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In the past few decades, clothes shopping has become a cheaper, more convenient, and more widely available activity for people all around the globe. We’re surrounded by megastores that showcase tons and tons of fashion products in the latest trends, with new styles coming in at speeds we can hardly keep up with.
While this might sound enjoyable and even ideal for those that love to shop and partake in the latest fashion trends, it’s important to understand the complicated side of fast fashion.
In the age of fast fashion, “going sustainable” has been gathering a lot of momentum in the past decade among independent fashion brands and consumers as a means to combat the rise in waste production and unethical labour practices, among many other issues, caused by the fast fashion system.
With the rise of this new movement, you may be asking yourself, “what is sustainable fashion, and why should I care about it?” We’ve written down everything you need to know about sustainable fashion, what it stands for, its realities, and what steps you can take to become a more conscious consumer, no matter who you are or where you’re from.
To understand sustainable fashion, we first have to understand what fast fashion is. This is a term used today to describe a business model focused on the incredibly fast turnover of fashion trends through producing mass volumes of clothing at rapid speeds.
In the past, retailers would come out with four new styles annually to match the seasons in a year. Today, this side of the clothing industry has created “micro seasons” that push new styles every week. And to ensure clothing gets to consumers as quickly and as cheaply as possible, these fashion companies cut corners by using low-quality materials, cheap labour, and rushed production that result in poor quality items that are only meant to last for a few uses.
The allure of this side of the fashion industry is that it gives people the ability to have diverse and on-trend wardrobes at a very low cost, especially for those that would not be able to afford such a luxury otherwise. This has resulted in the average consumer owning 60% more clothing than they would have 15 years ago.
However, because the industry is making clothes in such large quantities and styles in so little time, this incentivises consumers to keep buying in order to keep up with the fast-paced trends and to discard pieces that are suddenly viewed as out of fashion.
This, and many other issues, is what makes fast fashion so dangerous — because consumers have been conditioned to see clothing as disposable, this system is then able to deplete natural resources at alarming rates, exploit millions of textile workers, and create damaging amounts of waste, all while earning trillions of pounds a year.
There are more than a handful of complex issues that run through the supply chains of this massive fashion sector, but these are some of the most important social and environmental implications of fast fashion that the everyday person should know and consider:
While the fast fashion industry has only risen to extreme popularity within the past few decades, it has had a detrimental and undesirable environmental effect with a massive carbon footprint, becoming the second-largest polluter in the world.
10% of the world’s carbon emissions and 20% of global water waste are produced by the fashion industry, while an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is thrown away each year worldwide, with over 400,000 tonnes of it ending up in UK landfills alone. Over 95% of this waste is considered recyclable.
Additionally, about 60% of the industry’s clothes are made with polyester, a cheap synthetic fibre used to replace organic cotton, which has seen a 157% increase from 2000 to today. Polyester and other similar harmful and synthetic fabrics, like non-organic cotton and lycra, are then discarded turn into microplastics, which are the most devastating ocean polluters.
According to Good On You 1 in 6 workers work in the fashion industry. While fast fashion generates millions of jobs worldwide, with 80% of the workforce being women, this, unfortunately, does not mean that even the minimum criteria for working conditions or liveable wages are met.
To cut costs in fashion production further and to keep clothing prices at a bare minimum, many brands outsource work in developing countries and areas in the global south with poor labour laws like China, Bangladesh, Taiwan, India, and the Philippines.
In a 2019 Oxfam report, it was found that only 1% of Vietnamese garment workers and 0% of Bangladeshi garment workers earned a living wage. Because of this, many workers end up pulling their children out of school and have them work in unsafe factories alongside them in order to provide the most basic necessities for their families.
The cheap materials and unregulated production processes used by the fashion industry don’t only affect the quality of the clothing itself, but also negatively impact the health and safety of the people making them and even those buying them.
Workers’ rights violations and lax safety protocols are commonplace in overseas textile factories, with exploited workers exposed to workplace abuse as well as a cocktail of toxic chemicals used in washing practices for clothing, making them prone to various health problems that only accumulate over time, leading to lifelong terminal issues like lung disease, reproduction difficulties, and cancer.
These processes also affect the average consumer; the toxic chemicals used in manufacturing are still found even when they make their way onto shelves, negatively impacting our skin. Discarded clothing made from synthetic material as well eventually degrades and becomes microplastics which pollute our water and marine environments, with virtually all the fish we consume containing microplastics.
With this understanding of how far-reaching fast fashion’s negative impacts are, we can now answer the question, “what is sustainable fashion?”
On the opposite end of the fashion industry, sustainable fashion focuses on creating clothing that is as eco-friendly and responsible as possible. Because of the damage that is currently being caused by larger corporations encroaching on irreversibility, sustainability is becoming a growing concern among different industries and consumers alike.
According to Green Strategy, sustainable fashion works to “improve all stages of a product’s life cycle, from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale, to use, reuse, repair, remake and recycling of the product and its components.”
On the other hand, ethical fashion refers to the socio-economic aspects of the industry, focusing on the protection of workers’ rights and well-being, as well as animal welfare. However, environmentalism and social responsibility are innately two sides of the same coin, and so ethical and sustainable fashion go hand in hand and are often seen as one and the same.
As a whole, sustainability is no longer just a conceptual environmental perspective, but a real movement that is involved from the bottom to the top of the supply chain, addressing real-time environmental concerns, combating climate change, protecting natural resources, promoting renewable energy sources and natural fabrics, and prioritising fair and safe business practices and working conditions.
Sustainable fashion uses low impact organic, natural fibres and even vegan materials, avoiding the use of non-biodegradable synthetic fibres, and uses renewable energy sources and non-toxic methods in its production cycle.
These brands utilise the most sustainable fabrics that are eco-friendly like hemp, linen, organic cotton, silk, wool, leather, and cellulose fibres like viscose, rayon, and lyocell, all of which compost cleanly.
Additionally, sustainable fashion companies also help in lessening textile waste and its environmental impact by utilising and giving second lives to recycled cotton, recycled polyester, and other fabric scraps that would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfills.
However, keep in mind that plant-based sources and animal by-products can be destructively extracted, causing major adverse environmental impacts. When it comes to these fabrics, you can ensure high standards for sourcing sustainable materials by looking out for organic certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard.
Sustainable and ethical brands have become more prominent in recent years, with each one highlighting the importance of different facets of sustainability — from recycled materials and non-toxic washing practices, fair and empowering work environments, fairly sourced raw materials and sustainable fibres, vegan fashion, and more, all of which are positively impactful.
If you are unsure about how sustainable your favourite brands are or want to discover the best sustainable fashion brands you can support, we recommend going to Good On You, an ethical brand rating resource that looks into every known brand out there and details how environmentally and socially responsible they are.
With that being said, no one brand is 100% sustainable. This simply means that clothing and its production, no matter if it is made by a sustainable and ethical fashion brand, takes a toll on the environment through its use of water, electricity, at-home methods to wash clothes, and the inherent fact that it will turn into waste.
Despite this, however, brands that focus on creating sustainable fashion and an ethical supply chain are still doing a lot of social and environmental good.
As sustainable fashion brands, the main goal is to reduce carbon footprints and harmful practices as much as possible and give workers liveable wages and safe conditions. As for consumers, many steps can be taken to live and shop in the most sustainable manner possible.
In an ideal world, leading brands would focus on more ethical practices and their buyers adopt more sustainable consumption patterns. This would mean that everyone buys from brands that prioritise sourcing raw materials through fair trade, that consider and actively lessen the environmental impact of their manufacturing process, respect artistic licenses, and give workers fair wages and better working conditions. However, the reality is that not everyone can completely “go sustainable.”
Many lower-income individuals don’t have the means to afford clothing from sustainable fashion companies, as the steps taken to lessen personal environmental impacts can be quite costly, hence why fast-fashion prices are so appealing.
However, there are many different methods one can adopt to become more sustainable. There are many different facets of sustainability, so choosing the areas and causes that matter most to one’s personal politics is the best place to begin.
While ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are rooted in the production process, this fashion revolution also depends on the individual consumer and a shift in attitudes and behaviours towards fashion and clothing.
These are simple steps you can take to help lessen garment waste, give life to old clothing, and support the sustainable and ethical fashion movement as a whole.
This method is perhaps the most sustainable method for all involved, as swapping clothing is free and saves pieces from going to landfills two times over. This method is perfect for people that love variety in their wardrobes, without having to spend or waste anything.
An easy and affordable alternative to buying new clothes is to shop second-hand. Thrifting is a thriving market worldwide that saves millions of pieces from being thrown away, giving people, low-income and otherwise, pre-existing clothes at more than affordable prices.
Not only is shopping second-hand sustainable, but one-of-a-kind and vintage clothing are also within the racks, giving you much more unique pieces and a more distinct personal style.
Buying from local and independent brands not only helps support fair working environments and a more sustainable fashion model, individual creatives, and local economic growth, but also helps reduce CO2 emissions caused by the transportation of garments from overseas.
Cheaply made items damage only after a few uses, meaning that buying replacements soon add up, making these purchases more costly in the long run.
Slow fashion companies prioritise quality over quantity and timelessness over trends, coming out with fewer new items which is, in turn, a much more sustainable method that also offers exclusivity in ownership. While prices may be higher, quality is always assured, and this allows you to practice more conscious shopping habits.
The current fashion market encourages us to buy more clothing than we actually need. Rather than viewing clothing as something disposable, we need to go back to viewing clothing as an investment.
If you already own pieces from unethical and unsustainable brands, prolong the product’s life cycle by reusing them as much as possible, repairing them when salvageable, and upcycling materials that can still be used. Similarly, if you have no other choice but to buy these items, view them just as you would higher-end sustainable fashion pieces, and look into clothing that is sturdier, timeless, and that is sure to get a lot of wear.