What Is Sustainable Fashion? A User’s Guide
What is sustainable fashion? This guide tells you everything you need to know.

Many see what they choose to wear as a reflection of their identity. Fashion can be fun, it can be a form of expression, but it can also be extremely damaging to the environment. But there is another way: sustainable fashion.

Fashion isn’t going anywhere. In the UK alone, the industry is worth £66 billion. Globally, the apparel market — excluding footwear and accessories — is worth $1.34 trillion a year. To put all of this into perspective, according to Common Objective, the fashion retail sector alone is bigger than the Russian economy. 

The fashion industry isn’t always sustainable.

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion has minimal impact on the environment.

Sustainability-focused consultancy firm Green Strategy says “sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes, and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects.”

To be considered sustainable, brands must work to improve every single aspect of a product’s life cycle. They must use sustainable raw materials, store and transport clothing responsibly, and do their best to ensure that items can be repaired and recycled.

“The aim should be to minimize any undesirable environmental effect of the product’s life cycle,” the firm continues. Brands should use natural resources — like water, land, and soil — efficiently and carefully and utilize renewable energy sources.

Brands should also consider the human impact of fashion; working conditions on the field, in factories, in transportation, and in stores should all be as ethical as possible.

It adds, “in addition, fashion companies should contribute to encourage more sustainable consumption patterns, caring, and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion.” 

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As the battle against the climate crisis intensifies, the demand for sustainable clothing is rising.

Why Is Sustainable Fashion Important?

As the fight to stop the climate crisis intensifies, sustainable fashion is more important than ever. Apparel and footwear production take up huge amounts of land and water, and currently, make up more than 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Producing just one kilogram of cotton takes 20 thousand liters of water, for example. And cattle ranchers set fire to the Amazon rainforest not just for beef production, but for leather production too.

As well as cotton and synthetic fabrics — like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, which rely on petrochemical industries for their raw materials — animal-derived materials have a high environmental impact. To graze any farm animal, farmers must use large amounts of land, adding to soil erosion. Like cows, sheep — used for wool — emit methane gases into the atmosphere.

According to the environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion, 85 percent of the world’s leather is tanned with extremely toxic chromium. The chemical can cause cancer and painful skin conditions in workers.

The United Nations says that if we are to save the planet, the fashion industry has to change.

Patricia Espinosa — the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary — said in a statement last year, “to turn things around, we must make a choice: we can keep on with business as usual and hope to survive the consequences … or take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror and admit that we need a drastic and dramatic change.” 

She continued, “this change must come from all people, and all sectors of the business world, including the fashion sector.”

Stella McCartney is a sustainable fashion industry leader. | Wikimedia Commons

Who Is Leading the Way in Sustainable Fashion?

As interest in sustainable clothing rises, new brands claiming to be environmentally-friendly are cropping up. Nobody’s Child, People Tree, Mother of Pearl, Brave GentleMan, and Native Shoes are just a handful of brands on the market offering more environmentally-friendly products.

But one brand leading the way in the high fashion world is Stella McCartney. Founded by the daughter of music legend Paul McCartney and the late passionate vegetarian entrepreneur Linda McCartney, the Stella McCartney label prides itself on its eco-conscious, animal-friendly credentials.

It says on its website, “we are agents of change. We challenge and push boundaries to make luxurious products in a way that is fit for the world we live in today and the future: beautiful and sustainable. No compromises.”

Earlier this year, the brand sent models down the runway with neck tattoos which read, “earth day every day,” “vegan,” and “regenerate.” On the day of the show, Vogue wrote, “Stella McCartney is an industry leader on [the subject of sustainability] — has been for years.”

Many designer labels — including Gucci, Versace, and DKNY — have ditched fur in the last few years, citing its impact on the animals and the environment. But recently, Stella McCartney took the fur-free movement a step further. The brand debuted Koba.

Koba consists of 37 percent plant-based materials, including polyester blended with a byproduct of corn. It can be recycled at the end of its life cycle. Stella McCartney said backstage at the show, “I think that fashion is about the future, and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your style for sustainability.”

Ditch Leather, Says Stella McCartney

In the past, she has called out other designers for not doing enough to make their clothing more environmentally-friendly. She said that ditching fur is a step, but ditching leather would have an even bigger impact.

McCartney told Vogue, “an animal decomposes when it’s natural, but after all the chemical treatments [applied] to a leather handbag, it isn’t going to decompose in your wardrobe. That product is staying alive because of the chemicals that have been put on it.” 

“Stop using leather, full stop,” she added. “Then you’ll see a massive, massive change in the industry’s environmental impact.”

What to Look for in Sustainable Fashion?

When searching for sustainable fashion, there are three key things to look for in a brand.

Buy from brands that make clothes locally.

1. Clothes Made Locally 

If you support smaller, local brands, you minimize your carbon footprint. You’re not buying into large global supply chains and contributing to their environmental impact, and you’re not increasing your own by asking for an item to be shipped around the world. If you don’t like it and decide to return, it’s worth bearing in mind it also has to be shipped back the same distance.

The Stella McCartney brand is open about its environmental policy. | Stella McCartney

2. Transparency

Look for brands that are open about their environmental policies. If a brand prices its products cheaply and there is no mention of sustainability on its website, it’s likely that its products are going to have a high environmental impact.

Orsola de Castro — the founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution — told Vogue, “transparency is the first step towards a different culture, one where brands become open and accountable, and customers are ready to become vigilant and ask, ‘who made my clothes?‘” They added, “transparency provides an open door. We can’t fix what we can’t see.”

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Shoes made from vegan pineapple leather | Nature Footwear

3. Sustainable Materials

Look for materials that are kinder to the environment. Have they sustainably sourced their cotton? Are they using natural fibers or are they using harmful artificial fabrics? Are they using materials like leather and wool? If so, it might be worth avoiding. There are many materials that can be used to make vegan leather now, like Pinatex, which is made from pineapples.

Consider opting for clothing made from recycled materials. Many brands are making clothes from plastic bottles and others use old fishing nets. Brazilian brand Insecta, for example, uses recycled bottles, recycled cotton, and reclaimed rubber to make its shoes.