What is Sustainable Fashion and Why is it Important?


Before we discuss sustainable fashion, I’d like to highlight what the current state of the industry looks like. As it stands the fashion industry is quoted to be the second-largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry. I’d have to debate whether that statement is actually true as no one seems to know where the stat originated from, it could honestly be fake news for all we know. 

However, what we can confirm is textile production is one of the largest contributors to industrial water pollution and unfortunately, the environmental damage caused by fast fashion is growing every year.

What is Fast Fashion?

“Fast fashion? is a term used by fashion retailers to describe inexpensive designs that move quickly from the catwalk to stores to meet new trends. As a result of this trend, the tradition of introducing new fashion lines on a seasonal basis is being challenged. Today, it is not uncommon for fast-fashion retailers to introduce new products multiple times in a single week to stay on-trend.


Related: What is Fast Fashion

The Current State of the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry has come under extreme scrutiny over the last few years, rightfully so. They often hide their dirty secrets in third-world countries away from scrutiny. But luckily incredible journalists and organisations have worked tirelessly to ask tough questions and raise much-needed awareness.

The environmental credentials for the fashion industry are:

  • It is responsible for more than 8% of humanity’s carbon emissions 
  • 17-20% of global water pollution comes from textile treatment and dying
  • According to the UN, 80-90% of waste-water in third world countries where fast-fashion is produced is discharged into rivers untreated
  • Washing clothes is estimated to release 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Greenpeace even found microplastics in the waters of the Antarctic
  • In the UK WRAP estimates that 140 mil worth of clothing goes to landfill every year
  • 70 mil barrels of oil are used for the production of polyester annually
  • Rayon and viscose fabrics often come from endangered and ancient forests
  • Garment workers are known to work excessive overtime to help make ends meet in factories where women’s rights, human rights and overall working conditions are extremely poor

If you’ve ever personally sewed something e.g. a winter coat, you’ll know that it can be a complicated and lengthy process. To me, garment workers are highly skilled in their trade and we should value their work product immensely.

Our world is interconnected and our actions affect people on the other side of the planet. To live a more sustainable life we will have to apply ethics of care throughout the lifecycle of every garment.

Related: Fast Fashion Facts

What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable fashion is a movement driving change within the fashion industry. It’s pushing brands to be more environmentally friendly, to respect the planet and the people who are producing items. 

To create sustainable fashion it’s important to consider the entire supply chain from where raw materials are sourced or grown, the production of textiles, the garments themselves, transportation, the marketing and sales of items right to the use and waste management when products come to end of life. Sustainable fashion must have a whole lifecycle approach, cradle to grave. This particular point makes it hard to distinguish truly sustainable fashion brands from their greenwashed counterparts.

The Principles of Sustainable Fashion

As many retailers are slowly moving towards a more sustainable model, large volume retailers who are pushing aggressive growth targets are not likely to become sustainable fashion brands. I’d imagine a lot of their action will be entangled with greenwashed marketing messages focusing on carefully spun propaganda made to confuse even the savviest consumer. 

To be truly sustainable we should focus on reducing consumption and buying long term trends that encourage items to be worn for 5 or more years rather than the latest fad that will be gone by the end of the season. As consumers ourselves, we can build a more sustainable wardrobe by focusing on a few things:

  • Buy fewer, better quality items. Most things you can buy at Primark or H&M does not generally last very long so looking for items that are made with care by sustainable fashion brands is a better option
  • Buy classic styles that you can wear season after season
  • Buy secondhand or upcycle
  • Wash only when necessary not after every single wear. It will extend the life of the garment and reduce water pollution
  • Consider the fabrics that items are made of, go for options that have fewer or no synthetic fibres. Be careful, fabrics made from recycled plastic is better but it’s still made from plastic. Even though this can be a good short-term solution the long term sustainability is still in question

What does it Take to Make a Good Quality Garment?

I think that a lot of the problems within the fashion industry occur because the average person does not realise the time and level of skill it takes to produce a garment. For reference, it takes me personally a full day (6 ish hours) to make a good quality pair of jeans, a winter coat takes much longer and needs a decent level of skill, t-shirts are much quicker of course but that excludes printing of graphics etc. 

Most seamstresses will also know that sitting in front of a sewing machine for 8 hours or more a day takes a massive toll on your body as you’re constantly leaning forward to see what you’re doing. Shoulder and back pain is fairly common and can be excruciating. 

Next time when you’re thinking of throwing something out, remember the seamstress who made your item. How much did it cost them to make this piece? Did you give this item of clothing the respect its maker deserves? Why not consider upcycling, donating or re-selling it rather than throwing it out or depositing it into a clothing bank? For ideas on what to do with clothes that can’t be donated, read our related post.

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