What is sustainable fashion and why should we care?

There is a direct link between what we buy and how those items shape the world around us. For decades fashion companies have used “fast fashion” processes to mass produce clothes.  This has resulted in a crisis of slave labor, environmental pollution and animal torture.

Here’s the deal:

Clothes have a much higher cost than what we actually pay at the cashier.

What is sustainable fashion?

Sometimes called “slow fashion”, sustainable clothing brands prioritize people, environmental conservation and cruelty free processes to create ethical clothing and footwear.  Sustainable fashion has developed in response to the negative consequences of fast fashion.

A key part of sustainable fashion is transparency in the manufacturing and supply chain to understand how workers are being treated, what animal-based products are being used, and how the environment is being impacted.

Advocacy groups have collaborated to create the Transparency Pledge Coalition, which requires a minimum standard for supply chain disclosure.

In addition, the Open Apparel Registry has been developed to map garment warehouses around the world. In the past these facilities have been allowed to operate in undisclosed locations,  without scrutiny or oversight from a centralized organization.

Why should we care about sustainability?

  • Worker Rights

Sustainable brands work to maintain an equitable and safe work environment, offering workers a livable wage at every stage of the supply chain, gender equity, and onsite safety compliance according to international codes of conduct.

In terms of fair pay, calculating wages according to the employees’s home region is important to ensure employees receive a fair wage, while also ensuring that pay variations are not too extreme. This prevents the “race to the bottom”, which occurs when companies pull out of one country to move manufacturing to another country with cheaper labor costs. [1]

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance was created to define a specific process for calculating the living wage of a specific area.

  • The Environment

Eco-friendly fashion companies actively work to become carbon-neutral, conserve natural resources and eliminate any pollution of their surrounding environment.

Fabrics and materials are created through the use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power.

Garments are created from natural, recycled polyester, cotton, linen and fabrics in garment production. New apparel is created from recycled polyester, denim and other materials whenever possible.

  • Animal Welfare

Unlike vegan clothing brands, sustainable fashion does not completely exclude the use of animal-based materials. However, these materials should be extremely limited in use, and only sourced using cruelty-free methods.

Sustainable fashion also excludes the use of animal-based dyes in clothes production.

What are the benefits of sustainable fashion?

  • Preservation of the environment

The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world following the oil industry. Issues like water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and rainforest destruction are some of the most critical problems. [2]

A pair of jeans that costs $29.99 at a big-box retailer has an environmental and human cost which is far greater than the heavily subsidized price tag.

In a report by Worldbank.org, researchers found that it takes 3,781 liters of water to create a single pair of jeans, from production to final delivery to the brick and mortar store. That is an incredible cost to pay for a single pair of boot cut Levis.

The industry overall contributes 10% of the yearly global carbon emissions – surpassing emissions generated by both international air travel and maritime shipping combined.

  • Protection of worker rights

The human capital required to create “fast fashion” budget-priced fabrics and materials inflicts enormous damage on society, via slave labor and unsafe work conditions.  Sustainable fashion brands ensure workers at each point in the supply chain are paid a living wage.

Reported in article on SmartAsset, in 2013 an 8-story factory in Bangladesh collapsed, taking the lives of 1,129 men and women. In addition, Bangladesh has a minimum wage of $68 per month, which is far below what an average person requires to support themselves – even in a third-world country.

In addition to economic inequality, countries that serve as manufacturing hubs for the fashion industry typically engage in exploitive workplace practices, with physical and sexual abuse running rampant.

  • Creating a circular product life cycle

The “Green Strategy” organization based in Sweden maps out a multi-step lifecycle which ensures that garment materials are going through a circular process of use and renewal. This prevents over-consumption, and decreases the volume of discarded clothing ending up in landfills.

Garments should be manufactured on-demand to avoid overproduction. After purchase, consumers should utilize their clothes to the fullest extent – repairing and repurposing when possible.

When garments are no longer wanted, they should be donated or given away rather than thrown away.

If the garment is unusable, it should be given to a textile recycling collection point to be reused to create new items.

Final Thoughts

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet, kills millions of animals each year and is also responsible for the impoverishment and immiseration of millions of exploited communities worldwide.

Consumers need to reject the damage caused by “fast fashion” and embrace the inclusiveness, humanity and longevity of sustainable fashion.