Sustainable fashion is a term that’s increasingly used (and overused) these days, as we all become ever more aware of the serious environmental impact of our clothes. The industry is responsible for a shocking four to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year – a figure that can’t be overlooked considering the urgency of the climate crisis we’re facing right now.
But what does sustainable fashion actually mean? In short, it’s an umbrella term for clothes that are created and consumed in a way that can be, quite literally, sustained, while protecting both the environment and those producing garments. That’s why cutting CO2 emissions, addressing overproduction, reducing pollution and waste, supporting biodiversity, and ensuring that garment workers are paid a fair wage and have safe working conditions, are all crucial to the sustainability matrix.
As consumers become ever more aware of their environmental footprint, greenwashing – brands using vague, misleading or false claims to suggest it’s more eco-friendly than it actually is – is becoming increasingly prevalent. Look beyond buzzwords such as “sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, “conscious” and “responsible” to see if brands have detailed policies to back up their claims.
Know your materials
Understanding the impact of materials is crucial when it comes to making more sustainable purchases. A good rule of thumb is to avoid virgin synthetics, such as polyester – which makes up 55 per cent of clothes globally – as these are derived from fossil fuels and take years to break down. Not all natural materials are made the same: organic cotton, for example, uses significantly less water than conventional cotton and doesn’t use harmful pesticides. Recycled materials also have a lower impact than virgin materials, but it’s worth considering whether those textiles can be recycled again once you’re finished with them.
Ask who made your clothes
With the pandemic highlighting the extreme difficulties faced by garment workers around the world, it’s essential that the people who make our clothes are paid a fair wage and have safe working conditions. Seek out brands who openly disclose information about their factories and their policies around wages and working conditions.
Support brands who have a positive impact
Eco-minded brands, are starting to consider how fashion can have a positive impact on the environment rather than just reducing its impact. Regenerative agriculture – which involves farming practices such as no-tilling and growing cover crops – is a growing trend within fashion that aims to restore soil health and biodiversity.
Watch out for harmful chemicals
Hidden chemicals that are used to treat our clothes are a serious concern, polluting local waterways and posing a risk to garment workers. Keep an eye out for the Made in Green by OEKO-TEX and Bluesign certifications, which set out requirements for chemical usage during the manufacturing process.
Reduce your water footprint
Given that the production of textiles uses an astonishing 93 billion cubic metres of water annually – the equivalent to 37 million Olympic swimming pools – we should all be more conscious about the water footprint of our clothes. As mentioned previously, organic cotton uses significantly less water than conventional cotton, while the use of low-water dyes also reduces water consumption.
Take care of your clothes
Extending the life of your clothes is key when it comes to lowering the environmental footprint of your garments, and ensuring they don’t end up clogging landfill sites after just one or two wears. Ensure your clothes last as long as possible by not overwashing them (which will also lower your CO2 emissions and water consumption), as well as repairing them instead of throwing them out.
Ensure your clothes have a second life
When clearing out your closet, being conscious about how you dispose of your clothes will help stop them from ending up in landfill. Re-selling your clothes or organising a clothes swap is the best way to ensure they’ll have a second life, as well as donating to charities and organisations that are looking for used clothing. For worn-out pieces that can no longer be repaired or reused, look for recycling schemes specifically for those items, where possible.
Circularity is important
There has been a lot of talk about creating a circular fashion industry of late – a system where all garments can be reused, recycled, or returned to the earth (if biodegradable or compostable). While the industry is a long way off becoming fully circular, thinking about whether your clothes can re-enter the system in any of these ways is crucial when it comes to sustainability.