Sustainable fashion is clothing manufactured with fabrics made from sustainable materials.
It uses sustainable processes and supports a sustainable standard of life for its workers.
However, sustainable fashion is only truly sustainable if the life of the garment, after it is sold, is also sustainable.
Sadly, nothing in fashion is truly sustainable yet. However, that doesn’t mean that informed decisions can’t significantly reduce our impact on the environment. In this article, we’ll have a look at some of the key topics and issues around the sustainable fashion movement.
- Sustainable Fashion Definition
- Why is Sustainable Fashion Important
- Sustainable Fabrics in Fashion
- Polyester and other petrochemical based, plastic fibres
- Recycled Polyester
- Natural fibres
- Polyester and other petrochemical based, plastic fibres
- Ethical and Sustainable
- What is the Circular Economy in Fashion
- Sustainable Fashion Quotes
- Author’s Note
A Sustainable Fashion Definition
If you ask ten different people what sustainable fashion is, you will get ten different, albeit related, answers. It can all seem rather subjective. So, what is sustainable fashion? How do we get something more precise? A good place to start is with the definition of the word “sustainable” itself:
“Sustainable” adjective: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
Within the context of the environment, the Cambridge Dictionary defines “sustainable” as “causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”.
This definition is equally applicable to the fashion industry. We can, perhaps, expand it slightly to “the design, creation, use and disposal of clothing and accessories where these processes don’t adversely affect the environment”.
Why is Sustainable Fashion Important?
With 8 billion people on the planet, sustainability in everything we do is important.
Our world is large but has limited resources. Anything we do that is not sustainable will have to stop at some point in the future. We will run out of resources or we will destroy the environment in which we live.
This applies to fashion as much as anything else. Items of clothing can be both small and simple, but looks can be deceptive. Materials must be grown or created; yarns are dyed and woven into fabrics; fabrics have to be cut and sewn; clothes are shipped to retailers and then sold; customers use, clean and maintain the garments. At the end of life, items are disposed of, reused or recycled.
Many of these processes are carried out by different organisations, often in different parts of the world. As such, efforts to make the fashion industry more sustainable will never be a simple task and ensuring that the complete lifecycle is truly sustainable has not yet been achieved by anyone.
However, the gap between brands that are largely sustainable and those that are not, is huge. Currently, the best brands are those that are continually putting time, effort and money into being the most sustainable they can be.
This is an ongoing process of improvement for all companies. A truly sustainable fashion industry will only come about from the efforts of these brands.
Sustainable Fabrics in Fashion
It is possible to say that there are fabrics that aren’t sustainable and that there are fabrics that are somewhat sustainable. Claims that any particular fabric IS sustainable are debatable.
It is probably more practical to assess the sustainability of different fabrics on a sliding scale, where an assessment accounts for issues such as climate impact, water usage, chemical usage, recyclability, etc.
Polyester and other petrochemical based, plastic fibres.
Polyester, nylon, lycra, acrylic, etc, are all manmade fibres derived from oil that we suck out of the ground. As such, they are not sustainable materials – the oil will run out.
This is not the only sustainability issue with these plastic fibres. Figures quoted for the CO2 emitted for every kilogram of yarn produced are high. Also, these figures don’t normally include all aspects of the process. CO2 emissions associated with exploration of oil fields through to the refining of the heavy crude oil are not usually included; quoted figures are mainly underestimated.
Some of the environmental impact is partially offset where recycled plastic is used to create the fibres. This not only reduces the energy consumed and CO2 emitted, but also creates a market for recycled plastics. There are manufacturers who collect plastic bottles from the oceans and create t-shirts with them. This should be applauded, except for one caveat – microplastics.
Every time we wash our clothes, thousands of fibres break off, get into the wastewater system and then ultimately into our oceans. These fibres are either natural and/or cellulose based, or they are made of plastic. Whilst natural fibres have the potential to be problematic if they are treated with certain chemicals, the microplastics that are released from polyester, etc, have been shown to be damaging to the marine eco system in more than one way .
Creating a business case for taking discarded plastic bottles out of the ocean is very good. It is less good if a significant percentage of that plastic ends up back in the oceans, as tiny microplastics. It would be better if these recycled polyester fabrics were only used in items that don’t require laundering.
Using recycled plastic to make polyester is much more sustainable than using virgin fibres. However, the plastic fibres can only be recycled so many times1 and the fabric may actually be a blend of virgin and recycled material.
1 [Most recycled PET plastic is processed using a mechanical method that limits how many times the plastic can be recycled. There is a more expensive, and less widely used, chemical method that, in theory, doesn’t limit how many times the recycling process can be done.]
Natural fibres are rightfully considered to be a more sustainable alternative to manmade plastic-based fibres, however, not all are equal. Whilst sustainable material for clothing won’t be covered in detail in this article, here are some of the issues to consider.
Natural fibres are either grown as a crop or they’re animal based, such as wool or leather. With any of these, we have to consider how much land is needed to produce a square metre of fabric. This is land that could otherwise be used for food production or left to nature. We should assess how many chemicals are required to farm the crop/animal – chemicals have their own CO2 footprint and pollution risks. Energy used to process the raw materials into a fibre should be measured, as well as how much chemical is needed to dye the yarn.
Cotton is a farmed plant. It requires a lot of water which is problematic as it is often grown in areas of the world where water is scarce. It also uses large amounts of pesticides and insecticides: 2.5% of the world’s farmland is used for growing cotton, but it consumes 16% of the world’s insecticides . Organic cotton is much more sustainable as it doesn’t use insecticides or pesticides and is reliant on much less water. However, organic cotton produces less fibre per acre than conventional cotton.
Bamboo is a quick growing crop, but it requires more chemicals to process the plant into fibres than cotton. This is raises the question of CO2 emissions and the potential pollution. Some manufacturers are now able to mitigate much of this issue by using closed-loop systems that recycle the chemicals in an efficient way.
By a number of measures, hemp is often considered to be the most sustainable fibre. It requires no insecticides/pesticides, can produce more than twice the amount of fibre per acre as cotton  and its long roots are able to reduce or remove the need for irrigation. However, its association with marijuana led to growing restrictions in many areas of the world after the second world war. It is just starting to see a resurgence, but the technology to process the fibres is 70 or 80 years behind that of cotton, resulting in higher costs. These inefficiencies are one of the things keeping hemp from being truly sustainable.
Natural fibres, in general, are a more sustainable alternative, however, they all have their pros and cons. None could be considered as 100% sustainable.
Ethical and Sustainable
There is, unsurprisingly, some confusion over the difference between ethical fashion and sustainable fashion. This may be due to “sustainable” fashion treading on the toes of “ethical” fashion. Traditionally, we would have thought of sustainable fashion being concerned with the processes and production of the materials, shipping and the end of life of a product. Ethical fashion is often thought to be more concerned with the safety of workers, how they are treated and paid. However, sustainability is also concerned with the sustainability of the workforce; ethics is also concerned with the welfare of the earth. We consider, for example, that it is unsustainable to pay a workforce under the amount it costs to actually live, and we also consider it to be ethically wrong to do so. Hence, there is crossover.
It is often not possible to determine how factory workers are treated when we purchase clothes. Sustainable or ethical retailers, however, rely on third party accreditations, such as Fair Wear or Fair Trade standards, to ensure the fair treatment of workers.
What is the Circular Economy in Fashion?
The lifecycle of our clothes starts when we spin the yarn that’s woven into the fabrics that make our clothes. It ends when we dispose them. This type of lifecycle is a linear lifecycle. It means that we spin the yarn with brand new, virgin fibres. At the end-of-life, generally, the clothes go into landfill. There is no connection between the end-of-life of a garment and the beginning of the manufacturing process. The notion of circular fashion makes this connection.
In circular fashion, when the user has finished with a garment, if it can’t be reused or remade, it is recycled. The item is deconstructed and the fabric is shredded. The resulting fibres are re-spun into yarn and that yarn is used to make new clothes – the process is no longer linear, it is now circular. It makes the whole process much more sustainable.
Currently, circular fashion is an ideal. In practice, there are almost no examples of this being practiced at scale. This is due in part to the following complications:
- Clothes have buttons/zips/studs. Some clothes are made with more than one type of fabric. This means that time, and hence money, has to be spent to deconstruct the garment to a point where it can recycled.
- A large percentage of fabrics are blends of different types of fibre. Whilst it may be possible to use these blended fibres in the future, currently it isn’t.
- The infrastructure isn’t in place to deal with the collection of garments, sorting the garments, deconstruction, re-introducing and spinning into new yarns, at scale.
These issues are being addressed and some manufacturers are starting to incorporate used fibres into some of their new garments, but this is far from commonplace.
How many clothes are recycled?
Earlier, I said that clothes, at their end-of-life, go into landfill. Actually, 12% of clothes are recycled, although that doesn’t mean that they become part of a circular fashion cycle. Clothes that are classed as recycled may have been resold to a thrift store, charity shop or shipped to a developing nation where they still have some value as second-hand clothes. They may have been restored or revamped or reimagined and sold as a ‘new’ item. They may have been reused in a different industry – for example, the clothes may have been shredded and used as house insultation. All of these methods either extends the life of the garment or it extends the life of the materials used, and as such increase the sustainability of the item. Less than 1% of clothes are recycled into new clothes.
Avoiding clothes ending up in landfill is, at least in part, down to the purchaser of the garment. Look to either recycle, reuse or repurpose your items.
Sustainable Fashion Quotes
We can perhaps understand what sustainable fashion is by reading what other industry insiders have said about it. Here are a few cherry-picked quotes. Some are about the fashion industry. Some are about sustainability more generally.
“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere”Annie Leonard
“Cheap fashion is really far from that. It may be cheap in terms of the financial cost, but very expensive when it comes to the environment and the cost of human life”Sass Brown
“Buy less. Choose well. Make it last”Vivienne Westwood
“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production”Pete Seeger
“Sustainability is here to stay, or we may not be”Niall FitzGerald
“Sustainability is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity – how else are we going to get by once the world has run out of stuff”Alexander Roberts
“As consumers, we have so much power to change the world by just being careful in what we buy”Emma Watson
“Sustainable Fashion is not a trend but the future”Antonia Böhlke
“Good design is a sustainable design”Imran Amed
“True sustainability will only be achieved when we work with nature, not against it”Alexander Roberts
“Your t-shirt should cost more than your coffee”unattributed
“No one wants to wear clothes that were made from someone’s blood”Amber Valetta
“Being green is more than just buying ‘eco’. It is an unshakable commitment to a sustainable lifestyle”Jennifer Nini
The impact of fashion on our environment is more than most people know. 8% to 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from the industry . That’s 1.7 billion tons of CO2 per year . This is more than the aviation and shipping put together – that astounded me! Clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014  and consumers kept their clothes for around half as long. In 2015 the fashion industry used 330 million barrels of oils . These are very concerning statistics for the environment.
The CO2 emissions from the production of polyester is more than double that of organic cotton . Whilst the perfectly sustainable piece of clothing doesn’t exist, this is one example of how making better, more sustainable, choices can make a big difference.
It should also be noted that much of the environmental impact of a garment occurs once it has been purchased. Washing your clothes on shorter and cooler washes, washing only when an item really needs it, and drying clothes naturally significantly cut the carbon footprint.
So, what is sustainable fashion? Choosing sustainable fashion is a way to reduce our impact on the environment. It is not just the purchase of clothes, but how we look after them and what happens when we’ve finished with them. Whilst the 100% sustainable piece of clothing doesn’t exist, sustainability in fashion is making a big difference today.
Of The Oceans Clothes
At Of The Oceans, we only sell clothes that are made with natural fibres. All our suppliers are accredited by the Fair Wear foundation. Other environmental credentials are listed with the individual items, allowing our customers to decide whether they meet their sustainable requirements.
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 “Interactions of microplastic debris throughout the marine ecosystem”, Galloway, et al. 2018
 “Can fashion ever be sustainable?”, Christine Ro, BBC Article, 11th March 2020
 “How Much Oil Does The $1.5 Trillion Fashion Industry Use”, Jenna Tharia, December 2019.
 “Style that’s sustainable: A new fast-fashion formula”, Nathalie Remy, et al., October 2016, Mckinsey Sustainability
 “Fibre Briefing: Polyester”, Common Objective, 2018