What Is Sustainable Fashion?
Sustainable fashion is the shift towards purchasing and wearing clothing that has a low environmental impact. Many designers and brands (especially fast fashion companies) have reputations for being wasteful, using environmentally damaging processes, sourcing unethical animal-based fabrics, and unjust labor practices, making fashion an overall unsustainable industry that also poses issues of social justice.
All clothes have some sort of environmental impact, since resources — and regular washing — are required for even the lowest impact garment. That said, there are so many ways to lower the environmental footprint of your fashion consumption.
Why Is the Fashion Industry Unsustainable?
As a whole, the fashion industry is incredibly wasteful. The clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter globally, after oil, according to Forbes. Where does all that pollution come from? For one thing, a ton of pesticides are used to grow cotton, a common natural fabric. In fact, 25 percent of the U.S.’s pesticides are used to grow cotton, according to a study published on NCBI. The chemicals in pesticides can pollute soil and waterways in the communities where the plants are grown.
Fashion also uses a lot more water than you’d think. Every year, China’s fashion industry discharges more than 2.5 billion tons of wastewater, according to Edge. Not to mention, 20,000 liters of water are needed to grow the amount of cotton required for one T-shirt and one pair of jeans. That said, clothing made from cotton (and other natural fabrics like linen, bamboo, and lyocell) can be composted when it is no longer wearable, meaning the garment will never go to landfill.
And when non-natural fabrics are used, the environmental impact can be even higher. All synthetic fabrics, from polyester to nylon to rayon to spandex, are essentially forms of plastic, made from fossil fuels including coal and petroleum. Plus, when clothing made from those fabrics is no longer wearable, it either goes to landfill, or is “downcycled” into new materials such as insulation.
Furthermore, a lot of that fabric actually never makes it into the final garment. Most major fashion companies — from fast fashion brands to designer labels — design patterns that do not use entire rectangles of fabric, leaving a ton of scraps, deadstock, and offcuts to be sent to landfill. And some companies take that level of waste a step further by incinerating perfectly good clothing that they were unable to sell. For example, Burberry made headlines for incinerating $36.5 million worth of new clothing in the year 2017, which the brand reportedly did to avoid the clothing hitting the market at discounted prices, according to the NY Post.
How Does Sustainable Fashion Help the Environment?
When brands take steps to make their clothes ethically, with eco-friendly materials, and without sending clothes or fabric scraps to landfill or incineration, they lessen their footprint on planet Earth. With so many fast fashion brands dominating the industry, every purchase made from a sustainable company increases the demand for slow, eco-friendly fashion. Plus, because there is already a significant surplus of clothes in existence, humans don't actually need that many new clothes to be produced — meaning the standards for fashion brands to be considered sustainable keep rising.
What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion is cheap clothing that large companies design, manufacture, and put in stores or online extremely quickly, often to keep up with new trends. To achieve such a quick turnaround and low price tag, these companies often disregard things like eco-friendly business practices and healthy working conditions.
Even though fast fashion’s price tags are usually low, the cost on the environment and on the people making the clothing is often high. Not to mention, the low price tag isn’t actually as low as you think. A $5 T-shirt most likely will not last very long, making it essentially a disposable item in the eyes of many consumers, keeping them coming back to the store for replacements.
Which Stores Sell Fast Fashion?
Common fast fashion shops and online stores include Forever 21, Nasty Gal, Zara, Gap, Primark, Uniqlo, Topshop, Urban Outfitters, and H&M. Basically, stay away from any shop where the prices seem way too good to be true, or where new styles are constantly appearing on shelves.
Sustainable Fashion Brands and Designers
Even though fast fashion is having a moment right now, there are also so many designers combating that with ethical, sustainable, and slow fashion practices. Smaller fashion labels including Tonlé and Zero Waste Daniel both use deadstock fabric or pre-consumer fabric waste to make their clothes, meaning they do not produce any waste.
There are also plenty of larger fashion designers and brands who have dedicated their businesses to low-waste, ethical, and sustainable practices — for example, Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, and Reformation.
Why Is Sustainable Fashion Expensive?
Brands with sustainable business practices do not cut the same corners that fast fashion brands do — and unfortunately, the price of fair labor practices and sustainability initiatives is often higher than outsourcing to sweatshops that underpay their employees. So even though some sustainable fashion brands are pricey, you can think of buying a responsibly-made garment as an upfront investment, since the item could last you for years and years.
Affordable Sustainable Fashion
The most sustainable and affordable option when it comes to fashion is purchasing items secondhand, and ideally ones made from all-natural materials, like cotton, linen, and bamboo.
Why Is Secondhand Shopping Eco-Friendly?
Shopping secondhand is sustainable because you are only buying things that are already in the waste stream, meaning you’re essentially saving an item from going to landfill. Additionally, you’re not creating demand for new items to be produced. Not to mention, shopping secondhand can help you save money — buying a garment secondhand is always cheaper than buying that same garment brand new, it allows you to spend fast fashion prices on slow-made clothing, and it allows you to participate in trends without shopping at stores that do not align with your ethics.
Where Can I Buy Sustainable Secondhand Clothes?
You can buy secondhand clothes in person at thrift stores like Goodwill, consignment stores, and vintage shops. If you prefer to shop online, or if you are looking for a specific item, you may be interested in apps like Poshmark, Depop, and thredUP, or websites like eBay.
You can also get new low-impact clothing for free by attending or organizing a clothing swap, or scoring hand-me-downs from friends or family.
Sustainable Fashion Documentaries
A documentary called The True Cost has helped open many eyes to the pitfalls of the fashion industry. As The True Cost’s website explains, the price of clothing keeps getting cheaper; meanwhile, the human and environmental costs have only gotten higher. The film gets into the heartbreaking details of fashion’s environmental impact and on the unethical labor practices that are far too common in fashion factories, and it’s a must-watch for any fashion lover.
Celebrities Who Wear Sustainable Fashion
Many famous people have used their platforms to promote sustainable fashion, everywhere from social media to the streets to the red carpet. One example is Suzy Amis Cameron, who founded Red Carpet Green Dress, a campaign that helps designers make sustainable outfits for celebs to wear to public events.
Sustainable Fashion Bloggers
If you still want to learn more about sustainable fashion (and there is so much to learn), there are tons of bloggers and YouTubers you can use as resources for brand recommendations, tips, donation advice, and more. Some knowledgeable ethical fashion bloggers include: Eco Cult, The Un-Material Girl, Old World New, Adimay, and Sutton + Grove.
Photo source: iStock