An introduction to sustainable fashion

Sustainability has become an everyday word and while plenty pay lip service to it, understanding the repercussions for specialist industries, including fashion, is the first step to authentic adoption. 

Sustainable fashion reads like something of a misnomer, especially given the high profile cases of worker exploitation and low cost garment production that have dominated the global press for the past 12 months. But something is changing and ethics are coming back into vogue, with labels big and small being quick to jump on the sustainability train. But what does it really mean in terms of both high and everyday fashion?

What is the end goal of sustainability?

As a whole, the movement is designed to encourage production methods and lifestyle changes that have a positive impact on the ecological balance of the planet and make reparations in terms of the existing serious depletion of multiple natural resources. In short, if more resources are exploited than the planet can organically replace, an unnatural deficit is being created.

How has the fashion industry impacted sustainability?

The traditional model for fashion brands has been to release multiple collections per year, encouraging a disposable attitude to clothing. If it is no longer current, it shouldn’t be kept, let alone worn again and so, in the bin it goes.

This cycle of harvesting resources, making temporary clothing and inciting carefree disposal has become synonymous with fast fashion brands in particular. Crafting successful business models based on clothing that costs pence to make and can be sold for just a few pounds — while reaping large profit margins — unsustainable fashion brands are now being held accountable. The only stumbling block to industry-wide change, however, is the mindset of the consumer.

What is the answer?

In short, sustainable fashion has to become fashionable. Wearing laudable ethics on their sleeve, chest and back has to become the most on-trend way for consumers to shop and dress, otherwise fast fashion will continue to dominate the industry. Clothing needs to be seen as a luxury, not a disposable commodity and the planetary and human cost of each item should be understood, not hidden beneath a flashy website and hard-to-resist low prices. This will only come about through continued discussion, process transparency and a willingness to engage, driven by brands.

Fashion companies and consumers need to work in tandem to bring about real change, as neither can do it alone. Transparency about terminology will be key, but so will a desire on both sides, to do better.

What needs to happen to make fashion sustainable?

It is widely believed that there are four main concerns at the centre of sustainable fashion manufacture: water consumption; chemical use; energy emissions and waste. Though as Fashion Revolution reminds us, worker conditions should also be a consideration for brands looking to be ethical, as well as sustainable. The question is, how can this doom loop be broken? By reducing the need to create ‘virgin fibres’.

Creating the raw materials for use in garment construction is what takes the most energy, but if more brands invested in making their items fully recyclable, there would be a significant reduction in the need for material processing. If clothing production could become far more cyclical, landfill waste would be reduced by an enormous margin and consumer mindsets would naturally adapt to a more considered and invested way of buying, which is the key.

Why are shopping habits hard to break?

The responsibility for driving change lies firmly on the shoulders of brands, but they need to take the time to engage in informed discourse with their loyal shoppers to drive the message forward. If ethical brands attempt to reshape the landscape of the fashion industry by only producing sustainable clothing, their endeavours will rely on shoppers individually buying into the concept both literally and theoretically. This is where the biggest stumbling block comes into sharp focus: cost.

While fast fashion brands, whether high street or online, offer access to items at rock bottom prices, it will always be an uphill struggle to convince consumers to spend more and buy less frequently. As the term fast fashion suggests, shoppers have a natural desire to find quick wins and satisfaction with purchases. Add in the pressure to remain current as well and suddenly it’s easy to understand why a £3 t-shirt in the colour of the season seems like a better choice than a £30 plain white alternative made from recycled cotton. This can be remedied though.