At its base level, sustainability refers to practicing productive habits that contribute toward a cleaner, healthier environment to combat climate change. Anyone can practice sustainability, even the fashion world.
Is there fashion that is not sustainable? How can such a large industry operate sustainably? What would that look like? Keep reading to find out more.
The evolution of the fashion industry: From handmade to fast fashion
The fashion industry is unavoidable. Some struggle to access clothing, some wear it out of necessity and others use it as a luxury or form of expression. No matter the situation, the fashion industry touches everyone’s lives and has for centuries.
There was a time when people made clothes by hand, often with fabric and a needle.
As times evolved, people began to turn to local artisans and craftsmen for clothing throughout different seasons of the year. Once the Industrial Revolution hit in the 1800s, everything changed.
The widespread use of machines to create clothing made it faster and more accessible to more classes than ever before. Eras and decades became known for iconic looks that are cemented in history.
The one evolution that affected fashion even more than the Industrial Revolution was the internet boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. Ecommerce changed the fashion landscape forever, and fast fashion burst onto the scene — leaving its mark on the environment.
Fast fashion and its environmental impact
Fast fashion: The rundown
Fast fashion is the business model that mass produces clothes — generally, copycats of runway looks — through a cheap and expedited supply chain to get the latest styles into the hands of buyers as quickly as possible.
Due to the swift production process, workers are often exposed to poor working conditions, cheap labor and toxic materials.
The fast fashion industry has shouldered much blame for adverse environmental effects. While this part of the industry is not innocent, what has happened with fast fashion is a trickle-down effect from the luxury industry.
The trends that are made in fast fashion are simply copycats of runway looks. Once a look premiers on the runway, fast fashion companies mass-produce copycat looks at a fraction of the price in a matter of weeks.
The problem? These clothes are produced with cheap fabrics, like polyester, and are colored with toxic textiledyes.
Fast fashion: Polyester and pollution
Polyester is a synthetic fabric made chiefly from petroleum, a fossil fuel that releases harmful carbon emissions. It is now the most commonly used textile fiber in the world, surpassing cotton.
Polyester is no small player in the fashion industry — the market for this material is projected to reach $174.7 billion over the next ten years.
In addition to that, polyester is not easy to manufacture. It takes a considerable amount of energy to produce, and in 2015, a reported 282 tons of carbon dioxide were used during polyester production.
This mass production of harmful materials makes the fashion industry the world’s second-largest contributor to air and water pollution.
The entire industry is part of a chain reaction that begins with toxic materials that shed microfibers and microplastics into water and air, causing harmful pollution to humans, animals and the entire ecosystem.
Related: Is Air Pollution Making You Dumb?
Fast fashion: Here today, in a landfill tomorrow
Because fast fashion is produced so quickly, trends change rapidly. When it’s time to trade in a new trend for the old, the lifecycle of a piece of clothing does not simply end.
According to the EPA, U.S. clothing waste amounted to 13 million tons in 2018. Up to 70% of that waste ended up in landfills rather than being recycled. This waste comes from both companies and individuals.
What is sustainable fashion?
Unsustainable fashion is a massive portion of the industry. However, some companies have moved toward more sustainable practices to contribute positively to the world’s environment.
Sustainable fashion, or “slow fashion,” is an umbrella term that includes companies, products, employees and practices.
It refers to practices geared towards paying a proper living wage to garment workers, reducing the carbon footprint and eventually achieving net zero operations to positively affect the environment and society.
A carbon footprint is the level of harmful greenhouse gasses any entity produces. To achieve net zero, operations must eliminate dangerous products that produce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to climate change.
4 reasons sustainable fashion matters
1. Creates less waste
Waste would decrease significantly if the entire fashion industry moved to more sustainable practices. The issue with fast fashion is that low-quality materials, like polymers, are weakened with wash and wear.
Once this clothing is used, it cannot be upcycled and turned into a new piece of clothing. As these materials decompose in landfills, which can take up to 200 years, they produce a greenhouse gas called methane.
If the fashion industry used more sustainable materials for clothing, discarded clothing could be reproduced into a different garment and continue that lifecycle rather than starting all over.
2. Reduces harmful emissions
Often when emissions are involved, what might come to mind are factories that have visible smoke coming out of them. While that is not the wrong picture, it is not the only picture.
The fashion industry produces a vast carbon footprint because of how much energy it takes to create the raw materials and the materials used.
Some startling numbers about the fashion industry’s operations include:
- 70 million trees are cut down each year.
- 1.2 million metric tons of CO2 are produced each year.
- 70 million barrels of oil are used each year.
Sustainable fashion is vital because natural fabrics made from biodegradable materials do not require using so many resources.
3. Conserves water
The unsustainable part of the fashion industry not only uses an excessive amount of water but has also been proven to pollute water.
The industry uses 93 billion metric tons of water each year, and on top of that, the pesticides used to make clothing are often found in nearby runoffs that pollute local water, which then makes its way into lakes, rivers and oceans.
Sustainable fashion reduces this pollution by:
- Creating water budgets that limit water usage during production.
- Prioritizing organic, non-toxic, natural materials that do not need water or contribute toxins to runoffs.
4. Preserves the ecosystem
Once toxic chemicals make it into the water, it affects the whole ecosystem. Animals that drink the contaminated water may become sick, and the animals that eat those animals might become ill. This continues through the food chain until those now toxic animals also reach a human dinner table.
Sustainable fashion brands are doing what it takes to use chemical-free, sustainable fabrics and better monitor their water pollution.
In addition, many brands have also vowed to remain vegan and cruelty-free, meaning they use leather and fur alternatives so that no materials come from animals to preserve the ecosystem’s biodiversity.
3 ways the fashion industry can become more sustainable
The fashion industry must do its part to create sustainable clothing and help promote healthier habits for a better planet. The good news is that many strategies can help companies play their part.
1. Watch the waste
15% of fabric is wasted, simply ending up on the floor and getting discarded. Many designers are implementing new practices to combat overproduction.
These strategies include:
- Geometric concepts that use every inch of fabric.
- Creating garments out of the scraps.
- 3D virtual sampling.
- AI product image analytics.
- Mobile body scanning to fit more body types.
2. Be intentional with materials
Technological advances and discoveries continue to make many more resources available for sustainable use. Many designers and companies have committed to using sustainable materials that are both recyclable and much more sustainable in the manufacturing process.
You can receive specific certifications for recycled, low-waste, biodegradable or otherwise sustainable materials.
Sustainable materials include:
- Regenerative cotton (and some organic cotton).
- Textiles from agricultural waste.
- Fibers from kapok tree pods.
- Microbial bioleather.
- Other biodegradable textiles using synthetic biology.
3. Upcycle, thrift and rent
Upcycling, in any context, means reusing and repurposing materials to make something new. The fashion industry refers to repurposing used garments or garment materials to create an entirely new piece of clothing.
Upcycling fashion can be eco-friendly by reducing waste, reusing materials that might otherwise decompose in a landfill and reducing toxic emissions caused by manufacturing and transport.
One of the great hopes of the future is the love that Gen Z has for thrifting. Thrifting is no new concept; however, much of the Gen Z generation has taken to it in another move toward being an environmentally and socially conscious generation.
Many members of Gen Z report loving the secondhand thrifting process not only because it is an affordable form of expression (think third-hand t-shirts from the 80s that are just now coming back into style), but because it is a way to fight back against fast fashion.
Renting clothes is a concept that has become more popular in the last couple of decades, so data has gone back and forth on whether it is a more sustainable option.
While it does mean that clothing has a longer lifespan, it also means more transportation which leads to toxic emissions. However, in 2021 Rent the Runway, a popular rental site, reported that through their operations over the last decade, they were able to:
- Displace production of 1.3 million new garments.
- Save 67 million gallons of water.
- Save 98.6 million kilowatt-hours of energy.
- Eliminate 44.2 million pounds of CO2 emissions.
Related: Renting Is Back in Style
The most sustainable fashion brands
If you’re interested in shifting your shopping as a consumer or creating more sustainable practices for your retailer business, check out some big brands that aren’t just greenwashing — they’re paving the way in sustainable fashion operations.
Patagonia has made sustainable fashion its mission. One of its most significant initiatives is its self-imposed Earth tax, which allocates 1% of its sales back to the environment through nonprofits and environmental groups.
The company is also dedicated to producing less waste, using less water, consuming less energy and recycling or upcycling gear.
This brand focuses on creating luxury cashmere sweaters made from 100% renewable or recycled sources. Naadam is also dedicated to being transparent with its customers in practicing sustainability.
Allbirds is a shoe company committed to comfortable products with the environment in mind. They have two big goals: to cut their environmental footprint in half by 2025 and be as close to carbon neutral as possible by 2030. Allbirds uses sustainable materials that include:
Why sustainable fashion matters for you
While the fashion industry has a long way to go, brands are doing their part to participate in ethical fashion. Sustainability takes commitment, hard work and often completely altering operations.
However, there are science and systems of operations that promote sustainable practices. Consumers and companies must work together to reduce waste and promote sustainable fashion practices to make a better environment for everybody.