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

(Updated September 23, 2020) Fashion brings many of us joy. We all know that what we wear on the outside can change how we feel on the inside, giving us that extra confident bounce in our step. But the downside of clothes? They’re not always sustainable.

Globally, the apparel market, excluding footwear and accessories, is worth $1.34 trillion a year. The fashion retail sector alone is bigger than the Russian economy. Unsurprisingly, an industry that size has significant environmental drawbacks. In 2018, the fashion sector emitted 2.1 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But, as consumers, we don’t have to buy into brands that harm the planet. We can still shop for new clothes, but we can change the brands we choose to buy from. By going for sustainable, ethical, and responsible fashion brands, we can help to build a better fashion industry.

The fashion industry isn’t always sustainable.

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion leaves minimal impact on the environment. Dr. Anna Brismar, the founder of sustainability-focused consultancy firm Green Strategy, explains: “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,” Brismar 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 and as fair as possible.

She adds, “In addition, fashion companies should contribute to encouraging more sustainable consumption patterns, caring, and washing practices, and overall attitudes to fashion.” 

Why Is Sustainable Fashion Important?

Sustainable fashion is more important than ever. If the fashion industry carries on as it is, according to Greenpeace, the total clothing carbon footprint will reach 3,978 megatonnes by 2050. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly double India’s carbon emissions for 2018. 

But greenhouse gas emissions are only one part of the problem. The fashion industry places a strain on many of the earth’s resources, including water and land. Producing just one kilogram of cotton takes 20 thousand liters of water, for example. In the Amazon rainforest, cattle ranchers clear the land with fire, not just for beef production, but for leather production too.

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 in 2018: “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.”

Is Vegan Fashion Sustainable?

Animal-derived materials have a significant environmental impact. To graze any farm animal, farmers must use large amounts of land, adding to soil erosion. Cows and sheep also emit methane gases into the atmosphere. Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

With that in mind, materials like leather and wool, which come from animals, are not sustainable options. But vegan fashion doesn’t always = sustainable. Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, nylon, and acrylic, rely on petrochemical industries for their raw materials.

Sustainable vegan materials include organic cotton and hemp. The former uses 88 percent less water than non-organic cotton, and the latter is a low-impact crop, which doesn’t require toxic chemicals, like pesticides, to grow.

Who Is Leading the Way in Sustainable Fashion?

As interest in sustainable clothing rises, new brands claiming to be environmentally-friendly are cropping up. People Tree, Ninety Percent, and Native Shoes are just a handful of brands on the market offering more environmentally-friendly products. 

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 Linda McCartney, the Stella McCartney label prides itself on its eco-conscious, animal-friendly credentials.

Many designer labels, including Gucci, Versace, and DKNY, have ditched fur in the last few years, citing its negative impact on the animals and the environment. But Stella McCartney has taken the fur-free movement a step further with Koba, an animal free-fur.

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. After debuting Koba last year, Stella McCartney said backstage: “I think that fashion is about the future, and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your style for sustainability.”

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.

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.”

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?

Consider opting for clothing made from recycled materials. Many brands are now 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.

There are also many materials that can be used to make vegan leather now, like Piñatex, which is made from pineapples. For more on the different types of vegan leather you can buy, see here.


LIVEKINDLY is here to help you navigate the growing marketplace of sustainable products that promote a kinder planet. All of our selections are curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, LIVEKINDLY may earn a commission.