How Truly Sustainable Is Eco-Friendly Fashion?

“Across industries, companies are beginning to recognize that sustainable business is good business,” says Tensie Whelan, professor at NYU Stern, and her statement is clearly backed by consumer purchasing habits in a variety of industries – everything from tourism to fashion. Designer brands have advanced in leaps and bounds, with brands like Levis wowing customers with collections that use up to 96% less water to make. Minimalist label BITE, meanwhile, uses fully organic fabrics, and sews clothing in 20 fixed styles that are updated seasonally; the idea is that good clothing should last a lifetime. The wide array of fashion houses embracing sustainability raises the question: what is the true definition of sustainability, and how close are brands getting to this ideal?

‘Sustainable’ Is Subject To Interpretation

green fashionResearch by Claudia E. Henninger et al has found that the interpretation of the term ‘sustainable fashion’ is context and person-dependent. There are common elements that run through most ideas of what it is, but as stated by researchers, creating a clear definition is important in order to avoid a number of challenges – including ‘greenwashing.’ The idea should ideally be to work towards official certification, so consumers know the extent to which brands are truly eco-friendly.

The Thread Running Through Common Ideas Of Sustainability

Green Strategy, a consultancy firm specializing in sustainability and circularity issues in the fashion industry, has formulated a list of 16 principles that must be present if a fashion brand is to be considered truly sustainable. These include design with a purpose, design for longevity, and design for resource efficiency, biodegradability and recyclability. Reliance on local suppliers, toxin-free design, the use of renewables, good ethics, health collaboration, and recycling /reusing all remains are also vital. While not all companies in the fashion sector are managing to tick all boxes, the establishment of basic tenets (and a minimum set of requirements) will help build trust between fashion brands and customers.

The Swimwear Industry: Raising The Bar Of Sustainability

Fashion is embracing sustainability in many different areas, and one sub-group who are getting it right are swimwear designers. Some brands are using repreve (a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles obtained from the ocean), while others use econyl (generated from nylon from pre- and post-consumer products). Many companies are also encouraging a longer life for their products by encouraging mixing and matching of bikini tops and bottoms. Dividing swimwear into matchable pieces is a popular trend in pool wear. It enables pieces that are destroyed or out of style to be replaced by other items from potentially matching sets. For instance, this season, high waisted bikinis and animal prints are in. However, if next year low waisted garments come back, the latter can be blended with this year’s hottest bikini top. The key is to keep items for as long as they last, bringing them out when trends demand.

Beyond Individual Designers And Brands

The fashion industry as a whole needs to make environmental protection a vital part of its development process, setting standards, making improvements, and making sustainability the norm rather than the exception. Sustainability should commence with education so that designers and brands enter the market with an already solid awareness of what it means to run an environmentally respectful business. Consumers, too, should be aware of key principles to look out for when selecting fashion brands. Part of general education should also include care of outfits and a change in values so that quality becomes an important consideration in the buying process. Finally, consumers should be encouraged to extend the lifetime of unwanted items through second-hand sale and purchase, upcycling and swapping.

Sustainability is, to date, an objective concept. Different consumers and purchasers define it differently, although there are key pillars that most agree should be present in a sustainable product or brand. These include ethical treatment of workers, the use of green/renewable energy, and the use of quality materials that have a long period of wearability.