A Closer Look at Sustainable Fashion

A Closer Look at Sustainable Fashion

by Megan Hayes

Breaking Down how Clothing Can Do Better for the Planet

There are few words in the recent fashion discourse buzzier and more consistently part of the conversation than sustainability. Yet, for all the many times it’s been used, there’s still a lot of ambiguity about what it actually means. Is it only about the environment? Does it cover fair wages? What about the treatment of animals? The truth is, there isn’t a universally-agreed-upon definition—hence the confusion. But there are several good ones. Let’s start there.

“Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance,” is what comes up first when doing a quick Google search. Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as, “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Last, the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development has determined it’s that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In layman’s terms?

1. Sustainability relates to the environment

2. It’s about reducing the impact on natural resources

3. It means taking the long-term view on how our actions affect those that come after us

That’s not to say that rules around child labor aren’t important, but that’s ethics. It doesn’t mean that discontinuing the use of fur isn’t a positive step forward, but that’s animal rights. So what does sustainable fashion in action look like? Here, we’ve curated a cheatsheet to make it easy to understand where you’ll see it (and what you’ll hear it being called):

The Use of Natural Fibers

The Buzzword: “Eco-friendly Materials”

What We Mean: When you hear companies touting the use of natural fibers (organic cotton, wool, silk, hemp, etc.) it’s because they’re better for the environment for two important reasons:

1: They biodegrade—and relatively quickly. Technically, synthetics such as nylon biodegrade, too, but at a far slower rate. (To put it in perspective, wool biodegrades within a couple months, whereas some versions of nylon can take up to 600 years.) As a result, they accumulate in landfills and emit greenhouse gases throughout the time they decompose.

2. They aren’t pollutants. Synthetic clothes, when washed, release hundred of thousands of fibers that make their way from your washing machine into rivers and oceans where they are ingested by marine wildlife and pollute the ecosystem.

How The Textiles Are Made

The Buzzword: “Organic”

What We Mean: With only a price difference for context, it can be hard to understand the importance of shopping organic. However, it’s crucial as it signifies the materials used have been grown without the use of synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides—leaving the soil, air and water free from contaminates. Organic cotton, for example, produces around 46% less CO2 emissions than conventional cotton.

The Use of Existing Materials

The Buzzword: “Upcycling”

What We Mean: Recycling typically refers to the conversion of waste into a usable material (we recycle paper and it comes back as new paper). “Upcycling” is the process of giving new life to waste by making it into something infinitely better. (The “up” comes from upgrade.) Mara Hoffman is a great example of this: The designer’s swimwear is produced using ECONYL®, a 100% regenerated nylon fiber made from plastic waste, such as fishing nets. According to the brand’s website, “in 2017 alone, our use of ECONYL® fabric diverted a total of 10,797 lbs of waste from landfills, including 2,744 lbs of fishing nets.”

Where Clothes Are Manufactured

Buzzword: “Produced Locally”

What We Mean: The closer to where it’s being sold that clothing is produced, the less of an impact the manufacturing process has on the environment. For example, reducing the distance clothing has to travel reduces air pollution and cuts back on greenhouse gas emissions.

Water Usage

Buzzword: “Water-Saving Solutions”

What We Mean: Did you know that 713 gallons of water is required to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt? Or that it takes 2,000 gallons of water to make your favorite pair of jeans? The good news is that there are ways of addressing those two issues.

1. Water required to grow materials: Recycled and organic fibers need less water. Organic cotton requires 71% less irrigation than regular cotton as it relies mainly on rainwater; Hemp requires even less.

2. Water required for production: Levi’s is tackling this with its Water<Less® technique. Says the brand, “to get a soft feel typically achieved by using fabric softener, we might tumble jeans with bottle caps and golf balls, taking the water out of the wash altogether.”


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