Why Sustainable Fashion Matters

Sharing the ins and outs of fast fashion, how it’s harmful to the environment, and what we can do from a sustainability standpoint.

Fast vs. Sustainable Fashion

As consumers realize the ways in which large companies contribute to the climate crisis, many industries have responded by adopting a more eco-conscious image. In some cases, they may even resort to greenwashing, a marketing strategy to make products appear more eco-conscious than they actually are. Advertising as a sustainable brand is now the trendy move to make, and the fashion industry is no exception. But what exactly makes clothing sustainable, and are those efforts negated if textiles are still mass-produced?

The discussion on sustainable fashion can't be addressed without looking into the global impact of fast fashion in recent years. Fast fashion can easily be connected with brands like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara. In the last few decades, clothing companies have drastically changed how they operate. The main characteristic of fast fashion is the quick turnaround of clothing production. What once used to be one cycle for each season of the year has now turned into dozens of clothing collections produced in one year alone. Today, fashion brands churn out new items so quickly the average consumer can barely keep up. Zara alone comes out with around 20 collections in one year. And many companies do this at the expense of their workers, giving them low wages and long working hours.

Simply put, Fast Fashion is cheaply-made clothing within a short timeline. E-commerce brands like Fashion Nova and Shein dominate the market for young women in particular and sell their products at incredibly low prices. As a result of these lower prices, their consumers are able to buy more items and continually update their wardrobes without breaking the bank. Although, due to the poor quality of the clothing, these items find their way into landfills faster than ever before. Fashion Nova works with over 1,000 manufacturers both in Los Angeles and overseas.

The CEO of the brand shared that in some cases, the company can have samples made within 24 hours of creating the design, and 600 items are released each week. This extreme level of production can only lead to extreme consequences. Other byproducts of cheaply-made fashion include the lingering smell of chemicals on the products themselves and a significant carbon footprint from international shipping.

As it exists, the constant production of new clothing leads shoppers to consume more. When they consume more, it incentivizes the industry to feed the demand by producing even more clothing. Thus, a vicious cycle continues that has lasting damage to the planet. In the last twenty years, clothing consumption has skyrocketed by 400%, and 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed each year globally.

Unsurprisingly, technology has also had a significant role in the growth of fast fashion. What once was solely a photo-sharing app, Instagram has now made it even easier to buy any item with a tap of a finger. Amazon Prime users can purchase almost anything and have the item arrive 48 hours later, thanks to the website's convenient two-day shipping feature. All these factors combined create a never-ending production of cheap clothing consumed on a massive scale.

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What Does It Mean to be Sustainable in Fashion?

It's clear that both consumers and companies alike are dependent on the convenience of the fast fashion cycle. While there are several ways to address the issue, it can be a challenge to determine what exactly qualifies as sustainable fashion. Sustainability revolves around maintaining the planet's natural resources. Therefore, sustainable fashion must work against depleting the Earth of its resources. Fashion products should be produced in such a way that upholds and protects the environment.

This could look like factories using renewable energy to lower greenhouse gas emissions, using recycled materials for textiles, working with materials that require less water, and creating a final product of high quality that's made to have a long lifespan.

Which Fabrics are Sustainable?

If consumers and investors desire to make small steps towards sustainability in fashion, a more selective process in choosing fabric material can be a good place to start. Cotton has been used for centuries to manufacture clothing, but its contribution to a healthier planet all depends on how it's grown. The conventional way to farm cotton uses pesticides and fertilizers. Both of these chemicals impact biodiversity by polluting the surrounding lands with their toxicity. They not only harm the health of the soil, but they also leach into the water. Overall, cotton farming contributes to 18% of the global use of pesticides. Cotton is also very demanding on the soil, stripping vital nutrients, which ends up leading to land expansion for the crops.

There are better ways to cultivate cotton, although they're not as common. Buyers can choose certified organic cotton that is verified by the Global Organic Textile Standard. Any product with a GOTS label has been manufactured without harmful fertilizers and pesticides. The Better Cotton organization is another way to find a safer cotton option as they work with farmers who do things to prevent and offset the effects cotton has on its surrounding environment.

Linen is another option that has been used long throughout human history. It requires less water than non-organic cotton and needs very little pesticides. Even so, in most cases, the pesticides used don't contain added chemicals. Like most fabrics, linen is derived from a plant. In this case, it's the flax plant, which has a 100-day growth cycle. While linen is made from the stem, flax can be used for multiple purposes, so very little of it goes to waste. From flaxseed food products to flaxseed oil, consumers of linen can rest easy knowing this plant has multiple sustainable uses. If there was another reason needed to invest in more linen, flax fiber in Europe absorbs about 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Overall, this durable fiber will last longer and be completely biodegradable when it's time to discard.

Synthetic materials are mostly non-biodegradable and come into contact with chemicals, and need a large amount of energy to create.

Hemp has made a splash in recent years as the cannabis industry has taken root and exploded in the United States. Despite its recent popularity, hemp has been around for thousands of years. We derive hemp fabrics from the cannabis Sativa plant, and like linen, it also requires less water than cotton. It also doesn't need a lot of land to yield a large number of crops. One of the most distinct benefits of cultivating cannabis is that it nourishes the soil it sits on instead of depleting it. The process is called phytoremediation, in which a plant removes pollutants from the soil. The benefits continue with its high absorption of carbon dioxide, short growth cycle at 120 days, and strong durability as a fabric.

Lastly, bamboo linen gives consumers another sustainable and vegan option for clothing. Bamboo regrows from its own roots and can be harvested without cutting it down, making it an incredibly renewable grass. Bamboo can also mature in 1-5 years depending on the species, a rate that is faster than a majority of trees. However, the way it's processed heavily determines how friendly the fabric is to the planet. Most bamboo fabric is processed with chemicals, and while there is the option to produce it mechanically, very few manufacturers choose this route.

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Fabrics to Avoid

It can be a challenge to find clothing that is natural and organic from start to finish. As mentioned, it's hard to trace all the steps that go into manufacturing fabrics. One clear way to shop more sustainably is to avoid synthetic fabrics. Synthetic materials are mostly non-biodegradable and come into contact with chemicals, and need a large amount of energy to create. Nylon and polyester, for example, are derived from petrochemicals.

While sustainable fashion isn't 100% harmless, it does less damage to the Earth in comparison to the mainstream practices that are currently in place.
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Problems On the Way to Achieving Sustainability

Because so many hands touch the manufacturing process, tracing the process is often difficult. The supply chain involves harvesting raw materials, spinning them, processing with chemicals, dyeing fabrics, designing, manufacturing the garments, creating tags, and of course, shipping. Each of these steps matters when considering the environmental impact of the finished product. Even the most sustainable piece of clothing produces garment scraps, uses water and releases large amounts of greenhouse gasses throughout its production. Brands that want to provide more transparency to their shoppers would have to invest time and money into tracking their manufacturing process in detail and assessing where improvements need to be made.

For the consumer, the major challenges for shopping sustainably come down to economics and misleading marketing claims. Cheap clothing can be a hard temptation to turn down. If the fast fashion industry has mastered anything, it's producing and selling clothing at an extremely low cost. Shoppers that have made the decision to invest in cleaner, high-quality clothing are then faced with the difficulty of determining which companies are actually changing their practices for the benefit of the planet. There are "green" buzzwords plastered all over labels and ads meant to target conscious consumers. Those who wish to find authentic, sustainable brands have to do proper research before investing their dollar.

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Is Sustainable Fashion Good for the Earth?

Even with alternative options for fabrics and energy, finding a process in manufacturing clothing that is entirely good for the planet is a tough feat. Sustainable fashion still takes away from the planet because it uses the planet's resources. Additionally, in order for these products to reach the customer, they need to be shipped overseas, which requires fossil fuels. While sustainable fashion may not be 100% harmless to the environment, it does less damage to the Earth in comparison to the mainstream practices that are currently in place.

While sustainable fashion isn't 100% harmless, it does less damage to the Earth in comparison to the mainstream practices that are currently in place.
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Patagonia, Everlane, and What They're Doing Right

Despite the popularity of fast fashion, there are still brands making steps towards producing clothing in a clean and more ethical manner. In order to determine whether a company is truly making actionable steps towards sustainability, consumers should look for their certifications and transparent explanations of their sustainable business model.

Outdoor clothing retailer, Patagonia for example, was founded in 1973 and is present in over ten countries. The company has been vocal in its branding about the importance of reducing harm to the environment. Their website features several pages that provide ample detail on the ways in which the company incorporates sustainability into its business model. This season 87% of their fabrics were made with recycled materials, the virgin down they use adheres to the Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard, and 100% of their cotton is organic. The company also uses recycled fishing nets, recycled spandex, recycled cashmere, and a list of other repurposed materials.

Most notably, Patagonia encourages its shoppers to only purchase what they need, a rare message for any company to make. In 2011 they ran a Black Friday ad titled "Don't Buy This Jacket." A bold and powerful statement, the campaign was created to educate shoppers on consuming less to decrease the damaging impact of overconsumption. Their Worn Wear Program allows previous Patagonia shoppers to trade in clothing items in good condition for merchandise credit. That item is then sold again at a discounted price. This trade-in system helps reduce the need to manufacture more products. It incentivizes its shoppers to trade rather than throw out clothing. It also allows others to buy quality-made clothing at a more affordable price, thus extending the life of the products. If an item is not in an acceptable condition to resell, the company will recycle it.

Everlane is another clothing line that addresses a list of questions their consumers may have on their contribution to a healthier planet. Their sustainability page shares that they aim to completely transition to organic cotton by 2023. They emphasize how certified organic cotton benefits farmers, communities, and our planet. As stated earlier, non-organic cotton relies on a substantial amount of pesticides that damage both the ecosystem and the farmers that grow the crops. Over half of the company's cotton products are made with organic cotton already, and within the next couple of years, they will reach 100% organic cotton for their apparel. Everlane has also transitioned from using new plastics to recycled materials for their products, and the factories that manufacture their denim recycle water or use some kind of renewable energy.

A Trend or Here to Stay?

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the damaging effects of fast fashion, the demand for better, cleaner options will follow. As it stands, two compelling factors to continue purchasing from fast fashion brands are their low prices and wide availability. Fashion retailers that hope to sway the public in a better direction can do so by adopting the transparency of brands like Patagonia. A majority of consumers are aware of the climate crisis but may not know exactly how harmful the polyester shirt hanging in their closet is.

On an individual level, people can make sustainable fashion choices by keeping their clothing longer and repairing tears instead of throwing things in the trash. Those who can afford the price of organic clothing can choose to stop spending money on synthetic clothes that aren't meant to last. Shopping second-hand is another affordable and sustainable way to send a message to fast fashion brands.

Companies who are looking to improve their sustainability and show their customers they are credible can get approval and certifications from independent organizations. BlueSign is one such organization that guarantees a brand's products are manufactured sustainably. They give their approval after monitoring the company's progress and evaluating their supply chains for harmful pollutants.

While discussions on sustainability are trending today, the climate crisis they address is not a trend that will be gone any time soon. Sustainable fashion will continue to grow in importance among consumers as long as the Earth continues to undergo the consequences of climate change. The fashion industry is an industry that affects nearly everyone on the planet, and its global presence is too significant to ignore. It contributes to about 10% of carbon emissions and 20% of water waste. From rare materials and energy consumption to gas emissions and factories, there are endless ways to improve sustainability within the industry.