By: Lauren Plug
You're not imagining things. Terms such as 'sustainable fashion' and 'sustainable clothing' are showing up a lot more. Because people are demanding more from the fashion industry!
As the demand for sustainable clothing increases, the fashion industry is going to have to make some changes.
As more people begin looking for sustainable clothing, many will be asking: can clothing really be sustainable?
In this piece we’ll go through what currently isn’t working in fashion and how the industry can help shape a more sustainable future.
What Is Sustainable Clothing?
Sustainable clothing is clothing made from natural materials. Think materials like bamboo, organic cotton, linen, etc. using environmentally friendly processes. As for what an ‘environmentally friendly process’ means, well, that gets left to each brand to decide and put into practice.
However you slice it (sew it?) the current model isn’t working.
Fast fashion seems the most likely to blame, but the fashion industry as a whole has a lot that it could do better (don’t we all though?). There are many issues that span production to end of life, but the main ones covered here are:
- Exploitation Of People
- Domination Of Synthetic Fabrics
- Frequent Microtrends
- Environmental Damage
Let’s get into it!
A majority of garments are produced in developing countries by workers who are exploited due to the lack of employment options. But sadly this exploitation also happens right here in the States.
To keep prices low, many garment workers face unfair and harsh conditions including:
- 12-14+ hour days
- Unsafe conditions (sexual harassment, unsafe machinery, unsafe buildings)
- Low wages (not livable wages or often less than/ barely minimum wage)
- Child labor
Did you know the majority of clothing in every country contains synthetic fabrics? These man-made materials begin with a fossil fuel and end with a garment full of toxic chemicals.
While they make great exercise clothes, synthetic fibers aren't super great. For example, they:
- Take 200+ years to break down
- Sit in landfills leaching chemicals into the ground and methane into the air
- Shed microplastics that pollute the water
- Release toxic chemicals into the air when incinerated
Overconsumption via Microtrends
Do you feel like you can never keep up with the latest trends? Like if you missed the most recent viral video you don’t know what’s appropriate to wear anymore?
It’s not just you! (and the intention is to make you feel exactly that)
There used to be 2, then 4, fashion sessions per year. Presently fast fashion brands are now cycling through as many as 52 microtrends a year. That’s 1 per week!
The purpose of all these microtrends? To get you to buy a lot of clothes as quickly — and often — as possible.
The habit we all need to overcome before any real changes happen, is over-consumption.
There is room for improving the environmental harm done at almost every step of the supply chain.
The industry is responsible for:
- Using one-fifth of all plastic produced each year
- Contributing to 17-20% of global water pollution through toxic chemicals used in dyeing
- Consuming ~70 million barrels of oil per year for polyester alone
- Incinerating or landfilling 53 million metric tons of clothing each year
The good news is more people want to buy better. And you know exactly where they turn: thrifting!
Thrifting Has Become The Sustainable Alternative
Thrifting provides a low-cost alternative to fast fashion. An alternative perfect for both the environmentally conscious AND the budget conscious.
In a world lived online through photos, repeating an outfit is a social faux pas. Thrifting provides an easy fix.
But of course, the easy fix isn’t usually the long-term fix. Thrifting a new outfit is better than buying a brand new one, but the goal should be to cut back on consumption.
Pros To Thrifting
- Low prices
- High variety
- Supports a local business/community
- Gives clothes a second life
And The Cons
- High demand takes affordable clothing away from those who need it most.
- People are buying up cheap items to resell on their private channels.
- Fast fashion has infiltrated second-hand stores making it harder to find quality items.
- The increase in donations and demand creates higher operating expenses for the business, driving up prices.
- Unable to keep up with the demand, many clothes get trashed or sold abroad.
The U.S. alone exports $687 million worth of used clothing to other countries but the unwanted clothes from the U.S. remain unwanted abroad.
Exported garments do help those in need, but that is in the minority. Rather, these imported clothes end up competing with the local, established textile industry.
- Prices local businesses out
- Hurts the local economy
- Puts people out of jobs
- Contributes to the cycle of poverty
- Becomes pollution and/or ends up in landfills abroad
The negative impacts are so high, in 2018 Rwanda banned the import of second-hand clothing to protect their textile industry.
So, Can Fashion Ever Be Truly Sustainable?
I said we were going to discuss it but the magic 8 ball says: “Cannot predict now”.
Can anything ever be truly sustainable?
Everything will have an impact on the planet. What can be done is reduce how big that impact is and make way for a more sustainable future.
To begin reducing the impact of the fashion industry, we need to stop consuming just because we can. Instead, the shift needs to be towards what we already own, and incorporating slow fashion.
Slow fashion refers to locally produced clothing made from natural and sustainable materials that emphasizes the fair and ethical treatment of cultures, workers, and the environment.
Other than scrapping your whole wardrobe (please don’t do that) what can you do to get closer to participating in slow fashion?
- Shop intentionally for what you need.
- Look for multi-use and multi-functional pieces
- Restyle, Rewear!
- Mend and repair clothes
It’s a lot of work, so take it a step at a time and incorporate slow, sustainable pieces when you can.
Here’s what to look out for!
How To Incorporate Sustainable Clothes Into Your Wardrobe
The most sustainable thing you can wear is something that’s already in your closet. If it’s polyester, if it’s linen, if it’s leather — it’s already made, it already exists in the world. So wear it and wear it often. By keeping something new from being made you’re doing a good job!
But everyone needs to buy clothes at some point. Since there is no universal definition of sustainable clothes, it's best to start with brands that mirror your values.
Identify Your Cause
What are you most concerned about?
- Water & Renewable Energy Usage
- Chemicals Used - Dyeing, Bleaching
- Farming Practice - Regenerative, Organic
- Materials Used (synthetics, natural, blends, deadstock, recycled)
- Labor Practices & Employee Treatment (working conditions, liveable wages, benefits)
- Manufacturing (local, international, are they open about the conditions?)
- Production (made to order, fewer styles, fewer collections)
- End of Life (does the brand take it back, how does it degrade, get recycled)
You can also choose to prioritize a specific type of material.
Sustainable Clothing Made From Recycled Materials
It is truly mind-boggling that plastic waste can be turned into textiles. Proof that we can do anything we set our minds to.
As amazing as recycled textiles are, the end goal is not to turn all plastic waste into textiles.
But why? Because…
- It’s reacting to the problem instead of solving it
- It still encourages plastic use
- They shed microplastics into the waterways
- Virgin plastic is often needed to supplement the recycled
- Companies who prefer to greenwash can purchase new bottles instead of using recycled plastic 😭
Sustainable Clothing Made From Organic Materials
Just as food begins as a crop, so do the materials that make up your clothes.
An organic certification ensures the crops were farmed without synthetic pesticides, chemicals, or genetically modified seeds.
Regular, non-organic cotton uses:
- 25% of the world’s insecticides
- 10% of the world’s pesticides
And 7 out of the 15 ingredients in pesticide range from possible to known carcinogens (cancer causing) (EPA). The effects of these chemicals will be felt most by those handling the cotton and chemicals regularly. And of course the air, soil, and water.
For these reasons and more you’ll find organic cotton at Basic Revolution. Behind every garment are skilled workers earning fair and ethical wages, working in safe conditions, with advancement opportunities.
And hold 3rd party certifications by:
Why Should You Care About Sustainable Fashion?
If you take nothing else out of this piece, take some time to think about the following topics.
- Around 2,000 pieces of clothes are thrown away every second in the U.S.
- That adds up to ~11.3 million pieces of clothing trashed per year.
- The textile industry is set to be the 2nd largest consumer of oil
- 87% of clothing fibers are burned or sent to a landfill
- 95.2% of Shein clothing contains new plastics
- Only 13% of clothing is recycled in the U.S.
In order for sustainable clothing to exist and persist, there needs to be change.
Change in lifestyles.
Change in attitudes.
Change in spending habits.
It’s everyone’s world and the actions you make and the companies you support today affect the future you’ll get tomorrow and the future your kids will get in decades to come.
It’s a lot to take in so whenever possible, put your money and support behind brands making sustainable clothing available for everyone. Like Basic Revolution of course!