Lyst in 2019, the fashion search engine, saw a 66% annual increase in searches for sustainable fashion on the previous year.
But what does the term sustainable fashion really mean?
The term has become so widespread it’s hard to know what it covers and if you buy something that is considered sustainable how does that translate into the environmental and social impact of its production.
The starting point of any garment is it’s material.
Traditional cotton production has a heavy environmental toll, requiring huge quantities of land, water, fertilizers and pesticides.
The production of one pair of jeans is estimated to use 30,000 litres of water.
And according to the European Clothing Action Plan ( ECAP) in 2015 cotton accounted for more than 43% of all fibres used for clothes in Europe.
It’s estimated the production of organic cotton uses 88% less water and reduces the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
So if you buying something cotton ensure certified organic cotton, look out for either the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) or the Soil Association Organic 100 content standard symbol on the label. This means workers’ rights are protected, working conditions are safe and hygienic, only low impact dyes and inks are used, wastewater is treated properly, and energy and water use is monitored.
So what about man-made fibres?
Nylon and polyester both partly derived from petrol, use a lot of water and energy to be produced and producing nylon creates the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
Nylon and most polyesters are not biodegradable, so your old tights will sit in landfill for at least 30 years or more.
However, sustainable developments have really ramped up and are increasing all the time. Recycled polyester can be made from recycled water bottles for example, reducing waste and cutting out additional dependence on the oil industry. Econyl has also developed an eco-friendly nylon made from recycled plastics in a closed-loop system, which drastically reduces waste and emissions and is used by designers such as Stella McCartney.
contrary to popular belief sustainability is not just about taking care of the environment. Sustainable business practice also incorporates looking after people along with sustaining a healthy business. Many garments that are labelled sustainable will mean the business also embraces ethical labour standards for the production of their clothes. Trying to safeguard against sweatshop conditions, where workers have to work 14 hours, 7 days a week for well below the minimal wage.
This is no easy task and doing ‘ethical trade’ is complex because of the vast modern vast supply chains which span the globe.
Promoting more sustainable labour practices are organisations such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, which is a leading alliance of companies, trade unions and NGO’s that promotes respect for worker’s around the globe.
And the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which has developed the Higg Index to measure environmental and social labour impacts across the value chain to identify and then improve the impacts.
Once you have bought your garment extending its life by just none month of active use will reduce its water, waste and water footprint by 20-30%. This can mean wearing your clothes for longer, shopping second hand or even renting your clothes which all have a big impact.
Big brands are leading the way in extending the life of their clothes. the North Face’s Clothes the Loop programme encourages customers to drop off their unwanted clothing and footwear ( any brand and in any condition). North Face sends them to a recycling centre where they are repurposed for reuse to extend their life or recycled into raw materials for use in products like insulation, carpet padding, stuffing for toys, and fibres for new clothing. As a reward, North Face gives its customers a discount on their next order.
Levi’s will recycle virtually any clothing and shoes from any brand. Any consumer can take an item of clothing to recycle and they will receive a voucher for 20 per cent off a single, regular-priced Levi’s item in-store. I:CO, Levi’s clothing collection partner, will ensure that the discarded garments and footwear are re-worn, repurposed or recycled, leaving nothing to waste.
Sustainability in the fashion industry is enormously complex but it has finally reached the mainstream and big brands are on it; they are embracing the changes, employing sustainability managers and training management on all the complexities involved. The businesses who will do well are the ones who realise they need to do this to stay competitive but also because they know they have a moral responsibility to take care of the people and the planet that support their existence.