Sustainable fashion refers to clothing that is designed, manufactured, distributed and used in an environmentally and socially conscious manner. This includes using eco-friendly materials, supporting fair labor practices, reducing waste and carbon emissions, and encouraging mindful consumption.
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In recent years, interest in ethical and eco-conscious fashion has grown exponentially. More and more consumers are recognizing the detrimental impacts of fast fashion – the model of producing cheap, disposable clothing through unsustainable means.
However, the fashion industry as a whole still has an enormous environmental footprint. Despite claims of ‘sustainability’, real progress has been limited. While individual sustainable brands are making a difference, systemic change is needed for the industry to achieve sustainability.
This article will explore the benefits of sustainable fashion, as well as the areas where the fashion industry needs to improve. Sustainable fashion is not just an ephemeral trend, but a necessary shift to reduce fashion’s planetary impact.
1: Reducing Environmental Impact
Fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M and Forever21 have flooded the market with incredibly cheap clothing that seems appealing in the moment but often ends up in landfills after a few wears. This disposable fashion model results in immense waste and pollution.
In contrast, sustainable fashion brands aim to reduce their environmental impact through:
- Eco-friendly materials – Using organic, recycled or upcycled materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester, deadstock fabric etc. This reduces the resources needed to produce new clothing.
- Ethical manufacturing – Employing suppliers that use renewable energy, efficient production methods, and treat wastewater/dyes before discharging. This reduces emissions and pollution.
- Quality and durability – Focusing on timeless, well-made pieces designed to last. This reduces waste from disposability.
- Sustainable packaging – Using recycled/recyclable materials for garment packaging to reduce waste.
For example, Reformation manufactures its clothing in its Los Angeles factory that runs on renewable energy. It uses eco-friendly Tencel fibers, recycled elastane, and sustainable Celliant textile technology. This enables Reformation to reduce its carbon footprint and wastage compared to fast fashion brands.
Similarly, Stella McCartney uses polyester made from recycled plastic bottles, partners with regenerative farms, and uses forest-friendly viscose. By 2025, the brand aims to convert to 100% sustainable materials across its entire range.
Such steps by sustainable brands significantly decrease the industry’s environmental impact by curbing carbon emissions, pollution, and waste. If adopted on a larger scale, these measures could drastically improve fashion’s sustainability.
2: Promoting Fair Labor Practices
Major fast fashion brands have faced heavy criticism for unethical supply chains rife with labor exploitation. Several brands rely on cheap overseas factories where workers face extremely long hours, unsafe conditions, abuse, and poverty wages as low as $3/day.
Sustainable fashion brands aim to ensure ethical treatment of all workers involved in the production process. This includes:
- Fair wages – Ensuring workers are paid a fair living wage for their labor. Some brands commit to paying 20% above national minimum wages.
- Good working conditions – Supply chain factories should comply with labor laws on working hours, breaks, time off, and management practices.
- No child labor – Strictly no minor labor, in line with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions.
- Worker empowerment – Fostering workplace democracy by allowing workers to unionize and have representation.
For instance, sustainable brand Toast only works with suppliers that meet their ethical standards around wages, conditions, worker rights, and management systems. Toast audits sites annually and aims to develop long-term partnerships for continuous improvement.
Similar ethical trade certifications like Fairtrade also enable brands to ensure fair compensation in their supply chains. Promoting worker welfare is a key pillar of true sustainability.
3: Countering Fast Fashion Myths
Despite fast fashion brands launching initiatives like clothing recycling programs and lines made from recycled materials, the industry as a whole has failed to reduce its environmental impact meaningfully.
Several factors demonstrate how current fashion sustainability efforts fall short:
Myth of Recycling
- Less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new garments
- Issues in collection, sorting, and recycling technology/infrastructure
- Still promotes overproduction and waste
Lack of Transparency
- No standardized sustainability reporting
- CSR reports not audited or verified by third parties
- Unable to track real progress
Marginal Reduction in Emissions
- Total emissions still rising, albeit at a slower pace
- Lack of binding targets to reduce emissions on a global scale
This indicates that rather than revolutionizing into a sustainable industry, fast fashion is still clinging to its old high-volume business model focused on exponential growth above all else. Real change will require shifting fashion off this endless growth treadmill toward an ethic of sufficiency.
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4: Areas for Improvement
For the fashion industry to achieve true sustainability, radical transformation is needed:
- Regulations restricting emissions, virgin plastic use, water pollution, waste generation
- Mandatory due diligence and supply chain transparency laws
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes to incentivize clothing recycling
- Transition away from shareholder primacy business model
- Focus on well-made, durable clothing instead of endless new ‘seasons’
- Align lobbying efforts to sustainability goals
- Shift to circular systems that regenerate natural ecosystems
- Use only recycled/upcycled materials
- Adopt zero waste production through modular design
Both policymakers and the industry must work together to enact interventions that force sustainability improvements rather than relying on incremental change.
In conclusion, sustainable fashion offers clear benefits in reducing the industry’s detrimental environmental and social impacts. However, current initiatives are insufficient to transform fashion into a truly sustainable system.
Lasting progress will require policy reform, fundamental restructuring of the fashion business model, regenerative solutions, and collective commitment from brands, policymakers and consumers alike. Sustainability cannot remain merely a buzzword, but must evolve into comprehensive principles and practices embedded throughout the entire fashion ecosystem.
The path forward will require effort, sacrifices and bold changes from all stakeholders. But the potential reward is an ethical, socially just fashion industry existing in harmony with the planet’s ecological limits. The time for systemic transformation is now.
Comparison of Fast Fashion and Sustainable Fashion
|Produce high volumes cheaply using unsustainable materials and labor practices. Focus on low costs and speed over quality.
|Produce lower volumes with focus on durability and eco-conscious/ethical production. Prioritize environmental stewardship and worker welfare over profit maximization.
|Synthetics like polyester, nylon. Some cotton.
|Organic cotton, hemp, recycled polyester, wool, ramin, Tencel. Natural, recycled and biodegradable materials.
|High emissions, excessive water use, use of toxic chemicals, waste discharge.
|Use of eco-friendly dyes, renewable energy, efficient production, ethical factories with pollution control.
|Low wages, poor conditions, child labor, little worker rights.
|Fair wages, safe working conditions, no child labor, worker empowerment.
|Lack of transparency, ‘greenwashing’, resistance to regulation.
|Traceability, certified ethical trade, following strict standards.
|Consumption Habits Encouraged
|Treating clothes as disposable, constantly buying new.
|Valuing clothes, repairing, re-wearing, recycling.
This table summarizes some of the key differences between the fast fashion and sustainable fashion business models across areas like materials, manufacturing, labor practices and consumption habits. It demonstrates why the sustainable fashion approach is critical to transform the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry.