What does ‘sustainable’ fashion really mean?
You have doubtless heard the term ‘sustainable’ in relation to fashion millions of times. With the increase in awareness of humanity’s impact on the environment, and with the fashion industry being the second largest polluter in the world, consumers are highlighting the importance of their favourite fashion brands ensuring the sustainability and ethicality of the production, materials and labour behind their clothing. This means factors from the fair treatment of garment workers to the water pollution caused by wastewater from textiles factories all need to be considered in the production of clothing in order for it to be considered truly ‘sustainable’. Brands need to find a reliable and ethical way of producing garments that doesn’t harm people or the environment.
But what does it really mean when a piece, or a whole line, of clothing, or even an entire brand, is labelled as ‘sustainable’? What does it really mean to be ‘sustainable’ in a world of mass clothing consumption, and how important is it for our future?
According to a study by McKinsey&Company, the number of garments purchased by the average consumer increased by an immense 60% between 2000 and 2014! As our demand for current ‘trendy’ clothing pieces has increased, alongside the growth of influencer and celebrity culture, fashion brands have responded by producing cheaply made items quickly, so that customers can keep up to date and ensure their clothing corresponds with the latest trends – this is how the term ‘fast fashion’ was born. This means that fast fashion brands can often have problematic means of production, from underpaid and ill treated garment makers, to clothing made with easy to source, cheap, synthetic materials such as polyester, which are non-biodegradable and rely on fossil fuels for their production.
Despite the rise in popular opinion and petitioning, fast fashion brands have been slow to change their ways in response, if at all – and if they have, it hasn’t always been in a truly sustainable way. For instance, some brands have been accused of ‘green-washing’ their products in order to seem as if they are responding to the desires of their customers. Is it all just talk?
Similarly, many fast fashion brands have faced criticism for their appalling treatment of garment workers in their factories, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis. This has led many to wonder if fashion, particularly fast fashion, can ever be truly sustainable, and to suggest a mass shift to ‘slow’ fashion, which believes clothing production should respect the people and environments involved.
It was in protest against these non-sustainable and unethical processes and materials that What on Earth was born. We believe in creating fashion that is beautiful inside and out; that doesn’t harm the planet or the people who make it, while promoting and offering beautiful fashion from businesses who have sustainability at their heart.
It is interesting to look at the difference in the means of production of fast fashion clothing companies to that of those who are considered sustainable. For example, many of these brands will utilise recycled or sustainable materials to create their pieces. Lots of companies now use items such as recycled plastic to create material, as well as look to nature for materials, such as Lyocell, which is made from wood pulp. Materials like this are good for the environment, in that they are either made from something that otherwise would have never biodegraded, as well as that their production can be maintained without risk to the Earth.
Many people have begun to switch to second hand clothing platforms to buy their clothing, encouraging the circular journey of garments whilst not supporting fast fashion companies with unethical and unsustainable practices. This has resulted in the rise in second-hand, re-wearing and mending our clothing, in addition to buying from companies with proven sustainable and ethical track records. Second-hand clothing sites such as Depop and Ebay have grown in popularity, with an immense 404 per cent increase in sales since 2014. Many are realising the benefits of mending damaged clothing instead of putting it in the bin and buying new; mending an item and continuing to wear it for three extra months ‘can lead to a 5% to 10% reduction in each of its carbon, waste and water footprints’, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme. Buying second hand or mending your pre-existing clothing is a great way to ensure your fashion is truly ‘sustainable’, because you aren’t adding to the amount of clothing already in existence, nor are you sending more clothing to landfill (where 80% globally ends up!).
It is interesting to think about the future of the fashion industry, especially as its future runs in tandem with that of the planet. Fashion brands need to recognise their impact and create change to ensure as little environmental damage as possible, and treat their garment workers with respect and humility. As consumers, buying from brands who openly discuss ethical production and sustainable materials, to buying second hand and mending older clothing are a handful of positive changes we can make.
We at What on Earth are playing our part, by making sustainable alternatives more accessible and providing information to you all about key elements of sustainability, such as sustainable materials that we love, to brands we champion and their ethics. We want you to understand how you can make a positive difference to how the fashion industry is affecting us and our planet.
By Katie Sergeant.