Activism what is sustainable fashion

Published on November 11th, 2015 | by Guest Contributor


What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is not a trend to be taken lightly. As our society moves towards more conscious living in all aspects of our life, there is definitely room for improvement in the fashion sector.

what is sustainable fashion

While choosing sustainable fashion might not have quite the impact of adding solar to your home or improving energy efficiency, the choices that we make for our clothing reverberate throughout society in various ways.

The Atlantic says that Americans buy five times the amount of clothing today than we did in 1980. Five times the clothing means five times the waste, most of which ends up on landfills. “Americans recycle or donate only 15 percent of their used clothing, and the rest—about 10.5 million tons a year—goes into landfills, giving textiles one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material. Anna Brones, writing for Care2 says that there is no need to trash our clothes– “almost 50% of the textiles that are destined for the trash could actually be recycled, which means we as consumers simply need to get better about recycling our clothing and textiles.”

what happens to recycled clothing?

It’s clear that this conventional model of fashion is wasteful, but this type of conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence is expensive and places a huge toll on both natural and human resources. Whether it’s the impact of the dyes, fabric production, or the human element of making the clothing, there are lots of things to improve upon.

The human failings of the textile industry was brought into the spotlight with the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in which thousands of workers died and thousands more were injured when the building collapsed. The manager had threatened to withhold a month’s pay if the workers did not return, despite the clear and present danger of the cracks in the building.

The National Institute of Health has taken on this topic too. Their excellent report entitled Waste Couture shares important information about the human and environmental toll of our obsession with fast fashion:

“[Fast] fashion leaves a pollution footprint, with each step of the clothing life cycle generating potential environmental and occupational hazards. For example, polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. With the rise in production in the fashion industry, demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, according to figures from the Technical Textile Markets. The manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and releasing emissions including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.

Volatile monomers, solvents, and other by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater from polyester manufacturing plants. The EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, considers many textile manufacturing facilities to be hazardous waste generators.”

effluent from a cotton factory in Bangladesh-a00449f2

effluent from a cotton factory in Bangladesh, click photo for more information from NIH

Treehugger has rounded up some more stats about the human and environmental impact of conventional fashion:

10 Shocking facts about the textile industry

1. In 2010, China’s textile industry processed 41.3 million tons of fiber and accounted for 52-54 percent of the world’s total production.

2. The Chinese textile industry creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year.

3. Millions of tons of unused fabric at Chinese mills go to waste each year when dyed the wrong color.

4. A single mill in China can use 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric it dyes; many rivers run with the colors of the season as the untreated toxic dyes wash off from mills.

5. In 2010, the textile industry ranked third for overall in Chinese industry for wastewater discharge amount at 2.5 billion tons of wastewater per year.

6. The textile industry discharges about 300,600 tons of COD and contributes to 8.2 percent of COD pollution in China.

7. As of February 20th, 2012, the China Pollution Map Database had 6,000 records of textile factories violating environmental regulations, including: discharging wastewater from hidden pipes; discharging untreated pollutants; improper use of wastewater treatment facilities; exceeding total pollutant discharge allowed; and using production facilities that were shut down by the authorities for various reasons. The image below is from the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013.

Rana plaza disaster, sustainable fashion

The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, 2013

8. After preliminary investigations into links between well-known apparel brands and textile manufacturers with environmental violations, a group of five organizations sent letters to the CEOs of 48 companies. Respondents included Nike, Esquel, Walmart, H&M Levi’s, Adidas, and Burberry – all who have now started to take proactive measures and have carried out inquiries and pushed suppliers to take corrective actions.

9. Employment in the U.S. apparel manufacturing industry has declined by more than 80 percent (from about 900,000 to 150,000 jobs) over the past two decades.

10. Yet, labor productivity in the U.S. manufacturing sector more than doubled from 1987 to 2010. Labor productivity also more than doubled over that period in U.S. textile mills and nearly doubled in footwear manufacturing. In 2007, among those countries studied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Germany had the highest hourly compensation costs within the apparel manufacturing industry. The Philippines, with compensation costs at 88 cents per hour, had the lowest among those countries studied.

What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion, or slow fashion, is a growing movement in response to the fast fashion trend that has increased our waste of clothing and the inherent wastefulness of this type of consumerism. Wikipedia tells us, “fast fashion has also become associated with disposable fashion because it has delivered designer product to a mass market at relatively low prices. The slow fashion movement has arisen in opposition to fast fashion, blaming it for pollution (both in the production of clothes and in the decay of synthetic fabrics), shoddy workmanship, and emphasizing very brief trends over classic style.”

One of the companies that is leading the way for sustainable fashion or ‘slow fashion’ is Patagonia, makers of outdoor gear and high quality casual wear. Patagonia is well-known for their leadership in sustainable design, making gear that has less impact, creating clothing out of recycled soda bottles, and most recently, instituting a cool campaign of repair, reduce, reuse, recycle, called Common Threads. But most importantly, they encourage sustainable purchasing, and build their products to last a lifetime. They even went so far as to tell people NOT to buy their jackets. The ad described the environmental impact of the jacket and encourage people to think about the necessity of all their purchases.

don't buy this jacket Patagonia


Because we can’t live in Patagonia gear alone, there are other ways to bring sustainability into our wardrobe. Brooke Lacey covers sustainable fashion in depth on FeelGoodStyle, and has created this primer on sustainable fashion and what it means for consumers and for the planet. In her opinion, “The goal of sustainable fashion is to bring environmentalism and social responsibility into the clothing manufacturing process.” The following are some suggestions about what to consider when building a most sustainable wardrobe:

what is sustainable fashion

Thrift stores are one way to build a more sustainable wardrobe

1. Made in the USA. Assuming you are a resident of the US, buying things that are made here (buying locally, in a sense) reduces the carbon footprint compared to an item made overseas that gets shipped all around as raw materials make their way to a factory and then eventually into a retail store. Also, because the US has stricter labor laws than other countries (like Bangladesh), you can be assured that the items you’re buying are at least someone socially responsible, as the workers were fairly compensated. Also, items made in the USA are typically better quality, and are more preferable at fashion trade shows for that reason.

2. Secondhand. Secondhand items are my go-to, and the lower price point is just a bonus. As I mentioned earlier, you could go either way with this. If you’re more adventurous, check out a thrift store. If you want quality designer items that are vetted for authenticity, check out a reputable consignment store. Can’t find one near you? Try Ebay! You can find a ton of gently-used designer items there. There are even apps now, like Twice or Threadflip (there are a bunch of others), that let you buy and sell gently used clothing and accessories. After all, the most eco-friendly item is the one that already exists!

3. Fair trade. Basically, fair trade items are items that are people-friendly! They’re usually made by skilled artisans in developing countries who are fairly compensated for their work. Companies that use fair trade practices usually have some commitment to social good, and will also work on helping those local communities in other ways. Through fair trade practices, higher prices are paid to the exporters, since they come from developing countries who need that income, and are going to developed countries who need those goods. So overall, fair trade promotes equality in trading partnerships between developed and developing countries. Good news all around!

4. Vegan/animal-friendly. These are items that would be PETA-approved. This aspect of sustainable fashion is more common with accessories and outerwear, since those are items that are normally made out of animal skin or fur. The only drawback is that a lot of vegan clothing items are made with plastics that aren’t always recycled, which can take a major toll on the environment. Also something to watch for- a lot of bigger brands (as in, brands that mass produce clothing and accessories) will use vegan materials as a more cost-effective measure compared to actual animal skin, so you may also be sacrificing quality if you purchase something that’s both vegan AND mass-produced.

5. Recycled. Recycled plastics are the most common, especially in accessories (see above!). There are quite a few brands out there now who see the value in using recycled plastics as a quality substitute for leather. Plastics are notoriously harsh on the environment (both in terms of their production and the waste they produce post-consumption), so recycled plastics are always the way to go! I also can’t talk about recycling and not mention Reformation, a really cool brand that re-invents vintage items for the modern shopper.

6. Organic. Like organic fruits and veggies, organic fabrics are made in accordance with organic agricultural standards. Meaning, the fabric is pesticide-free and herbicide-free. The cotton farming industry is one of the biggest water consumers, and organic cotton farming actually uses less water and has lower carbon emissions. Better yet, organic items are pretty easy to find. Even most fast-fashion retailers will have organic capsule collections (the stuff is still mass-produced, buy hey, using organic materials is a good start!).

7. Sustainably harvested. This is similar to the above, but what I’m trying to highlight in this one is items that are made from sustainable fibers. As in, clothes that don’t involve pillaging rainforests. In some areas of the world, rainforests are actually endangered because of fashion’s obsession with fibers like rayon, viscose, and modal, that are made almost exclusively from endangered tropical rainforests. What’s so enticing about these trees? The pulps are extracted to make the soft fabrics that are commonly used throughout the fashion industry.

8. Non-toxic. Some people have chemical sensitivities that make them really susceptible to irritation from toxic dyes and other fabric-enhancers like wrinkle-free, stain-resistance, or flame-retardant properties.Even if you don’t have one those sensitivities, it’s probably best to avoid toxic chemicals in your clothes! thankfully, a lot of brands who already make organic clothing see the value of non-toxic vegetable-based dyes, and use them frequently (because nobody likes poisoning themselves for fashion).

9. Custom ordered items. This involves buying items made-to-order, rather than something that’s been mass-produced. Some brands have found this to be a more sustainable business model anyways, and will advertise items on their websites (vice in a physical storefront), and will make only what’s ordered by their customers. Another positive aspect- shoppers can usually customize size, style, and fabric.

10. Giving back. Now, this one isn’t necessarily an aspect of sustainable fashion itself, but it’s another plus of the sustainable fashion industry that a lot of brands offer. Since most of these companies see the value in socially-responsible business practices, they also incorporate some aspect of giving back, whether it’s through direct cash donations (where a portion of the cost goes to a charity, for instance) or through donating in-kind (like donating one pair of glasses for every pair you buy).

Learn more about Sustainable Fashion

Learn more about fast fashion
An excellent report from National Institute of Health about impacts of fast fashion
Tips for thrift store shopping
Building a Minimalist wardrobe
The importance of organic cotton– just as important as organic food
Get the facts about sweatshops
Find out how companies can build a better sweatshirt
Innovations for the future of fashion

Image credits: historical sweatshop image, ladies shopping, thrift store clothing from  Shutterstock. Dhaka sweatshop image by rijans, liscensed under Flickr Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

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