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Sustainable fashion is a part of the growing design philosophy and movement towards environmental and social sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of human impact on the environment and social responsibility. Sustainable fashion concerns more than addressing fashion textiles or products. It comprises addressing the whole system of fashion. This means dealing with interdependent social, cultural, ecological and financial systems. It also means considering fashion from the perspective of many stakeholders – users and producers, all living species, contemporary and future dwellers on earth. Sustainable fashion therefore belongs to, and is the responsibility of citizens, public sector and private sector. A key example of the need for systems thinking in fashion is that the benefit of product level initiatives, such as replacing one fiber type for a less environmentally harmful option is eaten up by increasing volumes of fashion products. An adjacent term to sustainable fashion is eco fashion.
- 1 Introduction
- 1.1 Background
- 1.2 Purpose
- 2 Sustainable Fashion
- 3 Slow Fashion
- 4 Ecological concerns related to fashion
- 4.1 Environmental hazards
- 5 Social concerns related to fashion
- 5.1 China
- 6 Cultural concerns related to fashion
- 6.1 Cultural appropriation
- 7 Economic concerns related to fashion
- 8 Product life
- 8.1 Materials
- 8.1.1 Natural fibers
- 8.1.2 Cellulose
- 8.1.3 Protein
- 8.1.4 Manufactured
- 8.1.5 Recycling
- 8.1.6 Upcycling
- 8.1 Materials
- 9 Producers
- 9.1 Designers, retailers, and labels
- 10 Organisations and companies
- 10.1 Organisations
- 10.2 Companies
- 11 Controversies
- 11.1 Greenwashing
- 11.2 Materials Controversy
- 11.3 Second-Hand Controversy
- 11.4 Marketing Controversy
- 11.5 Future of fashion sustainability
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
The origins of the sustainable fashion movement are intertwined with those of the modern environmental movement, of which it is a part, and specifically the publication in 1962 of the book Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson. Carson’s book exposed the serious and widespread pollution associated with the use of agricultural chemicals, a theme that is still important in the debate around the environmental and social impact of fashion today. The decades which followed saw the impact of human actions on the environment to be more systemically investigated, including the effects of industrial activity, and to new concepts for mitigating these effects, notably sustainable development, a term coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Report.
In the early 1990s and roughly coinciding with the United Nations conference on Environment and Development in 1992, popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit, ‘green issues’ (as they were called at the time) made their way into fashion and textiles publications. Typically these publications featured the work of well-known companies such as Patagonia and ESPRIT, who in the late 1980s brought environmental concerns into their businesses. The owners of those companies at that time, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, were outdoorsmen and witnessed the environment being harmed by over production and over consumption of material goods. They commissioned research into the impacts of fibers used in their companies. For Patagonia, this resulted in a lifecycle assessment for four fibers, cotton, wool, nylon and polyester. For ESPRIT the focus was on cotton—and finding better alternatives to it—which represented 90% of their business at that time. Interestingly, a similar focus on materials impact and selection is still the norm in the sustainable fashion thirty years on.
The principles of ‘green’ or ‘eco’ fashion, as put forward by these two companies, was based on the philosophy of the deep ecologists Arne Næss, Fritjof Capra, and Ernest Callenbach. The legacy of the early work of Patagonia and ESPRIT continues to shape the fashion industry agenda around sustainability today. They co-funded the first organic cotton conference held in 1991 in Visalia, California. And in 1992, the ESPRIT ecollection, developed by head designer Lynda Grose, was launched at retail and it was based on the Eco Audit Guide, published by the Elmwood Institute. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the movement in sustainable fashion broadened to include many brands. Though the primary focus has remained on improving the impacts of products through fiber and fabric processing and material provenance, Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard were early to note the fundamental cause of unsustainability: exponential growth and consumption. ESPRIT placed an ad in Utne Reader in 1990 making a plea for responsible consumption. In 2011 the brand Patagonia ran an ad and a PR campaign “Don’t buy this jacket” with a picture of Patagonia merchandise. This message was intended to encourage people to consider the effect that consumption has on the environment, and to purchase only what they need.
In parallel with the industry agenda, a research agenda around sustainable fashion has been in development since the early 1990s, with the field now having its own history, dynamics, politics, practices, sub-movements and evolution of language. The field is broad in scope and includes technical projects that seek to improve the resource efficiency of existing operations as well as those which look to fundamentally reimagine the fashion system differently, including the growth logic. In 2019, a group of researchers formed the Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion to advocate for radical and co-ordinated research activity commensurate with the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change.
The fashion industry has a clear opportunity to act differently, pursuing profit and growth while also creating new value and deeper wealth for society and therefore for the world economy. It comes with an urgent need to place environmental, social, and ethical improvements on management’s agenda. The goal of sustainable fashion is to increase the value of local production and products, to prolong the lifecycle of materials, to increase the value of timeless garments, to reduce the amount of waste, and to reduce the harm to the environment. It aims to educate people to practice environmentally friendly consumption by promoting the “green consumer”.
Sustainable fashion contains several contradictions. Fashion has a fast, variable structure with an emphasis on seasonal changes. The concept of sustainable fashion aims at a fashion approach which includes rejection of consumption craze, slower consumption and more adequate production and to become environment and human friendly.
Slow fashion can be seen as an alternative approach against fast fashion. Characteristics of sustainable fashion match the philosophies of “slow fashion”. Slow fashion represents a vision of sustainability in the fashion sector based on different values and goals to the present day. It requires a changed infrastructure and a reduced through- put of goods. Categorically, slow fashion is not business-as-usual but just involving design classics. Nor is it production-as-usual but with long lead times. Slow fashion is a vision of the fashion sector built from a different starting point. Slow fashion is a fashion concept that reflects a perspective, which respects human living conditions, biological, cultural diversity and scarce global resources and creates unique, personalized products. Slow fashion consists of durable products, traditional production techniques or design concepts that are season-less. For workers in the textile industry in developing countries, slow fashion means higher wages. For end-users, slow fashion means that the goods are designed and manufactured with greater care and high quality products. From an environmental point of view, it means that there is less clothing and industrial waste that are removed from use following transient trends in slow fashion. New ideas and product innovations are constantly redefining slow fashion, so using a static, single definition would ignore the evolving nature of the concept.
One of the earliest brands that gained global fame in terms of slow fashion, the UK brand, People Tree, embracing the concept of ethical trade, manufactures all products in accordance with ethical commerce standards and supports local producers and craftsmen in developing countries. The People Tree brand is known as the first brand in the world that received the Ethical Trade Brand award, which was given in 2013. In addition to adopting ethical trade, the brand also prefers to use nature-friendly materials, textile products with GOTS certification and local, natural, recyclable material.
The concept of slow fashion is however not without its controversies, as the imperative of slowness is a mandate emerging from a position of privilege. To stop consuming “fast fashion” strikes against low income consumers whose only means to access trends is through cheap and accessible goods. Those who are already having a high position in society can afford to slow down and cement their status and position, while those on their way up resent being told to stay at the lower rungs of the status hierarchy.
Ecological concerns related to fashion
Sustainability is significant for fashion, because the textiles and fashion industry is among the leading industries that affect the environment negatively. One of the industries that jeopardizes sustainability is the textiles and fashion industry, which also bears great responsibilities. The clothing industry has an impact on the environment. Globalization, consumerism, and recycling are all a part of a clothing life cycle. Globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at increasingly lower prices, prices so low that many consumers consider this clothing to be disposable. Disposable clothing appears popular throughout many malls in America and Europe. This is a key characteristic of fast fashion. However, fast fashion adds to pollution and generates potential environmental and occupational hazards.
The clothing industry has one of the highest impacts on the planet. High water usage, pollution from chemical treatments used in dyeing and preparation and the disposal of large amounts of unsold clothing through incineration or landfill deposits are hazardous to the environment. There is a growing water scarcity, the current usage level of fashion materials (79 billion cubic meters annually) is very concerning, because textile production mostly takes place in areas of fresh water stress. Only around 20% of clothing is recycled or reused, huge amounts of fashion product end up as waste in landfills or is incinerated. It has been estimated that in the UK alone around 350,000 tons of clothing ends up as landfill every year. According to Earth Pledge, a non-profit organization committed to promoting and supporting sustainable development, “At least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and 25% of the world’s pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. This causes irreversible damage to people and the environment, and still two thirds of a garment’s carbon footprint will occur after it is purchased.” The average American throws away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year. There is an increasing concern as microfibers from synthetic fabrics are polluting the earths waters through the process of laundering. Microfibers are tiny threads that are shed from fabric. These microfibers are too small to be captured in waste water treatment plants filtration systems and they end up entering our natural water systems and as a result contaminating our food chain.
Social concerns related to fashion
One of the main social issues related to fashion concerns labor. Since the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in 1911, labor rights in the fashion industry has been at the center of this issue. The 2013 Savar building collapse at Rana Plaza put the spotlight once again at the poor working conditions and hazards in fashion production. Attention is increasingly being placed on labour rights violations in other parts of the whole fashion product lifecycle from textile production and processing, retail and distribution and modelling to the recycling of textiles. Whilst the majority of fashion and textiles are produced in Asia, Central America, Turkey, North Africa, the Caribbean and Mexico, there is still production across Europe where exploitative working conditions are also found such as in Leicester in the UK Midlands and Central and Eastern Europe.
The fashion industry benefits from racial, class and gender inequalities. These inequalities and pressure from brands and retailers in the form of low prices and short lead times contribute to exploitative working conditions and low wages. Also “local” production, such as garments labeled as “Made in Italy” are engaged in global sourcing of labor and worker exploitation, bypassing unions and social welfare contracts.
The number of workers employed in textiles, clothing and footwear is unknown due to the differences in statistical measures. It is generally accepted that at least 25 million people, the majority women, work in garment manufacture and up to 300 million in cotton alone. Nevertheless, it is really difficult to estimate exactly how many people work in the production sector, because small-scale manufacturing and contracting firms that operate illegally continue to exist within the industry. On the 24th of April 2013, Rana Plaza disaster happened as one of the biggest tragedies in history of the fashion industry. The search for the dead ended on 13 May 2013 with a death toll of 1,134. Approximately 2,500 injured people were rescued from the building alive. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory disaster in history, as well as the deadliest structural failure in modern human history.
The environmental impact of fashion also affects communities located close to production sites. There is little easily accessible information about these impacts, but it is known that water and land pollution from toxic chemicals used to produce and dye fabrics and have serious negative consequences for the people living near factories. At the global level, fashion is contributing to climate change and threatens biodiversity, which have social consequences for everyone.
In addition, fashion companies are criticised for the lack of size, age, physical ability, gender and racial diversity of models used in photo shoots and catwalks. A more radical and systemic critique of social inequality in fashion concerns the exclusion and aesthetic supremacy inherent and accentuated through fashion that still remains unquestioned under the current environmentally focused discourse on sustainable fashion.
China has emerged as the largest exporter of fast fashion, accounting for 30% of world apparel exports. However, some Chinese workers make as little as 12–18 cents per hour working in poor conditions. Each year Americans purchase approximately 1 billion garments made in China. Today’s biggest factories and mass scale of apparel production emerged out of two developments in history. The first involved the opening up of China and Vietnam in the 1980s to private and foreign capital and investments in the creation of export-oriented manufacturing of garments, footwear, and plastics, part of a national effort to boost living standards, embrace modernity, and capitalism. Second, the retail revolution within the U.S. (example Wal-Mart, Target, Nike) and Western Europe, where companies no longer manufactured but rather contracted out their production and transformed instead into key players in design, marketing, and logistics, introducing many new different product lines manufactured in foreign-owned factories in China. It is the convergence of these two phenomenon that has lead to the largest factories in history from apparels to electronics. In contemporary global supply chains it is retailers and branders who have had the most power in establishing arrangements and terms of production, not factory owners. Fierce global competition in the garment industry translates into poor working conditions for many laborers in developing nations. Developing countries aim to become a part of the world’s apparel market despite poor working conditions and low pay. Countries such as Honduras and Bangladesh export large amounts of clothing into the United States every year.
Cultural concerns related to fashion
Economic concerns related to fashion
At the heart of the controversy concerning “fast fashion” lies the acknowledgement that the “problem” of unsustainable fashion is that cheap, accessible and on-trend clothes have become available to people of poorer means. This means more people across the world have adopted the consumption habits that in the mid-twentieth century were still reserved for the rich. To put it differently, the economic concern of fashion is that poor people now have access to updating their wardrobes as often as the rich. That is, “fast” fashion is only a problem when poor people engage in it. In alignment with this, blame is often put on poor consumers; they don’t buy quality goods, buy too much and too cheap, etc. Tropes such as these are common in the popular debate on fast fashion, not least in documentaries such as The True Cost which does not address systemic and economic issues of fashion.
The economic concerns of fashion also means many of the sustainable “solutions” to fashion, such as buying high quality goods to last longer, are not accessible to people with less means. From an economic perspective, sustainability thus remains a moralizing issue of educated classes teaching the less educated “responsible consumption,” and a debate that mainly concerns promoting frugality and austerity to those with less means.
The distribution of value within the fashion industry is another economic concern, with garment workers and textile farmers and workers receiving low wages and prices.
There are negative social and environmental impacts at all stages of the fashion product life: materials production and processing, manufacture of garments, retail and marketing, use and maintenance and at the discard phase. For some products, the environmental impact can be greater at the use phase than material production.
There are many factors when considering the sustainability of a material. The renewability and source of a fiber, the process of how a raw fiber is turned into a textile, the working conditions of the people producing the materials, and the material’s total carbon footprint, how the material will be cared for and what happens to it at the end of life. Diversity in the overall fiber mix is needed; in 2013 cotton and polyester accounted for almost 85% of all fibers, and thus their impacts were, and continue to be, disproportionately magnified.
Organic cotton yarn
Natural fibers are fibers which are found in nature and are not petroleum-based. Natural fibers can be categorized into two main groups, cellulose or plant fiber and protein or animal fiber. Uses of these fibers can be anything from buttons to eyewear such as sunglasses.
Cotton is one of the most widely grown and chemical-intensive crops in the world. Conventionally grown cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the world’s pesticides. Other cellulose fibers include: jute, flax, hemp, ramie, abaca, bamboo (used for viscose), soy, corn, banana, pineapple, beechwood (used for rayon). Alternative fibers such as bamboo (in yarn) and hemp (of a variety that produces only a tiny amount of the psychoactive component found in cannabis) are coming into greater use in so-called eco-fashions.
Protein fibers originate from animal sources and are made up of protein molecules. The basic elements in these protein molecules being carbon, hydrogen oxygen and nitrogen. Natural protein fibers include: wool, silk, angora, camel, alpaca, llama, vicuna, cashmere, and mohair.
Manufactured fibers sit within three categories: Manufactured cellulosic fibers, manufactured synthetic fibers and manufactured protein fiber (azlon). Manufactured cellulosic fibers include modal, Lyocell (also known under the brand name Tencel), rayon/viscose made from bamboo, rayon/viscose made from wood and polylactic acid (PLA). Manufactured synthetic fibers include polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic fiber, polyethylene and polypropylene (PP). Azlon is a manufactured protein fiber.
Recycled or reclaimed fibres are recovered from either pre or post-consumer sources. Those falling into the category of ‘pre-consumer’ are unworn/unused textile wastes from all the various stages of manufacture. Post-consumer textile waste could be any product which has been worn/used and have (typically) been discarded or donated to charities. Once sorted for quality and colour, they can be shredded (pulled)into a fibrous state. According to the specification and end use, these fibres can be blended together or with ‘new’ fibre.
While most textiles can be recycled, in the main they are downgraded almost immediately into low-quality end-uses, such as filling materials. The limited range of recycled materials available reflects the market dominance of cheap virgin fibres and the lack of technological innovation in the recycling industry. For 200 years recycling technology has stayed the same; fibres are extracted from used fabric by mechanically tearing the fabric apart using carding machines. The process breaks the fibres, producing much shortened lengths that tend to make a low quality yarn. Textiles made from synthetic fibres can also be recycled chemically in a process that involves breaking down the fibre at the molecular level and then repolymerizing the feedstock. While chemical recycling is more energy intensive than mechanical pulling, the resulting fibre tends to be of more predictable quality. The most commonly available recycled synthetic fibre is polyester made from plastic bottles, although recycled nylon is also available
In order to implement the upcycling method, it is important to have an overview of the textile waste available because this is what dictates the garment that can be created. Using upcycling in fashion design emphasises the importance of a local approach. Thus, both the input material (waste) and the production ideally should be local. Since levels of waste production and volumes of waste can differ by region, the first step to collecting materials for upcycling is to carry out a local textile waste study. The definition of textile waste can be production waste, pre-consumer waste and post-consumer waste.
Typically, upcycling creates something new and better from the old or used or disposed items. Process of upcycling requires a blend of factors like environmental awareness, creativity, innovation and hard work and results in a unique sustainable product. Upcycling aims at the development of products truly sustainable, affordable, innovative and creative. For example, downcycling produces cleaning rags from worn T-shirts, whereas upcycling recreates the shirts into a value-added product like unique handmade braided rug.
Enhancing the lifespan of products have been yet another approach to sustainability, yet still only in its infancy. Upmarket brands have long supported the lifespan of their products through product-service systems, such as re-waxing of classic outdoor jackets, or repairs of expensive hand-bags, yet more accessible brands do still not offer even spare buttons in their garments. One such approach concerns emotionally durable design, yet with fashion’s dependency on continuous updates, and consumer’s desire to follow trends, few garments last emotionally long enough to be addressed practically by consumers.
The Golden Book Gown made of recycled book pages, a garment highlighting the paradox of destroying books in the name of the environment.
The global political economy and legal system supports a fashion system that enables fashion that has devastating environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts to be priced at a lower price than fashion which involves efforts to minimize harm in the growth, manufacturing, and shipping of the products. This results in higher prices for fashion made from reduced impact materials than clothing produced in a socially and environmentally damaging way (sometimes referred to as conventional methods).
Innovative fashion is being developed and made available to consumers at different levels of the fashion spectrum, from casual clothing to haute couture which has a reduced social and environmental impact at the materials and manufacture stages of production and celebrities, models, and designers have recently drawn attention to socially conscious and environmentally friendly fashion.
Designers, retailers, and labels
- Eastern European prisoners are designing sustainable prison fashion in Latvia and Estonia under the Heavy Eco label, part of a trend called “prison couture”.
- Ryan Jude Novelline created a ballroom gown constructed entirely from the pages of recycled and discarded children’s books known as The Golden Book Gown that “prove[d] that green fashion can provide as rich a fantasia as can be imagined.”
- Eco-couture designer Lucy Tammam uses eri silk (ahimsa/peace silk) and organic cotton to create her eco friendly couture evening and bridal wear collections.
- Other sustainable fashion labels include Elena Garcia, Nancy Dee, By Stamo, Outsider Fashion, Beyond Skin, Oliberté, Hetty Rose, DaRousso, KSkye the Label, and Eva Cassis.
- The brand Boll & Branch make all of their bedding products from organic cotton and have been certified by Fair Trade USA.
- The Hemp Trading Company is an ethically driven underground clothing label, specializing in environmentally friendly, politically conscious street wear made of hemp, bamboo, organic cotton and other sustainable fabrics.
- Patagonia, a major retailer in casual wear, has been selling fleece clothing made from post-consumer plastic soda bottles since 1993.
- Stella McCartney is a brand that pushes the agenda for sustainable fashion that is animal and eco-friendly she uses her name and her brand as a platform to push for a greener fashion industry.
There is no certain stable model among the designers for how to be sustainable in practice, and the understanding of sustainability is always a process or a work-in-progress, and varies by who defines what is “sustainable;” farmers or animals, producers or consumers, managers or workers. Thus critical scholars would label much of the business-driven discourse on sustainability as “greenwashing” as under the current economic paradigm, “sustainability” is primarily defined as keeping the wheels of perpetual production and consumption turning; to keep the “perpetuum mobile” of fashion running and in perpetual motion.
Organisations and companies
There is a broad range of organisations purporting to support sustainable fashion, some representing particular stakeholders, some addressing particular issues, and some seeking to increase the visibility of the sustainable fashion movement. They also range from the local to global. It is important to examine the interests and priorities of the organisations.
- The National Association of Sustainable Fashion Designers is an organization aimed to assist entrepreneurs with growing fashion businesses that create social change and respect the environment. They provide specialized education, training and programs that can transform the fashion industry by cultivating collaboration, sustainability and economic growth.
- Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global movement which highlights working conditions and the people behind the garments.
- Red Carpet Green Dress, founded by Suzy Amis Cameron, is a global initiative showcasing sustainable fashion on the red carpet at the Oscars. Talent supporting the project includes Naomie Harris, Missi Pyle, Kellan Lutz and Olga Kurylenko.
- Undress Brisbane is an Australian fashion show that sheds light on sustainable designers in Australia.
- Ecoluxe London, a not-for-profit platform, supports luxury with ethos through hosting a biannual exhibition during London Fashion Week and showcasing eco-sustainable and ethical designers.
- Fashion Takes Action formed in 2007 and received a non-profit status in 2011. It is an organization that promotes social justice, fair trade and sustainable clothing production as well as advances sustainability in the fashion system through education, awareness and collaboration. FTA promotes sustainable fashion via social media, PR, hosting fashion shows, public talks, school lectures and conferences.
- The Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship program of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and World Trade Organization, enables artisans living in urban and rural poverty to connect with the global fashion chain. The Initiative also works with the rising generation of fashion talent from Africa, encouraging the forging sustainable and fulfilling creative collaborations with artisans on the continent. The Ethical Fashion Initiative is headed by Simone Cipriani.
- Eco Age, a consultancy company specializing in enabling businesses to achieve growth and add value through sustainability is one of the most recognizable organizations that promote sustainable fashion. Its creative director, Livia Firth, is also the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge which aims to promote ethically made outfits from fashion designers.
- Trans-America Trading Company is one of the biggest of about 3,000 textile recycler’s in the United States. Trans-America has processed more than 12 million pounds of post consumer textiles per year since 1942. At its 80,000-square-foot sorting facility, workers separate used clothing into 300 different categories by type of item, size, and fiber content. About 30% of the textiles are turned into absorbent wiping rags for industrial uses, and another 25–30% are recycled into fiber for use as stuffing for upholstery, insulation, and the manufacture of paper products.
- ViaJoes – Sustainable clothing manufacturer producing eco friendly fabrics from recycled cotton and other sustainable products confirmed to GOTS – Global Organic Textile Standard International Working Group standard
A question at the foundation of sustainable fashion concerns exactly what is to be “sustained” of the current model of fashion. Controversies thus emerge what stakeholder agendas should be prioritized over others.
A major controversy on sustainable fashion concerns how the “green” imperative is used as a cover-up for systemic labor exploitation, social exclusion and environmental degradation, what is generally labelled as greenwashing. Market-driven sustainability can only address sustainability to a certain degree as brands still need to sell more products in order to be profitable. Thus almost any initiative towards addressing ecological and social issues still contributes to the damage.
Though organic cotton is considered a more sustainable choice for fabric, as it uses fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it remains less than 1% global cotton production. Hurdles to growth include cost of hand labor for hand weeding, reduced yields in comparison to conventional cotton and absence of fiber commitments from brands to farmers before planting seed. The up front financial risks and costs are therefore shouldered by the farmers, many of whom struggle to compete with economies of scale of corporate farms.
Though some designers have marketed bamboo fiber, as an alternative to conventional cotton, citing that it absorbs greenhouse gases during its life cycle and grows quickly and plentifully without pesticides, the conversion of bamboo fiber to fabric is the same as rayon and is highly toxic. The FTC ruled that labeling of bamboo fiber should read “rayon from bamboo”. Bamboo fabric can cause environmental harm in production due to the chemicals used to create a soft viscose from hard bamboo. Impacts regarding production of new materials make recycled, reclaimed, surplus, and vintage fabric arguably the most sustainable choice, as the raw material requires no agriculture and no manufacturing to produce. However, it must be noted that these are indicative of a system of production and consumption that creates excessive volumes of waste.
Used clothing is sold in more than 100 countries. In Tanzania, used clothing is sold at the mitumba (Swahili for “secondhand”) markets. Most of the clothing is imported from the United States. However, there are concerns that trade in secondhand clothing in African countries decreases development of local industries even as it creates employment in these countries. And the authors of Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste warn that in the long run, as prices and quality of new clothing continue to decline, the demand for used clothing will also diminish.
The increase in western consumers’ environmental interest is motivating companies to use sustainable and environmental arguments solely to increase sales. And because environmental and sustainability issues are complex, it is also easy to mislead consumers. Companies can use sustainability as a “marketing ploy” something that can be seen as greenwashing. Greenwashing is the deceptive use of an eco-agenda in marketing strategies. It refers mostly to corporations that make efforts to clean up their reputation because of social pressure or for the purpose of financial gain.
Future of fashion sustainability
In the European Union, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations required in 2007 that clothing manufacturers and importers identified and quantified the chemicals used in their products.
On May 3, 2012, the world’s largest summit on fashion sustainability was held in Copenhagen, gathering more than 1,000 key stakeholders in the industry to discuss the importance of making the fashion industry sustainable. Copenhagen Fashion Summit has since then gathered thousands of people from the fashion industry in their effort to create a movement within the industry.
In July 2012, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched the Higg Index, a self-assessment standard designed to measure and promote sustainable supply chains in the apparel and footwear industries. Founded in 2011, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a nonprofit organization whose members include brands producing apparel or footwear, retailers, industry affiliates and trade associations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, academic institutions and environmental nonprofits.
The Global Change Award, is an innovation challenge created by the H&M foundation. It created a trend report in 2017 to look at the future of sustainable fashion. Five mega trends are identified by the organization that will lead the future of sustainable fashion. The first mega trend is “Power of Nature” which is the industry looking into materials that have always been looked at as waste as a more sustainable method to making new clothing. The materials that will mitigate negative impacts from the industry include vegan materials from the earth and recycling old fabric into new clothing. The second mega trend is “Rent a Closet” this initiative has been around for a while. This trend ultimately lowers the new purchase of clothing and disposal of clothing, which means less waste. Rent the Runway is an example of the “Rent a Closet” trend. Rent the Runway started as a company that would give luxury brands like Hervé Leger, Vera Wang, Etro to people who may not be able to afford the clothing at regular retail price. Renting and sharing clothing is also known as CFC (collaborative fashion consumption) a sustainable fashion trend consumers are getting involved in. The third trend is “Long Live Fashion” is the revival of Vintage clothing. Vintage clothing is a way to lower the amount of clothing that gets disposed of and ends up in landfills. Companies like RE/DONE, Vintage Twin and Frankie Collective sell re-paired vintage clothing. Repairing and reselling clothing has less negative impact than creating new clothing does. The fourth megatrend is “Innovative Recycling” which is looking at waste as value. The industry is starting to create incentives for consumers to participate in the recycling of clothing.
Tailored couture is an excellent option for the future of a greener fashion industry as it would lead to less waste and more jobs improving the economy. Tailored couture is no longer desired because of the convenience of malls and stores provide but the consequence of the convenience is the pollution of our environment. Tailored clothing could reduce that risk if fashion industries and influencers made tailored clothing a trend that everyone can be a part of and not just the one per cent. Tailored clothing if it were to become the norm mass production of clothing that will not be bought can be reduced and reusing and redesigning old clothes to fit could reduce the amount of old worn out unfitting clothes thrown out or given away.
In 2019, the UK Parliament’s Environment Audit Committee published a report and recommendations on the future of fashion sustainability.
- Circular economy
- Global trade of secondhand clothing
- Pollution in the fashion industry
- Reusable shopping bag
- Sustainable clothing
- Textile recycling
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