What is Sustainable Fashion?
Sustainable fashion isn’t just a new and hot trend… Sustainable fashion is the future of the fashion industry. More and more people are making an effort to wear eco-friendly clothing that’s less wasteful and less damaging to the environment. In this article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the answer to the question: what is sustainable fashion? We’ll go through what sustainable fashion is, the history and evolution of sustainability in the fashion industry, and super easy ways you can make conscious choices to have a more eco-friendly closet.
What is sustainable fashion?
Sustainable fashion is the movement towards creating clothing products and processes that have greater environmental and social integrity. The goal of the movement is for the fashion industry to do less harm and do more good.
Sustainable fashion is about balancing the needs of people, planet, and profit. For too long, the American way of business has been all about extreme amounts of production and consumption. Clothes used to be specially made and fitted by tailors, upcycled by designers, and worn and re-worn for years. In the 1980s, though, a new manufacturing model referred to as “quick response” brought fast fashion on the scene, a change that meant clothes became worn and discarded quickly – sometimes in a year, sometimes in a season, and sometimes even after one use. In the past four decades, the fashion industry has thus run into significant problems of excess consumption, carbon emissions, chemical run-offs, water pollution, and other sustainability issues (not even to mention all the social and ethical issues as well).
This probably isn’t news to you, though. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably curious about the fashion industry’s impact on the environment and your own role in sustainable fashion. A recent study showed that 3 in 4 consumers know about the environmental issues in the fashion industry and half believe that Americans’ excessive clothing purchases result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions. In response, 1 in 3 U.S. consumers says they would do all their shopping at sustainable clothing stores and 55% are focusing their purchasing choices on “sustainable clothing.” So, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably that 1 in 3 looking to learn more and make a change – and that’s awesome!
Important sustainable fashion definitions:
- Eco-fashion: how clothing production and consumption impacts the environment
- Ethical fashion: how production and distribution impact the workers in the fashion industry in terms of health standards, pay, working conditions, etc.
- Slow fashion: a movement to slow down fashion trends and increase the lifespan of our clothes
- Sustainable fashion: a blanket term for the above definitions that focuses on the overall impact of the fashion industry
Sustainable fashion is changing the world. Learn more about sustainability in the fashion industry here.
History of sustainable fashion
Although sustainable fashion is becoming much more commonplace in 2022, particularly as the pandemic has made more consumers aware of their impact on the environment, the history of sustainable fashion actually goes back about four decades. Let’s take a look at some of the important moments in the tale of sustainability in the fashion industry.
Sustainable fashion starting in the 1900s
1970s: Hippies started promoting ideas of organic, local, handmade, and pesticide-free products. They coined the concept of sustainable fashion and started purchasing and wearing secondhand clothing as a means of rejecting the mass-production culture of America in the 1950s and 60s.
1980s: The 1980s saw even more mass production and even more critical ethical and sustainability issues in the supply chains. These issues would call for action from governments, but unfortunately, they’re still all too omnipresent in fashion industry processes today.
1989: The World Fair Trade Organization (formerly the International Federation of Alternative Traders) was created by over 70 countries with the social mission of fighting poverty, climate change, gender inequality, and social injustice, with a particular focus on improving the livelihoods of economically marginalized producers. This was the first time the world came together to fight for more sustainability and social fairness in industry production standards.
1989: The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) was founded in the Netherlands. This was the largest alliance thus far in the fashion industry, focusing on human rights and eco-friendly processes in fashion.
1991: Activist Jeff Ballinger published a report about the horrific working conditions in Nike’s Indonesian factories. This report began the process of blowing the whistle on not only Nike but hundreds of worldwide brands with atrocious wages, working conditions, and unsustainable and unethical procedures. (Did Nike actually do anything about it? Read this article to learn about how Nike handles corporate responsibility today.)
1997: The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) was founded to promote transparency in organization standards regarding social, environmental, and economic practices. Their standards are still used as the key guidelines in sustainability reporting for multiple business sectors, including the fashion industry.
Fashion sustainability in the 2000s
2002: The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was formed, establishing further standards particularly in the fashion sphere. Their coveted COTSS label is awarded to those companies whose products contain a majority of organic natural fibers (except leather), utilize the least possible chemicals, maintain safe and healthy working conditions, and meet strict processing, manufacturing, and distributing procedures. You can search for certified GOTS suppliers here.
2007: Carmen Lopez, an expert in fashion and bargain shopping, founded Current Boutique to make secondhand shopping more comfortable, luxurious, and accessible both online and in her local community. Carmen wanted to promote fashion sustainability through her love of recycling pre-loved designer gems on consignment while building a community of fashion lovers.
2007: In the same year, Kate Fletcher, a professor of Sustainability, Design, and Fashion at the University of the Arts London’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, coined the term “slow fashion.” Inspired by the Slow Food Movement, Fletcher wrote a wonderful article for The Ecologist about the critical importance of sustainability in the fashion industry and how fast fashion’s cheap price tag comes with a high price of exploitation of labor and natural resources.
2009: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) was formed to ensure the textile industry (including apparel, footwear, and home) produces no unnecessary environmental or social harm. This is a global alliance of over 200 members of retailers, brands, activists, academics, labor groups, suppliers, distributors, and producers, who are all fighting for positive change with fashion sustainability.
2009: Livia Firth formed Eco Age, which is a consultancy firm that provides bespoke sustainability solutions to fashion brands throughout their supply chain. They have consulted with brands like Stella McCartney, Gucci, and Chopard. She was also the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge in 2010, which is a sustainability initiative to show more eco-friendly fashion at awards shows. In 2016, hard-hitters Emma Watson, Margo Robbie, and Lupita Nyong’o were part of the challenge at the Met Gala, which created a huge buzz for sustainable fashion.
Fashion sustainability 2010 to today
2010: The EcoChic Fashion Show concluded the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This show displayed stunning sustainable fashion from renowned designers like Diane Von Furstenburg, Thakoon, and Bora Aksu, while also calling for brands and consumers to stop the environmental destruction caused by the fashion industry.
2011: Fair Trade USA established the Fair Trade Certified Label, which was the first ethical fashion certification that gives consumers confidence in the sustainability and social health of their purchases. This label promises that the labeled product was made in safe, healthy working conditions that meet fair trade standards.
2011: Greenpeace spurred the Detox My Fashion campaign, challenging major fashion brands to take responsibility for their pollution and toxic waste. Thanks to this campaign, by 2018, all 80 companies that participated in the campaign held to their word and were on their way to detoxing their production processes.
2012: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition developed the Higg Index, which is a database of tools for brands and manufacturers to better quantify and “score” their environmental impact. This included the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), which is the most extensive tool available to measure the environmental impact of the fashion industry.
2013: Sadly, on April 24, 2013, 1,132 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed. This was the deadliest disaster in fashion manufacturing history, and it woke up the world to the ethical, inhumane, and cruel conditions in the industry. Although we saw the creation of the Fashion Revolutionas an immediate response to this tragedy, the NY Times reported that five years later, the fashion industry seemed to return to its old ways of unethical behaviors.
P.S. Did you know that Fashion Revolution Day is celebrated every April 24? Beginning in 2014 as a response to the Bangladesh catastrophe, Fashion Revolution is a time for people to take action and pressure fashion brands towards more eco and social sustainability practices.
2014: Levi’s developed a jeans manufacturing method that uses 100% recycled water to reduce wastewater during production. This would soon help set the standards for more recycled fibers and water during manufacturing.
2014: San Francisco institutes the Zero Waste Initiative to eliminate the 39 million pounds of textiles sent to SF landfills annually.
2014: Major fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Primark agree to pay higher wages to Cambodian workers. This was a key step in pushing other brands to look at their social impacts as well.
2015: The True Cost documentary is released, shocking audiences to the truths of the social, ecological, and economic costs of the fashion industry.
2015: Waste & Resources Action Programme in the UK launched the European Clothing Action PLAN (ECAP) to combat 90,000 tons of textile waste and promote a more circular economy.
2017: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a report, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future,” which shows how damaging our current production system is and how a circular economy could change the course of our future. This set in motion the vision for a more restorative, cyclical fashion industry.
2017: Stella McCartney shot their fall 2017 collection photography in a landfill, making a statement about textile and plastic waste while inspiring conversation and action with other key designers.
2019: The United Nations launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. This is a group of UN agencies and organizations who offer expertise regarding eco- and social- positive practices in the fashion industry.
2019: The year of promises, many brands worldwide announced their own sustainability efforts. Furthermore, the European Clothing Action Plan reported that many European-based brands have successfully minimized their carbon footprint, while also educating the public about the problems with the fast fashion mindset.
2020: With the impacts of the pandemic, more consumers have become increasingly aware of environmental issues in all industries, including the fashion industry. Upcycling clothing and consignment shopping spiked in popularity, thanks in large part to Tik Tok, and younger consumers began demanding long-term sustainability promises to regain trust from their favorite fashion brands. (Read more with: What 2020 Taught Fashion About Sustainability and Where to Go From Here.)
2020: In 2017, 90 brands, including H&M and Adidas, signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitmentwith global Fashion Agenda to hit key sustainability milestones by 2020. Most have held to their promise. Adidas now uses 50% recycled plastic in products and 100% sustainable cotton, and H&M is 99.93% free of hazardous chemicals in all 530 processing units.
This is just a summary of some of the key moments in the history of sustainable fashion. There have been so many small businesses, brands, activists, advocates, and organizations who have played a role in the push for a more sustainable fashion industry.
But the future of sustainable fashion is up to you. It takes each person to make a difference. Through your advocacy and your purchasing power, you can be a pivotal member in fashion sustainability and responsibility.
How YOU can choose sustainable fashion
Sustainable fashion isn’t just for celebrities and influencers. Everyone has the power to encourage sustainability in the fashion industry. You hold immense power with your purchases. So, how can you make your clothing purchases more environmentally friendly?
1. Shop at consignment stores.
Shopping at consignment stores is the easiest and most beneficial way to get involved with fashion sustainability. You’re saving clothes and accessories from going into the dumpster while reducing your personal consumption of new, toxic, chemical-ridden, high-waste fast fashion clothing. By not purchasing clothes fresh-from-the-factory, you’re also telling retailers to slow down production and focus on high qualitymanufacturing, rather than high quantity that is so damaging to the environment.
Here are 11 things you probably didn’t know about consignment stores…
Benefits of shopping consignment for the environment:
You’re giving a new home to merchandise, which increases the lifespan of clothing and reduces the amount of textile waste going into landfills
You’re purchasing high-quality clothing, which makes a statement to retailers that you stand for sustainability and won’t accept low-quality fast fashion anymore
You’re contributing to cyclical fashion
Want to know the difference between a consignment store and a thrift shop? Find out here!
Benefits of shopping consignment for yourself:
Find unique, rare wardrobe treasures that are hard to come by
Buy designer goods at a fraction of their retail price (sometimes even hundreds of dollars off their original ticket price)
Quality clothes are healthier for your body, as they’re made with fewer chemicals than fast fashion
Check out 6 more reasons why pre-loved fashion is the hottest craze
Ready to start shopping for designer clothes? Check out these 7 best websites to shop secondhand designer clothing.
2. Sell or donate used clothes, don’t discard them.
If your clothes are still wearable, don’t throw them out. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average US citizen throws out 70 pounds of clothing and textiles annually, generating 21 billion total pounds of post-consumer textile waste per year. Only 15% of textiles get donated or recycled, though it’s believed that at least half of all textiles could be repurposed. If you want to reduce your impact on the environment, don’t throw your clothes in a landfill.
Instead, sell them to a consignment shop like Current Boutique. Selling clothes to a consignment store not only gives your clothes new life but also gives you some extra cash for your wallet! Talk about a win-win for you and the environment! Looking to sell your clothes to a consignment store for cash? Check out these resources to learn more:
- Quarantine Closet Clean Out: Love Your Wardrobe And Make Money
- 7 Easy Tips to Sell Used Clothes Online
- Top 15 Brands You Can Make Money by Reselling
- The 5 Best Websites to Sell Your Designer Clothes Online
If your items don’t meet selling standards, consider donating them. A lot of charities are looking for clothing donations to help those in need. Plus, you may be able to take any donations as a tax deduction. You can find local charities that accept used clothing donations through Donation Town or a quick Google search.
One of my 2022 resolutions is to clean out my closet and re-sell or donate everything that I haven’t worn since last year. You should join me in my resolution!
Note: The only clothes you should always throw out are used undergarments, bathing suits, and socks.
3. Upcycle used clothes.
If you can’t sell or donate your clothes, see if you can upcycle them! If you’re crafty, check out these innovative ways to repurpose old clothes on Good Housekeeping. There are a lot of great ideas on Youtube too if you’re a visual learner. (Just search “DIY repurpose [insert article of clothing]” for tons of ideas.)
If crafting isn’t your thing, you can always just cut up old clothes to make reusable cotton rounds, cleaning rags, etc. You can even put some dog treats tied up in an old t-shirt and use it as a snuffle mat for your pup! The possibilities for upcycling clothes (aka: saving money and the environment) are endless.
And sometimes all your clothes need is a little boost to make them wearable again. Check out these 10 DIY ways to revamp your closet, so you can get even more life out of your clothing and accessories.
4. Purchase from sustainable brands.
If you are purchasing new clothing, rather than secondhand or preloved clothing, opt for brands that have a mission of fashion sustainability. Just a few years ago, it was a challenge to find clothing brands that cared about eco- and social- sustainability, but thankfully today’s consumers are demanding responsibility from their brands. Even bathing suits, which had always been made with lots of chemicals and plastics, are becoming more and more sustainable. You can find a lot of great sustainable options in the fashion industry now. Here are our 6 favorite brands to get you started with eco-friendly clothing.
5. Focus on quality, not quantity.
We all get stuck in the pattern of buying. How many clothes do you have in your closet that you’ve worn just once… or maybe even never? It’s hard to break out of the mindset of consumption because that’s what we’re taught by the media, marketing, and our culture. But buying quality goods that will last a while in your closet is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than purchasing chemical-ridden, poorly-manufactured fast fashion. Plus, it’ll save your wallet over the long run! Quality women deserve quality clothes, it’s as simple as that. Focus on buying designer goods with an emphasis on quality, production, and style.
Read: 5 Ways Shopping and Selling on Consignment Is Good For the Earth (and For You)
6. Choose eco-friendly materials.
If you’re aware of your plastic use in other areas of your life, don’t forget to be aware of your plastic use in your clothing as well! Synthetic clothing materials contain plastics, which are filled with chemicals and toxins. Plus, plastic doesn’t degrade, so if it isn’t properly recycled, it will break down in landfills for decades, creating immense waste and releasing carbon emissions into the air as it attempts to break down.
Instead, opt for natural fibers that are biodegradable, renewable, and environmentally friendly. For example, organic cotton and bamboo are soft, natural options that look and feel great. Check out these 7 eco-clothing materials to upgrade your wardrobe (and 3 to avoid) to learn more.
It’s about more than just “natural” materials; you want to wear fabrics that are produced ethically and with minimal impact during farming, dyeing, cutting, and production. We know it can be a lot to think about, but even one sustainable purchase can have a huge impact; so start small, and you’ll keep learning as you go!
Also, when purchasing sportswear or other clothing that “has” to have synthetic materials for practical reasons (like spandex or swimwear), try to look for brands that use recycled plastics or green alternatives.
7. Reduce your laundry waste.
Sustainability doesn’t stop after you make a smart clothing purchase. The way you launder your clothing also has an impact on chemical and water waste. Here are some tips to make your laundry process more sustainable:
- Use an eco-efficient washing machine. These save on water, which helps the planet and reduces your electricity and water bills.
- Use cold water when washing. 90% of the energy used during a laundry cycle goes to heating the water.
- Consider line-drying your clothes. Dryers use a lot of energy and actually do more damage to your clothes. Line-drying makes your clothes last longer, which is more sustainable for the environment and your wallet.
- Purchase eco-friendly detergents that are better for your health and the environment.
- Don’t wash small loads. Reducing the number of loads saves water, energy, and money.
- When possible, try to re-wear clothes that don’t get too dirty, like jeans, dresses, etc. (Don’t re-wear socks and underwear or anything stinky or dirty.)
- Try to avoid dry cleaning or only use green dry cleaners. Conventional dry-cleaning uses harmful chemicals, like perchloroethylene, which has a major impact on the environment and your health.
8. Do a sustainable closet audit.
We created a guide that can help you clean out your closet to see which of your pieces are environmentally sustainable, so you can have a healthy closet and make responsible purchasing choices moving forward. This is a great way to curate a wardrobe that feels good and does good for the environment. Let’s do a sustainable closet audit together!
What is sustainable fashion?
Global clothing sustainability is an integral part of overall environmental consciousness and responsibility. The fashion industry is one of the most detrimental sectors to our environment in the short- and long-term, and it’s our job as consumers to take a stand through our purchases and through our voice.
By taking just one step—making one small change—in how you purchase sustainable fashion can help impact overall, macro-level sustainability in the fashion industry. Your purchases matter. Your clothes matter. Your beliefs matter.
At Current Boutique, we are fighting for a brighter, more eco-friendly future by selling secondhand clothes that are not only beautiful and unique but that also contribute to a more cyclical, slow fashion economy. Do your part for the environment and start shopping on consignment with Current Boutique.