Sustainable fashion

Ethical Fashion is an umbrella term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare.

Organic clothing is clothing made from materials raised in on in or grown in compliance with organic agricultural standards.  Organic clothing may be composed of cotton, jute, silk, ramie, or wool.

Sustainable fashion, also called eco fashion, is a part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of human impact on the environment and social responsibility. It can be seen as an alternative trend against fast fashion.

"At least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and 25% of the world's pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. This causes irreversible damage to people and the environment, and still two thirds of a garment's carbon footprint will occur after it is purchased."

With the average American throwing away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year, the fashion industry is the second largest cause of pollution worldwide.

Slow fashion

Unlike fast fashionslow fashion production ensures quality manufacturing to lengthen the life of the garment. Developing a garment with a cultural and emotional connection is also pertinent to the purpose behind slow fashion: consumers will keep an article of clothing longer than one season if they feel emotionally or culturally connected to the article of clothing.


There are many factors when considering the sustainability of a material. The renewability and source of a fiber, the process of how a raw fiber is turned into a textile, the working conditions of the people producing the materials, and the material's total carbon footprint.

Natural fibers

Natural fibers are fibers which are found in nature and are not petroleum-based. Natural fibers can be categorized into two main groups, cellulose or plant fiber and protein or animal fiber. Uses of these fibers can be anything from buttons to eye wear such as sunglasses.


Cotton is one of the most widely grown and chemical-intensive crops in the world. Conventionally grown cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the world's pesticides. Other cellulose fibers include: juteflaxhempramieabacabamboo (used for viscose), soycornbananapineapplebeechwood (used for rayon).


Natural protein fibers include: woolsilkangoracamelalpacallamavicunacashmere, and mohair.

Recycled fibers

Recycled or reclaimed fibers are made from scraps of fabrics collected from clothing factories, which are processed back into short fibers for spinning into a new yarn. There are only a few facilities globally that are able to process the clippings. Variations range from a blend of recycled cotton fibers with added RePET yarns for strength to recycled cotton fibers with virgin acrylic fibers which are added for color consistency and strength.

Upcycled fibers

Upcycled fibers are made from materials that are not originally used to make fibers, or they were thrown away being considered trash from origin. This includes fibers made of plastic and gillnets. An example of the use of this type of fiber can be seen in the shoe Adidas made with Parley for the Oceans.

Another example is fish leather made from fish skins that are a by-product of the food industry. Fish leather tanning is less harmful on the environment due to no hair-removal being required, leading to less solid waste and organic pollutants in the wastewater from the process.  Also, no poisonous, explosive hydrogen sulfide gas is released in the process.

Designers say that they are trying to incorporate these sustainable practices into modern clothing, rather than producing "hippie clothes". Due to the efforts taken to minimize harm in the growth, manufacturing, and shipping of the products, sustainable fashion is typically more expensive than clothing produced by conventional methods.

Eastern European prisoners are designing sustainable prison fashion in Latvia and Estonia under the Heavy Eco label, part of a trend called "prison couture".

"Bad, ugly, dirty, hard, unethical, heavy... these are things that come in mind when we think about Eastern Europe & prisons," reads the company's self-promo. "But does it have to be? Can something good and ethical come out of an Eastern European jail? We believe so."

The t-shirts are made from recycled and organic materials. And they are exclusively designed by prisoners. The company's convict designers also make stylish hand- and shoulder-bags from old promotional billboards. They also do men's underwear.

Many of the designs are inspired by motifs, images and tattoos from Soviet and Eastern European jail life. As Heavy Eco Manager Toomas Plunt told online zine last November: "These bags are durable and as tough as old nails, like people who make them, so they come with lifetime warranty." Plunt hastens to add: the prisoners are paid for their creative work, and 50 percent of the profits go to charities aiding street children and orphans.

The Ethical Fashion Initiative

  • Promote  social justice, fair trade and sustainable clothing production as well as advances sustainability in the fashion system through education, awareness and collaboration.
  • Promote sustainable fashion via social media, PR, hosting fashion shows, public talks, school lectures and conferences
  • Enable  artisans living in urban and rural poverty to connect with the global fashion chain, encouraging the forging sustainable and fulfilling creative collaborations with artisans on the continent.
  • The advent of technology has opened an avenue of apps and websites to streamline ethical fashion experience for customers


Though organic cotton is considered a more sustainable choice for fabric, as it uses fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it remains less than 1% of the  global cotton production.

Hurdles to growth

  • cost of hand labor for hand weeding
  • reduced yields in comparison to conventional cotton
  • absence of fiber commitments from brands to farmers before planting seed.
  • The up front financial risks and costs are therefore shouldered by the farmers, many of whom struggle to compete with economies of scale of corporate farms.

Though some designers have marketed bamboo fiber, as an alternative to conventional cotton, citing that it absorbs greenhouse gases during its life cycle and grows quickly and plentifully without pesticides, the conversion of bamboo fiber to fabric is the same as rayon and is highly toxic. Bamboo fabric can cause environmental harm in production due to the chemicals used to create a soft viscose from hard bamboo. Impacts regarding production of new materials make recycled, reclaimed, surplus, and vintage fabric arguably the most sustainable choice, as the raw material requires no agriculture and no manufacturing to produce.  However, it must be noted that these are indicative of a system of production and consumption that creates excessive volumes of waste.


We live in a rapidly changing world that is transforming before our very eyes. A multitude of deep and pressing concerns such as global inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss, unrestrained urbanisation and destructive forms of economic growth are calling for our immediate attention. All of us are called to actively be part of this civilisational effort to co-create a healthier and more fulfilling world for all.

Type the words ‘future’ and ‘fashion’ into any search engine, and you’ll get a stream of results on 3-D printing, wearable technology and e-commerce websites – sustainability is but a mere mention. Yet, the S-word has undeniably made its way into the modern apparel-making process and increasingly influences what lands on runways and store racks.

The fashion industry’s growing focus on sustainable practices has even prompted business publications such as Forbes to hail “Green is the New Black.”

Through innovative business practices, the fashion industry has come a long way in improving environmental and social conditions along complex global supply chains. Still, it has a way to go.

From industrialization to Earth Day

When the first department stores appeared in the United States in the late 19th century, amid the rise of the Industrial Revolution, sewing machines were relatively new and child labor was still legal. Most clothes were made to order domestically, and only a slice of the population owned enough garments to fill a small closet.

Fast-forward to the postwar consumer boom where strip malls became as common as tract housing, and shopping became as much of a national pastime as cruising around in a Chevrolet. The consumer culture cultivated in the 1950s established an economy based on mass production – at the time most consumer goods were made in America. That same ethos sparked a proliferation of malls, outlet stores and seasonal sales to encourage more consumption.

The postwar mentality of growth without limits was not met without dissent. As political and social movements developed in the late 1960s and 1970s – for civil rights and against the Vietnam War – a growing awareness of humans’ impact on the planet also gave rise: The first Earth Day was commemorated on April 22, 1970. While the modern environmental movement had its start well before that day, sustainable fashion sprouted from the seeds of the paisley patterns sewn onto patchwork bell-bottoms widespread during that period.

Opening the flood gates

As eco-consciousness, the “do it yourself” (DIY) movement and consumer awareness of clothes’ potential second life emerged in the later part of the 20th century, consumerism swelled to unprecedented limits. During this time, the apparel industry experienced major shifts in production logistics, timelines and scale – much of which increased output and helped fuel shoppers’ mounting desire to fill their ever-growing closets.

One important shift occurred in 1973, when the U.S. and other countries signed an agreement that set up a quota system to limit the amount of textile and apparel imports from specific countries – intended to protect U.S. business interests. Instead, the agreement drove up domestic manufacturing costs. When the quota system was eliminated in 2005 and replaced by a World Trade Organization agreement, the floodgates to outsource manufacturing abroad were opened, and all bets to guard one of America’s homegrown industries were off.

“Moving production off-shore was the impetus for fashion becoming more global, “Companies moved their manufacturing to places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Mongolia, where there are no minimum wage or age requirements or regulations on maximum hours worked. When this happened, people also lost contact with how and where their clothes were made.”

The movement to manufacture clothes abroad also led to a slew of controversies that prompted consumers to begin to question the origin of their garments.

The rise of conscious consumerism

In 1991 Nike came under fire for the low wages and poor working conditions at one of its Indonesian factories; consumer protests and boycotts, as well as heavy media attention, drove the company to make some serious changes to its supply chain. This and other incidents  forced the industry to take stock and shape up.

Twenty-four years later, that same multinational athletic-wear giant is one of the world’s most sustainable companies. And while Nike and other apparel companies still compete to drive down costs and increase margins, they also now compete to boost their reputation as good corporate citizens – and win conscious consumers’ hearts, minds and pocket books.

Companies have cleverly innovated to raise consumer awareness of their part in a garment’s life cycle, such as Levi’s Care Tag for Our Planet and Water<Less, Waste<Less, and Wellthread collections.

Even big names like Gucci and Calvin Klein want in on the sustainability game, and mainstream labels like Stella McCartney and Puma are re-imagining what style can stand for (faux fur and environmental profit and loss accounting, anyone?). The trend towards sustainability in the fashion industry is clear.

Back to the future

Even as apparel companies propel sustainability innovation forward – designing sustainable fibers, launching chemicals management programs, enhancing product traceability and supply chain transparency, decreasing product packaging, and promoting textile recycling – the specter of fast fashion and its related environmental and social problems cannot be ignored. While the slow fashion and Made in the USA movements offer glimmers of hope for the industry, tough questions about our modern apparel system remain.

“Globalization allows us to not pay very much for clothes,” “If people buy at a deeply reduced priced, they have a throwaway mentality about clothes, and that’s the one major factor that’s a problem.”

As more e-commerce sites pop up and make it easier to purchase outfits with the click of a button – and perhaps someday deliver our goods in an instant via drones – that throwaway mentality is the fashion industry’s Achilles heel. To thrive, global apparel brands will need to reinvent their business models, embrace the circular economy and creatively invite consumers to do away with throwing away. Considering that as much as two-thirds of a garment’s total environmental impact occurs in the consumer use phase (washing and drying), fashion brands must engage consumers in sustainability to truly move the needle.

The future of sustainable fashion will not rise out of a lower-priced T-shirt, the next 3-D printed creation or cool-looking wearable tech gadgets, it will come alive in how our fashion finds are made, how they’re used, and how they’re disposed of or reused — cradle to cradle, from seamstress’ fingertips to consumers’ hands.

What is sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion is about being kind to our environment, responsible with our resources and treating our fellow garment workers like human beings. This means looking at the tag, using what you have and being creative in our wardrobe choices.

Second to oil, fashion and textiles is the most polluting industry in the world. Every stage in a garment’s life threatens our planet and its resources. It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, equivalent to a single t-shirt and pair of jeans. Up to 8,000 different chemicals are used to turn raw materials into clothes, including a range of dyeing and finishing processes. And what becomes of the clothing that doesn’t sell, falls apart or goes out of style? More often than not, it is discarded in giant landfills. How can the fashion industry become more sustainable?


In 2007, a report published by Dr. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, former chair of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that the livestock industry accounted for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transport sector. Pachauri would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, along with former US vice president Al Gore, for their individual efforts to tackle climate change and the risks of climate change began to settle into the wider public consciousness.

The dots connected between animal rights and sustainability - The consumption of animals — whether you’re wearing them or eating them — is extraordinarily damaging to the planet. There are over a billion animals killed a year for food, half of which don’t even get eaten. And there’s over 50 million animals killed just for fashion.”

What's your opinion?

There is a two-part solution to making the fashion industry more sustainable. Part one is what consumers can do. Part two is what the industry can do.

By and large, mass market and established fashion houses are not doing a great job at eco-conscious production, no matter what they tell us. They are running archaic and eco-destructive production systems and business models and their sustainable policies are often damage control, with a lot of PR sparkle but very little substance.

Meanwhile, smaller independent brands with sustainable production models built into their DNA are widely available. And unlike more established brands, they do not have to undo their global production systems, or convince investors that money must be spent to re-make the system that has made them wealthy.

If consumers purchased from the huge number of lesser-known fashion houses that have made sustainability an integral part of their business models, we’d be on our way to a solution.

But, of course, small sustainable brands don’t have the marketing budgets to make themselves as well-known as big businesses — and the way we shop for clothes is a complicated cultural addiction. As consumers, we want what to buy what is convenient and familiar, at the deflated price points that we’re accustomed to, so we can keep up with trends that change at lightning speed.

A one-sided, consumer-dependent approach is not realistic. So the industry must make major efforts to change, firstly by taking a serious look at its entire supply chain, from seed to hanger. The ideal production cycle is a cradle to cradle system in which nothing is wasted and the earth is left the same, if not better, than it was before. These aren’t new concepts and many companies have been working toward these goals for years.

Some big fashion brands have launched sustainable capsule collections, or employ ecofriendly materials here and there. It’s a start. But, really, this is just playing catch-up and only useful if it is part of a larger plan to expand across the  entire supply chain. Capsule collections designed to placate a small group of informed customers are “green marketing” tools — essentially, lip service.

The only way to create mass change in the fashion industry before it’s too late is for established companies to make less garments, change the way every garment is made and what it is made from — and make it last longer. Spending the money now to make these changes will not put these companies out of business — the triple bottom line has been proven time and time again to be not only environmentally friendly, but also great for business in the long term.

Major fashion industries should mimic what independent sustainable fashion houses do from the very beginning. These smaller labels are ignoring the insane seasonal fashion cycle, opting for collections that can be worn all year round, or producing fewer garments per actual season. They are also using recycled fibres and less cotton — a water, land and labour-intensive crop even when it’s organic — and opting for Tencel, hemp and other sustainable options. They are using waterless or chemical-free dyeing processes and less synthetic materials. Most of our garments, including elastics, nylons and polyester, contain plastic. When thrown away, plastic does not compost — it sits in our soil and floats in our oceans. The mainstream fashion industry needs to invest in textile innovation, which I believe is the future of sustainable fashion.

Even after the garment has been made, there are steps to take.

  • Companies should strive to produce their garments close to their stores. The CO2 emissions caused by shipping garments over the globe is staggering.
  • The industry should also take accountability for its waste by establishing textile recycling
  • Consumers need to understand that after-purchase care also affects the environmental impact of a garment.
  • The fashion industry should set up a labelling system, just like the food industry’s, so the consumer can make informed purchases and get educated on what they should be looking for.

Unfortunately, the fashion industry’s business model is currently based on providing more and more clothes, faster and faster, for less and less money. These reparative steps are a nuisance to the economics of most fashion companies. But you can only drive a broken engine so far before it starts to self-destruct. A system that places profits before the human and environmental resources creating them is fundamentally unsustainable.


Leave a comment

Name .
Message .