WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE & ETHICAL FASHION?

Posted by Michael Shaffer on

Now, isn’t that a bit of a loaded question!

Many people don’t really understand what sustainable fashion is. Or ethical fashion, for that matter. I was exactly the same, once upon a time. Admittedly, before researching the subject extensively to be able to write this post, I had no idea what these terms really meant.

Sustainable and ethical fashion isn’t really talked about in mainstream media. It’s touched upon, but – unless you’re an expert in fashion – it still remains a bit of a mystery!

But, have no fear – I’ve got you covered. By the end of this post, you will know exactly what sustainable and ethical fashion is, and how important it all is in the fashion industry.

First of all, it’s important to understand that sustainable and ethical fashion go hand in hand nowadays. The terms basically relate to the way that clothing, shoes, and accessories are produced, from the moment they are designed to the moment they are sold to us, keen shoppers. It means that the items have been manufactured in the most sustainable manner in order to reduce any negative impact on the environment. Are you with me so far?

This kind of fashion is called ‘slow fashion’ and is the very opposite of ‘fast fashion’. Now, I bet you’ve heard of that! If you haven’t, have you been living under a rock?

A little refresher: fast fashion has been present in the media in recent years, for all the wrong reasons. It’s where clothing is made under poorer conditions with the idea in mind that the garment will only have short-term use and then be disposed of.

We are all guilty of this concept of fast fashion. Perhaps we’ve had a bad day and need to indulge in a little retail therapy, or perhaps we’re just lusting after getting our hands on the trendiest fashion pieces that aren’t going to break the bank. Or perhaps this isn’t the case at all. Maybe, we just want to buy new stuff for the sake of buying new stuff – plain and simple.

This is fast fashion at its finest. And it’s not good because we don’t think about the effects our shopping habits are having on the people behind the scenes. The people who are slaving away in a hot, sweaty factory for 16 hours – just to get food on their family’s table. This is all part and parcel of the term ‘ethical fashion’.

Don’t get me wrong, not all companies have factories with terrible working conditions. But some do. In fact, there was an uproar when a documentary on Primark was shown on TV in 2011 exploring what happens in sweatshops. Sweatshops are bad environments with poor working conditions, unfair wages, long hours and sometimes even child labor.

According to an investigation conducted by UK show Panorama, Primark used three Indian suppliers who subcontracted smaller firms and home workers, some of which were children, to finish their goods. And these children were forced to work long hours and paid very little, or sometimes not at all.

It’s awful, right?

Apparently, Primark has since fired these suppliers. But it’s true that you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. This is one of the worst things about fast fashion: there is a higher demand for goods, therefore factory employees are required to work longer hours to meet tight shipping deadlines.

And unfortunately, this reflects badly on us. The consumers. The people who are shopping in high street stores – such as Zara, H&M, and Primark – monthly, weekly or maybe even daily. I’m looking at you, shopaholic! The introduction of brands being able to sell online and via mobile apps means that we can get our hands on the latest merchandise with just a click of a button. It’s a millennial thing. That’s why we constantly crave the novelty of new fashion because it’s what we’re used to. We have grown up in a world of texting, of mobile phones, of social media – and everything is so readily available to us.

High street stores have to meet this high demand for newness, so they are frantically importing new stock on a weekly basis.

It wasn’t always like this. Our purchasing habits have changed compared to a decade ago. We now tend to shop on impulse and buy the latest fashions at the cheapest prices, instead of buying good quality items that will last or repairing old items.

This means that fast fashion contributes to a rapid turn-over of low-cost clothing in the global clothing industry.

Let’s take a look at the statistics, shall we?

The fast fashion economic impact means that millions of dollars go to waste each year when we choose to throw out our old clothing. Zara netted a cool $19.7 billion in the year of 2014, with H&M bringing in $20.2 billion sales that very same year.

However, according to The Atlantic, 10.5 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills annually by us Americans. If clothing doesn’t end up in a landfill, it is donated, but often isn’t sold in used clothing stores in America. It is shipped overseas in bulk. Unfortunately, this means that the fashion industry is the second cause of pollution in the world.

Can you believe that? Our shopping behavior is ranked at number two for causing global pollution. Are we serious?! But, what kind of pollution are we causing, I hear you ask?

Basically, fuel emissions from transportation are contributing to global warming and acid rain. Some companies cut this air pollution caused by transportation of goods to a minimum by using larger vehicles, as more products can be packed into them. But some don’t.

It’s not just air pollution – its water pollution too. Some factories overseas choose to dispose of chemicals, like the ones used in clothing dye, in rivers and oceans. This means that poor, little, innocent wildlife is harmed. It’s not nice! Some factories choose to use less harmful chemicals, or convert toxic chemicals into safer forms – but some don’t.

Then there’s noise pollution. This can also hurt the wildlife and surrounding communities. If the amount of machinery that factories are using all at one time is limited, then the noise can be reduced contributing to a healthier and calmer environment. Again, some already do this and some don’t!

And it’s not just pollution that’s a problem. There’s the issue of factories using non-renewable energy. Some factories often use plastic to package goods which is not a renewable source as it is supplied from oil. The solution is to use paper bags, tissues, and cardboard boxes, as the fact that they derive from wood means that they are biodegradable. Some already do, and some don’t. (There seems to be a pattern emerging here…)

Furthermore, sustainable energy sources need to be used by factories as a percentage of their power supply, as electricity supplied by coal, oil and gas are non-renewable. What am I about to say? Yes, you guessed it – some of them already do and some of them don’t!

This brings us nicely into the concept of sustainable fashion and demonstrates why sustainable and ethical fashion goes together like rice and peas. The movement of sustainable fashion, in particular, involves improving every stage of the product’s lifecycle – from design, raw material production, manufacturing, transport, storage, marketing and final sale. It’s essentially clothing that has been made using environmentally friendly processes and produced from organic textiles and sustainable materials.

Sustainability through manufacture is obviously the responsibility of the company. It is also their choice to use sustainable materials to make their goods, such as recycled polyester, organic cotton, organic hemp, and tencel.

But, what can we – as consumers – do to help?

The quickest way to fix both these ethical and sustainability issues is for us to just simply stop buying fast fashion. We must stop investing in the companies where their environment and ethics come into question and giving them billions of dollars for their cause year upon year. Though, for us fashionistas, this is much easier said than done.

Have you heard of the three ‘R’ rules though? No? We can definitely use these. Allow me to explain…

We can ‘reduce’. This involves buying less stuff. Do you really need a new top weekly? Isn’t your closet already full of clothing that you don’t wear? Why don’t you make a conscious effort to try not to blow your paycheque in Zara every month, and instead just invest in one or two key pieces every now and again for your closet from a more luxury brand? Sure, it will cost you a higher amount of money at one time, but not if you add up how much you were spending monthly on fast fashion. You might find that the two balance out, or you even spend less on the one or two items overall. And you end up with high-quality items that will last – result!

You can also ‘recycle’. A lot of us already do this, which is great. This one has the feel-good factor; it’s nice to be able to walk into your local charity shop armed with bags and bags of old clothing, knowing that the money that the shop will get from them goes towards a good cause. A lot of grocery stores have clothing bins nowadays as well, where you can donate items as and when you please.

The final R is ‘reuse’. Sure, you don’t want that Primark summer dress that you’ve worn to death, or not really worn at all, and now it’s out of fashion. That’s understandable. But what about your sister? Friend? Cousin? I bet someone would be only too happy to take it off your hands. Or, why don’t you try and earn a few bucks from it and list it on eBay? This way, your dress is going to someone who will actually wear it, you get a bit of extra pocket money, and the relief knowing that it’s going to a new home. It’s a win, win situation!

You can also buy clothing from a Fair Trade organization. You’ve heard of Fair Trade, right? If you haven’t, the Fair Trade organization aims to achieve better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. Buying from Fair Trade means that basic human rights are not violated. Workers get regular breaks and time off as per the Fair Trade standards. They also work decent hours and are given a fair wage. Now, that’s what we’re talking about!

See, it’s not all negative. There has even been the introduction of worldwide summits in recent years, such as Copenhagen 2012. This summit involved gathering together 1,000 key stakeholders from the fashion industry so that everybody could have a long, detailed chat about how fashion sustainability efforts could be improved globally.

Then, off the back of that, in July of the same year, an organization called the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched a policy to assess and promote sustainable supply chains in the clothing and footwear markets. This policy is called the Higg Index and is still in operation today, helping us all work towards a more positive, sustainable future. Yay!

The fashion world is making a bit more effort, therefore we – as consumers – should too. As we become more and more aware of sustainable and ethical fashion, we should become more and more concerned regarding our part in it all. I think more participation from mainstream high street stores is vital to extending our awareness and availability when it comes to sustainable fashion, but we have to take some of the responsibility ourselves.

Hopefully, by delving deep into this subject for this post, it has served as a bit of an eye-opener for any self-respecting shopper.

We don’t need all of the stuff we buy. We can easily buy less. We can recycle. We can donate items to a friend or sell them and send them off to a loving home on eBay. It’s all about quality over quantity.

Is it just me or are you ready to join the slow fashion revolution?


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