What is sustainable fashion?
The fashion industry has been taking its toll on the environment for a long time.
Ranked among the top five largest polluting sectors, 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by clothing and footwear production – this is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined1!
Showing no real sign of slowing down anytime soon, the consumerism culture continues to drive the expansion of the industry’s environmental footprint, which has extremely negative impacts on our planet.
In this article, we outline why sustainable fashion matters, what it is, and share how you can adopt a more eco-conscious wardrobe.
Why does sustainable fashion matter?
What used to be four ‘trend seasons’ a year has now increased up to two to three trends per month.
Fast fashion is the root cause of some of the biggest environmental problems we face in today’s modern, rushing world. Fast fashion is cheap, trendy fashion that caters to our consumerism behaviors, meaning 24/7 manufacturing and short-lived garment use, leading to overproduction with a lot of waste and pollution as its byproduct.
Examples of popular fast fashion brands include ASOS, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, GAP, Primark, Victoria’s Secret, Fashion Nova, and more – you get the picture.
To give you more context into the severity of these problems, here are some jaw-dropping statistics:
· Carbon emissions
Global textile and clothing production was estimated to be responsible for 10% of total CO2 emissions – this equals 4-5 billion tons annually2. It is predicted that by 2030, this figure will increase by 50 percent.
· Water use
It takes a lot of water to produce textile.
For just one t-shirt alone, 2,700 liters of freshwater is needed – that’s enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years! We also can’t forget the amount of water required to grow cotton and other animal fibers too. It was estimated that the global clothing and textile industry used 79 billion cubic meters of water in 20153 – imagine what that figure is today?
Garments made with synthetic fibers such as polyester, acrylic, and nylon are responsible for 35% of global microplastic pollution. When washed, these tiny plastic fibers are released into the ocean - the European Parliament Research Service discovered 0.5 million tons of microfibers are distributed into the environment each year.
Other substantial impacts caused by the fashion industry include deforestation, landfill, unfair working conditions, underpaid wages, the list goes on…
What is sustainable clothing? Don’t be fooled!
Sustainable fashion refers to clothing and textiles that are designed, manufactured, and distributed in an environmentally and socio-economically manner. The aim is to leave a minimal negative environmental impact.
With the abundance of negative criticism surrounding the fashion industry over its climate and social issues, sustainable fashion has become increasingly popular.
However, as this initiative becomes more mainstream, fast fashion brands have quickly followed this - as ironically - another trend.
While some brands have genuine intentions to become more eco-conscious, others easily use a list of buzzwords such as “eco-friendly,” “organic,” “conscious,” and “ethically-made,” to mislead customers and remain attractive to the new mindful audience– this is called “greenwashing.” For example, some garments labeled with “made with organic cotton” still use cheap, convenient synthetic dyes for coloring, or those that claim to use “recycled” materials are still manufactured in sweatshop conditions.
How to be more sustainably responsible
Leading a more sustainable lifestyle, in general, can be challenging, but there are a few easy ways you can become more responsible with your wardrobe. The key is to be more conscious. Here are two main things to keep in mind:
1. Reuse what already exists
Make the most of what has already been produced!
The idea is to lengthen the lifecycle of an item of clothing and reduce your amount of waste. That could mean investing in more timeless pieces made with higher quality materials to last more than one season, or if you get bored of styles quickly, try switching things up by borrowing from or swapping clothes with a friend. Alternatively, you can also buy secondhand on fashion sites or at your local thrift stores.
2. Know what you’re buying
The next time you do need to buy new garments, be aware of the materials and dyes that are shown on the labels. Here are some things to remember:
· Plant-based and semi-synthetic fibers with low environmental impact include: linen, hemp, organic cotton, ramie, natural rubber, Tencel, sustainable viscose
· Synthetic and animal-based fibers with serious environmental impact you should avoid: polyester, nylon, bamboo, leather, vegan leather, cashmere, cotton, wool, and down.
· Fast fashion brands who claim a garment is made with organic cotton have likely used synthetic dyes. If they have used natural dyes, they will state this on their product pages or website.
· Don’t forget the packaging – does the brand use minimal packaging? Do they use recycled or biodegradable materials?
· Don’t be afraid to ask the brands you are buying from. They should have answers to any of your questions, and hopefully they can help you make that educated decision.
In today’s world, sustainability is a journey and not a destination. With little to no regulatory measures of the fashion industry, many brands exploit the opportunity to make big sustainable claims to continue their fast-growing business. Fashion and textile production may not slow down anytime soon, and therefore it is up to us to make the difference.
Author: Courtney Black
1 European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) (2017), UN (2018)
2Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 189–200 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0039-9
3 EPRS (2017)
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