Applying sustainable principles to the fashion industry means employing a more eco-friendly mindset to the entire design process. This means taking a hard look at each step, from how we source raw materials to a product’s lifecycle and how we buy and use clothing. We do this to make sure as an industry, we cause as little harm as possible. Sustainable fashion opens new avenues for innovation and design to keep the fashion industry both eco-friendly and economically viable.
It also means running into new and unfamiliar terms. For example, what’s the difference between sustainable and ethical? What’s circular fashion? Eco versus green fashion? Don’t worry – we have you covered.
Sustainable fashion refers to approaching the design, manufacture, and consumption of clothes from a more environmentally and ecologically respectful place while causing as little harm to the environment as possible. Sustainable fashion also focuses on extending the life cycle of clothes through repairing, reusing, and recycling.
The differences between ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are slight and are often used interchangeably. Ethical fashion focuses more on the social impact of the fashion industry. A lot of clothing is produced in factories where the working conditions are less than ideal. Ethical fashion is concerned with living wages, working conditions, and forced and child labor – beyond what is required by local labor laws. Sometimes ethical fashion also includes vegan and cruelty-free fashion.
Cheaply-made, mass-produced “trendy” items sold at a super low price point – think Shein, H&M – who are producing upwards of ten collections a year. They’re produced very quickly in order to meet demand but quickly fall out of fashion, leading the consumer to throw them away after only a few wears and washes.
Fast fashion is a huge contributor to overproduction and consumption, which directly leads to the fashion industry’s harmful environmental impact.
Slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion. It emphasizes buying fewer items and focusing on high-quality pieces with a classic silhouette that will last longer, as well as developing a personal style instead of following trends.
It also applies to the production process: slow the process down to improve garment quality and working conditions and focus on quality over quantity.
Circular fashion aims to close the loop of fast fashion by ensuring that materials stay in use and don’t end up in landfills. This is done by designing waste and pollution out of a garment, and emphasizing repair, reuse, and recycling, and maintaining a closed loop in the lifetime of a garment.
If you want to learn more, here’s our quick primer on circular fashion.
Fairtrade fashion means that pieces are produced ethically. Workers are paid a living wage, and working conditions are monitored to ensure fair treatment and safe workplaces. There are a few associations that offer certifications that verify fair practices.
Recycling is converting waste into something reusable. For example, recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic bottles, which cuts out the need for the petroleum and coal needed for virgin polyester.
Somewhat related to recycling, up-cycling turns what would be waste into usable material. It applies to more than just fashion, too, like turning plastic bottles into a wall garden. This could mean taking apart a piece and repurposing the resulting pieces into something new, like turning a shirt into a hat or a bed sheet into a dress. It removes waste from the cycle and promotes innovation and creativity.
When a company freely and openly shares information about its production processes, they are being transparent. This means they publish all information about their production process from start to finish, including where they source their raw materials, by whom their products are made, and how their products are transported.
Transparency allows consumers to know exactly what they’re buying and make more conscious choices.
Traceability is part of transparency and the ability to trace every step of a company’s supply chain from start to finish. This means a company committed to transparency should be able to trace every component of a product to its source, from raw material to the final button or zipper – this includes farms, factories, and so much more. If a company knows exactly where the elements of its products come from, it can better tackle unfair or unsafe working conditions and better commit to sustainability practices.