‘Sustainable’ has recently become something of a buzzword in fashion. Brands, designers, journalists, and influencers are using it in everything from marketing campaigns to brightly coloured social media posts – so much so that it can feel like it is losing its meaning.
Together with words like ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘conscious’ and ‘green,’ the language used to describe fashion’s sustainability credentials often falls short of adequately explaining what it is about a certain brand or product that makes it a better choice. And as a result, consumers struggle to make informed purchases too.
As Maxine Bédat, the founder of fashion policy think-tank New Standard Institute, told Harpers Bazaar:
“We need to move away from this sort of wishy-washy sustainability—which can mean anything to anybody—to measurable, concrete, specific actions.”
For shoppers, this means not going on ambiguous adjectives alone, but learning exactly what to look for in the brands you buy from instead.
Seeking out the following environmental, social, and cultural criteria can help to accurately assess impact of our clothing, going beyond taking the word ‘sustainable’ at face value.
The first thing most people think of when it comes to shopping sustainably is the cost to the planet and its natural resources. For fashion, this covers everything from the fabrics used to how a finished garment is eventually packaged up, shipped, and sold.
A good place to start is at the beginning of the design phase, with the raw materials. Look to see if brands openly disclose where they source their textiles. If they use lower impact fibres, check if they have been certified by any third-party standards, such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) for organic cotton, or the Forest Stewardship Council for viscose. If you’re looking to avoid the ethical implications of certain animal products, keep an eye out for the PETA Approved Vegan stamp.
Manufacturing a garment also offers up numerous occasions to reduce its environmental impact. Does the brand in question follow zero-waste design principles, like reducing and reusing factory offcuts? What about its production methods–does it disclose anything about chemical usage in its supply chain?
Even the choice of packaging of the final product plays a part. When shopping online, try to find out if your item will be sent in something repurposed or recycled, rather than virgin or single-use materials. And remember that said item’s impact doesn’t end once it leaves the store. Conscious clothing brands will have thought about what might happen to the garment at the end of its useful life, working towards building a closed-loop system and reducing their waste through in-house recycling programs or take-back schemes.
If you think about the Sustainable Development Goals, their framework goes beyond areas we would directly associate with the environment. That’s because the welfare of our planet is intertwined with the health and welfare of its people. Decent Work (Goal 8) and Reduced Inequalities (Goal 11) are essential to combatting climate change.
In fashion, this means that sustainability extends to the many pairs of hands that make up the industry’s infamously convoluted supply chains. Ethical labour is a crucial element of social sustainability and means upholding the human rights of everyone involved in the production process, from farm to finished garment.
Scan the sustainability section on a brand’s website to see how they ensure decent working conditions. Do they have measures in place to promote health and safety, equality, anti-discrimination, unionisation, and employee wellbeing? This could mean producing closer to home, or at least regularly visiting their factories to monitor the working conditions. And are they committed to offering a living wage (you can learn more about this here), or paying workers above the local minimum?
Reducing inequalities could also mean working against gender-based bias in the industry. Working to close the gender pay-gap in the garment-making sector, offering maternity or childcare support, and partnering with charity initiatives focused on female empowerment are all key indicators of commitment in this area. And then there’s the marketing. It should be inclusive, representing people of all skin tones, body shapes and sexualities, with a wide range of sizes on offer to suit everyone.
As well as being important environmental and social factors, how, where, and by whom a garment is made are also cultural considerations. In the context of clothing, Fashion Revolution defines cultural sustainability as “acknowledging the sustainability that is culturally embedded within traditional craftsmanship by supporting knowledge transfer to future generations.”
From Italy to India, some of the biggest players in the global fashion industry have a cultural heritage synonymous with craft, using locally available materials and inherently sustainable techniques that date back to a time before globalisation and industrialisation.
For brands, cultural sustainability could mean tapping into this history, working with artisan craftspeople local to where their fibres and fabrics are sourced. The value of the raw materials increases once they are transformed into a finished product, helping the local economy and generating job opportunities.
The key to this kind of collaboration is ensuring that artisans have access to education, healthcare, and financial support if needed. These are all attributes that make their craft a viable career choice for the next generation, in turn helping to secure a future for these cultural practices and ensure their relevance in a changing world. Producing locally also helps to reduce international transportation emissions.
To welcome new perspectives on sustainability in the fashion industry, it can be helpful to follow some advocates and educators on Instagram.
Aditi Mayer (@aditimayer) offers useful perspectives on fashion and labour rights, while Besma Whayeb (@besmacc) breaks down difficult questions around conscious consumerism.
The OR Foundation (@theorispresent) consistently raises awareness about the damaging aftereffects of overproduction, while Anna Sacks (@thetrashwalker) and Lizzie Carr (@lizziecarr) address the important issue of waste in the industry and beyond.
And, if you’re concerned that considering the environmental, social, and cultural impact of your clothes might have to mean dulling down your dressing, @thatcurlytop and @rosannafalconer provide joyous inspiration for colourful, environmentally conscious outfits
Author: Beatrice Murray-Nag’s