The relationship between fashion and sustainability is complex, to say the least. Unfortunately, the fashion industry’s model of “take, make, dispose” is at odds with the concept of sustainability.
“Fast fashion” production has become so prevalent worldwide that we can now find trendy apparel and accessories at super low prices, and actually have it at our door in 24 hours with Amazon Prime. But did you know that fashion and clothing production make up 10% of annual carbon emissions worldwide?
If you’ve been looking to shop from brands with more sustainable products, you may be overwhelmed. Between news and social media blasts of hypocritical company practices, greenwashing lawsuits, and an endless barrage of advertisements, you don’t even know what’s real and what’s inflated-- and you probably don’t have a lot of time to figure it out. Consider this your simple starting point!
The Collins dictionary defines sustainability as “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” That means not using more natural resources than the planet can naturally replace, and not producing anything that the planet can’t naturally reabsorb. Sounds simple enough, but in reality, sustainability is very complicated.
What is Sustainable Fashion?
In layman’s terms, “sustainable fashion” refers to garments that have been made in a way that is mindful of how the fashion industry affects the environment. The top issues to consider when it comes to sustainability and fashion are: 1) water consumption and contamination, 2) energy emissions, 3) chemical usage, and 4) waste creation. Basically, producers and manufacturers take raw materials (like cotton and polyester) and then use water, energy, and chemicals to create a garment. We buy and wear the garment, and then throw it away (or donate it) when done…. ultimately, it is likely to go to a landfill or be incinerated.
In order for the fashion industry to really become more sustainable, brands need to work towards developing circular systems where garments are fully recyclable after use, reducing the need to create virgin fibers. In the meantime, reducing the amount of clothes we buy (and dispose of!) can help. You can potentially do this by getting a “Take Back Bag” from For Days, or a Thred Up “Clean Out Bag.”
Don’t fret; fashion is not all doom and gloom for our planet. Many big industry players are trying, but change takes time. While no company or brand is perfect, here are a few companies to consider when looking for environmentally protective factors:
Allbirds claims to have created the world’s most comfortable shoes, and even better – they are made naturally and designed practically using renewable materials like TENCEL, Sweetfoam made from sugarcane, and Trino made with responsibly harvested eucalyptus tree fibers and ZQ Merino wool. ZQ is a grower standard that is only available through supply agreement contracts with growers. Allbirds makes shoes for women and men, including running shoes, everyday sneakers, boat shoes, and high tops, as well as a range of clothing.
Many of us are familiar with Patagonia, the casual apparel company that publicly recognizes that everything we make has an impact on the planet. About 64 percent of the materials they’re currently using are recycled, and 100% of the virgin cotton they use is grown organically. Patagonia is transparent about its owned facilities and suppliers across the supply chain, so you know where and how the clothes you buy are actually made. Patagonia has been a certified B Corp since 2011.
Eileen Fisher is a womenswear brand committed to “doing things differently” in the fashion industry. By building circular design into their products, EF’s timeless style is great for work and made to wear year after year. The brand aims to save their products from landfills when the customer no longer wants the item, reselling gently used garments and upcycling the imperfect ones.
A new player in the sustainable watch realm is SOLIOS. SOLIOS watches combine elegance, minimalism, and solar technology, avoiding the use of batteries made with toxic chemicals and metals. Just two hours of sun exposure (or even indoor light!) gives them six months of energy reserves. Powered by clean, renewable energy, and built with planet-friendly, cruelty-free materials, SOLIOS watches are a shift from traditional timepieces.
When it comes to sustainably accessorizing, check out SOKO. SOKO is a female-led, ethical jewelry brand based in Kenya producing earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and rings. They use ethically sourced materials like wood, ceramic beads, and recycled brass to create their unique designs.
Fashion trends come and go, but let’s hope these sustainable ones stick around. Companies are getting creative with materials and production in order to address global climate change. Here are a few interesting and exciting new sustainable trends to consider:
With sustainable options including cactus, pineapple, apple, and grape taking the fashion world by storm, it could lead to the demise of animal-based leather. Impacts from the leather industry such as high greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and pollution from the toxic chemicals are leaving consumers looking for better alternatives.
Plant-based leather options have come a long way in their appearance and durability, and even the high-end brands are jumping on the trend. Earlier this year Ganni announced it would be replacing all its animal-leather with alternatives, such as grape leather, and Louis Vuitton recently released a leather-free version of its popular Charlie Sneaker. Among other recycled products from Nike, the Nike Blazer is made with at least 20% recycled content by weight, as well as partially recycled synthetic leather.
One of the most promising and popular replacements is mushroom! With Stella McCartney and Hermès both launching mushroom leather bags, it may be the hottest new material in fashion right now. Other brands have joined sustainable coalition Ecovative, whose main focus is innovations with mycelium and mushroom leather.
Goodbye to Greenwashing
Consumers have had it with greenwashing. With the tremendous interest in sustainable shopping, many brands felt the immediate pressure. Unfortunately, some began spreading false sustainability claims to win over consumers and their dollars. But with so many watchdogs out there-- both esteemed organizations and armchair-- many were exposed. Today, consumers are seeing right through it. Transparent, honest, sustainable marketing is the way to go for today’s brands-- yet another reason some brands are targeting third-party certifications.
Passport to Transparency
Futuristic as it may sound, some brands are now using technologies to store, track, and share information about products. Through QR codes, consumers can scan the product tag and instantly learn details about it. These codes can tell the entire story of the garment in the consumer’s hand.
Not Your Mom’s Secondhand Shopping
The secondhand market is booming, but it is still poised to grow even more, and everyone is jumping in-- from luxury big box stores like Saks and Neiman’s to dozens of legitimate secondhand websites launching every year. Some luxury brands like Prada and Burberry are even launching their own resale platforms, designing products for longevity and with resale value in mind. Sites like TheRealReal, Rebag and FASHIONPHILE are getting more competitive with aggressive marketing and more frequent sales. This is great for all of us AND the environment.
B Corp Status
Certified B Corporation is a status awarded to ethical and socially minded businesses that can demonstrate how they balance profit with people and the planet. In a progressive move, luxury fashion house Chloé was the first designer brand to achieve the coveted B-Corp status. Khloe Kardashian’s Good American also reached B-Corp status this year. Third-party certifications are becoming more important to consumers who want detailed transparency about the brands they are supporting. For a list of B Corp brands, visit B Corp Certification.
What to Look For
When doing your own research to find companies that are transparent, truthful, and sustainable, look for concrete statistics or goals on their web sites. When a company is wishy-washy about their stats, they are likely not living up to their claims. Some brands will use misleading words or phrases to seem sustainable when they actually aren’t, so you may wish to do outside research and check for third-party certifications. Some brands will have sustainability reports available on their website for detailed information on their program.
You can also look for sustainable lines within major fashion companies. Some large companies have rolled out sustainable clothing lines that use different materials and more ethical practices than their normal lines do. Adidas Made to be Remade, Theory Good Collection, and Reformation RefActive are just a few examples. While these sustainable lines are not enough to off-set the companies’ carbon footprints, it is a step in the right direction. However, you can feel a little better purchasing from big companies if you buy from their sustainable line rather than non-sustainably made clothing.
Check out the annual Fashion Transparency Index to find top brands ranked according to their level of public disclosure on human rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts. You can find brands rated on a scale from 0 to 100 focused on transparency and telling their customers where the clothing is coming from.
Another way is to look for the Better Cotton Initiative or BCI logo on all cotton goods. The Better Cotton Initiative has a mission to help cotton communities survive and thrive, while protecting and restoring the environment. The organization has developed standards, principles and criteria in this regard.
Learning how to break the cycle of fast fashion can be hard, and looking for truly sustainable clothing can seem frustrating. But, by doing a little research on brands and checking out their sustainability programs, you can feel great about buying clothing that was made with the environment in mind.