What Is Sustainable Fashion?

In recent years the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ have become a part of our everyday language. From our energy usage to our grocery shopping, society today is having to rethink each aspect of living in order to save the planet, and one of the key areas that needs some serious attention is the fashion industry.

Since the 1980s and 90s, high street fashion has changed drastically, with new materials driving costs down and the invention of internet shopping allowing consumers to view and buy more products than ever before without leaving their homes. Where fashion trends used to circulate slowly, the internet and social media can now change and invent trends in an instant, with fast fashion brands pumping out new designs within weeks to keep up with demand.

It’s not entirely shocking therefore to hear that the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors of climate change, with the carbon footprint of an average household’s clothing habits equating to driving for 6,000 miles and an estimated £140 million worth of clothing going to landfill each year according to Wrap London. It’s not just the sustainability standards that are an issue however. Since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 it has transpired that the majority of the high street has been reliant on the exploitation of third world countries and unethical labour practices for some time.

Image: Good On You
Image: Good On You

Thankfully, sustainable and ethical fashion is growing in popularity with locally made, independent clothing lines springing up across the globe to advocate for a slower, more considerate approach to style. Even high street brands such as H&M and Zara are paying more attention to these issues, releasing capsule collections that focus on using sustainable and organic materials.

Terms such as ‘fair trade’ ‘sustainable’ ‘ethical’ and ‘organic’ however are not always what they seem and do not necessarily come hand in hand. With no legal trademarks attached to the words, it can be difficult to tell which brands are genuinely making a difference and which are ‘green-washing’ or, ironically, capitalising on the sustainability ‘trend’.

For some advice on searching for sustainable fashion, we got in touch with Sandra Capponi, co-founder of Good on You – an app that investigates and rates high street and designer fashion brands on their sustainability performance – who tells us that we’re not the only ones searching for a cleaner way to shop. “We’re here to provide a tool for people to shop according to their values, and our community tells us every day that we’ve changed the way they shop. There’s also a huge, Instagram-driven movement for slow fashion and zero waste as well as a huge market for resale and renting emerging. It shows there is a widespread recognition of the issues and that things are changing.”

Image: Veja
Image: Veja

Sandra explains that the main problems with the fashion industry stem from pollution, waste and the exploitation of human and animal rights, and Good on You has summarised these issues into three categories; people, planet and animal, to try and encapsulate the overall sustainability of a brand. “Broadly speaking, most of the main issues in fashion supply chains fit into these categories and we know that these are three major areas of concern for shoppers.”

Planet

The issues surrounding the planet relate to brands’ use of energy and their carbon emissions, as well as the disposal and use of chemicals. Growing enough cotton to make just one t-shirt for example can use up to 2,700 litres of water, and many materials such as polyester are not only made with petrochemicals but can also contribute to the microplastics problem in our ocean. The idea of fast-fashion trends also contributes to the environmental issue with short-lived items often ending up in landfill sites, especially if they break easily and therefore cannot be donated to charity shops. It’s not just cheaper brands that are contributing to the issue however. Burberry famously came under fire in July 2018 when it surfaced that the brand had burned almost £30m of stock to avoid ‘damaging’ their luxury brand by selling discounted clothing. Their rating on Good on You is currently at ‘It’s a start’ proving that spending more money doesn’t necessarily get you eco-credentials.

Animal

The ‘animal’ category on Good on You refers to the use of materials such as fur, angora, down feather, shearling, karakul and exotic animal skin and hair. If you’ve ever walked past Canada Goose on Regent’s Street you’ll be aware that culling animals for the use of their fur is still common practise for some brands, despite the inhumane nature of this practise and the risk of endangering species’. The issue also comes from brands paying too little attention to where their materials come from such as the incident in April 2017 when a pair of ‘faux fur’ shoes from online retailer Miss Guided were found to contain cat fur. Though the brand removed the product and began an investigation into its supply chain, it’s clear that many retailers have little knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes of their own products.

People

For ‘people’ the issues are even more complex. The first step is of course to do with the factories worker’s rights, safety, child labour, forced labour and living wages, but diversity and equality also comes under this category. Sandra elaborates “we’ve moved away from talking about just labour, to talking about people. This is because we’re keen to champion brands that represent diverse bodies, backgrounds and abilities in their branding – which isn’t necessarily about labour rights but is certainly about human rights.”

Image: Veja
Image: Veja

It can be difficult to weigh up the value of these categories and differentiate between something that is ‘sustainable’ and something that is ‘ethical’. For example, something made with recycled and ‘sustainable’ materials with a good environmental rating could still be made in an unethical way through underpaid workers in the supply chain, or vice versa. Sandra however believes that the two are intrinsically linked. “We usually speak of sustainable in the environmental sense and ethical in the labour rights sense, but I don’t think you can claim to have one without the other. Environmental destruction has an unethical human cost and the exploitation of garment workers in the global south is unsustainable.”

There are a few brands featured on Good on You that reach the highest ratings for all three categories, including well known sustainable giant People Tree, but Sandra acknowledges that these ‘perfect’ brands might not be suitable for everyone. “Everyone has to decide how they want to engage in ethical and sustainable fashion. For some that may mean only buying from the best-rates brands, for others it will mean not buying anything new – swapping, renting and thrifting – and for others it will mean buying ethical when they can.”

Sandra explains that Good on You is designed to help consumers make a more educated and thoughtful decision about their clothing and help them to demand change. “If someone has a favourite brand that do not have a high rating, then we encourage them to use Good on You to contact the brand and ask them to improve their practices. One of our favourite things is when a brand with a low rating gets in touch to ask how they can do better.”

Image: Good on You
Image: Good on You

Some high street brands have been introducing small collections of ‘sustainable’ clothing such as the Conscious range from H&M or the Committed range from Mango. Whilst there is a lot of scepticism about the nature of these collections and whether they are truly making a difference, Sandra does think that it’s worth giving these sorts of collections some support. “We wouldn’t discourage these collections. At the very least they’re raising awareness of sustainable fashion and making it available to the wider public.” Although, Sandra believes that the high street model is never going to be perfect. “We do need to be conscious of greenwashing and recognise that the fast fashion model of cheap, disposable clothing will never truly be sustainable.”

Although there is a way to go in cleaning up the industry as a whole, a little research can go a long way when it comes to your everyday shopping, and apps like Good on You make it all the easier to support change. Whether its shopping second hand, buying only from sustainable brands or contacting your go-to brands to ask them to do more, each step is important in creating a wider demand for change and a fashion industry that respects people, animals and the planet.

Featured image: Al & K Photography for Glasshouse Journal

Words: Phoebe Grace Ede

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