What Is Sustainable Fashion? (Material, Production, Use, Afterlife)
Is sustainable fashion just a fad of well-marketed trendsetters, or is it a real step towards a more eco-friendly clothing industry? Honestly, probably a little bit of both and everything in between. At this point, who knows what sustainable is and what isn’t? Because honestly… There is so much to it!
Sustainable fashion is a movement that works towards a better fashion industry from an ecological, social, cultural and financial perspective. It seeks for all stakeholders to make improvements in the fields of:
Use (for current generations)
Afterlife (for future generations)
Where to start… Maybe some numbers first, to get you to realize the importance of the role of the fashion industry in climate change and the degradation of social norms.
Facts & Numbers
Fast Fashion aims to get clothes from “a designer’s brain” to the stores in 15 days (Wikipedia).
It takes an astonishing 20,000 liters of water (WWF) to produce one pair of jeans.
An undercover worker in a sweatshop was required to work 18 days in a row (BBC).
On average, garments are worn only seven times (MSN) before being thrown out.
Textile waste occupies nearly 5% of all landfill space (WearDonateRecyle.org).
30% of clothes are never sold (ShareCloth.com).
From Haute Couture and Custom-Made Clothing to Fast Fashion
Fast fashion is a product that didn’t exist until very recently. Although, according to Wikipedia, it is actually traceable since the early 1800s, when fashion started becoming more of a “thing” because of industrialization. Until then, fashion was a labor-intensive process that involved obtaining, preparing and finalizing materials into garments that could be worn.
With industrialization, production methods became faster, cheaper and more common, and so clothes themselves became more affordable for a wider public, too. The middle classes could now access a market that was until then way out of their league.
The introduction of sweatshops and World War II sped up the process to make more standardized clothing instead of custom-made.
In the 60s and 70s, people started using clothes and style more as a way of personal expression and fashion started becoming more and more trend-based. In the 80s and 90s, fast fashion skyrocketed together with increased consumerism.
Up until that time, haute couture (read more about it on Wikipedia!) had been the only style really available. Haute couture refers to custom-made, fitting garments made with luxury fibers and exotic fabrics, that were (are) created by hand from start to finish. Characteristically, the quality was very, very good and up until today, the term haute couture may only be used by firms that meet extremely high standards.
Needless to say, such high-end fashion was bound to be expensive and was only available for the wealthy. Exclusively natural, high quality fibers and materials were used for haute couture.
Fast fashion (read more about this on Wikipedia!), on the other hand, can be defined by three characteristics:
Newest trends and styles
One characteristic of fast-fashion is the imitation of haute-couture (high fashion) from renowned fashion designers. According to Wikipedia, Zara is one of the key players when it comes to the actual creation of fast-fashion: their goal was to “quickly” replicate designer’s items and get them into stores within 15 days.
H&M is another major player that is considered to be one of the first companies that outsourced its production to countries where labor and production costs are cheap, mostly Europe and Asia .
What Sustainable Fashion Is NOT: The Dangers of the Current Fast Fashion Industry
The three pillars of fast fashion have led to cause some major dangers to the planet and its inhabitants:
Quick production had led to the creation of sweatshops (Wikipedia), where labor rights are lacking.
Latest fashion trends cause a high turnover of items, and many garments are worn only seven times (MSN) before being thrown out, contributing to an increasing amount of waste and pollution.
Cheap clothing has led to the use of materials that are damaging to the environment, like polyester (Wikipedia). On the other hand, it has led to the exploitation of natural resources, like cotton and wool.
In more detail, there are several ways in which fast fashion damages the environment, depending on the garment.
For example, the production of cotton uses an incredible amount of water, not only to irrigate the cotton fields, but also during the production process. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), it takes an astonishing 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton.
But the worst part of the cotton industry isn’t even its water usage; it is the use of agrochemicals, like pesticides, and land depletion that cotton fields cause. A large percentage of the pesticides end up in water streams, like rivers, lakes and oceans, and cause potential dangers for populations and communities in surrounding areas.
The intense use of pesticides also leaves the soil on which cotton is cultivated highly depleted of anything, leaving it useless for any future purpose. New areas need to be repurposed for future cotton production, destroying natural habitats of animals and plants.
Given that half of the world’s textiles (WWF) are made of cotton, reducing the production of cotton can help decrease deterioration of large areas of land. On top of that, the necessity of implementing more sustainable and organic practises increases, but so far only 0.7% of all cotton production is organic, according to Organic Cotton Plus.
Cotton is not the only fabric that is damaging for our planet. Polyester is another pet peeve of the fast fashion industry. According to The Robin Report:
“Polyester is found in approximately 60 percent of garments on retail shelves today. That equates to approximately 21.3 million tons of polyester—a 157 percent increase between 2000 and 2015.”
These numbers are mind blowing to me! What adds to environmentalists’ concerns is the fact that polyester is not biodegradable. This means that when it is being disposed of, polyester actually doesn’t decompose for another 200 years (read more on CloseTheLoop.be)! And if you do the math, with garments being thrown out every couple of months, there is no way polyester can be broken down quickly enough to catch up with fashion. Many other problems occur with the production of polyester, which is actually produced from petroleum. Lots of water is needed during the production process and many chemicals are used for the production, dyeing and finishing of garments. These chemicals are not only dangerous for the natural areas where they end up being disposed of, but also for the workers that are exposed to them and the communities that live close by factories.
Petroleum, on top of this all, is a non-renewable resource. According to Drillers, there is about 50 years of oil left for the world, and while even 50 years ago the same was said, there probably will be an end to what now seems to be an unlimited extraction.
According to Ecocult, producing polyester also costs double the energy compared to producing cotton.
Polyester and cotton are only two examples of fabrics that are harmful to our planet. Read more about it in another article I wrote:
Fast fashion didn’t only open up a process of quickly produced garments, it also made looking fashionable easier in a world that is becoming increasingly fast: less washing requirements, no need to iron, good draping capabilities, made polyester a more favorable fabric compared to cotton or wool that are much more intense when it comes to taking care of them.
According to Common Objective, 1% of our clothes are still made of wool, this includes different types of wool like regular wool, but also luxury fibers like alpaca, mohair, merino and cashmere, for example. While in the past, such luxury fibers were limited to the rich and famous designers, the introduction of fast fashion has also increased the demand of specialty fibers.
Mohair and cashmere are especially clear examples in which you can see the devastating effects of fast fashion on animal wellness. Both fibers were exclusively used for famous designer houses and haute couture, but when fashion was made accessible to a broader audience, these exclusive fibers had to meet the demand.
Mohair, mainly produced in South America, quickly became a mass product, in which animal welfare was either completely lacking or far below par. Many South African farms do not have any standards when it comes to animal safety, shearing practices and animal treatment. On top of that, PETA has encountered cruel practises like a goat’s horns being burnt off, excessive shearing, and overcrowded farming.
On top of that, bad nutrition and deteriorating circumstances cause stress for the animals, leading to a decrease in fiber quality. This means that more animals are needed to meet production quota, resulting in turn in more animals being “dumped” on farms. A vicious circle is inevitable until better standards are maintained.
Similarly, the cashmere industry has gone through a comparable process: an increase in demand led to mass production, leading to a smaller habitat for goats, leading to malnutrition. The low yield of the cashmere goat limits the production of cashmere even more.
The emergence of sweatshops is another devastating result of the fast fashion industry.
The definition of a sweatshop according to Wikipedia:
Any “employer that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers' compensation, or industry registration."
Sweatshops are by definition guilty of more than one illegal practise in their workplace. Varying from, but not limited to, these can include:
unacceptable working conditions
exposure to chemicals,
long shifts (often over 12 hours)
no days off
compulsory pregnancy tests
no legal work contract
The existence of sweatshops is actually nothing new, as they started emerging around the 1850s, when big cities like New York, where an increasing number of immigrants (who came from rural areas to the city) were looking for work.
Despite labor movements fighting for laborers rights to different degrees of success, the existence of sweatshops has spread around the globe. Especially in developing countries, where supervision and laws are lacking even more, the existence of sweatshops is hard to counter.
What Are Sustainable Materials?
Sustainable materials, ideally, are produced without destroying or exploiting communities, soil, water and/or natural habitats. They are, ideally, produced without additional resources and infinitely recycled (!) or completely biodegradable (clink to see which materials exactly according to Earth 911!).
What you find sustainable, however, might be different from what your neighbour thinks. Everything we make uses resources and produces waste, but one might give more importance to one aspect than to another, there is no right or wrong. Although it would be wrong to expect a uniform answer to what a truly sustainable fabric would be.
Let’s look at some aspects and examples of sustainable materials:
Certified & responsibly sourced
Organic alpaca wool
Organic rayon (often from FSC certified eucalyptus)
Organic cotton (GOTS)
No or limited chemicals / biodegradable dyes
Organic certified wool
Oeko-tex certified linen
Limited waste / naturally high performing fabrics
Fabrics that take dye well: alpaca wool, rayon, silk or cotton
Fabrics that are naturally wind-resistant: wool (from alpaca, merino, qiviut, yak)
Fabrics that are naturally water-resistant: wool (most types)
Less or limited water usage
Super exclusive wool fibers like yak, qiviut, vicuña and cashmere
Anything from tiny brands that go for quality over quantity (hemp, cork)
All types of wool from small farms
Organic sheep wool
Organic yak wool
(Organic) Yak wool
Harmless to the body
Reusable / Recycled / Reclaimed
Read in much more detail about the how's and why's of sustainable fabrics in another article I wrote: 12 Characteristics of Sustainable Fabrics (with Examples).
Sustainable Use of Fashion and Clothing (For the Current Generation)
In a world where everything YELLS quick delivery, express service, order before noon and you’ll have it today, it is no wonder that the fashion industry has increased by X percent in the past two decades.
According to Business Wire,
“the global clothing and apparel market reached a value of nearly $758.4 billion in 2018, having grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.5% since 2014, and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.8% to nearly $1,182.9 billion by 2022.”
That is MASSIVE!
And one of the main reasons for the enormous growth of the fashion industry is because of an increased mentality of consumerism that is happily fueled by fast fashion brands.
In short, the fact that the fashion industry has become so big has an enormous impact on several aspects:
Unethical treatment of workers
Harmful treatment of animals
Land pollution due to chemicals
Water pollution due to chemicals
Air pollution due to greenhouse gases
Air pollution due to global (express) shipping
Land and water pollution due to clothes ending up in landfills
Exhaustion of soil due to overfarming, overexploitation and use of pesticides
Fortunately, there are things that can easily decrease the impact of your shopping behavior!
1. Order High Quality Local Products Instead of Mass-Produced International Products
Freight shipping, global transportation, express services, etc. are all contributing to air pollution. Aircrafts contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. According to a study done by the International Council of Clean Transportation in 2019, freight emissions accounted for 19% of the total CO2 emissions from commercial aviation.
To put this in perspective: the total CO2 emissions of commercial aircraft operations is 918 MMT (million metric tons), 171 MMT is for cargo, 747 MMT for passengers. The total of 918 MMT adds up to 2.4% of the total CO2 emissions globally.
You can read MUCH more about this topic in the full article: CO2 emissions from commercial aviation, 2018 (link goes to PDF file).
If you have the opportunity to order something that is produced in your own country, it is worth choosing for local products. Even if parts of the production process take place in your country of residence it is already so much better than ordering products that have been shipped halfway across the world before they make it to your doormat.
One of the beautiful things about 2020 is that there are so many initiatives of locally made products:
power moms who are sewing baby clothes (like Little-Chipmonks)
lonely grandma’s who come together to knit hats (like Granny’s Finest)
your high-school friend who is making their own bags (Check out MY friend: Puck Designs)
People are becoming more and more aware that unique, small-scale products are so much nicer than globally universal products. Think about it :)
2. Opt for Emotionally Durable Clothes
The stats that people wear their clothes on average 7 times before throwing them out, or that they don’t last more than 6 months in a wardrobe are heartbreaking to me. And you know what’s even worse, the clothes that I have the longest are the most comfortable ones! It’s that woolen sweater that I bought a hundred years ago, or that simple cotton T-shirt that just doesn’t get worn out.
Simple clothes last so much longer than highly fashionable items because they are so much more universally NICE. How about comfort for a style, right?
Take wool for example, nothing beats a chunky sweater and I bet you there has not been a fall/winter season without something woolly. Or a more vintage-look. Besides, you can wear woolen sweaters with EVERYTHING, from jeans, to skirts, to nonchy pyjamas…
If you’re looking for something more sophisticated, opt for tops or dresses made with silk. Silk is always stylish and shaping! It drapes perfectly and accentuates your figure in such a natural and beautiful way. The shiny fabric makes it look sophisticated and super stylish for every occasion. Did you know that polyester was initially introduced as a silk-imitating fabric?! Except that silk will actually stay nicer much longer than polyester!
Alpaca wool is the perfect go-to fabric for basically every season and every occasion! It is drapey and comfortable, shiny and cosy, soft and warm, breathable and stylish. Really, I bet I could wear an alpaca woolen sweater every day, year-round!
Linen is the perfect fabric for summer dresses, casual shirts and summer wear. Linen dresses look lovely! Plus they are very comfortable during warm weather because the fabric is super light and breathable. Linen also looks very nonchalant and cool, a great, timeless style!
Cotton is my go to fabric for classic basics. If I don’t know what to wear, I’ll grab a cotton shirt from my wardrobe (which is basically the only kind I have left, now). Cotton doesn’t necessarily mean underwear and simple shirts, but you can also find many sweaters or cardigans and knitwear made with cotton! A little less warm than wool, but still perfect for all inbetween- weather in summer, fall and spring!
3. Opt for Quantity vs. Quality
The idea of buying emotionally durable fabrics is that you can use one sweater for several years instead of buying a new sweater every season. But actually, this doesn’t only have to do with the idea that it will be out of fashion soon, but als with the quality of a garment. If you want to wear it for a long period of time, it needs to last that long, too.
It is understandable that fashion doesn’t last very long these days: the fabrics that are used (synthetic and/or low quality fibers) break easily, pill easily, lose their shape, get smelly easily, lose their color, etc. Synthetic fibers have none of the benefits that natural fibers have. You can wear woolen products for years without them losing their form. You can wash cotton a bazillion times without it losing its quality. Linen, in fact, becomes even softer over time!
Choosing natural fabrics automatically contributes to the durability of your garment, both emotionally and technically.
4. Do You Really NEED It?
I am hesitant to tell you what to do, but since you’ve made it this far in the article Imana go ahead and assume that you are ready to hear this: you probably don’t really need anything new.
Before I made the change to a more sustainable wardrobe, I thought I NEEDED a glitter T-shirt, a see-through top and another skirt, blue, black and grey. And denim. I ended up wearing them 5-7 times (right in line with the statistics) and then realised I didn’t need them. I didn’t even want them. They weren’t even comfortable. And they started looking worn out after the first wash.
With that in mind, I basically stopped shopping. I didn’t even try. There were times where I would force myself to buy something, “to do something nice for myself” and I realised I didn’t want it, I didn’t need it, so I didn’t buy it. That’s how easy it was.
But hey, don’t be hard on yourself! These processes take time! It took a while of buying things, regretting it and then promising not to do it anymore. Trial and error! Give yourself time to adjust.
On top of that, if I want durable clothes that I need, I agreed with myself and my wardrobe that I need to finish off the old clothes I have so far. And that means I’ll be wearing them until they fall apart. And then, when I have no jeans left to wear, I’ll find myself a nice pair of sustainably made, fairtrade, organic and/or recycled jeans. In a style that I know will be comfortable, not fashionable.
Afterlife: What Is the Most Sustainable Final Destination?
One of the major problems of fast fashion is the waste it creates. According to Forbes, the fashion industry contributes to 4% of the waste each year. This doesn’t only include the huge amount of dumped clothes into landfills, but also production waste and unsold items.
The changing (millennial?!) mentality is actually causing fast fashion stores to be left behind with more unsold garments than ever before. H&M saw its sales decrease and one big part of the reason is a decline in interest, according to Business Insider. This is good news, but it is also potentially dangerous, because unsold clothes also end up in landfills.
We all know the things that we can do to prevent our own worn clothes ending up in landfills: from bringing your clothes to a clothing container to repurposing them into cleaning cloths or fancy second hand bags. People can get really creative and the possibilities are endless.
Donating your clothes is always a good idea, and organizations like the Salvation Army are always happy to receive second hand clothing. I remember when I lived in Bolivia people could buy sacks of (randomly selected) clothing and resell it. Sometimes with designer brands, even!
Luckily, many brands are working to incorporate their own waste into their products. Converse has a recycled shoe and Nike has recently launched their recycled-shoe-line. Doesn’t change the fact that many of their products are still made in sweatshops, though!
What Options Do You Have? (Sub) Movements, Ideologies and Points of View
Maybe the best way to become more sustainable is by joining a movement! That’s a joke, but you might be interested in reading more about the different approaches and perspectives on sustainable fashion.
Like I said before, there is no perfect answer to solve the fast fashion problem, but there are a bazillion options that help you make better choices. And sometimes, better is the best we have.
According to the Minimalists:
“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”
It is not a set in stone rule that says you can’t own a house, a car, have a career, be successful, only are allowed two shirts and two pants, etc.
By focussing on what is really important to you, you can more easily achieve your goals and clear the path towards a more internal feeling of happiness. In our day and age (do I sound like an 80 year old grandmother now?), it is so easy to fall for the trap of newer, bigger, more and new, new, new things, all the time.
Marketing has done a really good job of making us think we want all those things, to show our wealth, our success, our designer’s skills, etc. Only to realize a week later that there is a new trend that we should follow. So we need a new couch, new plants, a new wardrobe, etc.
And that’s how consumerism came into existence.
I personally like to be partially minimalistic - as a long term goal. My wardrobe is slowly becoming more minimal, but my bookshelf on the other hand is not. I love books and I love reading books and I love putting the books I’ve read on a bookshelf. Minimalism won’t be taking that away from me, because I am free to make my own (minimal) choices of change :)
PS: I LOVE Marie Kondo’s approach to minimizing your wardrobe: if it doesn't give you “spark” then it shouldn’t be there.
Check out Marie in action!
Veganism is another ideology that has been exposed to several interpretations. According to the Vegan Society:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.“
There are, however, different approaches to veganism and you are free to choose which one appeals to you. There are, for example, dietary vegans, who only restrict themselves to avoid eating animal (derived) products. They still feel comfortable using makeup made with animal products or wearing clothes made with animal derived products.
Others draw a line between wool and leather for example, where they refuse to use animal derived products that have caused the animal to die, versus wool, which can be obtained without animal suffering.
Then there’s also vegans who don’t believe that is possible at all.
Applying veganism to the fashion industry is one of the major ways to avoid animal cruelty. By avoiding products that use leather, wool, or other animal derived ingredients (make up often uses animal derived ingredients like lanolin!), the hope is that animals can live a life free of cruelty and slaughter. If you don’t buy it, the demand will decrease and animal cruelty will eventually disappear completely.
If you ask me, the lines are blurred and will depend on your personal preferences and perspectives. Personally, I avoid eating animal-derived products most of the time. I do wholeheartedly believe in sustainably sourced products, like alpaca wool.
While vegans are often sceptical about the potential of animal derived products being cruelty free, I like to believe that there are enough good, empathetic people left in this world to secure animal safety and a high quality of life.
3. Fair Fashion (Ethical Fashion)
The lack of workers rights and the unbearable circumstances in sweatshops have been the reason for another form of “protest” against the fast fashion industry. Fair trade initiatives that respect workers rights, secure good working circumstances and safety measures have been increasing.
There are many, many, different certifications available for fair-trade supply chains and more than not they will also include environmental standards in their policies.
Many of the fair trade organizations base their principles on the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and (or) focus their goals on eliminating the following problems:
An example of a fairtrade certification is Fairtrade International. You can find more information about their work on their website: Fairtrade International.
One of the downsides of these fairtrade trademarks is that they can be expensive and it might not be possible for small brands and businesses to apply for. Luckily, there are many small initiatives that do work on improving the lives and working conditions for people, like Yanantin :)
I started Yanantin Alpaca after having lived in South America for 5 years. Having seen the inequality and powerlessness first hand, I was decided to help make a change. And like all good things, real change takes time. I am hoping to grow my brand and one day have a whole army of strong, empowered women working a happy, healthy, and wealthy job.
Check out my made-with-love products in the Yanantin Webshop.
As we have seen earlier in this article, the impact of global trade and shipping is one of the major downsides of the fast fashion industry. As a response, many people are trying to buy more locally made products.
An example of this is local farms (whether it be alpaca, merino, mohair or sheep) are emerging and they are making products with the wool from their own animals. Often undyed, or naturally dyed, these products can be super unique and of really high quality.
Buying locally not only avoids international shipping, it also helps support local initiatives, and it encourages sustainable practises. If you are looking for high quality products that are unique and often organic, look for local initiatives, like local farms or small brands presented at local markets.
5. Organic Shopping
I’m not sure if you could call this an ideology, but shopping organic should definitely be on your list of options when it comes to improving your wardrobe.
Just like fairtrade products, organic products can have a variety of focuses, often more than just organic ingredients or components. Organic farming can be focused on the following pillars:
Organic, chemical free, soil
Avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Avoiding chemicals like pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, etc.
Maintaining high standards of living conditions, feeding and breeding of animals
Fairtrade practises and minimum worker rights
There are many different types of certification for organic products, and there are even some more product specific certifications available, like GOTS (for cotton, linen, hemp), IWTO (wool), or even more country specific certifications, like USDA organic (US), EU Organic (Europe), ACO (Australia), and Canada Organic (Canada).
6. Slow Fashion
Slow fashion might actually be the overarching term for a combination of all above mentioned approaches, although it focuses more on the garment itself and the intention behind it.
Here are some keywords that describe slow fashion:
Durable / Designed for Longevity
Small scale / Small batch production
Zero waste / Reduced footprint
Fairtrade / Ethical / Socially Aware
Eco-friendly / Green / Environmental Awareness
Closed Loop Production / Circular Economy
Slow fashion in a nutshell is fashion that is aimed towards making the world and consumer happier. According to The Curious Button, it means being more thoughtful about what you buy and own. It’s about being conscious about the fabrics and possible chemicals you expose your body to. It focuses on being aware of feeling good in your clothes.
It is also about treating our planet with love. Treating the animals with love. Treating the people with love. Producing clothes that are made in harmony with the world.
You could actually argue that slow fashion means going back to haute couture, custom-made and high quality garments. Pieces that are made with care and precision, that are made to last a lifetime (or several), that use fabrics that are natural and biodegradable. On top of that, slow fashion complements these ideas with other “green ideas”, like a circular economy, zero waste, ethical fashion and animal-friendly (or even vegan) products.