashion Pioneers

Patagonia logo
Fjall Raven logo
Norrona logo

“Reduce Repair Reuse Recycle”: one of the beliefs put forward by California-based eco-trailblazer Patagonia, considered the American pioneer.

Swedish manufacturer Fjall Raven has been making durable and functional outdoor equipment for mountain lovers since 1960 while Norrona, a classic Norwegian outwear brand, has been around since 1929!

The number of companies that are embracing quality, sustainability, and respect is steadily growing. See our full list of innovative and ethical clothing brands

Ethical Certifications

How do you find out exactly what clothing and textile manufacturers are doing to achieve sustainability?

There are a whole host of organizations such as USDA Organic, Fair Trade and Bluesign, which regulate everything from farming practices and labor standards to environmental protection in manufacturing. Here is a guide to organic and ethical clothing certifications.

USDA Organic logo
Fair Trade logo
Bluesign logo
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