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What Is Sustainable Fashion? A User’s Guide

How much does an eco wardrobe really matter?

Sustainable fashion refers to clothing, shoes, and accessories designed and manufactured from sustainable materials. Should consumers be opting for more sustainable products? How much difference does it really make?

“At the moment, human rights abuses, gender inequality and environmental degradation all remain rife within the fashion industry, and positive change is more urgently needed than ever to tackle climate change,” Carry Somers, founder of Fashion Revolution, told British Vogue in 2020. 

‘Circular design” has become the big buzzword. This means the entire lifecycle of the product is taken into consideration. This typically happens at the design and sourcing stage. 

“Circularity means not putting an end to the things you use,” Margherita Missoni explains to British Vogue. “In the last few years fashion has woken up, we’ve become aware of how aggressive the industry is and the impact our actions have. But there is a lot more to do.” 

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.” 

So sustainable fashion is a combination of many different fluid facets – ethical business practices, supply chain transparency, minimal impact policies, give-back programs and sustainable materials.

vegan leather

Sustainable Certifications

The purpose of any certification in fashion is to build trust between buyers and retailers. However, the story of sustainable fashion certifications is a very tricky one right now.

For example, a clothing label is deemed ethical if it ensures proper working conditions and fair wages for garment workers.

However, if the same ethical label uses plastic and other synthetic materials, it falls into the non-eco-friendly category. Moreover, there’s a growing number of organizations creating certifications and convincing emerging designers they are essential to appeal to consumers.

For a company to ‘qualify’ for one of these certifications, it is often sufficient to produce just one organic cotton t-shirt, shoes, or pair of jeans. Large corporations can amass certificate after certificate, but small family labels that cannot afford those certifications are often left out. This can make them look unethical or unsustainable by comparison, when really they just don’t have budgets.

As a sustainable consumer, the key to success is doing your homework. Before you buy that garment, shoe or accessory;

  • Check the certificate issuer. Is it an independent or a commercial enterprise? NB – each product may have multiple certificates and they are unlikely to be on the product itself but on the brand website.

Here are some of the most common, reputable certifications to look out for:

1. Global Organic Textile Standard

GOTS unifies and verifies the organic status of 70% of textiles. However, the lines between standards can mix. For example, if the cotton is produced in Pakistan, woven in India, assembled in China, and printed in the U.K.

2. Oeko-Tex

This heavy hitter tells you the textiles you’re wearing don’t contain toxic chemicals.  

The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is used in various production phases. Compliance testing is conducted by independent inspectors.  

 3. Cradle 2 Cradle

 This certification focuses on a garment’s recyclability, renewable energy use, and the social responsibility behind its production. Solid ethics and sustainability? Tick, tick.

 4. Bluesign 

Want the smallest ecological footprint possible – look for the bluesign!

5. Certified B Corporation 

Corporations are not all the enemy of sustainable fashion. Those with B Corporation Certification have met a long list of social and environmental performance standards. 

6. Fair Trade Certified 

Not just for food. Fair Trade Certified means that people in the supply chain of a product have been paid fairly for their work and work in safe conditions. To be found on your Patagonia jacket.

7. PETA Approved Vegan

With this certification, a brand promises that they use zero animal products. There is no monitoring. But who would risk the wrath of the vocal vegan fashionista community?

  • Always cross-reference between different sources of information – is it endorsed by a reliable or trusted third party ie PETA ?
  • Check the fashion brand’s website and social media channels.
  • See where the materials are coming from; are they transparent about their processes and how they treat their people?
  • See if their philosophy resonates with you; do they have clear sustainability goals and targets?

Finally, if in doubt – ask!  Contact the brand with questions about their products, the materials they use, and so on. If you don’t get an answer, that’s a bad sign, no matter how many certificates they have.

Fashion and the Climate

Fashion has a big impact on the planet. The most successful fast fashion brands use influencers and other ploys to push trend driven items at low prices, often producing new clothing collections every two weeks. 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. 

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.”

Some of the main sources of carbon emissions along fashion supply chains are pumping water to irrigate crops (like cotton), harvesting machinery, general transport, and oil-based pesticides. The 2019 UN Environment report attributes fast fashion for 8% of the world’s carbon emission.

The Trouble With Clothes

For brands like BooHoo, Revolve and Fashion, cotton is a staple of their garments but one of the most polluting to grow. The vast majority of fashion retailers do not clean and reuse water from production facilities, using an ‘open-loop cycle’ method. This means toxic waste goes straight outside to pollute waters and lands. The 2020 McKinsey report stated, “The textile sector still represents 10 to 20 percent of pesticide use. Solvents, and dyes used in manufacturing are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution.”

Equally, crude oil is problematic; Polyester, nylon, and Lycra are all oil-based. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. However, it does break down into tiny bits of microplastic. These find their ways into rivers and oceans where animals eat them.

Washing one load of synthetic clothes releases millions of microplastics 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. 

Another issue for the climate is how much waste fast fashion generates. 

This is not only due to customers getting rid of their wardrobe items, but also due to retail stores throwing away or burning the unsold stock. The Clean Clothes 2019 campaign research showed that in the UK, one in three fast fashion items ended up in a landfill.  The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) 2017 Valuing our clothes report makes equally sober reading; an estimated £140 million worth (around 350,000 tonnes) of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year.

Sustainable Fashion Textiles

Choosing garments made from sustainable fabrics and materials can be confusing due to the myriad of terms – eco, green, environmentally friendly, organic – but also due to 

industry greenwashing.  For example, companies may claim their garment is compostable, even though by certification standards, it can’t actually break down. Brands can even claim fabrics are sustainable and biodegradable if they’ve been treated with chemical dyes. 

While cotton is a natural fibre that can biodegrade at the end of its life, it is also one of the most environmentally demanding crops. Highly water-intensive to cultivate and manufacture, figures from the 2020 United Nations Environment Programme suggest it takes between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of water to make a single pair of jeans and up to 3,000 to make a T-shirt. As already discussed,  conventional cotton production accounts for one-sixth of all pesticides used globally; a 2008 World Health Organisation report showed that in developing countries approximately 20,000 individuals die of cancer and suffer miscarriages as a result of chemicals sprayed on conventional cotton.

what's wrong with wool
Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

Is Wool Sustainable?

Another contentious natural fibre is wool. On the plus side wool is sustainable, renewable and biodegradable. But there are downsides.

Intensive sheep farming causes land degradation, uses organophosphate pesticides, fertilisers and feeds and produces methane.

Wool dyeing can also involve the use of toxic materials and causes the pollution of water systems. Across the board, sheep welfare is a concern.

Australia is responsible for 50% of the world’s wool and also the common practice of “mulesing”. Ranchers force sheep on their backs to cut the excess skin from their buttocks. This generally done without anesthetic. Many of these sheep end up suffering slow, but extremely painful deaths as a result of this procedure.

What About Leather?

Leather production is linked to some serious sustainability issues. Extensive rearing of livestock has severe environmental impacts such as deforestation, water and land overuse, and gas emissions.

Methane is at least 20 times as strong a greenhouse gas as CO2 and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that livestock are responsible for about 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Clearing of the Amazon for cattle ranching, including for leather, is contributing to climate change. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Materials Sustainability Index – which measures impact up to the point of fabrication – gives most leathers an impact of 159 (compared with 44 for polyester and 98 for cotton), due to its high contribution to global warming and water use and pollution. 

According to Extinction Rebellion, a billion animals are killed for leather every year. Eighty-five percent of the world’s leather is tanned with chromium, an extremely toxic substance that often leaves tannery workers with cancer and skin conditions.

The good news is there are many natural, organically farmed and 100% compostable alternatives to traditionally manufactured cotton. Plus alternative plant-based wools and leather are also now readily available.

(You can read all about alternatives to leather in our guide, here.)

Eco Textiles

Organic Cotton

Cotton grown and processed without any chemicals, including pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic cotton certifications also considers the health of cotton farmers. It makes sure they are treated and paid fairly, and work in safe, hygienic conditions. Organic cotton farming also requires significantly less water and energy than traditional cotton.  

Certifications: Better Cotton Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Recycled Cotton

Repurposed cotton derived from post-industrial (fabric scraps from manufacturing) or post-consumer (thrown away garments) waste.  Recycled cotton is sustainable in the sense that it’s putting waste that would have otherwise gone to the landfill to use. It’s unsustainable in the sense that it’s impossible to determine the types of cotton that make it or how it was grown.The only certification it can obtain is Oeko-Tex 100, which would test the finished product for chemicals.

Certifications: Oeko-Tex 100

Organic Hemp

One of the oldest fibers around and is one of the most eco-friendly. Aside from converting into fabric sustainability, it requires 50% less water than even organic cotton and no pesticides. It’s also incredibly useful, being excellent at temperature regulation, both in hot and cold climates and has natural UV protective properties.

Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100,  Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Organic Linen

Linen is nearly identical in sustainable growth and manufacturing and fabric properties as hemp but instead derived from the flax plant.

Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

Organic Bamboo

In (raw form, not processed), often called Bamboo Linen: Bamboo is one of the fastest renewing plants on earth as it can be harvested without killing the core plant.  It also requires only natural rainfall to grow and consumes more carbon dioxide than hardwood trees. But buyer beware: approach bamboo cautiously. It can either be one of the most sustainable fibers or the least. This comes down to production.

Certifications for Organic Bamboo in raw form: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

TENCEL Lyocell

Often called by its brand name TENCEL (it’s by Austrian Lenzing Industry’s TENCEL brand), lyocell converts wood pulp into a fibre which can then be turned into a fabric. The manufacturing process is a closed-loop process and uses non-toxic cellulose solvents (like amine-oxide) rather than sulfuric acid. All water and 99% of the chemicals are recoverable and reused in the same process many times. 

Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

TENCEL Modal

Tencel Modal comes from the wood pulp of beech trees.  This process differs from Lyocell’s but it’s still a closed-loop. It also produces a very similar soft fabric (if only a bit thinner and lighter). 

Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Bamboo Lyocell

Bamboo Lyocell is also made in a closed-loop system where chemicals are re-used. That reduces workers and the environment from exposure. 

However, before buying bamboo lyocell products, we’d recommend checking in with the brand to understand their sustainability metrics more fully.

Certifications for Organic Bamboo in raw form: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic

SCOBY

Kombucha drinkers may be familiar with this one.  Kombucha comes from fermented live cultures called SCOBYs (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast). That same mushy fermented gob (also called “the mother”) can also make for great leather. SCOBY-based leather obviously doesn’t require animals, is biodegradable, requires zero heavy metals and other tanning chemicals, and is significantly cheaper than genuine leather, too.

Pinatex

A durable, vegan-friendly leather substitube made from pineapple leaves.  It provides a use for the scrap leaves which typically have no other value.  The decortication production process requires no harsh chemicals. Often combined with wood-derived PLA, it is biodegradable. However, it is often coated with resins that don’t biodegrade.

Apple Eco Leather

Apple Eco Leather (or Pellemela, in Italian) turns apple juice waste into leather. It’s made by Italian company Frutmat; it specializes in recycling biological waste. On its own, it’s fully biodegradable, as well as waterproof, breathable, and super durable.  That’s why you’ll pretty much only find it in purses, wallets, handbags, and sneakers.

Certifications: Oeko-Tex 100

Woocoa

An alternative plant-based wool made from hemp, coconut fibers, and mushroom enzymes. An innovative material created by a group of university students in Colombia, it isn’t widely commercial yet, but it’s an exciting development for the future.

Sustainable Fashion Brands

These brands are leading the way in sustainable fashion.

1. Stella McCartney

British designer Stella McCartney launched in 2001. The label has become a stalwart for sustainability across all aspects of the label. The website says her commitment is evident throughout all her collections “and is part of the brand’s ethos to being a responsible, honest, and modern company.” Stella frequently partners with Adidas for its eco offerings like the recent athletic wear range and vegan leather Stan Smiths. She also recently partnered with The RealReal on its first upcycled collection. Daughter of Linda and Paul McCartney, Stella grew up vegetarian and she eschews leather in all of her collections.

Shop here.

2. Reformation

Los Angeles-based Reformation has been redefining sustainability since 2009. Started by former model and founder of defunct label YaYa, Yael Alfalo, the label brought its eco-friendly range to shops like Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. Most recently, it launched its first foray into athletic wear. As Aflalo once told Vogue. “You buy clothes because you really want them. The sustainability part is for us to figure out.”

Shop here.

3. Patagonia

Patagonia is a leader in the sustainable fashion movement. With a range of innovative sustainable materials (including organic, natural fabrics and recycled synthetics), the company also has highly transparent supply chain and labor practices. Their range includes adventure gear, casual wear (including T-shirts), swimwear and menswear. Their mission is sustainability; “We’re in business to save our home planet. We aim to use the resources we have – our voice, our business and our community—to do something about our climate crisis.”

Shop here.

4. Blonde Gone Rogue

Discover fun streetwear and colourful body con dresses made from recycled clothing in a small factory in founder Denitsa’s hometown of Ruse, Bulgaria. Since the brand came into existence in 2017, it has created an ethical and transparent supply chain for its clothes made from upcycled materials, offering high-quality, long-lasting and sustainable designs. By partnering with Shopify and Pachama, the company has offset the carbon emissions from shipping  orders with all proceeds from the Carbon/OFF campaign go to the Jari Pará REDD+ Avoided Unplanned Deforestation Project in the Amazon Rainforest.

Shop here.

5. Ecoalf

This is the first fashion brand in Spain to receive B CorpTM, certification. ECOALF has a commitment to people and the planet. “We believe we have a mission that goes beyond just business. Fashion is one of the largest consumer goods industry in the world and the second most pollutant. I believe the time when fashion was just about looking good is over, ” explains Javier Goyeneche, founder and president. “During all these years we have worked hand in hand with all of our suppliers, using the most innovative technologies to develop more than 400 recycled fabrics with the same characteristics and quality as the best non recycled – but with a much lower environmental impact.” Focusing on stylish daywear for men, women and kids with slogans such as ‘There is no Planet B”, Ecoalf is a Global Recycling Standard certified brand. 

Shop here.

6. People Tree

Pioneers of Fair Trade sustainable fashion, People Tree’s exclusive V&A prints create stylish, innovative and affordable fashion. Through close partnerships, the company works to the highest Fair Trade standards on projects to support their producers. This includes hand skills training, the development of natural and low-impact dyes and organic cotton farming. Adhering to certifications such as GOTS to protect the farmers, their environment and their communities, their collections bring a sense of luxury to sustainable fashion through the use of organic cotton brushed velvet, TENCEL™Lyocell silky party wear and structured organic cotton denim.

Shop here.

7. Gung Ho

Gung Ho prides itself on sustainable female fashion that doesn’t compromise on taste. It’s not cheap — the Endangered Dress dress will set you back £345. The London-made collections are handmade in small batches. The climate change inspired collection features statement sweatshirts and shirts, skirts and masks made from offcuts. They have teamed up with a sustainability company developing tech to make purchases carbon negative at checkout.  With just a simple click, the software calculates the emissions of the order and directs the funds to seriously impactful projects: those that decarbonise supply chains, generate cleantech innovation and repair the environment. 

Shop here.

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