Sustainability in fashion is not a new topic. The discussions around making clothing less harmful to the environment started as a trend decades ago and became a need as the population has grown with a bigger demand for clothing yearly.
And even though the topic is not new, there are still questions around what sustainable fashion means and what specific practices should fashion business take in order to be sustainable.
The answers to these questions are quite complex. Each fashion company is different, as well as its products and processes, so there are several practices that will guide companies to be sustainable. Companies indeed need to be responsible for their actions and practices. However, as consumers, we have the power to pressure these companies to follow a path towards sustainability. So today, we’ll discuss the main categories of sustainable fashion and how you, as a consumer, may recognize if your favorite clothing store is genuinely sustainable or is at the very least on the path towards sustainability.
When we think about sustainable fashion, the first images that may come to your mind are the picture of a chunk of clothing in the landfill or that photograph of a polar bear standing on a small piece of ice while seeing its home melting down due to climate change. That’s what a lack of ecology looks like! Ecology is the maintenance or restoration of ecosystems’ composition, structure, and processes, which include plant and animal communities and their interaction with the ecological system. (USDA Forest Service).
So the challenge for the fashion industry to be ecological is real, especially because the whole system never considered ecology to begin with. Manufacturing clothes overseas, dying textiles with chemicals where the waste goes to bodies of water from marginalized people, overusing low-quality synthetic fibers that have a short lifetime and will end up in the landfill within a matter of months is an overall description of the fashion industry today.
But as big as the challenge sounds, there are ways to reduce ecosystem disturbance. These are two of the most visible areas where one can see a fashion company’s commitment to ecology:
The excess of waste created the need in fashion companies to do something with this waste. This is why recycled fibers are becoming more popular and less costly throughout time. The most common recycled fiber is polyester, which may come from bottles of water or virgin polyester waste. But over the last couple of years, other forms of recycled materials have been introduced to the fashion industry: Recycled nylon, which comes from fishnets, is in the development process to be easier to produce. J. Crew partnered with Habits for Humanity to buy old pairs of jeans and create new pair of jeans with these materials. (Glossy).
The material of our clothing determines its environmental impact, so it is our responsibility as consumers to be mindful of this issue. Most companies take recycled material products with pride, so you’ll see clear signs when garments are made of recycled materials. Although still, many of these products tend to be pricier than non-recycled products, whenever we can afford to buy them, we are lowering our textile waste and contributing to the circular economy. In a similar way, if we prioritize the consumption of recycled products, fashion companies will recognize the consumers’ concerns and will keep producing products made of recycled materials. In other words, if the demand for recycled polyester t-shirts grows, more companies will produce this garment and lower their production on virgin polyester t-shirts.
If recycled materials are not in the company’s possibilities yet, then the selection of materials needs to be evaluated thoughtfully. It is a matter of deciding which materials are less harmful to the environment and making them the first choice. Natural fibers like cotton and linen are way less harmful than synthetic fibers, like polyester or spandex. There are hundreds of substances, chemicals, and processes involved in textile and garment production, and within this enormous list, there are certain chemicals that we should not just reduce their use but stop using for good. These chemicals tend to accumulate in the biosphere and create irreversible negative effects on the environment. (C2C)
The packaging industry is more important than ever, with influencers uploading stories with their “unboxing experience” receiving a package from a certain brand. Packaging is used for branding and customer experience. It’s meant to make us feel “something” when we are buying, and it is carefully designed by a team with knowledge in this field.
The downside to this fascinating area is the amount of waste it creates after the “unboxing experience” is over, and we throw away the package.
This is an area of opportunity for many companies because ecological packaging can still be beautiful, eyecatching, and meet the goals of branding and customer experience that the brand aims for. You’ll start to notice from now on how there is excessive, unnecessary plastic in some packages. They have layers and layers of plastic bags that can be easily minimized to reduce the amount of waste.
Renewable energy and carbon emissions
This area of sustainability may not be as easy to spot. Still, it is very relevant to the environmental impact of a fashion company. The manufacturing process starting from raw materials to finished garments, requires energy in transportation, production, and distribution. The question here is: How much do these companies rely on fossil fuels, and how much (if any) do they rely on clean energy? If a company has a manufacturing system heavily reliable in clean energy, most likely, you’ll find that information on their website; because they want to inform their consumers about their path towards sustainability and how they are incorporating those practices within their current system.
A study published by Harvard states that there is a direct relation between fossil fuels and cases of respiratory diseases, strokes, heart attacks, and exacerbation of asthma which many times end up in death. (Harvard School of Public Health).
The transition to clean energy is necessary because our health, wellbeing, and environment cannot afford to keep fossil fuels as the default choice.
There is an official way to know if a company meets the requirements of clean energy. International certifications such as Bluesign, and Cradle to Cradle, measure and evaluate extensively the process of a certain company (which doesn’t have to be related to fashion) and determine if the company’s efforts are sufficient to reduce or eliminate the greenhouse gases from the company. (Cradle to Cradle). Again, if a company meets these requirements, they must have this information on their website as it is a huge accomplishment worth sharing with their clients.
Wastewater is probably the area of sustainability that gains the least attention when it comes to areas of opportunity and improvement. Yet, it is a serious issue as it puts a necessary nonrenewable resource for human life at risk. It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt. Multiply this number by the number of t-shirts you own or have bought in the last five years. It’s a lot of water!
But the problem is not limited to the amount of water we require to produce clothes. During the process of manufacturing and dyeing textiles, suppliers dispose of hazardous chemicals polluting entire bodies of water that are vital to marginalized communities. These chemicals have high levels of copper, zinc, and other carcinogenic metals that will have long-term effects on the water, land, local people, soil fertility, and livestock. India is one of the countries that suffer the most from water pollution caused by the fashion industry. Back in 2011, the State High Court stepped in and asked manufacturers to come up with wastewater treatment plans, and although many of them complied, many others are still disposing of their harmful chemicals in areas that are hard to monitor during evenings and very early mornings.
Wastewater treatment is possible, and it is often subsidized with federal funds so that its cost doesn’t risk the stability of these businesses. So it’s really about wanting to do the right thing and sharing that process with clients around the world who want to buy clothes without putting people’s health and life at stake.
The Council of Fashion Designers in America (CFDA) encourages fashion businesses of all sizes to communicate better with their suppliers, ask for detailed information about the hazardous chemicals during the manufacturing process, and get familiar with this process to reduce or stop this negative impact in the environment completely.
Sustainability is inextricably linked to politics and social issues because unsustainable fashion means cheap clothes sewn by unfairly paid workers with poor working conditions. Many factories are located close to marginalized communities, where harmful toxins and chemicals pollute their water, soil, and air, which is unlikely to happen in wealthy areas or neighborhoods.
Social fairness is a huge component of sustainability because it acknowledges that no person needs to be mistreated in order to satisfy the consumers’ needs. In order to meet this goal, there are several points to acknowledge, including a living wage, a physically and psychologically safe workplace, social security benefits, acknowledgment and proper problem solving of social issues, and a fair relationship among employees, community members, suppliers, and the environment.
The importance of this branch of sustainability in fashion gained mass attention in 2013 after the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, with a total death toll of 1,134 people. (The Guardian.) The owner of the building order to make additional floors illicitly without safety measures, with the goal of having in one space more sewers and garment construction machinery. After several warnings, there was neglect of the safety measures of these workers who ended up losing their lives in this tragedy.
Social fairness in fashion is necessary, as the life and health of people in different parts of the world are at stake because of this. You, as a consumer, have the power of looking for information about your favorite clothing company and see what their relationship is with social fairness.
This is not an easy transition; the way the fashion industry operates has been the same for decades, so expecting things to change in a short period of time is certainly unrealistic. But there are measurable goals that companies can aim for so that big accomplishments can be achieved through small steps in the process. Textile factories are starting to treat their wastewater, and recycling centers are making new shirts with old shirts. Progress is happening, but we, as consumers, deserve to see more of it.
Our role as fashionistas, fashion nerds, and human beings is to be aware of this process and keep asking for change. Celebrate the sustainable milestone moments of your favorite fashion company, give a high rating to that recycled polyester shirt, and keep asking for more and more progress so that we can keep consuming fashion without jeopardizing health, life, and wellbeing. We need to make these changes, and we must all be part of them.