WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE FASHION?

Since discussions around climate change have entered the mainstream in the last 20 years, the fashion industry has been under scrutiny for having one of the largest globally polluting influence, just behind the oil industry. This is where sustainable fashion came into play, to propose alternative and more eco-conscious methods of producing fabrics and garments to combat C02 emissions and rising landfill waste.

HOW DO WE RECOGNISE SUSTAINABLE FASHION?

It is hard for the consumer to seek out truly sustainable fashion. People want to know what it means, and many are asking to see more of it. However, the lack of a shared definition can make it difficult to spot.

“Eco-fashion”, “conscious fashion”, “ethical fashion”, and “slow fashion”, are commonly used to identify fashion created with some sort of sustainable goal in mind. Such terms do not, however, ensure clarity for the consumer – they are imprecise and often accompanied by appealing advertising campaigns which can distract us from what’s really going on.

In the absence of an agreed-upon definition of what it means for fashion to be sustainable, the whole concept of sustainable fashion has become a matter of personal interpretation that is highly subject to contexts and individuals.

Such flexibility has led to the increasingly popular practice of ‘greenwashing’, where firms spend more resources on claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing the necessary changes required to minimise their environmental impact. At its worst, greenwashing involves the deception or misleading of customers who purchase an illusion, rather than an assurance of sustainability.

HOW CAN FASHION BRANDS BE MORE SUSTAINABLE?

In an effort to tackle this, Green Strategy has put forward a starting-point definition which states that sustainable fashion is “clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects”. ELLISS subscribe to this wholeheartedly, along with the Our Common Future definition of ‘sustainable development’, that it must “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. While this guidance is a good place to start, ambiguity remains: what exact processes would ensure this ‘sustainable’ impact in the first place? 

With this in mind, we suggest the following:

Sustainable fashion is fashion that seeks to eliminate, as far as possible, all of the negative social and environmental effects of mainstream fashion production in such a way that the welfare of future generations will not be compromised by production processes today.

Put into practice, any fashion brand that is seeking to attain sustainable status ought to fulfil all of the following criteria:

  • Raw or regenerated materials sourced sustainably (e.g. recycled/organic fabrics)
  • Resource-efficient production processes at every stage of production
  • Local manufacturing wherever possible to reduce carbon footprint
  • Minimal fabric/trimming waste and emissions at every stage of production
  • Workers paid a fair, living, wage at every stage of production
  • Safe working conditions for workers at every stage of production
  • No animal cruelty at any stage of production
  • Produce well made, durable products that are made to last
  • Limit quantities of production or introduce ‘Made to Order’ whenever possible
  • Biodegradable or recyclable packaging when sending products
Cultivating organic cotton. Photo by Medha Sah

OUR SUSTAINABLE FASHION GUIDES

Here at ELLISS, not only do we love promoting our sustainably and ethically made organic clothing, we also love endorsing other conscious brands and shops that share our values of making and stocking beautiful products that are kind to the Earth. Here are some of our sustainable blogs on our ‘Life’ page if you’re keen to buy more consciously…

  1. Sustainable Comfy Trousers to Wear While Working at Home
  2. Our Favourite Eco Friendly Swimwear Brands
  3. Vegan Shoe Brands That You Need to Know
  4. Vegan and Sustainable Activewear Brands That You Need to Know
  5. A Guide to Sustainable Fashion Shopping in London
  6. Sustainable Fashion Brands You Need to Know
  7. What’s the Latest in New Innovative Fabrics
  8. Sustainable and Ethical Lingerie Brands
  9. Sustainable and Ethical T-shirts
  10. Sustainable and Ethical Vest Tops
Our swimwear is made from recycled ocean plastics. Companies like ECONYL® take nylon waste that would otherwise pollute the earth, to regenerate nylon that is infinitely recyclable and can be used for makers, creators and consumers.
Photo by Tyro Heath

But where did the need for such precision and care for our garments come from? What state is mainstream fashion in, and why do we feel that it is our urgent responsibility to make fashion sustainably?

THE FASHION INDUSTRY: AN UNSUSTAINABLE MODEL

Since mass production entered our society, we have a culture of take, make and dispose, and it has influenced our perceptions as consumers – we want more and we want it fast. Fast fashion retailers often price their products very low in order to encourage customers to chase each season’s new trends and buy more clothes than they actually need. To be able to set their prices so low, these retailers compromise on quality, making clothes designed for short-term, not long-term wear.

This encourages people to chase fashion trends seasonally instead of buying clothing that will last, and such habits have resulted in a global waste problem, with an estimated £140 million worth of clothing going into landfill each year.

This waste is not solely produced by low-cost retailers: in July 2018, one high-end fashion brand was found to have destroyed more than £90m worth of products over the past five years because of overproduction, with reports of other luxury brands having done the same emerging shortly after these statistics was discovered. 

What impact does fashion have on the environment?

Such high consumer demand drives a fashion production system that is extremely resource-heavy and polluting. According to the WWF, it takes 20,000 litres of water just to make one pair of jeans and a t-shirt. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using only 3 percent of the world’s arable land.

In addition, synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon are contributing to a severe plastic pollution problem in the world’s oceans. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the fashion industry is one of the world’s largest industrial polluter (second only to oil) and produces a startling 10% of global carbon emissions

What about the people making the clothes?

Inhumane labour practices power this wasteful production and consumption model. The average consumer is often not aware of the true cost of fast fashion; human rights violations from setting wages below the living wage and forced overtime work, to denying pregnant women maternity leave, to sexual harassment. In some cases, working conditions in fashion factories have been so unsafe that they have resulted in horrific accidents which killed many and injured more.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that over 170 million children all over the world are victims of child labour within the fashion industry. In February 2019, the UK House of Commons issued a statement asserting that the “exploitative and linear business model for fashion must change” after an inquiry into the industry. These instances of exploitation indicate a profound failure to properly respect the dignity of workers who play an integral role in fashion production processes.

Diagram created by Oxfam to highlight the enormous amount of water used to produce one small piece of clothing.

HOW TO CONSUME FASHION MORE SUSTAINABLY

Sustainable fashion often carries a higher price tag for the consumer. There is a perceived tension between having a high purchasing power and being a sustainable consumer of fashion. It is, indeed, difficult to redefine the values within the fashion industry. In reality, sustainable fashion costs more because the real price of production of good quality, ethical, fashion is higher than what has been normalised by fast fashion. Sustainable fashion reflects the real price of what fashion should cost, since the low prices associated with fast fashion are almost always possible because of unethical and unsustainable business practices.

If you ask most sustainable fashion businesses, they will likely be happy to be transparent about how they price their products relative to the costs of making them. The Love Your Clothes campaign has a great resource guide with advice on how to identify good quality clothing. And ‘good quality’ means long-lasting, too: in the long run, the price-per-wear of a sustainable fashion garment could be the same, or even lower, than that of a fast fashion item. The sustainable fashion movement is not just about buying better but, at the same time, buying less, and more intentionally. 

The team at ELLISS also buy their own garments in a sustainable way – and that’s not only about sustainably produced new items. There are many low cost (or costless) ways to reduce the environmental impact of your clothing, including:

  • Buy second-hand instead of brand new clothing
    You can buy second-hand clothing from thrift shops, charity shops like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, or even through online platforms like Etsy, Depop, and eBay. Not only could this score you a great deal, but you also won’t be creating any new demand for clothing as you add to your wardrobe.
     
  • Donate your old clothing
    Still have that dress you wore once and never again? Give it a good home elsewhere. UK charity TRAID provides over 1,500 charity clothes banks, home collection services, and charity shops all over the UK, diverting around 3,000 tonnes of clothes from landfill and incineration every year. Alternatively, you could also donate old clothing to a sibling, friend, or your local charity shop. 
     
  • Mend worn-out clothing
    Ladder in your stockings or a hole in your blouse? Instead of tossing these pieces into landfill straight away, consider attempting to mend them instead. Here are a few sewing tips from Barley Massey (from Fabrications in London) to get you started.
     
  • Repurpose and recycle old clothing
    Even if a piece of clothing is too worn to be fixed by needlework, you can still salvage the material it’s made out of, and repurpose it into something useful with a little bit of creativity. Think turning an old t-shirt or skirt into a headband, scarf, cleaning cloth, or even a pillowcase! Alternatively, you can send your old clothing off to a textile recycling point. Recycle Now has a useful local recycling locator to find the closest recycling point to you. 

By following these steps, in tandem with buying from sustainable fashion labels, expressing yourself through fashion does not have to come at the expense of the planet — or your bank account. 

Our beautiful jersey pieces are made out of organic cotton, which uses 88% less water and 62% less energy than regular cotton, as well as no use of toxic chemicals.

By recognising the importance of sustainability from day one, ELLISS has been able to create beautiful and unique pieces that are fashionable and ethical. You can read more about our sustainable values and practices on our ‘About’ page here.

We hope that you will support us on our mission to make the world a better, more beautiful place! 

FAQs

WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE FASHION?

Sustainable fashion proposes alternative eco-friendly methods of producing fabric and garments to reduce C02 emissions and rising landfill to help tackle climate change, which the fashion industry is known to be one of the largest contributors towards.

WHAT IS THE AMBIGUITY AROUND SUSTAINABLE FASHION?

Sometimes there can be vagueness when fashion brands talk about their sustainable practices so there can be confusion about the exact manufacturing processes put in place to ensure they are sustainable.

WHAT INVOLVES THE DECEPTION OF CUSTOMERS WHO HAVE BEEN MISLEAD WHEN PURCHASING AN ILLUSION OF A SUSTAINABLE GARMENT?

This practice is called ‘greenwashing’ – a marketing spin used by certain (usually large/ corporate) companies to give the allusion that their practices are environmentally friendly, often in contradiction to their sustainability record. An example of this could be overpromising sustainable goals or using one type of organic fabric but saying that use more, purely as a PR stunt to follow the sustainability ‘trend’.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LARGEST GLOBALLY POLLUTING INDUSTRIES BESIDES FASHION?

– Fuel industry
– Agriculture
– Travel industry
– Construction work
– Technology

WHAT DO PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW ABOUT SUSTAINABLE FASHION?

People generally want to know exactly what it means, as there can be a lack of a shared definition which makes it more vague. People also want to know specific sustainable practices a brand can put in place. For example, the use of organic and regenerated fibres for fabrics, recycling programmes put in place at their brand and factories or local manufacturing which reduces carbon footprint.

WHAT CAN MAKE IT DIFFICULT TO SPOT SUSTAINABLE BRANDS?

There can be some confusion surrounding sustainable fashion, in terms of what the shared definition is and how many different ways in which a brand can be sustainable. There is also the issue of greenwashing where companies claim to be sustainable purely as a PR stunt, so it’s important to research into exactly how a brand is sustainable and what percentage of their manufacturing and other areas are eco-friendly.

WHAT IS A STARTING POINT DEFINITION OF SUSTAINABLE FASHION?

Green Strategy has put forward a starting-point definition which states that sustainable fashion is “clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects”.