Sustainable fashion

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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.



Sustainable fashion came to be in the 1940's during World War 2 when the rationing policy was implemented. The cinched waist, box cut and shortening of skirts came about in the 40's because of the rationing of all resources that had to be used to their utmost utility. The fashion of the 40's was designed to limit the amount of fabric needed to make clothes and to reduce the waste of leftover fabric.[1]

Sustainable fashion came into the public foray in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well-known companies such as Patagonia and ESPRIT brought "sustainability" into their businesses. The owners of those companies at that time, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins were outdoorsmen and witnessed the environment being harmed by over consumption. They commissioned research into the impacts of fibers used in their companies. For Patagonia, this resulted in a lifecycle assessment for four fibers, cotton, wool, nylon and polyester. For ESPRIT the focus was on cotton, which represented 90% of their business at that time.

The principles of sustainable fashion as put forward by these two companies was based on the philosophy of the deep ecologists Arne Næss, Fritjof Capra, and Ernest Callenbach.

The work of these companies influenced a whole movement in fashion and sustainability. They co-funded the first organic cotton conference held in 1991 in Visalia, California. ESPRIT ecollection, developed by head designer Lynda Grose,[2] was launched at retail in 1992 and was based on the Eco Audit Guide, published by the Elmwood Institute. It comprised organic cotton, recycled wool, naturally processed wool, "low impact" dyes (focusing on water energy and toxicity), naturally colored cotton, non electroplated hard wear. Patagonia made a commitment to recycled polyester in 1992 and a company wide commitment to organic cotton in 1996. Both communicated their action for "sustainability" through point-of-sale materials, catalogues and PR. Both supported the work of The Sustainable Cotton Project, which ran farm tours for fashion industry professionals to meet directly with farmers growing organic and IPM cotton in California. Both companies contributed to the US NOSB standards to include organic fiber as well as food.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the movement in sustainable fashion broadened to include many brands. Though the primary focus has remained on improving the impacts of products through fiber and fabric processing and material provenance, Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard were early to note the fundamental cause of unsustainability: exponential growth and consumption. ESPRIT placed and ad in Utne Reader in 1990 making a plea for responsible consumption. Patagonia has since made headlines with its "Don't buy this Jacket" ad in The New York Times.

With the average American throwing away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year,[3] the fashion industry is the second largest cause of pollution worldwide.[4] Sustainable fashion approaches this issue with an ethical response to potential environmental and occupational hazards.


The fashion industry has a clear opportunity to act differently, pursuing profit and growth while also creating new value for society and therefore for the world economy. It comes with an urgent need to place environmental, social, and ethical improvements on management’s agenda.[5] The goal of sustainable fashion is to increase the value of local production and products, to prolong the lifecycle of materials, to increase the value of timeless garments, to reduce the amount of waste, and to reduce the harm to the environment. It aims to educate people to practice environmentally friendly consumption by promoting the "green consumer".[6]


Sustainable fashion resists fast fashion. It represents one of the forms of anti-consumption or alternative consumption, such as eco-consumption, green consumption, ethical consumption, and political consumption.[6]

Characteristics of sustainable fashion match the philosophies of "slow fashion": buying vintage clothes, redesigning old clothes, shopping from smaller producers, making clothes and accessories at home and buying garments that last longer. New ideas and product innovations are constantly redefining slow fashion, so using a static, single definition would ignore the evolving nature of the concept.

The empirical definition of sustainable fashion is as follows: a fashion production which is locally embedded, slow in terms of production cycles, with a quantity of produced goods that corresponds to demand and without overproduction. It utilizes eco-friendly and qualitative materials, yet it is not cheap, the idea being to stimulate prolonged use of the clothing.[6]


The clothing industry has an impact on the environment. Globalization, consumerism, and recycling are all a part of a clothing life cycle. Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices, prices so low that many consumers consider this clothing to be disposable.[6] Disposable clothing appears popular throughout many malls in America and Europe. This is a key characteristic of fast fashion. However, fast fashion adds to pollution and generates potential environmental and occupational hazards.

Occupational Hazards[edit]

China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports.[7] However, some Chinese workers make as little as 12–18 cents per hour working in poor conditions.[6] Each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China. Fierce global competition in the garment industry translates into poor working conditions for many laborers in developing nations. Developing countries aim to become a part of the world’s apparel market despite poor working conditions and low pay. Countries such as Honduras and Bangladesh import large amounts of clothing into the United States every year.[6]

Environmental Hazards[edit]

The clothing industry has one of the highest impacts on the planet. High water usage, pollution from chemical treatments used in dyeing and preparation and the disposal of large amounts of unsold clothing through incineration or landfill deposits are hazardous to the environment.[8] There is a growing water scarcity, the current usage level of fashion materials (79 billion cubic meters annually) is very concerning, because textile production mostly takes place in areas of fresh water stress.[4] Only around 20% of clothing is recycled or reused, huge amounts of fashion product end up as waste in landfills or is incinerated.[9] It has been estimated that in the UK alone around 350,000 tons of clothing ends up as landfill every year. According to Earth Pledge, a non-profit organization committed to promoting and supporting sustainable development, "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."[10]


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[edit]

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 eyewear such as sunglasses.[7]


Cotton is one of the most widely grown and chemical-intensive crops in the world.[8] Conventionally grown cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the world's pesticides.[9] Other cellulose fibers include: jute, flax, hemp, ramie, abaca, bamboo (used for viscose), soy, corn, banana, pineapple, beechwood (used for rayon). Alternative fibers such as bamboo (in yarn) and hemp (of a variety that produces only a tiny amount of the psychoactive component found in cannabis) are coming into greater use in so-called eco-fashions.[10]


Protein fibers originate from animal sources and are made up of protein molecules. The basic elements in these protein molecules being carbon, hydrogen oxygen and nitrogen.[11] Natural protein fibers include: wool, silk, angora, camel, alpaca, llama, vicuna, cashmere, and mohair.


Fibers manufactured from natural materials include: Lyocell and polylactic acid (PLA).

Recycled fibers[edit]

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.[citation needed] 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[edit]

Upcycling is the practice of converting materials into something with greater value in a second life.[6] Upcycling is a form of recycling, which refers to the reuse of material for the purpose of waste reduction. Upcycled fibers are made from materials that are not originally used to make fibers. 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.[12]

Another example is fish leather made from fish skins that are a by-product of the food industry.[13] 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.[14] Also, no poisonous, explosive hydrogen sulfide gas is released in the process.[15]

Upcycling also pre-supposes that designers invest creativity in their products and act as “entrepreneurs of taste” by adding design ideas for the purpose of creating a new garment from an old one.[6] Designer Conny Groenewegen focuses on using fishing wire and old fleece sweaters to re-design form and function in fashion.[16]


A mannequin wears a multicolored gown with a golden bodice, full skirt, and flowing train.
The Golden Book Gown made of recycled book pages.

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.[17] However, various celebrities, models, and designers have recently drawn attention to socially conscious and environmentally friendly fashion. More innovative eco-fashions are being developed and made available to consumers at different levels of the fashion spectrum, from casual clothing to haute couture.[10]

Designers, retailers, and labels[edit]

  • Eastern European prisoners are designing sustainable prison fashion in Latvia and Estonia under the Heavy Eco label,[18] part of a trend called "prison couture".[19]
  • Ryan Jude Novelline created a ballroom gown constructed entirely from the pages of recycled and discarded children's books known as The Golden Book Gown that "prove[d] that green fashion can provide as rich a fantasia as can be imagined."[20][21]
  • Eco-couture designer Lucy Tammam uses eri silk (ahimsa/peace silk) and organic cotton to create her eco friendly couture evening and bridal wear collections.[22][23]
  • Other sustainable fashion labels include Elena Garcia, Nancy Dee, By Stamo, Outsider Fashion, Beyond Skin, Oliberté, Hetty Rose, DaRousso, KSkye the Label,[24] and Eva Cassis.[25][26][27][28][29][30][31]
  • The brand Boll & Branch make all of their bedding products from organic cotton and have been certified by Fair Trade USA.[32]
  • The Hemp Trading Company is an ethically driven underground clothing label, specializing in environmentally friendly, politically conscious street wear made of hemp, bamboo, organic cotton and other sustainable fabrics.[33]
  • Patagonia, a major retailer in casual wear, has been selling fleece clothing made from post-consumer plastic soda bottles since 1993.[10]
  • Stella McCartney is a brand that pushes the agenda for sustainable fashion that is animal and eco-friendly she uses her name and her brand as a platform to push for a greener fashion industry.[34]

There is no certain stable model among the designers for how to be sustainable in practice, and the understanding of sustainability is always a process or a work-in-progress.[6]

Companies and Organizations[edit]

Some companies and organizations are working to combat clothing pollution, increase sustainable design opportunities, and increase the visibility of the sustainable fashion movement.

  • The National Association of Sustainable Fashion Designers is an organization aimed to assist entrepreneurs with growing fashion businesses that create social change and respect the environment. They provide specialized education, training and programs that can transform the fashion industry by cultivating collaboration, sustainability and economic growth.
  • Eco Age, a consultancy company specializing in enabling businesses to achieve growth and add value through sustainability is one of the most recognizable organizations that promote sustainable fashion. Its creative director, Livia Firth, is also the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge which aims to promote ethically made outfits from fashion designers.[37]
  • Ecoluxe London, a not-for-profit platform, supports luxury with ethos through hosting a biannual exhibition during London Fashion Week and showcasing eco-sustainable and ethical designers.[25][38]
  • Fashion Takes Action formed in 2007 and received a non-profit status in 2011. It is an organization that promotes social justice, fair trade and sustainable clothing production as well as advances sustainability in the fashion system through education, awareness and collaboration. FTA promotes sustainable fashion via social media, PR, hosting fashion shows, public talks, school lectures and conferences.[39]
  • Trans-America Trading Company is one of the biggest of about 3,000 textile recycler's in the United States.[10] Trans-America has processed more than 12 million pounds of post consumer textiles per year since 1942. At its 80,000-square-foot sorting facility, workers separate used clothing into 300 different categories by type of item, size, and fiber content. About 30% of the textiles are turned into absorbent wiping rags for industrial uses, and another 25–30% are recycled into fiber for use as stuffing for upholstery, insulation, and the manufacture of paper products.[44]


Materials Controversy[edit]

Though organic cotton is considered a more sustainable choice for fabric, as it uses fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it remains less than 1% global cotton production. Hurdles to growth include cost of hand labor for hand weeding, reduced yields in comparison to conventional cotton and 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. The FTC ruled that labeling of bamboo fiber should read "rayon from bamboo". Bamboo fabric can cause environmental harm in production due to the chemicals used to create a soft viscose from hard bamboo.[45] 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.[46] However, it must be noted that these are indicative of a system of production and consumption that creates excessive volumes of waste.

Second-Hand Controversy[edit]

Used clothing is sold in more than 100 countries. In Tanzania, used clothing is sold at the mitumba (Swahili for "secondhand") markets. Most of the clothing is imported from the United States.[10] However, there are concerns that trade in secondhand clothing in African countries decreases development of local industries even as it creates employment in these countries.[47] And the authors of Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste warn that in the long run, as prices and quality of new clothing continue to decline, the demand for used clothing will also diminish.

Marketing Controversy[edit]

The increase in western consumers’ environmental interest is motivating companies to use sustainable and environmental arguments solely to increase sales. And because environmental and sustainability issues are complex, it is also easy to mislead consumers. Companies can use sustainability as a “marketing ploy” something that can be seen as greenwashing.[48] Greenwashing is the deceptive use of an eco-agenda in marketing strategies.[6] It refers mostly to corporations that make efforts to clean up their reputation because of social pressure or for the purpose of financial gain.

Future of fashion sustainability[edit]

In the European Union, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations required in 2007 that clothing manufacturers and importers identified and quantified the chemicals used in their products.[10]

On May 3, 2012, the world's largest summit on fashion sustainability was held in Copenhagen, gathering more than 1,000 key stakeholders in the industry to discuss the importance of making the fashion industry sustainable. Copenhagen Fashion Summit has since then gathered thousands of people from the fashion industry in their effort to create a movement within the industry.[49]

In July 2012, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched the Higg Index, a self-assessment standard designed to measure and promote sustainable supply chains in the apparel and footwear industries.[50][51] Founded in 2011, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a nonprofit organization whose members include brands producing apparel or footwear, retailers, industry affiliates and trade associations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, academic institutions and environmental nonprofits.[52][53][54]

The Global Change Award, is an innovation challenge created by the H&M foundation.[55] It created a trend report in 2017 to look at the future of sustainable fashion. Five mega trends are identified by the organization that will lead the future of sustainable fashion. The first mega trend is "Power of Nature" which is the industry looking into materials that have always been looked at as waste as a more sustainable method to making new clothing.[55] The materials that will mitigate negative impacts from the industry include vegan materials from the earth and recycling old fabric into new clothing. The second mega trend is "Rent a Closet" this initiative has been around for a while. This trend ultimately lowers the new purchase of clothing and disposal of clothing, which means less waste.[55] Rent the Runway is an example of the "Rent a Closet" trend. Rent the Runway started as a company that would give luxury brands like Hervé Leger, Vera Wang, Etro to people who may not be able to afford the clothing at regular retail price. Renting and sharing clothing is also known as CFC (collaborative fashion consumption) a sustainable fashion trend consumers are getting involved in.[56] The third trend is "Long Live Fashion" is the revival of Vintage clothing.[55] Vintage clothing is a way to lower the amount of clothing that gets disposed of and ends up in landfills. Companies like RE/DONE, Vintage Twin and Frankie Collective sell re-paired vintage clothing. Repairing and reselling clothing has less negative impact than creating new clothing does. The fourth megatrend is "Innovative Recycling" which is looking at waste as value. The industry is starting to create incentives for consumers to participate in the recycling of clothing.[55]

Tailored couture is an excellent option for the future of a greener fashion industry as it would lead to less waste and more jobs improving the economy. Tailored couture is no longer desired because of the convenience of malls and stores provide but the consequence of the convenience is the pollution of our environment. Tailored clothing could reduce that risk if fashion industries and influencers made tailored clothing a trend that everyone can be a part of and not just the one per cent. Tailored clothing if it were to become the norm mass production of clothing that will not be bought can be reduced and reusing and redesigning old clothes to fit could reduce the amount of old worn out unfitting clothes thrown out or given away.[57]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]