The most common question we get: what is sustainable fashion? Or, what do you mean when you say sustainable fashion? Let’s break down what sustainable fashion is, why sustainable fashion matters, and how you can help make an impact.
Sustainable fashion is simply any change that lessens the impact of the clothing industry on the environment. Any improvement over traditional methods of producing, using, or selling apparel that can be applied throughout the entire fashion industry.
Wiki’s definition is a bit more rigid, “Sustainable fashion is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. Sustainable fashion concerns more than just addressing fashion textiles or products. It comprises addressing the whole system of fashion".1
The term sustainable fashion is often used interchangeably with slow fashion, green fashion, or eco fashion. Though each may have slightly different technical meanings, they all can be described as the opposite of fast fashion and do not push the overconsumption of clothing. Check out our blog post on what is fast fashion for more.
What is Ethical Fashion?
It is difficult to discuss what sustainable fashion is without addressing ethical fashion as the two are closely tied. So what is ethical fashion?
Ethical fashion is when the needs of the people throughout the fashion supply chain are properly met. This encompasses safe working conditions, being paid a fair living wage, no use of child or slave labor, and ideally, no discrimination.
Sustainable fashion emphasizes how fashion can exist without harming the planet, people or environment. Sustainable fashion and ethical fashion go hand in hand, especially when referencing the Triple Bottom Line framework created by John Elkington.
The Triple Bottom Line is a model that equally represents three areas to build a sustainable business: the people, the planet, and making a profit or also referred to as the social, environmental, and economic aspects of a business. Sustainable fashion encompasses each of these three areas.
Why is Sustainable Fashion Important?
The fashion industry today is considered the second largest polluting industry behind energy, which primarily consists of oil & gas. Though this is widely believed as true, the exact source of this information is hard to nail down. Industry reports do show that fashion contributes between 2 to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.2 The size of the industry, amount of clothing consumed, and the pollution stemming from the fashion industry all support why sustainable fashion is important.
Size of the Fashion Industry
Let’s start by first laying out what we mean by the fashion industry - it might surprise you how large it is when you look at the entire supply chain. Below is a simple depiction of a typical fashion supply chain.3
From the raw materials creation, to creating thread, then weaving fabric, to producing actual clothing, with shipping along each individual step in the process, to the retail stores or online warehouses, and then finally to the initial consumer. After use, some clothes make their way to a second hand store or to be recycled but the large majority end up in the landfill at the end of life.
When this holistic view of the fashion industry is considered, it’s easy to see how fashion was a $2.5 trillion dollar industry pre-pandemic in 20194 and boosts a value close to $3 trillion today according to Fashion United.5 It is estimated that 75 million people are employed worldwide within the fashion supply chain and more than 1.8 million people in the US alone.6,7
In the United States, consumers spent nearly $403 billion on apparel and footwear in 2019.8 Though the profit of the fashion industry fell by an estimated 93% in 2020 and it is predicted that sales will recover by 2023 in the US.4
Globally 100 billion clothing items are produced each year equating to about 13 items for each person on the planet.9 Though we know the consumption level is skewed to countries with access to many options offering low cost fashion. In 2018, Americans averaged buying 68 clothing items per year, 5 times more than the average amount purchased in 1980.10
This increase in clothing consumption along with the estimates of anywhere from 62.5% to 80% of clothing being sent to landfill each year, is cause for concern.11,12 These percentages even include clothing that was donated to Goodwill or any other large scale resell location due to a large surplus in donations. To put this in perspective, the equivalent of a garage truck of clothing is dumped into a landfill every second.13
Each clothing item requires energy, water, and chemicals to create and the high amount of clothing sent directly into landfills each year, only highlights the wastefulness of clothing consumption today. Sustainable fashion not only puts emphasis on slowing clothing consumption by creating quality clothing that lasts but also on extending the life of clothing by promoting resale, repair, or recycling of clothing.
In addition to high rates of clothing consumption, a large majority of clothing today is made from new materials, with approximately 60% of clothing made using polyester. Polyester is a plastic material that is commonly made and then woven into a fabric. This is an issue for two main reasons:
1) Polyester requires oil to create, meaning it comes from a nonrenewable resource
2) Polyester is a plastic that when washed releases microplastics smaller than the eye can identify into our waterways
Every time you wash a clothing item made from polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic or any other material made from plastic, it contributes to polluting waterways with more microplastics. For more on preventing this pollution, check out tip #4 from our 10 tips to make your clothing last longer post.
Sustainable fashion promotes designers to move away from using virgin polyester or other plastic materials to more eco-friendly alternatives like organic cotton, bamboo, or Tencel and encourages the development of new materials that can match the benefits of polyester without the negative environmental impact.
Water is needed to grow the raw materials used in making clothing, like cotton, which is one of the most popular materials today. Additionally, taking these raw materials from a crop to a yarn to a fabric then finally dyeing fabrics to the final color are all water intensive processes.
As a whole, the apparel industry uses an estimated 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, accounting for 4% of all water extraction globally.14 As shown in the image below, an estimated 20,000 liters or 5,283 gallons of water is needed to produce just 1 cotton t-shirt and 1 pair of pants.15
Various chemicals are also needed in the processing of raw materials for clothing. Chemicals which often end up in our natural waterways.16 Sustainable fashion not only focuses on reducing the water required to produce clothing but encourages the use of better chemical practices like closed loop systems to reuse chemicals.
We know that climate change has already had devastating impacts on the world around us and there’s no denying fashion’s contribution. Change is required throughout the entire industry to stop the damage it has done and is still doing from both a social and environmental standpoint.
The industry needs to meet net zero emissions by implementing responsible solutions to each area along the supply chain. Some of which are still being developed today, like large scale ways to recycle blended clothing for reuse in new designs. One solution to enable the industry to neutralize emissions is by implementing a circular fashion economy.
Traditionally the fashion industry has been operated as a linear economy, where new products are made, sold to a consumer, and then disposed of into the landfill, as seen in the leftmost depiction in the graphic below.17 A circular economy enables waste throughout the system to be captured then reused, repaired, or recycled which eliminates the need for waste to go to landfill.
Another benefit of the circular economy, is if more clothing can be reused or recycled into new clothing then the “take”, or the amount needed to be grown or made brand new, lessens drastically.
The infrastructure and businesses needed to enable a circular fashion economy do exist today on a smaller scale than what is needed to support the entire fashion industry. As companies seek to operate more sustainably, along with pressures from consumers who value sustainability and governmental regulations, the circular fashion ecosystems will expand over the next several years to ideally support the entire industry.
How can I practice Sustainable Fashion?
It’s safe to say that sustainable fashion is necessary given the state of the fashion industry and creating a circular fashion economy is the ideal path forward. Though there is larger change required across the entire fashion industry, individual consumers play an important role in driving change as well. Let’s dive into how you can help by making changes to the way you shop, use, and dispose of clothing:
1) Purchase Only What You Will Use
Focus on purchasing clothing that you know you will wear. One way to measure whether an item is a sustainable purchase is if you can see yourself wearing it 30 times or more. Investing in high quality items that you love will ensure you get those 30+ wears, likely save you money in the long run by not having to repurchase, and enable you to keep those clothes out of the landfill.
2) Check The Tags
When shopping for clothing, many of us are used to checking the tag for the price or reading the overall description online but you can make better decisions just by understanding the materials or any certifications on the clothing too. You can look for sustainable materials like organic cotton, sustainable bamboo, linen, hemp, or tencel or to see if recycled materials were used. You can also check for any third party certifications, like OEK-TEKO, GOTS, Fair Trade, or WRAP to know the products were made in more ethical or sustainable ways.
3) Take Care Of What You Have
Extending the life of the clothes you already have are a great way to lessen your impact on the environment. It’s okay if your closet is currently filled with fast fashion items. The most unsustainable thing you could do is get rid of these right away and buy all new sustainable items. Find more tips on clothing care here.
4) Resell, Repair, Reuse
For clothing that no longer fits or you just don’t wear, consider reselling, repairing, or reusing before donating or recycling. There are several different resale sites that make it easy for you to resell any clothing items in good condition like Poshmark or ThredUp. If you need to repair an item, look up simple repairs or check with a local seamstress. You can always reuse a clothing item for a different purpose around the house too, like an old t-shirt for a cleaning rag. Try to do one of these prior to donating clothing or sending clothing for recycling. Check out our Conscious Closet Clean Out Guide for more tips.
5) Support Brands That Match Your Values
This goes for any category that you are shopping in but for clothing especially. You can research companies to find ones that support sustainability and use ethical practices. The more you know about a brand the better purchasing decisions you can make. At Maven Way, we realize not everyone has the time to do this research, that’s why we take the time to ensure each of the brands we sell are operating sustainably and using ethical labor.
Sustainable fashion is an ever evolving space and still growing in awareness. By understanding at a high level what sustainable fashion is, the current issues in the fashion industry, and what you can do to make an impact, we are all just one step closer to change for the better.
- Wikipedia contributors. “Sustainable Fashion.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_fashion
- “Roadmap to Net Zero: Delivering Science-Based Targets in the Apparel Sector.” World Resources Institute, 5 Nov. 2021, https://www.wri.org/research/roadmap-net-zero-delivering-science-based-targets-apparel-sector
- Niinimäki, K., Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 189–200 (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s43017-020-0039-9/figures/2
- McKinsey & Business of Fashion. “State of Fashion 2022: An Uneven Recovery and New Frontiers.” McKinsey & Company, 12 Jan. 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/state-of-fashion#
- fashionunited.com. “Global Fashion Industry Statistics.” FashionUnited, https://fashionunited.com/global-fashion-industry-statistics/
- “UN Alliance Aims to Put Fashion on Path to Sustainability | UNECE.” UNECE, 12 July 2018, https://unece.org/forestry/press/un-alliance-aims-put-fashion-path-sustainability
- “May 2020 OEWS National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 31 Mar. 2021, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oessrci.htm
- Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 2.4.5 Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product,”, Last revised 31, July 2020.
- “Waste and Pollution.” Clean Clothes Campaign, 16 Aug. 2021, https://cleanclothes.org/fashions-problems/waste-and-pollution
- Thomas, Dana. “The High Price of Fast Fashion.” WSJ, 29 Aug. 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-high-price-of-fast-fashion-11567096637
- “What Really Happens to Unwanted Clothes?” Green America, https://www.greenamerica.org/unraveling-fashion-industry/what-really-happens-unwanted-clothes
- McCarthy, Allison. “Are Our Clothes Doomed for the Landfill?” Remake, 3 Apr. 2020, https://remake.world/stories/news/are-our-clothes-doomed-for-the-landfill/
- Beall, Abigail. “Why Clothes Are so Hard to Recycle.” BBC Future, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle
- “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/a-new-textiles-economy
- Armstrong, Martin. “The Insatiable Thirst of Fashion.” Statista Infographics, 29 Aug. 2019, https://www.statista.com/chart/19164/insatiable-thirst-of-fashion/
- Objective, Common. “The Issues: Chemicals.” Common Objective, 24 Nov. 2021, https://www.commonobjective.co/article/the-issues-chemicals
- Team, Seams For Dreams. “Sustainable Fashion in a Circular Economy: Repair, Reuse, Recycle!” Seams for Dreams, 22 July 2020, https://www.seamsfordreams.com/awareness/sustainable-fashion-in-a-circular-economy-repair-reuse-recycle/