In the fast-paced world of fashion, where trends come and go, true sustainability is the new black. While many brands claim to be eco-friendly, only a select few genuinely walk the talk. In this 8-point exploration, we unveil the eight essential elements that set apart authentic sustainable clothing brands from the rest.
1. SUPPLY CHAIN TRANSPARENCY
SDG Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production - "Transparency is the cornerstone of sustainability."
The journey to sustainability begins with transparency. While we know where our cars are being made, and we see photos of those factories on the car manufacturer's website, the same cannot be said about our clothes. Most brands don't disclose or even have visibility into their tier 1 suppliers- the manufacturer that produces the garment to its final state before distributing it to the brand. This means most brands don't have visibility into Tier 2-4 suppliers, they don't know who made their yarn, who dyed the yarn and weaved it into fabrics. Basically, the clothes on you right now or in your closet could be made through exploitative labour in developing countries, where workers are paid low wages and work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. And they are made from plastic based fabrics that offer no benefit to you or the environment- and you will never know because brands are not required to disclose any of this information.
Genuine conscious brands open the doors to their supply chains, revealing every step of their production process. They focus on bettering their practices with technological advancements and offer as much information about their industry as they can to their consumers, ensuring responsible consumption and production and allowing consumers to make informed choices.
2. RECYCLED/ UPCYCLED MATERIALS
Circular fashion minimizes waste and maximizes resources." - Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Sustainable brands champion circular fashion by incorporating recycled and upcycled materials into their designs. In an ideal world, we wouldn't have deadstock fabrics piling up in warehouses all over the world, and brands would only order what they need, and use mindfully ever piece of fabric. But a lot of brands order based on projected sales vs past sales, basing their business model on an antiquated idea that growth is only financial growth and sales growth, therefore ending up producing more that they can sell, and sometimes leaving behind rolls of unused fabric that won't be good for the next collection, as fashion is based on constant novelty. This is where sustainable brands and designers come in, trying to save fabrics from getting incinerated or ending up in landfill, and giving them new life.
This practice, along with recycling the materials already in use, is the basis for creating a circular economy, reducing waste and conserving valuable resources.
3. ETHICAL MANUFACTURING
"Ethical manufacturing preserves the planet's resources and safeguards its inhabitants." - WWF
True sustainability extends beyond materials to ethical manufacturing.
We live in a climate where starting a brand and producing garments has never been easier and more accessible. However, that has in turn created brands focused solely on making trendy clothes faster and cheaper than ever. By cutting corners from the invisible part of the brand (producing, sourcing materials, manufacturing facilities) to invest more in the consumer facing part of the brand (marketing, boutiques, content creation and partnerships) brands are relying on sweat shop labour and discarding waste that is polluting the environment. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the fashion industry is a big polluter and the second-biggest consumer of water and is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions.
Therefore ethical manufacturing is of paramount importance in the fashion industry. It not only upholds the well-being and dignity of workers through fair wages and safe working conditions but also aligns with eco-friendly practices, mitigating the industry's environmental impact. Brands that respect human rights, pay fair wages, and provide safe working conditions contribute to the mission of protecting both people and the planet.
4. COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Sustainable brands recognise the importance of community engagement. Fashion brands have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to create value not just for the wearer or the shareholders, but also for those in its supply chain. The rise of fast fashion has convinced consumers that they don't need to know how their clothes are made, or where, as long as they are cheap. This dissociative practice is not just fostering inhumane labour conditions, but it has negative consequences on our relationship with our clothes and how we view them, therefore how we view ourselves. Wearing an item of which you know how it was produced and what materials were used, where they were sourced and how it was made- enhances the experience and empowers the wearer, therefore offering confidence and attachment to the product. We are more likely to wear it repeatedly and take better care of it.
This dissociative practice is not just fostering inhumane labour conditions, but it has negative consequences on our relationship with our clothes and how we view them, therefore how we view ourselves.
Brands like Patagonia and People Tree are known for their commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Patagonia actively engages with local communities, supports grassroots environmental organizations, and advocates for causes like conservation and sustainable agriculture. Through initiatives like the "1% for the Planet" program, Patagonia donates a portion of its sales to environmental causes and encourages community participation. People Tree is a pioneer in ethical and sustainable fashion. The brand partners with artisan groups and Fair Trade producers in developing countries to create its clothing collections. By collaborating with local communities, People Tree promotes fair wages, safe working conditions, and environmental sustainability. Their approach emphasizes community empowerment and economic development. sustainable and inclusive fashion community.
Fashion and luxury packaging has long been associated with opulence and extravagance, often featuring elaborate designs and excessive layers of materials. More recently, fast fashion brands and upcoming brands have adopted the same packaging model to confer their products a more luxurious allure and communicate to the customer that they are buying something special. However, this penchant for extravagance has come at a significant cost to the environment. The fashion industry generates an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste each year, with a substantial portion attributed to packaging. Many of these packages end up in landfills, contributing to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the energy and resources required to produce and transport these lavish packaging materials further exacerbate the industry's environmental impact.
SDG Goal 14: Life Below Water - "Reducing plastic waste protects marine life."
In numbers, the environmental toll of fashion packaging is staggering. The fashion industry is responsible for approximately 10% of the world's carbon emissions, and packaging plays a substantial role in this figure. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry produces 53 million metric tons of fiber materials annually, of which only 1% is recycled into new clothing. The remaining 99% is discarded, much of it originating from packaging waste. Furthermore, luxury brands often use exotic and non-renewable materials for packaging, contributing to deforestation and habitat destruction. By embracing more minimalistic and sustainable packaging solutions, such as recycled and biodegradable materials, the fashion industry can significantly reduce its environmental footprint and make a positive contribution to the planet's well-being.
Sustainability-conscious brands re-imagine packaging. They opt for eco-friendly alternatives, reducing plastic waste and aligning with SDG Goal 14, which seeks to protect life below water.
When I look at the packaging a product comes with, I can tell the brand's commitment to sustainability right away. The ones who truly value it invest in eco-produced, recycled and bio materials and use only what is necessary. The luxury experience comes from knowing the value this packaging provided to those making it and what we protect by using it, not from what color it is or how thick.
Designing clothing with wearability as a central focus is of paramount importance in today's fashion landscape. The industry has long been plagued by a culture of disposable fashion, where garments are discarded after only a few wears due to their trend-based designs and lack of quality. Every year, people in the United States alone discard more than 34 billion pounds of used textiles, translating to over 100 pounds of textile waste per person annually. This alarming statistic underscores the pressing need to rethink our approach to fashion and embrace designs that stand the test of time. Micro trends, which contribute to the rapid turnover of clothing items, exacerbate this issue, leading to an overwhelming environmental toll.
In the not-so-distant past, clothes were meticulously crafted with wearability and versatility at their core. Designers of yesteryears recognised the value of creating pieces that transcended seasons and trends. Coco Chanel, an iconic figure in fashion history, championed this philosophy with her timeless creations. She once said, "Fashion fades, only style remains the same," emphasising the enduring nature of well-designed garments. Yves Saint Laurent, another visionary designer, believed that fashion should adapt to the needs of individuals, not the other way around. His wardrobe staples, like the "Le Smoking" tuxedo jacket for women, showcased his commitment to creating pieces that seamlessly transitioned from day to night, embodying the essence of wearability and versatility. More recently, Issey Miyake, the renowned Japanese designer, is known for his focus on timeless designs that endure beyond seasons, reflecting a commitment to creating clothing with wearability at its core.
By prioritising wearability and shifting away from micro trends, sustainable fashion brands address the issue of excessive waste and pave the way for more sustainable and responsible consumption patterns. They create stylish, functional pieces that seamlessly integrate in everyday life and can be worn for many years.
Quality should be a non-negotiable aspect of fashion products, as it serves as the bedrock of both customer satisfaction and sustainability. In the words of Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, "Quality, not quantity, is what matters most." Quality garments not only last longer but also exhibit superior craftsmanship, fit, and durability, ensuring they remain cherished pieces in a consumer's wardrobe. High-quality materials and manufacturing techniques contribute to a longer lifespan for fashion items, reducing the need for frequent replacements and ultimately lessening the fashion industry's environmental footprint.
Fashion designer Ralph Lauren once remarked, "I don't design clothes. I design dreams". Quality in fashion allows designers to turn these dreams into reality, creating pieces that stand the test of time, capture the essence of their vision, and resonate with consumers on a deeper level. Furthermore, quality garments are often associated with the meticulous attention to detail and innovation that the fashion industry used to be known for. Sustainable brands and designers who prioritise quality in their design process not only adhere to ethical practices but also earn the trust and loyalty of in-the-know customers, who appreciate the enduring value of well-made clothes.
8. END OF LIFE SOLUTIONS
For far too long, brands that neglect to establish effective strategies for managing their products after they've been worn are contributing to a harmful and wasteful cycle. The "make-use-waste" model, which encourages the rapid disposal of clothing, is environmentally devastating and socially irresponsible. It exacerbates the textile waste crisis, with millions of tons of garments ending up in landfills every year. This not only contributes to pollution but also squanders valuable resources that could otherwise be conserved through recycling or repurposing. Brands that fail to address this issue perpetuate an unsustainable culture, undermining the progress made by those striving for more responsible practices.
In stark contrast, brands that proactively offer end-of-life solutions to their customers demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and visionary thinking. They recognize that the responsibility of a garment doesn't end at the point of sale. By providing options for recycling, upcycling, or returning products for repurposing, these brands engage in circular fashion practices that extend the lifespan of their creations. This not only reduces the environmental footprint but also aligns with the values of today's conscientious consumers. Forward-thinking brands and consumers understand that fashion should be an enduring journey, where each piece has a lifecycle beyond a single season or trend. By championing responsible end-of-life solutions, they set an example for the industry and lead the way toward a more sustainable and circular future for fashion.
Forward-thinking brands and consumers understand that fashion should be an enduring journey, where each piece has a lifecycle beyond a single season or trend.
In the world of fashion, sustainability isn't just a trend; it's a commitment to a better future. Brands that embrace these eight elements prove that fashion can be beautiful, ethical, and responsible. They are the leaders, setting a new standard for an industry on the brink of transformation.
Footage from FIBRELAB, a London based start-up and innovator that offers recycling solutions for brands and businesses.
Article written by Oana Romaneiro. Oana is the founder and CEO of sustainable swimwear brand, KŌRARU.
Header Image by Jimmy Chang on Unsplash