Want to help save the planet? Then you’ve got to learn the language.
With so many new buzzwords being bandied about, how does the climate-friendly consumer navigate their way through carbon capture, composting, and closing loops to make the right, sustainable purchase?
Here, we highlight 17 key terms to help you avoid the “green sheen” and make informed, truly environmentally friendly choices.
1. Carbon Offsetting
A 2019 UN Environment report attributes fast fashion for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Some of the main sources of CO2 along supply chains are pumping water to irrigate crops, harvesting machinery, general transport, and oil-based pesticides. Carbon offset schemes allow companies to invest in environmental projects to balance out their own carbon footprints. The projects are usually based in developing countries and involve implementing clean energy technologies, purchasing carbon credits from an emissions trading scheme or soaking up CO2 directly from the air through the planting of trees. Recently, energy-based schemes are becoming more popular for their social as well as climate benefits. Efficient cooking stoves, for instance, can help poor families save money on fuel and improve their household air quality.
If something is biodegradable, it will eventually break down into smaller pieces by natural processes. But this could take anything from 6 months to 1000 years. Technically, most things will break down at some point whether they’re derived from nature, like banana skin, or made from chemicals, like plastic. When a company says that their product is biodegradable, what they really mean is that it will break down when placed in a landfill. This is a good thing! However, the key is to take note of how long it takes for the product to biodegrade.
Did you know that the polyester, nylon, and Lycra in your clothing are derived from oil-based plastic which doesn’t biodegrade? However, it does break down into tiny bits of micro-plastic—tiny shards less than 5mm long—that find their ways into rivers and oceans where animals and fish ingest them. Washing just one load of synthetic clothes releases millions of micro-plastics into the wastewater system. But it’s not only washing that causes a problem. A 2020 American Chemical Society study estimated that wearing polyester clothes releases as many microfibres into the air as washing does into the water system. Fortunately, microplastics filters—such as a Guppyfriend bag—can reduce the problem when you do your laundry. Another solution? Wear natural fibres if possible.
It’s easy to confuse biodegradable with compostable. The primary difference between is that compostable products require a specific setting in order to break down, whereas biodegradable products break down naturally. Compostable products do not always biodegrade naturally in a landfill. They have to be placed in the right kind of conditions—those that are often only found in industrial compost facilities. Compostable materials have been certified to break down completely into non-toxic components (water, carbon dioxide, and biomass) that will not harm the environment.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines greenwashing as trying “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” Some companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure circular design and initiatives. Common misleading terms include “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, “eco-conscious” and, of course, “green” which are not based on any scientific proof or credible data. As a sustainable consumer, the key to success is doing your homework. Before you buy that a “green” product check the brand’s claims and certifications online, or cross-reference with a trusted third party.
Upcycling is the process of taking old, worn out or damaged products, like apparel, ghost fishing gear, or plastic bottles, and reworking them into something new. A current sustainability initiative in the fashion industry, high-end brands such as Christopher Raeburn, Balenciaga, and Reformation are using less water, chemicals, and landfill with their upcycled clothing collections. Sustainable outdoor clothing pioneer Patagonia converts damaged take-back clothing into its Recrafted collection. The Clean Clothes 2019 campaign research showed that one in three fast fashion items ended up in UK landfill. Upcyling is the antithesis of fast fashion. The idea is that an item should exist and be in circulation for a long period of time.
Upcycled brands, like those in the fashion industry, use whole pieces of existing garments to create something new. But recycling is being done in a number of industries. Items are sorted, readjusted, altered, melted, or broken down to create new raw materials for use. Unlike upcycling, breaking down materials in a recycling system is emissions intensive and in the fashion industry, fabrics and textiles have not traditionally been the easiest items to recycle. Pure cotton, polyester, nylon, and wool can be turned into new cotton, polyester, nylon, and wool textiles. Discarded water bottles can also be recycled into polyester textiles. Chemical recycling is a recent innovation. New fibre is created by liquifying old fabric in a chemical solution and pushing out filaments like a pasta-making machine. For example, Stella McCartney and Adidas’ recent sportswear collection uses chemically recycled nylon and polyester.
For people living in towns and cities, wildlife is often something you watch on tv. But the air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat all ultimately rely on biodiversity, the intricate and interwoven relationship between the multiple species and ecosystems on earth. Humans and our livestock now consume 25-40% of the planet’s entire “primary production”, i.e. the energy captured by plants on which all biodiversity depends. Biodiversity is an essential part of the fashion industry’s ability to sustain itself. By switching fibres and working with suppliers to minimise impacts, brands can reduce their impact on the environment. Cotton, for example, is known to have a huge environmental cost due to intensive water and pesticide usage. The 2020 United Nations Environment Programme suggest it takes between 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt. now, Levis Strauss & Co is experimenting with Tencel and hemp in an effort to reduce their reliance on cotton and lower their water footprint. Sneaker brand Veja, is actively engaging in preserving biodiversity in both its rubber and cotton supply chain by providing provision for conservation work in its supplier contracts.
Overconsumption refers to the contemporary culture of seeing the things we wear as disposable and discardable rather than to be kept until the end of their life. We see this everywhere—from food and fashion to electronics and even media. Planned obsolescence—industries creating items designed to need replacing sooner than they should. For example, fast fashion brands use influencers and other ploys to push trend-driven items at low prices, often producing new clothing collections every two weeks. According to 2019’s House of Common Environmental Audit Committee, “Clothing production is the third biggest manufacturing industry after the automotive and technology industries. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined.” The 2020 McKinsey report on the State of Fashion estimated 100 billion items of clothing are produced each year. That’s nearly 14 items for every human being on the planet.
Sustainable refers to any item designed and manufactured to not deplete any resources that aren’t being renewed. It’s keeping a sustained rate of use and replenishment. It’s a bit like a game of Jenga where balance and reorganization are constantly happening. Sustainability often refers to the ingredient, fabric, or materials. But there are other considerations, too, like human rights abuses, gender inequality, and environmental degradation that brands are looking at in the life cycle of their products. It’s a combination of many different fluid facets – ethical business practices, supply chain transparency, minimal impact policies, and give-back programs as well as sustainable raw materials.
For consumers, secondhand clothes shopping is a sustainable alternative to buying new “sustainable” clothing. Buying second-hand utilises no additional resources beyond transportation, compared to new clothing. UK charity Oxfam says it saves clothing weighing the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower every year from landfill. The second-hand economy was valued at $24 billion as of 2018, and is projected to grow to nearly 1.5 times the size of the fast fashion market within the next 10 years, according to ThredUp data. Unearth unique one-off pieces or sold-out items at jumble sales, charity shops, and resale sites, like Vestiaire Collective and Depop. According to eBay’s Head of Preloved, Emma Grant people are starting to make the connection. “People are truly beginning to realise that simply by buying second-hand and extending the life-span of a piece of clothing, they can make a huge difference to the environment.”
12. Closed Loop
A closed loop system is one in which products are designed, manufactured, used, and handled so as to circulate within society for as long as possible, with minimum climate impact and waste generation, and with the most efficient use of water, energy, and other resources throughout their lifecycles. This includes recycling waste back into production systems, as well as making products reusable or repairable. For example, Swedish clothing giant H&M collected around 16,000 tons of discarded clothing in 2016 and it has pledged to use all recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, setting an annual collection target of 25,000 tons of disposed clothes.
Zero-waste isn’t a new technology or material. It’s a new way of thinking that challenges manufacturers to change their existing techniques to reduce waste in their production cycles. There are two strategies for zero-waste: creative design that uses 100% of a given material, and upcycling when you generate items, like fashion garments from remnant materials. Zero-waste design, for example, is a cutting technique where all the flat pieces of your clothing pattern fit together like a jigsaw puzzle so no fabric is wasted. Zero-waste production (or upcycling) uses excess fabric for smaller accessories like headbands or bags. A growing number of stores are going zero-waste, too. By bringing your own containers, or using biodegradable packaging, consumers can shop zero-waste to avoid excessive plastic or foil packaging. (Check out this guide to shopping zero-waste for more information.)
14. Carbon Capture
Carbon capture and storage is the process of capturing and storing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere. The technology can capture up to 90% of emissions released by burning fossil fuels in industrial fashion processes. The airline industry is beginning to look at this as a way to help reduce its emissions. UN data attributes fashion for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. It’s why carbon capture is a common thread of the UN’s Fashion Charter and the G7 Fashion Pact; two major coalitions aiming to drive change in the industry. Both are aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050.
15. Circular Design
A circular industry is one in which waste and pollution are designed out, and products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, including through reusing and recycling. Today’s fashion design is primarily based on a linear model. Resources such as cotton are taken from the earth, turned into products, and then thrown away when no longer required. Design is key to the first principle of circular economy. The Ellen McCarthur Foundation—an organisation that promotes the idea of a circular economy with businesses and policymakers—emphasises the need for the fashion industry to “design out waste and pollution.” The good news? Last year, 90 fashion brands from Nike to Adidas, Lacoste to VF Corporation signed the Global Fashion Agenda’s Circular Fashion Commitment.
16. Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Cradle is a design concept inspired by nature, developed in the 1990s. It refers to a production process where products are developed for closed-loop systems in which every output ingredient is safe and beneficial—either to biodegrade naturally and restore the soil, or to be fully recycled into high-quality materials for subsequent product generations. In stark contrast to the current linear system of fashion production—which can be described as Cradle to Grave—C2C is about making fashion production processes function cyclically, in the same way as a healthy ecological system. Cradle to Cradle Certified® is a globally recognised measure of safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy. Brands such as Adidas, Asos, Decathlon, M&S, and Target, are focussing on increasing garment collection, and using post-consumer waste.
17. Regenerative Agriculture
Forests and soil build and cool the atmosphere, maintain the water cycle, feed, shelter, and provide livelihoods to billions of people and animals. Regenerative farming is an approach to land management that seeks to protect soil health and biodiversity. Techniques include cover cropping, no-till, crop rotation, prescriptive grazing, and hedgerow planting. Recently, fashion consortium Kering has become a Frontier Founder of US regenerative agriculture organisation The Savory Institute. Patagonia is also championing regenerative agriculture through its partnerships with The Regenerative Organic Alliance and is looking to source all its cotton and hemp from regenerative certified suppliers. Food brands including Milkadamia and Lundberg Farms are champions of regerative agriculture.