Slow Fashion

What does sustainability really mean in the fashion industry?

There are a lot of misconceptions about sustainability in the fashion world. We’ve unpacked the most common green buzzwords so you can easily navigate this increasingly complex topic.

November 23, 2022

Navigating the world of sustainable fashion can be daunting. Words like organic, eco-friendly, green, and ethical pop up everywhere, in advertisements and product descriptions, on websites, and all over social media. 

If you’re scratching your head and feeling confused, you’re not alone. These terms are often used in marketing materials without any explanation of what they actually mean. And sometimes there is little substance to the claims making it difficult to identify truly eco-friendly products. 

The new green lexicon

What does sustainable really mean? What makes a garment eco-friendly? What is ethical fashion? At present, there are no clear standards outlining why, when, and how a brand can use these terms. Sustainability has become a catchall phrase that can have many different meanings. Indeed, there are a multitude of ways brands and businesses really can be more sustainable. 

To truly know whether a brand is truly environmentally friendly or just tugging on your climate heartstrings, you need to obtain the information necessary to make your own educated decision. We’ve put together a shortlist of the most common ‘sustainable’ buzzwords and what they mean, to give you a head start and help you avoid greenwashing. 

Before jumping in, it’s important to consider a few different motives. Why would a brand use green slogans? Is a brand truly dedicated to reducing their environmental footprint? Are they just greenwashing and how can you tell?

What do brands really mean when they call themselves sustainable?

It can be hard, if not impossible, to avoid the unending barrage of green claims and sustainability storytelling. Practically every storefront, website, or social media account is chock full of ideas on how you can be more eco-conscious and practise greener living. 

But just how valid are these claims? What separates those truly doing good for the planet versus brands simply trying to tout more products to well-meaning customers? The problem is, a lot of brands don’t clearly explain what’s behind their sustainability claims. Tossed around without any explanation behind them, their words risk losing their value. 

‘Green’ vocabulary can and should be used to help trustworthy brands show us they care about the planet. Unfortunately, misleading claims are often used by brands attempting to portray an image of sustainability when they may not be very sustainable at all, a practice known as greenwashing. 

What is greenwashing?

Climate concerns are more mainstream than ever and climate-friendly products are more in demand. This has resulted in many businesses using ‘green’ marketing to overemphasise sustainability claims in response to consumer demand. 

What exactly does greenwashing mean? More precisely, the term greenwashing refers to the use of green wording and imagery to make a product or business seem more sustainable than they actually are. This practice typically comes in two forms: omitting certain information or embellishing certain facts.

For example, a fashion brand will release a collection made from recycled materials while the rest of their catalogue is full of fast fashion. It may also refer to a product as recycled when in reality only 25% of the material is recycled while the rest is made up of virgin raw materials.

Thus, the brand has you think it is more sustainable when in fact, it is still using environmentally destructive production practices, such as overproduction, poor materials, and allowing unfair working conditions. 

Greenwashing can be extremely hard to spot. It devalues the genuine efforts of more sustainable brands by allowing larger brands to gain a competitive advantage. The good news is, many fashion brands are truly committed to minimising their impact on the environment. The trick is knowing how to find them. 

This may seem like a topic best left to the experts, you may say. And yes, it can be useful to lean on websites such as Good On You for sound advice. But, you can easily learn to identify greenwashing. The first step is understanding the new green lexicon. The second is knowing how to assess each claim. The tools to help you to decide where to spend your hard-earned  money are out there and readily available.

Sustainability (as it relates to the fashion industry)

What better place to start than the queen of green buzzwords - Sustainable. These days this word seems to be a catch-all for everything. And in truth, there is no simple definition. 

There are many different ways a brand can be sustainable depending on the product, the industry, and which step along the supply chain you consider. And one approach is not necessarily better than the other. 

There is one underlying ethos that does hold true for all truly sustainable brands. In every case, the brands focus on the triple bottom line: People and the planet are placed on equal footing with profits. 

Here are some of the ways a brand or business might improve their sustainability:

  • Reducing textile waste
  • Minimising water and chemical use
  • Using high-quality fabrics or recycled materials
  • Ensuring fair working conditions
  • Creating timeless long-lasting pieces

And the list goes on… each term in the green lexicon represents a different way businesses can be more sustainable.

Slow fashion 

Slow fashion is the antithesis of fast fashion. While fast fashion brands treat clothes as disposable, the more sustainable slow fashion brands support the mantra ‘less is more’. 

Adopting a slow fashion approach is more sustainable in various ways. Most importantly, it promotes a minimalist style centred on a capsule wardrobe that is made up of timeless garments that will remain fashionable for years to come. 

Buying better quality means you won’t want or need to buy a new dress for every occasion or a new top every weekend. Compared to the cheaper fast fashion clothing, you may be fooled into thinking sustainable options are too expensive. While this may be the case,  they will likely last much longer. In the long run, you will actually spend less if you focus on high-quality sustainable products that you love! 

Following ever-changing fashion trends and throwing out once-worn clothes has a detrimental impact on the environment. Let’s face it, fast fashion is just not fashionable anymore. So, why not keep up with the times and try the slow fashion approach instead?

Eco-friendly

When a brand says it is  green or eco-friendly, there is an implication that steps are being taken to minimise their products’ impact on the environment. However, the terms are quite vague and somewhat difficult to define. Make sure to look a little deeper to establish what a brand actually means when it is professing to be  eco-friendly. Here are some positive attributes to look out for:

Raw materials

Textile production can be more eco-friendly by ensuring any harsh chemicals or dyes used in production do not make their way into the environment. Any chemicals used should never end up in nearby water sources and soil. Certain fabrics, such as organic cotton, merino wool, or TENCEL™, can have less impact on the environment. 

Organic cotton that is grown without harsh chemicals, is more eco-friendly than regular cotton . Natural irrigation can make this crop even more planet friendly. TENCEL™ is a tree-based fabric made using a closed-loop process that ensures almost 99% of the chemicals are reused, and additional steps are taken to reduce water and energy use.  

Where a garment was made

Brands can minimise their carbon footprint by carefully choosing where they source materials and where their products are manufactured. Eco-friendly brands may further minimise their footprint by sourcing fabrics and other materials from suppliers near to the production house. Locations closer to the final warehouse area tend to be a much greener choice.

To cater for mass production and a large global customer base, fast fashion brands often have complex supply chains spanning several countries. Your clothing may have travelled thousands of miles before finally reaching you. As the shipping industry is one of the world’s top polluters, this is certainly not eco-friendly behaviour. 

Here is the key eco-friendly takeaway: Shopping locally and choosing independent brands is more eco-friendly and significantly reduces your fashion footprint.

How a garment was made

Other environmental factors to consider include energy, water, and chemical use during the manufacturing process. Does the factory run on fossil fuels or renewable energy? Are steps taken to minimise textile waste?

Are chemicals and dyes used during production reused or do they end up in the environment, where they have the potential to pollute rivers and soil?

Packaging

It is always worth paying attention to how products are packaged, e.g. wrapped in plastic versus recycled paper or compostable alternatives. 

Minimal packaging can reduce a lot of waste and, of course, packaging made of recycled or biodegradable materials will have less impact on the environment. 

End of life

Regardless of what a garment came from and what it is made of, it's always important to consider where it will end up.

In terms of end use, high-quality natural materials are better than synthetic fabrics in some ways, even if the synthetic materials have been recycled. This is because natural materials shed fewer or no plastic microfibres during wear and washing. 

Toxic microfibres from our laundry machines have become a global endemic and are polluting even the farthest reaches of the Arctic and the highest mountaintops.

Ethically made

The terms ethical and sustainable (as they relate to fashion) are not mutually exclusive, but often go hand in hand. 

What is ethical fashion? Well, the garment workers who produce your clothes should be treated with respect and dignity, provided with a safe working environment, and paid a fair living wage. This is just ethical.

Sadly, garment workers are often treated poorly and forced to suffer a variety of human rights abuses, as documentaries like The True Cost reveal What may seem unfathomable in our comfortable western societies is oftentimes the norm in developing countries. Lamentably, child labour does still happen.

Shopping second-hand/thrifting

Second-hand shopping and thrifting comes in many varieties. From browsing the local charity shop for hidden gems to high-end vintage boutiques with specially curated pieces. Online marketplaces like Depop and Vestiaire Collecctive have also established a place in the global thrift circuit.

Second-hand shopping also comes with its own fun perks like finding hidden gems, scoring a vintage designer item for pennies, or feeling better about wearing unethical fabrics like silk and cashmere. 

Thrifting seems to have taken on a new lease of life. What was once looked down on or reserved for only the most creative souls has become a global craze. There is no denying it. Reusing old garments instead of buying new ones is definitely better for the planet. 

Fast fashion brands are jumping on the bandwagon too, with sellback options and resale platforms incorporated into their existing websites. But are resale platforms really the answer? Are they truly sustainable or just another avenue for overconsumption? 

On the downside, the quality of clothing you can find in second-hand shops has been continuously declining since the explosion of fast fashion. Not only that, continuing to produce the same amount of poor quality goods, or even more, and then reselling them is not likely to lessen the environmental impact of fast fashion. Rather, it may actually exacerbate the problem.

If you love second-hand shopping, all the more power to you! Just beware of fast fashion slowly creeping into the once sacred art of thrifting.

Upcycling

Similar to thrifting, upcycling takes something  old and makes it new again. The difference is that upcycling usually involves making significant changes to the garment or object. For example, making a flower pot from an old shoe. Or turning a pair of jeans into a cute skirt. 

The end product might not have the same function, but the reward in terms of sustainability is the same. And there are infinite possibilities. It's a great way to make something one of a kind and eco-friendly.

Recycled fabrics

In some cases, only a percentage of a garment labelled as recycled might be made from recycled components. While this is definitely better than nothing, ask yourself whether you could have found the same item second hand. 

Other approaches include producing garments from recycled water bottles or fishing nets. These are fantastic ways of turning our existing waste into something valuable.

On the downside, it is important to understand that recycling can be energy intensive, and the quality of raw material is reduced during each recycling iteration. So unfortunately, we can’t recycle ourselves out of the climate crisis. It is just one piece of the puzzle.

A simpler solution is to produce fewer items and strive to gradually move away from petroleum-based materials such as polyester and rayon, replacing them with sustainable eco-friendly substitutes. 

Organic 

What is organic and why should you choose organic products? Organic products are produced without nasty chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides, or defoliants and, therefore, are much better for your overall health.

But, there is a downside. Organic labels are usually accompanied by a heftier price tag. That said, if you can afford to pay the price, there are many benefits beyond your own health boost. Organic farming is more environmentally friendly, better for communities, and helps support local economies.

On a final note, for a product to be certified organic it must be produced according to internationally recognised organic farming standards. This brings us to the important topic of standards and certifications.

Sustainability standards and certifications

Third party accreditations are a great way for brands and suppliers to exhibit their sustainability. Here are some labels to look out for and their meanings. It is important to note, this list is not exhaustive. There are many other  accreditations depending on the type of product and the step you are considering along the supply chain.

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard)

The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) has defined a transparent set of criteria to ensure the organic status of textiles all the way from the harvesting of the raw materials, to environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing, to labelling. It covers both ecological and social criteria, thus, essentially covering the entire textile supply chain. 

OEKO-TEX

The OEKO-TEX family of labels provides various sustainability-related certifications. At a minimum, look for fabrics that are OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100. This means the fabric or component has been tested for harmful substances and is not harmful to human health. 

Also look out for the OEKO-TEX® MADE IN GREEN and OEKO-TEX® ECO PASSPORT, which provide additional assurances that a textile product has been manufactured using environmentally friendly processes under socially responsible working conditions.

Lenzing

The Lenzing Group produces cellulose fibres (from trees) including viscose, micromodal, modal, and lyocell. The company sources its raw materials around the globe using responsible forestry practices that are certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council®) . 

Raw materials are purchased by textile companies and used to make Lenzing certified fabrics. The most widely known Lenzing brand is TENCEL™, but you may have also come across ECOVERO™ viscose.

Sedex (SMETA) 

The SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit) is the most widely used audit for assessing  the health and safety of workers. They have zero tolerance for human rights abuses such as child and forced labour. 

Once the audit is complete, a Corrective Action Plan is developed jointly with the supplier and is used to improve working conditions.

B Corporation

The B Corp certification indicates that a business meets a high standard of social and environmental performance, but is not exclusively focused on a single issue. Companies must undergo a rigorous assessment and, most importantly, exhibit transparency.

Questions to ask before you buy

Before you hit the Buy Now button, there are a few questions you should ask:

Is the brand I’m considering buying from transparent? Where and by who are the products made? What steps are being taken to ensure the  brand is more sustainable?

If this information is not readily available, try sending the company a quick email to ask about their ethical and environmental standards. Not only will you gain some peace of mind, you will help push the industry towards greater transparency and greener fashion.

As a general rule, to reduce your fashion footprint consider buying fewer items that are of higher quality. And only purchase new items made from sustainable materials such as organic cotton, modal, or recycled fabrics.

Final Thoughts: Can fashion ever truly be sustainable?

Any attempt to change systems and mindsets that have been in place for many years can feel like an uphill battle. Most modern production systems have evolved to accommodate overconsumption and fast fashion, lucrative trends that have come to dominate the western world. 

Armed with the right knowledge, you can find brands that are truly sustainable and adopt a more eco-friendly approach. In addition to knowing what is behind the new green lexicon, it is important to hold fashion brands accountable. Thankfully, you are now armed with a new toolkit to do just that!

Did we miss anything? We love feedback so if there is anything we’ve overlooked, or a topic you’d like to know more about, send us an email at hello@bonandberg.com.

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Siobhán is the founder of Bon+Berg. When she's not designing bras and undies, you'll find her snowboarding, hiking, or just enjoying the views in the mountains. She is passionate about environmental issues and wants to inspire others to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

Siobhán Dunphy

Siobhán is the founder of Bon+Berg. When she's not designing bras and undies, you'll find her snowboarding, hiking, or just enjoying the views in the mountains. She is passionate about environmental issues and wants to inspire others to live a more sustainable lifestyle.