What is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainability is a major buzzword right now. From sustainable energy to sustainable eating. But what about sustainable fashion? We walk by H&M and Zara, have a little window shop or maybe even go in and buy something. But have you ever just looked at the entirety of it all, and wondered where it all comes from? What are the processes involved?

The True Cost of Fast Fashion

The demand for cheaper clothing is met, but who is paying the price?

A few years ago, I came across a documentary, The True Cost. An informative look into the reality of the modern fashion industry. It looks at a sector that has massive effects on human rights and environmental issues. I, as most women and men too, love clothes. I am a creative and clothes are a way for me to express myself, a visual representation of me. Fashion, at its roots, is an artistic concept. It started in France and steadily grew as an industry. A multi-trillion dollar industry.

For designers, fashion is a subtle craft. Its a vision, a playful journey of textiles, shapes and form. From conception to reality. A beautiful process. But put money into the mix, and things often than not lose their original beauty and inspiration. The industries cottoned on (excuse the pun) onto peoples desire for fashion at a cheaper cost but keeping up with the trends.

Traditionally, there were four seasons. Four times a year that fashion trends flipped over. It revealed new trends and clothes for the upcoming season. Seems pretty reasonable. But to increase consumer demand, industries started increasing that turnover of trends. Through mass marketing and media, we made to believe from a young age that we need to fit in. We need to follow the trends for people to see and recognize us. It slowly increased to a rate where today, trends are introduced weekly.

We need to look beyond the cycle. Beyond this cycle of consumerism lies millions of people working below minimum wage in dangerous conditions. Beyond the cheap clothes is a trail of toxic sludge pouring back into our environment. Fast fashion has a dark side.

Humans innate need for Connectivity

What is driving our intense consumption of fashion?

After watching The True Cost documentary, I had a startling realization. People feel disconnected. From themselves, their lives and those around them. This disconnect translates into a disassociation from the footprint left by our lives on this planet. It is the irony of the 21st century. We so connected via social media but only a few people could on the spot tell you their core values, their life goals or what they really believe in. Similarly, only a few could say without a shred of doubt that they have friends who would be there at 3 am at a time of need.

How does this relate to fashion? A whole lot. Most people, whether they want to openly admit it or not, feel a sense of emptiness these days. Depression and anxiety rates are at an alarming high, especially amongst our youth. The mass marketing geniuses have put forward consumerism – instant gratification – as a way to fill the void.

When Coca-Cola recently changed its tagline from “Open Happiness” to “Taste the Feeling,” it maintained its focus on happy images of people connecting and engaging one another.

That fleeting dopamine fix post-purchase. The likes after showing off those new jeans on intagram. But it’s just a moment of consolation. Quite quickly replaced by that sinking feeling that something is missing. Back to the store.

Whether its a planned conspiracy or not. It can also merely be brilliant targeted marketing. Retail industries knew that they could use the promise and allure of joy from their products as a unique selling point.

Where do our clothes come from?

Ever looked beyond the “made in Pakistan” label?

I challenge you next time you are in a shopping mall to go and walk through all the different clothing stores. Look at all the clothing in front of you. Thousands of pieces of clothing, just hanging there waiting to be picked up. Compound all this textile into one shopping mall. Then into your district. Compound this further into your province and out into your country.

That’s an unbelievable amount of textile. Break it down into its parts. Cotton and other synthetics and dyes. All of this requires natural resources. With production comes waste. Is all of this sustainable?

As vegans, we look at the toll of the meat industry on our environment, animal welfare and human welfare. We actively choose to not support an industry that has a massive negative impact.

On the flip side, have you wondered what kind of environmental impact your purchases have? What about who makes them? Where are they made? What conditions are the people working in?

Bangladesh has taken over China’s garment production industry. The industry accounts for up to 80%of its foreign trade. The sad news, however, that even in 2019, Bangladeshi garment workers earn even less than their local living wage, a whopping 73.85 USD per month.

Global warming, growing cancer rates, deepening poverty, increasing chemical sensitivities don’t often point to our wardrobes. But our clothes can be a significant, quiet co-conspirator into all of these issues.

Fast Fashion and the Environment

Being Earth conscious is becoming aware of everything you consume in your life, including your clothes.

The reason that fast fashion is successful is that it’s cheap. It’s just about less expensive than fixing clothes. It’s so cheap that people buy clothes for once-off events, never to wear them again – disposable fashion.

Consumers in the UK are buying twice as many items of clothing as they did in 2009. 60 per cent of which make their way to incinerators or landfill within a year of purchase. 300,000 tonnes of clothes are sent to British landfills per year, and less than one per cent of the material used in clothing production around the world is recycled after use.

Disposable, fast fashion is having detrimental effects on our environment. Landfills grow at alarming rates due to textiles discarded. The quality of fast fashion is also questionable. It is not made to last. It supports the cycle.

Cotton often sold as a natural eco-friendly option is anything but. One shirt can use up to 2700 litres of water. That’s about 2 years of drinking water for one person.

Not only are clothes soaking up earth’s water, but its also polluting it. According to the Fashion industry waste statistics, after oil, the clothing and textiles industry is the largest polluter in the world.

Criticisms of fast fashion include its negative environmental impact, water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and increasing levels of textile waste.

Fast Fashion and Human Safety

It’s not just the environment paying the price, but women’s, men’s and also children.

We have all heard of sweatshops. They still exist. Dangerous working conditions with low wages are what make your favourite Zara items. Women are working in crowded factories for hours a day. They often don’t receive maternity leave. Limited toilet breaks. Rundown buildings with no safety regulations in place. If they dare speak up, they lose their jobs.

A lot of these issues came to light when in 2005 in Dakar, Bangladesh, a Rana Plaza collapsed killing over 1000 people and injuring many more. This was the start of the sustainable fashion movement. The working conditions of people across Asia brought to light. Sadly, all those people gave their lives so the western world could wake up. Consumerism is literally killing people, and it’s up to us to take responsibility and change it.

Since then, many companies have signed up to a transparency agreement to what factories their clothes are made. This is a way to hold clothing companies accountable to the conditions that their garments are being made.

The Dawn of Sustainable Fashion

We have better options to choose from.

It’s best to view life in terms of duality. Light and dark. Hot and cold. Disaster and relief. Born out of these horrible effects on the environment and treatment of workers in the industry is a call for sustainable, eco-friendly fashion. Deep down, people want the best for others and their larger home, earth.

Consumers are holding companies responsible and requesting clothing that’s transparent, kind to the environment and fair to the workers

More sustainable fashion can be defined as 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. 

Popular brands such as H&M are including conscious garments that are made ethically and using sustainable methods. This is a massive step in the right direction. Here are some high-end fashion brands choosing sustainability over profit.

Why Sustainable Fashion may not be enough

The size of the worlds population is taxing on the Earth, sustainability involved or not.

The size of the population that has a disposable income is significant. And a lot of people use that disposable income on clothing. A lot of textiles is being produced, and a lot of resources are being used. I don’t take credibility away from the sustainable fashion movement. I applaud it. Change is necessary on all fronts. But the sheer quantity of clothing bought and discarded is more significant than the movement. We need to change peoples perceptions and ideas about clothing.

The Minimalist Wardrobe aka the Capsule Wardrobe

That old adage that less is more is old for a reason. It’s true. I’m sure no one can argue that we don’t really need a lot of clothes. The difference between want and need has been lost in the back pile of shirts in your closet.

The concept for the capsule wardrobe is inspired by the French chic. The idea is that you have a set number of staples that do not adhere to trends. They are timeless. Think the little black dress, the staple blue jeans and a blazer. Around that, you add in some pieces and accessories. There is no defined number, but around 40 pieces for your whole wardrobe are considered capsule.

After you have piled every item of clothing onto your bed, this may seem like a feat only zen masters can achieve. Let me assure you, you can. I had travelled for about 4 years, collecting all sorts of beautiful pieces. When I came home and opened all the boxes I had sent over, I was left speechless and honestly ashamed. My entire bedroom was filled with clothing. I had just travelled from India and witnessed poverty at its worst. I sank into a corner and had to make a choice.

We can choose to let clothes define who we are, or, we can want to let clothes represent our inner values and beliefs. 

Slow progress is still progress

Its been 3 years since then and I have let go of about 90% of my wardrobe. It was a long process and not comfortable. I’m down to about 37 items, excluding my winter jackets. The KonMarie Method of identifying household and clothing items that spark joy has been a vital key to letting things go. I can now instantly recognize what I need and what I don’t. The beauty of a capsule wardrobe is that there are no rules. Its simply to acknowledge that you don’t need hundreds of pieces of clothing and focusing on what you often wear and look good in.

Pros of a capsule wardrobe

  • Sustainable – less clothing
  • Ethical – you focus on buying clothes from reputable brands.
  • Easy on the pocket – quality clothes last
  • Stylish – you draw on the style of timeless classics.

Cons of a capsule wardrobe

  • None –You are doing good for the environment, the welfare of workers and checking out of the consumerist trap.

Your personal journey to a Sustainable Wardrobe

This is a journey, not a destination. Realize a need for sustainability in fashion. Reduce your consumption. Choose to buy from ethically sustainable sources. It won’t happen in a week, month, maybe not even a year. It’s a mindset. From the point of that decision, you make better choices. Don’t beat yourself up for having things that aren’t sustainable or struggling to let enough go. There is a lot of psychological attachment to clothes and allow yourself the break-up time.

Capsule wardrobe hack: Define your personal style and flesh out your staples, from there let things go that don’t make the cut. Thank them and sell them for an extra buck. Alternatively, you can pass them on to people less fortunate than you.

Sustainable fashion brands in the UK

If there are any sustainable shops to add, let Dolma Vegan Perfumes know, we are always looking for companies to support.