Sustainability might be a word that has been thrown around recently, but that doesn’t lessen its importance in the fashion industry. Even in 2022, with the negative impacts of fast fashion becoming common knowledge, the sector still contributes to over 6% of global greenhouse-gas emissions and 10-20% of pesticide use. But how can we make fashion more ethical and eco-friendly?
What is Sustainable Fashion?
Sustainable or slow fashion is ensuring that all aspects of designing, manufacturing, distributing, and using clothing and jewellery are made with the aim of minimizing the impact on the environment and ensuring ethical practices in regard to people and animal welfare.
“While eco clothing might refer only to the environmental impact of the fashion industry and ethical clothing focuses on social justice and equality for the individuals involved, sustainable clothing combines the two. It aims to be able to sustain the production with regards to the planet and everything that inhabits it (people, animals, plants, etc).” mentions Fabiana Gonzalez, co-founder of Vipop.
Why is Sustainable Fashion So Important?
The negative impact of fast fashion is wide-ranging and long-term, thus making sustainable and ethical fashion even more important.
Crops used in creating fabrics, especially cotton and denim, are water guzzlers. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a cotton shirt. That’s more than enough for one person to drink eight cups per day for 10 years. The world is already facing water shortages with almost 1.1 billion people lacking access to freshwater.
Also impacting our water supply are the toxic chemicals used in the growing, dyeing, and processing of fibers. Insecticides, pesticides, heavy metals (like nickel, lead, and chromium), phthalates (which are known carcinogens), and formaldehyde all eventually end up in our rivers and oceans impacting the wildlife as well as the water supply.
The textiles industry as a whole is estimated to produce over 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year from manufacturing, processing, and shipping, the second largest polluter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it contributes up to 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In order to grow the textiles used for fast fashion healthy land and soil are needed. Thus fast fashion upsets entire ecosystems by razoring down rainforests to make way for plantations of trees used to make wood-based fabrics or soils when animals such as sheep, raised for their wool, are overgrazed in pastures.
The harm to the world doesn’t stop once you’ve bought the clothes as most fast fashion brands are made from synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, which release microfibers and microplastics when washed. They also end up in our rivers and oceans and these tiny particles are eaten by aquatic animals endangering them and eventually us as they show up on our plates.
While the consequences on the environment and the ecosystems are numerous, the treatment of humans be it farmers, factory workers or models in fast fashion is also important to consider. The most notorious is the inhumane conditions faced by the workers in garment factories who have ridiculously long working hours, low wages, and hazardous working conditions.
How is Sustainable Fashion Made?
While ‘sustainable’ doesn’t have a clear definition across contexts, as a conscious consumer, there are several steps you can take in order to ensure the clothes and accessories you are buying are eco-friendly and ethically made.
Use Sustainable Materials
The first step is to ensure that the materials used have not had a negative impact on the environment locally or globally. This includes choosing natural fibers over synthetic ones and choosing vegan materials rather than leather and fur. Recycled or deadstock material (i.e. leftover scraps from textile mills) is a great source of material.
Ensure Ethical Working Conditions
Sustainability includes ethical concerns and thus all individuals involved should be paid a fair wage and have safe and hygienic working conditions. Locally producing clothing is another great way to better the working conditions while helping the population.
Reduce Water Usage
Eco fashion often sources sustainably produced cotton with certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) or Fairtrade certification, or the Better Cotton Initiative, which have lower water usage. Companies can also work with productions site that recycles or reuse effluent water from processing to reduce wastage.
The final step in the supply chain is incredibly pollutive. To get the products “home” in the most carbon neutral way, many fashion companies are moving their production closer to the home country or offsetting their carbon output through other practices such as tree planting.
A key area of development in the world of slow fashion is traceability which helps both the brands and consumers know where and how each part of the garment was sourced and made, thereby helping highlight any unsustainable practices in the supply chain.
Being fashionable can seem like a minefield if you are trying to be ethical and conscious but it doesn’t need to be! Sustainable clothing and sustainable jewellery are on the rise and the industry is making strides to ensure the well-being of our planet as a whole.