It's no secret that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. With clothing production and sales being responsible for up to 10% of global carbon emissions, it's clear that something needs to be done to make this industry more sustainable. The Business of Fashion 2022 Sustainability Index found that, while many big fashion brands have put ambitious sustainability goals in place, very few are making significant progress towards these goals.
However, many smaller brands have emerged in the last few decades with a true dedication to sustainability that shows throughout their supply chain and practices.
These companies have committed to making positive changes to reduce their environmental impact and create a more ethical future in fashion. From using recycled materials in their products to donating a percentage of profits and fairly paying and employing vulnerable populations, they are setting an inspiring example for how to be better for our planet.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING?
Sustainability has become an important buzzword in recent years. It is a very generalized term and can be applied to all industries in different ways - including the fashion industry. The fashion industry has acknowledged the effects of fast fashion on the environment and society. As a result, sustainable clothing has become a trend that most fast fashion-conscious consumers are interested in. But what exactly is sustainable clothing, and does it really have a positive impact?
At its core, sustainable clothing refers to garments that have been produced using environmentally-friendly materials and practices. These materials have to be renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable. The manufacturing processes must also be eco-friendly, including water and energy-saving measures as well as reduced waste production.
However, sustainable clothing is much more than just the materials, fabrics, and processes that go into clothing. One way to determine what exactly makes certain clothing and brands sustainable is to think of fashion through the lens of aiming for a circular economy. Circular fashion is a concept that focuses on creating closed-loop systems where waste is minimized by repurposing or recycling materials. It forces both brands and consumers to look at the transparency of their supply chain, what happens to the end product, and the pay, treatment, and fairness of labor and people employed.
WHY IS SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING IMPORTANT?
One of the major environmental impacts of the fashion industry is the vast consumption of resources. The production of clothing requires an excessive amount of water, energy, and raw materials. The World Bank reported that it takes 3,781 liters of water to produce a single pair of jeans. According to the New Textiles Economy report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing, representing a loss of more than USD 100 billion worth of materials each year." The same report estimates that less than 15% of clothing is recycled; the rest ends up in landfills.
Sustainable clothing has become such a buzzword precisely because of these alarming statistics. The fast fashion industry, in particular, has contributed to a culture of overconsumption and waste, as clothing items are mass-produced at a rapid pace and then quickly discarded. Not only does this create a negative impact on the environment, but it also perpetuates a cycle of unsustainable production and consumption. Brands are realizing that they need to change the way they operate in order to make a positive impact on the environment. And consumers are realising this, too.
SUSTAINABILITY MEASURES BY SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING BRANDS IN 2023
However, there is hope. Sustainable clothing brands and businesses are rising to the challenge and prioritizing sustainability and ethical production. The efforts of sustainable clothing brands and the increasing awareness among consumers are leading us in the right direction. By prioritizing sustainable materials, reduction of fashion waste, circular fashion, sustainable manufacturing, supply chain transparency, and fair labor, we can all be a part of the solution.
As the fashion industry continues to grapple with the environmental impact of its production processes, sustainable brands are stepping up to meet rising consumer demand for eco-friendly materials. Sustainable clothing brands are actively seeking out ways to create fashionable clothes that do not harm the environment.
The production of conventional clothing materials like cotton and synthetic fibers requires vast amounts of energy and water, leading to the emission of greenhouse gasses and the depletion of natural resources. Organic materials such as cotton, linen, and hemp are grown without harmful chemicals like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which reduces water and soil contamination and protects the health of both the farmers and consumers. Natural fibers also have a lower carbon footprint than synthetic fibers, such as polyester or nylon, which are made from non-renewable resources and require more energy to produce. Additionally, these materials are biodegradable, which means they have a minimal environmental impact, even at the end of their lifespan.
Instead of processing and using virgin materials, another alternative to conventional fabrics and synthetic materials is recycled materials like plastic bottles, fishing nets, and deadstock fabrics. As the fashion industry works towards becoming more sustainable, many companies are developing and using new materials and techniques to reduce their environmental impact.
One such material is Tencel, made from eucalyptus trees that grow quickly and require less water than other materials. Tencel is biodegradable, meaning it will break down naturally without harming the environment. According to the Fashion Revolution, the production of Tencel uses 80% less water than cotton and it also doesn't need pesticides or fertilizers.
Another innovative development is the use of fishing nets in clothing production. Abandoned fishing nets are a major environmental hazard, affecting marine wildlife and clogging up the oceans. But thanks to a material called ECONYL®, these abandoned nets are taken and transformed into sustainable swimwear and activewear.
SUSTAINABLE WASTE AND CIRCULAR FASHION
While many brands are putting more thought into the materials that make up their products, that same commitment is harder to show at the end of a product's lifecycle. To address this issue, sustainable fashion brands are adopting a circulatory model, whereby materials, products, and waste are recycled and reused to minimize waste production.
Patagonia, for example, has a program called Worn Wear that accepts used gear and clothing, repairs them, and resells them to extend their lifecycle. This approach reduces the amount of textiles that end up in landfills, allowing resources to be used more efficiently.
Another brand example is Eileen Fisher, who is implementing a circular system by making new clothes from old ones. Through a buy-back program, customers can return their old Eileen Fisher clothes, which are then repurposed into new designs. This system allows for a reduced environmental impact by avoiding the need to create entirely new materials.
In addition to the environmental impact, the fashion industry also has a significant social impact. Many garment workers who produce clothing are paid low wages and work in unsafe and inhumane conditions. According to the latest 2022 estimates from the International Labour Organization, there are an estimated 28 million people working in forced labor conditions worldwide, with many in the fashion industry.
The impact of unsustainable practices in fashion can also be seen in the negative effects on worker health and well-being. Many workers in the fashion industry are exposed to harmful chemicals and work in unsafe conditions, putting their health at risk. Additionally, the environmental pollution caused by textile production can have negative impacts on local communities, including water scarcity, soil degradation, and air pollution.
Sustainable clothing brands are ensuring that the workers who produce their clothes are paid fair wages and work in safe environments. Some brands are also using fair trade-certified factories where the workers are guaranteed a living wage. Brands like Nisolo and People Tree are committed to paying their workers a living wage and ensuring their working conditions are decent. Koraru currently partners with La Isla Fashion Group, a mid-sized US-based swimwear manufacturer that employs women in their native country Colombia who are heads of their households and donates a portion of proceeds to a hand-picked group of non-profit organisations.
Sustainable clothing isn't just a trend: it's a critical step towards mitigating the negative impact of the fashion industry on the environment. Sustainable clothing brands prioritize eco-friendly materials and production, fair labor practices, and increasing circularity in the fashion industry. As consumers, it is essential to understand the impact of our choices and support brands that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices.
Written by Neesha Basnyat - Sustainability Writer for Koraru
Neesha Basnyat is a an experienced sustainability writer and researcher specialising in biology, sustainability, CSR, and ESG analysis and reporting. With an educational background in Biology and Environmental Science and over 6 years of experience in the sustainability field, Neesha loves everything green, from shoveling compost to calculating emissions or researching the best new standards in the sustainability space.
Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash