The term “sustainable fashion” is a term you might hear in articles, on fashion websites, and in magazines - but what does it really mean, and why should we care about it?
It’s no secret that the fashion industry is a massive polluter of the planet, and often workers are exploited, working in unsafe conditions for poor wages.
Wastewater from dyes pollutes water, hurting the environment and also human health. Unsold textiles are often sent to other countries and discarded in massive landfills.
Sustainable fashion is produced with care for the environment and garment workers. It includes the whole manufacturing process - caring for the soil fibers that are grown in, wastewater solutions, and a respectful work environment for garment workers.
“Regular” fashion and the environment
The fashion industry creates up to 20% of industrial water pollution. In areas near garment factories in cities in Bangladesh, the water has turned black from pollution from nearby factories dumping wastewater directly into rivers.
The environmental impact then affects those living nearby - less access to clean drinking water, fish, and health concerns being reported.
Fast Fashion and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
At the current rate of production, fashion is set to use up a quarter of the world's carbon budget by 2050. Producing fewer items - and in turn, consumers buying fewer items that end up getting trashed quickly - is necessary to slow down production for the planet.
The fashion industry creates between 2-8% of carbon emissions worldwide. It takes a lot of resources to produce fashion products. Fibers are either harvested (for natural fibers like cotton or linen) or man-made (such as polyester, which is typically made from crude oil and natural gas). After harvesting, fibers are spun and dyed, then woven or knitted into fabric, shipped to another factory to be cut, sewn, shipped to a warehouse or store, then to the consumer. Fibers do a lot of travel between production and arriving as a finished garment in your home, which contributes to the carbon footprint of the item.
Sustainable Practices in Fashion
Sustainable practices in fashion include material recycling, organic crops, and renewable energy. New technologies are being developed for new materials (apple or mushroom leather alternatives, for example) and new processes that consume fewer resources than traditional ones (such as using dyes without water).
Some fashion brands are now looking to a circular business model, meaning that when the product reaches the end of its life cycle, it can be brought back to the company to be recycled or reused into new products, instead of trashed.
For example, Margo Paige has a circular business model with their clear handbags. The bags can be returned and then recycled into new bags instead of the consumer trashing the bags and the brand creating new ones from new PVC.
Margo Paige’s apparel line is also made from recycled polyester, keeping this material out of landfill and decreasing the need for new polyester to be produced.
Social Impact and Ethical Considerations
It’s no secret that the fashion industry often exploits workers who work for very little pay, often in unsafe working environments and facing harassment. In 2013, 1,134 people died in a garment factory collapse in Rana Plaza, Bangladesh. Workers are often working with chemicals (especially dyes) which can be unsafe. Working conditions where clothing gets pressed can be very hot. Long hours are commonplace, as is meager pay and workplace harassment. It is estimated that only around 2% of workers around the world are earning a living wage.
Workers deserve fair wages and safe working environments. Autron Industry is one of the suppliers at Margo Paige, and according to their website, they provide fair working hours, including overtime fees, as well as hiring regular (as opposed to temporary) workers with contracts and insurance.
The Push Towards Supply Chain Transparency
When a consumer goes clothes shopping, they aren’t likely to know much about how that garment was made, the conditions of the factory, or environmental concerns about the production - they just see clothes for sale.
This is why transparency and traceability regarding sourcing are important. To shop more sustainably and ethically, a bit of research is required. Responsible supply chain practices include following International Labour Organization guidelines, such as no child labor, and safe and healthy working environments. These are a worker’s rights.
There is also a movement towards companies publishing information regarding where their clothing is made, in an effort to be transparent about their production. For example, the Transparency Pledge asks companies to post where their items are made as a first step towards transparency.
One of the suppliers of fabrics for Margo Paige is Gordon Fabrics, which sources fabrics from suppliers who take the Transparency Pledge and meet International Labour Organization standards.
Brands and Initiatives Making Change for the Better
While the production of fashion is often straining the planet and can have poor working environments, there are changemakers looking to make fashion more sustainable for the planet and respect workers’ rights.
Better Cotton is an initiative to grow and produce cotton in a way that is better for people and the planet. For example, by phasing out Highly Hazardous Pesticides and promoting water stewardship and greater care for the soil, cotton is produced in a manner much healthier for the planet and people. About 20% of the world’s cotton production is from Better Cotton farmers.
How can consumers make more sustainable choices?
It can be hard to know what to do as a consumer about making more sustainable choices. We live in an age where we are surrounded by pressure to buy and have more possessions. There are cheap and plentiful options available with a few taps on our phones.
Many of the “fast fashion” brands and options are created in the fastest and cheapest way possible, at a cost to the planet and human wellbeing.
Consider choosing new clothes from brands that promote ethical practices, from labor to manufacture. Circular business models, organic or recycled materials, and how long you expect them to last are some of the main things to keep in mind when buying new clothes.
Extending Garment Lifespan
The most sustainable clothes are the ones you already have. Consider what you can do to extend the lifespan of what is already in your closet.
- Mend your clothes: You just need a needle and thread to mend holes and sew back buttons and fasteners. There are lots of tutorials on YouTube or Pinterest to repair clothes without a sewing machine. If a repair job is outside your skill set, consider asking a friend or taking it to a local tailor.
- Care for your clothes: Read the garment care label on your clothes, and actually follow it! Hanging clothes to dry instead of putting them in the dryer prevents shrinking and additional wear on your clothes. Consider washing clothing in cold water instead of hot to use less power. In addition, dyes tend to run less when using a cold water setting.
- Give your clothes a second chance: If you aren’t wearing something anymore but it is still in good condition, consider donating, selling, or hosting a clothing swap with friends to get something new to you that isn’t polluting the planet to produce. You can also check out secondhand clothing - if thrift shops aren’t for you, try a local consignment shop that is curated. Buying secondhand prevents more chemicals from being released into the environment from the manufacturing process.
Shopping Responsibly for the Average Consumer
Having fewer clothes you wear more often helps to reduce your individual impact, because you are consuming less. Clothes less likely to go out of style quickly and more likely to last longer are better choices than very trendy clothes designed only to be worn for a short amount of time.
Choose quality over quantity when you can. Consider only buying clothing you actually expect to wear, and think about how it fits in with the clothes that you already have.
Industry Initiatives and Innovations
Sustainable Fashion Pioneers
The good news is that there are some brands working towards making a change in the fashion industry. Margo Paige was designed with a circular fashion model. Their bags can be sent back to the company to be reused when they are at the end of their lifespan.
Margo Paige also uses recycled polyester in their clothing. Polyester is a man-made material and doesn’t biodegrade, taking up room in landfills. Recycled polyester diverts material from landfill and uses polyester that has already been created.
Industry-wide Change for Sustainable Fashion
There are industry-wide organizations to help foster social and environmental change in the fashion industry. For example, Fashion Revolution is an organization that promotes garment worker welfare through the #whomademyclothes campaign and advocates for greater transparency in garment manufacturing. They advocate that businesses need to keep better data on their environmental impact so it can be more accurately measured, shared, and improved upon.
There are certifications for organic and ethically made clothing to make it easier for consumers to shop for socially and environmentally conscious clothing. One logo you may see on some clothing is from the Global Organic Textile Standard. Clothes with this logo are made from at least 70% organic fiber, meet wastewater criteria, and meet standards set by the International Labour Organization for its workers' well-being.
Keep in mind that this logo only applies to natural fibers such as cotton and wool, not man-made materials such as polyester. When shopping for polyester, look for recycled material.
Innovations in materials and processes (such as dyes) used in fashion are constantly evolving. DyeCoo is a company that uses reclaimed carbon dioxide to dye fabrics without water - instead, the CO2 is pressurized, and the dyes dissolve and are absorbed easily by the fabric without water. Traditionally, dying fabric creates lots of wastewater that can pollute waterways - or the wastewater needs to be treated before being released into the water.
Dyeing fabric without water also means that the facility that dyes the fabric is not dependent on having a body of water nearby to dump the water into, so it can be located closer to other processing facilities, reducing the distance that the garment has to travel, further reducing fossil fuel consumption related to transport during the manufacturing process.
Wastewater from dying fabric pollutes waterways and negatively impacts human health and the environment. Therefore, dying fabrics without water can make a huge environmental impact.
Other innovations include fake leather made from plants - typically fake leather is made from vinyl, a synthetic material that tends to crack or peel after a few years and then trashed where it does not biodegrade quickly. As the pace of fashion consumption is rising, it is critical that businesses make more sustainable choices in their manufacturing processes.
The Future of Sustainable Fashion
The rate at which consumers buy clothes is increasing - and this is putting an increased strain on the planet. The number of items the average consumer owns has gone up 60% over the past 15 years. The way in which clothing is produced is putting an unsustainable strain on the earth, and often exploiting garment workers.
Many of the initiatives above are driven by individual brands choosing steps to make a difference, but there is little accountability. As well, only about 2% of garment workers worldwide are paid a living wage.
Systemic change is needed within the industry, not just some brands choosing a better way forward. Garment production tends to be cheapest in countries with fewer government regulations. According to Fashion Revolution, boycotting brands is not the best way forward as garment workers depend on those jobs - instead, it is more helpful to create policies that will create better working conditions for the workers who need that income for a living.
At the individual level, consumers can lobby brands to disclose information about where their clothing is made and the lowest pay for their workers. Consumers can also show their values with their money, buying from brands that are making a visible effort to create environmental and social change with their business practices.
Government policy can help to force businesses that are exploiting workers and doing things like dumping wastewater into waterways to do better for their workers and the earth. This can help the people working in these areas with better quality of life through safe work environments, living wages, and environmental preservation.
Challenges and Opportunities with Sustainable Fashion
Change however takes time. Consumers have become used to clothing cheap in price and low in quality, which has normalized “disposable fashion” - where clothing only gets worn a few times before being trashed and then replaced just to be trashed and replaced again. This type of fast fashion is cheap and convenient for the consumer, who may not be aware of the environmental and social damage that fast fashion can cause.
However, consumers are willing to pay a bit more for clothing that is environmentally and socially responsible. Twenty-four percent of consumers are willing to pay more for textiles labeled recycled, according to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor research. The organization Fashion Revolution collected thousands of signatures for their Good Clothes, Fair Pay campaign to demand a living wage for garment workers. There is an opportunity for brands to do the right thing for the environment and workers, and there are customers who are willing to support these initiatives.
How can Individuals Help?
Individual consumers who want to make a difference can find out more about campaigns such as through Fashion Revolution, and lobby governments and organizations to become more transparent about the manufacturing process. They can support brands who are making efforts to use suppliers who are environmentally and socially conscious.
Buying higher quality items less often when you can is another way consumers can reduce their individual impact - think about how many uses you will get out of a garment before it reaches the end of it’s life, instead of just jumping on the latest trend at the cheapest price.
Individuals and organizations can work together to make lasting changes in the impact that fashion has on the world.
Written by: Elise Chase–Sinclair
Elise Chase-Sinclair is a sewing blogger/writer/instructor, and also a costume designer. Her mission is to help people feel good in the clothes they wear by teaching them how to make their clothes fit their body - and not the other way around. Elise has made and altered clothes for actors, dancers, opera singers and regular folks. Through her work with different people, she has become an expert at what alteration and pattern drafting techniques get the best fit for different bodies. When Elise isn’t sewing or blogging, you can find her going for a walk in nature with her family.