Google is a reliable barometer of what’s on our minds. The search engine has recorded an exponential rise in the number of people typing ‘sustainable fashion’ into search bars over the past few years. This implies that more people are now connecting the contents of their wardrobe with the climate and ecological emergency. Maybe you’re one of them.
Yet ‘sustainable’ is a term that’s used (and abused, sometimes with little to back it up) by brands keen to respond to consumers’ growing demand for clothing that honours the planet. As a result, it can be challenging to know how to become a sustainable fashion consumer. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
What’s unsustainable about fashion?
If you are one of the many people who has searched for sustainable fashion, you may already be conscious of the multiple negative environmental and social impacts of conventional clothing.
The fashion industry is ranked fourth in terms of its environmental impact – behind only housing, transport, and food. Clothes are a major contributor to the problem of plastic in the ocean: An estimated half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres shed during the washing of synthetic textiles such as polyester end up in the ocean each year. What’s more, McKinsey reported that the global fashion industry produced around 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2018. This is equivalent to the combined annual GHG emissions of France, Germany and the UK, making fashion a large-scale contributor to climate change.
In addition to the damage wrought on the planet, the modern fashion industry relies on exploited labour in developing countries. Garment workers are routinely paid poverty wages, forced to work in unsafe conditions and denied representation.
What is sustainable fashion?
Put simply, sustainable fashion prioritises the planet and people, not only profit.
Sustainable fashion has been created by workers who have been paid a living wage and whose craft is valued. Sustainable fashion has been produced in ways that minimise environmental footprint, with radically lower water usage, carbon emissions and chemical pollution. The choice of fibres for these clothes is often organic cotton, cellulose sourced from renewable wood, or responsible wool. Synthetic fibres such as polyester aren’t used to make sustainable clothing due to their origin in fossil fuels, high carbon footprint, and tendency to shed microplastics when laundered.
Unlike conventional fashion, sustainable fashion is intended to endure and be loved for many years. This is in contrast to wasteful ‘fast fashion’ which is often worn just a few times before finding its way to landfill: Just 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments.
Getting started with sustainable fashion
Identifying truly sustainable clothing is not straightforward. Terms such as ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’ seem to offer a guarantee of sustainability, but often disguise a much more complex reality.
The following strategies can be used to move towards a more sustainable approach to dressing:
1: Shop and sell secondhand
Buying preloved clothes is trending across all age groups and especially with younger shoppers.
Source – World Economic Forum (2019)
Collaborative consumption has become a serious force in fashion, due to new platform that make re-selling use clothes to peers simple and fun. Re-commerce app Depop is now used by a third of 16-24-year-olds in the UK, and joins other platforms such as Vinted, eBay and Re-Fashion.
Buying secondhand clothing can not only prevent that garment from finding its way to landfill, but when it replaces the purchase of a new item, avoids the resource extraction and pollution that result from the manufacturing process. Plus, shopping secondhand can create a wardrobe of unique finds – so much more special than high street buys.
2. Buy for the long term
A fundamental problem within fashion is the sheer amount of clothing we’re buying. Globally, clothing production approximately doubled between 2000 – 2015 and this has been accompanied by a trend towards disposability of fashion. This take-make-dispose model is responsible for the enormous quantities of natural resources the clothing industry gobbles up, as well as the volumes of hard-to-recycle waste it creates.
Activist Livia Firth advocates buying only pieces that will be worn a minimum of 30 times: It’s about thinking of your clothes as an investment rather than something disposable.
3. Choose mission-driven brands
Mission-driven brands including Veja, People Tree and Patagonia have a greater purpose beyond just providing returns for shareholders. These are brands whose very reason for existing is to create decent work and to restore our natural environment.
One of the main raw materials of Veja is rubber from the Amazon. The brand’s founders wanted to find a way that money could be made by keeping the forest thriving, rather than cutting it down. More than 450 tonnes of rubber were purchased from 2004 to the end of 2019 from 620 families. VEJA buys it at twice the market price.
People Tree was founded to create ethical and environmentally positive alternatives to mainstream fashion. The brand generates highly skilled and fairly rewarded work through its incorporation of traditional artisan skills such as hand weaving, hand knitting, hand embroidery and hand block printing.
As well as donating 10% of profits to environmental organisations and making clothing that is notoriously long-lasting, American outdoors brand Patagonia recently launched a ‘Worn and Wear’ programme. The programme upcycles old clothes and helps keep clothes in action for longer through repair and reuse.
When shopping, look for certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), World Fair Trade Organization and B Corps as these provide assurance that ethical and environmental best practices are observed by brands.
These brands’ products are justifiably more expensive given that more expensive by virtue of the fair wages they pay to workers and the fair prices they pay for raw materials. Higher prices can be a barrier, so many prefer to buy mainly secondhand clothes and splurge occasionally on new sustainable pieces.
4. Rent fashion instead of buying
Digital fashion platforms including Hurr and MyWardrobe HQ have reported enormous growth. Fashion rental is predicted to move from special occasions into more casual and therefore more frequent occasions.
One of the benefits that fast fashion provides is novelty – the ability to have something brand new to wear. This is the crux of the environmental damage fashion causes. Renting fashion provides the thrill of a new dress for an occasion but avoids the associated environmental and social costs. Rental is a sustainable option when it replaces buying brand new.
Why do this?
Often, we think that our individual actions don’t count: we are too small to make a difference. But that’s not true. Over years of changed shopping behaviour, the amount of carbon and water saved, and the amount paid to garment workers mounts up. You might also be surprised by the ways your own moves towards sustainability inspire others to do likewise, creating more change than you anticipated.