What is Sustainable Fashion?

May 18, 2022Sustainability

Generally speaking, sustainable fashion is designing, creating, marketing, distributing, and disposing of clothing and accessories to reduce its socio-economic and environmental impact. 

Everyone from the designer to the manufacturer to the retailer and even the customer must assume personal responsibility for finding sustainable solutions throughout the life of any garment. They must also demonstrate a sincere interest in the welfare of others when creating and promoting their products.

How the Fashion Industry Is Impacting Our World

If you are unaware of the fashion industry’s global impact, read the staggering statistics below:

Consumer Impact:


Poor recycling and the ‘one-and-done’ mentality contribute to $500 billion in lost value.


One in three young women considers a garment old after one to two uses.


The average American throws away more than 80 pounds of clothing annually.

Socioeconomic Impact


93% of brands pay garment workers a wage below the cost of living.


Only five percent of fashion brands have a plan for increasing worker wages.


Fast fashion is the largest contributor to worker riots violations in emerging markets.


68% of fast fashion brands do not maintain gender equality at production facilities.

Environmental Impact


Clothing production is the third largest manufacturing industry in the world.


Open-loop production cycles used in fashion cause significant pollution.


The fashion industry is responsible for eight percent of carbon emissions.


Less than 11% of brands are implementing recycling strategies for their materials.


Manufacturing solvents and dyes create one-fifth of industrial water pollution.


Nearly 70 million barrels are used to make polyester, the most common material.


Fashion accounts for 20 to 35 percent of microplastic that flow into the ocean.

How Sustainable Fashion Solves These (and Other) Problems

When we talk about sustainable fashion, we’re addressing two main problems: the negative impact of fashion on the environment and the harmful effects of fashion on workers and economics in emerging markets. On these two fronts, companies and consumers must change their thinking and behaviors.

Fortunately, solutions to the current problems can lead the industry to more sustainable models. From using organic materials using biodegradable dyes to engineering patterns that create zero waste, let’s look at sustainable solutions that can steer fashion into a better future.

Environmental Sustainability

Organic Materials

Organic fabrics are manufactured using organic production systems from fiber to fabric stage. In organic farming, farmers grow fibers in controlled settings with no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or toxic chemicals. This is where sustainability starts. Growing fibers organically reduces chemicals and waste on the farm.

Post-Consumer Fibers

Post-consumer is another term for recycled materials. It refers to clothing and accessories that have been used and recycled. While the fabric may be old, damaged, and discarded, it is still viable for reuse, which cuts down on consuming new resources.

Biodegradable Fashion

Biodegradable clothes are made of materials that can break down naturally. The materials decompose and are digested by microorganisms such as bacteria. Fabrics like organic cotton, linen, hemp, lyocell, peace silk and bamboo are among the few that are completely biodegradable.

Natural Dyes

Most natural dyes are plant dyes, coming from leaves, flowers, roots, bark, wood, lichen, fruits, nuts, or seeds. However, not all-natural dyes are from plants — natural dyes can also include dyes sourced from insects and mineral compounds.

Socioeconomic Sustainability (or Ethical Fashion)

Ethical Labor Practices

Ethical labor practices involve engaging in work practices that are legal and fair and ensure decent treatment of your workforce. Employers must create safe working conditions that do not cause physical or mental harm to workers.

Transparent Supply Chain

Fashion companies know what is happening at every stage of their supply chain. They communicate data and information about supply chain operations internally and externally. All claims are backed by actual data and not conjecture or anecdotal evidence.

Fair Trade Certification

When you see a product with the Fair Trade Certified seal, you can be sure it meets rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. Fair Trade certification requires passing regular, rigorous evaluations by third-party auditors that track transactions along the supply chain.

Equality in Fashion

Equality holds all genders to the same standards while providing equal pay, work conditions, and employment opportunities to everyone regardless of the job location. Equality is valued in all countries and cultures, giving everyone the ability to meet or exceed the cost of living.

Consumer Responsibility

Clothing Swaps

Clothing swaps reduce environmental impact by extending the lifetime of the products. Clothing swaps help people understand the difference between ‘end-of-use’ and ‘end-of-life,’ focusing on extending the lifespan of clothing.

Redesigned or Upcycled Clothing

Upcycling clothing takes old, worn out or damaged clothing and transforms it into something new. Clothing that no longer fits or is torn, stained or otherwise damaged, and can be refashioned into a new product. Breathing new life into older clothing keeps it out of the landfill.

Second-Hand or Vintage Clothing

Today, vintage clothing seems more popular than ever. Vintage and second-hand items also extend the life of clothing and keep them from piling up in landfills. People who choose vintage brands over new brands help conserve precious natural resources.

Quality Clothing

The term quality may be subjective depending on the criteria. From a sustainability perspective, quality refers to clothing designed with durability and longevity in mind. Quality clothing is more expensive but slows the manufacturing cycle and has a less negative impact on the environment.

Playing Our Part Right Now

Whether you are a designer, manufacturer, retailer, or buyer, you can play a role in reversing the negative impact of current fashion practices from both companies and consumers. 

While you can’t solve all the problems, you can pick an issue that is important to you and start there. Which problems plaguing the industry are you passionate about, and what can you do locally?

We can all contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry by doing a little at a time, which benefits everyone.