What Exactly Is Sustainable & Ethical Fashion?
In a nutshell: sustainable and ethical fashion is an approach towards sourcing, manufacturing and designing clothes which maximizes the benefits to the fashion industry and society at large, while at the same time minimizing its impact on the environment. The two concepts overlap in ideology, but they each have slightly different concerns, both equally critical to the future of fashion.
We love fashion as much as the next person: fun outfits, glamorous accessories, individuality… what’s not to love?!
Well, devastating environmental damage and severe human rights abuses, to name a couple. Fashion, as it turns out, is a whole lot more complex than pencil skirts and shoulder pads, and with all the greenwashing it certainly doesn’t make it easy to find ethical and sustainable clothing.
While the road towards sustainability in general isn’t easy, it’s now critical that we all learn what qualifies as truly sustainable and ethical fashion. This article teaches you just that, from examining raw materials used to the practices implemented all the way down the supply chain.
We hope to not only educate you (and ourselves) on the problematic status of the industry as it currently stands, but also provide you with the knowledge necessary to judge whether a clothing company or item is truly ethical. Call it a fashion framework.
Use the quick links below to navigate around the article, especially if referring back to it (as we hope you’ll do!) in your future searches for sustainable brands.
QUICK LINKS TO SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL FASHION
The Problem With Fast Fashion Today:
What to Look for When Buying Sustainable & Ethical Fashion:
THE PROBLEM WITH FAST FASHION
We live in a world where artisan coffee costs more than a T-shirt. This is the world of Fast Fashion and it’s a major problem.
Merriam Webster defines fast fashion as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.”
Fast fashion has essentially turned what was four seasons in into 52, one for almost every week of the year. So designs go out of style as fast as they come in. And they’re so cheaply made it’s no surprise to find a hole after one wear. But no sweat(shop) because if it wears out, it’s mere pocket change to just buy a new one.
Fast Fashion’s headliners include stores like H&M, Forever 21, Primark, Zara, and Target (yes, even Target).
While pulling back on consumption is absolutely one solution, conservative shopping habits alone aren’t enough to eliminate fashion’s unglamorous dark side that looms beneath all the satin and sequins.
PROBLEM #1: HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Let’s start with the problem that most people are at least vaguely aware of. Namely, the working conditions of millions of people. According to the Fair Fashion Center back in 2016, 150 million lives are touched by the global apparel industry daily. Most of these people do not receive a living wage and work in terrible conditions. To name but a few of the ethical violations:
- unlivable wages
- child labor
- modern slavery
- migrant exploitation
- gender discrimination (the majority of these workers are young females)
- verbal, sexual, and physical abuse
- forced overtime (on average, workers in Bangladesh work 60 hours per week while earning ⅓ as many wages as other Asian garment factories… and they often work over the legal limit of 60 hours a week)
- hazardous work conditions
As Lucy Siegal says, “Fast fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere, is paying.”
It wasn’t really until the 2013 Rana Plaza incident (where aBangladesh-based garment factory collapse killed 1,135 people and injured 2500 more) that people started paying attention. This single event sparked the Fashion Revolution movement.
If you haven’t seen it already, The True Cost documentary is utterly eye-opening. For an even more in-depth look at this issue, see the Garment Worker Diaries, a podcast and data collection project that records and presents interactive reports on the working conditions of workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India.
And make no mistake, these human rights violations happen across the ENTIRE supply chain:
- Raw material production: Unfair labour practices for farmers and processors and exposure to numerous chemical pesticides and plasticizers, which negatively affect human health. This study found 61% of Pakistani cotton pickers experience related health problems like skin irritations, coughs, headaches, and more.
- Garment manufacturing: More unfair and unsafe working conditions (i.e.Rana Plaza) in countries with no union representation or workers rights. This is particularly relevant in Asia and specifically China, where about 40% of clothing was made in 2016 (though that number is declining).
- Post-production (sales, wear, use): Fashion as a whole isn’t known for being very diverse or inclusive. While diversity and inclusion may pale in comparison to the slave-like conditions of the production side, it’s still a major problem. Fashion’s focus on rail-thin, white models has created all sorts of body image issues across the years, as well as either marginalizing or totally ignoring minority groups.
For a good example, this short video by the Fairtrade Foundation summarized the injustices of cotton production.
PROBLEM #2: COMPLEX SUPPLY CHAINS AND LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
A friend of ours who works in sustainability monitoring for a fashion company says that every business that makes anything has contributed to modern slavery in some (even if small way) because it’s so difficult to have full visibility about all elements of the supply chain.
The process to produce one garment is incredibly lengthy and complex, with many hand changes along the way. Essentially, a seed-to-shelf supply chain includes all the following steps:
- Sourcing raw materials for every fabric involved (this includes farming techniques as well as soil and seeds used)
- Spinning raw materials into fiber
- Turning fiber into fabric
- Fabric dying and prepping
- Garment production (don’t forget all the added components like thread, buttons, and zippers- where did all those come from?)
- Finishing touches (adding tags, pre-shrinking, etc.)
- Shipping to sellers across the world
- Shipping to buyers across the world
We’re talking tons of different hands and production bodies involved here. Plus, keep in mind that all this typically changes for every season and every garment, so each brand isn’t even always dealing with the same list of suppliers.
Even the most well-intentioned brands would likely be complicit along their supply chain somewhere simply because they don’t even KNOW every step. It’s almost impossible to keep track.
PROBLEM #3: THE RATE OF FASHION CONSUMPTION
The scale and unrelenting desire for economic growth within the fashion industry is mind-boggling huge. Capitalism keeps the engine moving.
On the production side, it keeps people employed (however dismal that employment is) and has raised the overall standard of living for many.
On the consumer side, it tells us “have it all, you deserve it”. #TreatYoSelf, after all.
Globally, we consume 80 billion pieces of clothing each year (up 400% from two decades ago). North America is the largest textile consumer in the world, with each person buying 80 pounds per year. They’re followed closely by Australia’s annual clothes consumption rate of 60 pounds per person.
This is partially proportional to the explosion of the population growth (more people = more clothes). But it’s also greatly due to overconsumption and unsustainable shopping habits cultivated by fast fashion.
People all over the world are striving toward the consumption levels of developed countries. On average, shoppers purchase 60% more clothing every year which lasts only half as long as it did 15 years ago. This unchecked growth business model operates with no regard to the social and environmental implications.
PROBLEM #4: CHEMICAL USE IN FASHION PRODUCTION
When you think of pollution, you think of carbon-spewing factories, oil refineries pumping gas and other noxious visuals. You don’t think of the fashion industry.
Yet the fashion industry has been called out as one of the most environmentally damaging industries.
According to the WWF, approximately half of all textiles are made from cotton. When conventionally grown, cotton happens to be the dirtiest crop requiring the largest percentage of chemicals: 25% of the world’s insecticides and 10% of the world’s pesticides. In fact, the cotton required to make an average t-shirt (about 9 ounces) is grown with an average of 17 teaspoons of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Toxic chemicals are not just used in the growing of the fibres, they are also notorious for their presence in dyeing and processing of textiles. These chemicals include heavy metals (like nickel, lead, and chromium), phthalates (which are known carcinogens), and formaldehyde.
Not only are these chemicals dangerous to growers and manufacturers, but to us as wearers! Surely, fashion can’t be worth the price of wearing formaldehyde.
PROBLEM #5: WATER WASTE & WATER POLLUTION
All those chemicals don’t just disappear after dying and production. They spell an enormous amount of run-off and pollution for rivers and oceans. In Dhaka, Bangladesh’s leather tanneries, dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste into Buriganga, which is the city’s main river and water supply.
Post-production, even us wearers are still polluting waterways. Every time we wash clothes with synthetic fibers, tiny bits of microplastics make their way into our pipes, waterways, and eventually the ocean. There, they get eaten by fish and other marine life, which in turn gets eaten by us. Microplastics are becoming a huge issue. One way you can prevent this is by using the Guppy Friend microfiber catching laundry bag.
Fashion is also the second largest consumer of water globally, between 6 and 9 trillion liters per year. Again, we’ll point the finger at conventional cotton here, an incredibly thirsty crop. The cotton used in one pair of jeans requires almost 2000 gallons of water.
But there’s plenty of water in the world, right? Eh, not so much. We’re already seeing the devastating effects of cotton farming. The Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk 15% due to cotton farms drawing on it for water.
PROBLEM #6: TEXTILE WASTE
Most clothing has a terrible end-of-life outcome, and fast fashion certainly doesn’t encourage a circular economy. According to the EPA, textiles have one of the poorest recycling rates of any reusable material.
Let’s consider all the ways fashion generates physical textile waste. First, there’s all the wastes trimmings and scraps that come from production. Next, there’s what’s called “deadstock”, or clothing that’s made, put on shelves, but doesn’t actually sell before going out of style. Fashion companies typically burn this excess rather than donating or recycling it.
We consumers are equally irresponsible about disposing of our unwanted clothes. Americans only recycle or donate 15% of their unwanted clothing and the Fair Fashion Center estimates that 21 Billion tons of textile waste is sent to landfills annually. Since 64% of modern fabrics contain plastic in some form, these will never biodegrade.
PROBLEM #7: CLIMATE CHANGE
All this leads to the dreaded double C: climate change. The fashion industry accounts for 10% of the world’s total carbon footprint.
First, tons of fossil fuels get used in production (petroleum-based fabrics), manufacturing (coal-powered processing), and distribution (gasoline which transports the majority of clothes halfway around the world).
We’ll complete the anti-cotton trifecta here and point out that global cotton production alone produces 220 tons of CO2 per year.
Second, all that clothing that gets thrown away rather than recycled, reused, or composted also contributed to GHG emissions. Even natural fibers like organic cotton are no more sustainable than synthetics if they end up in a landfill. There they’ll biodegrade anaerobically and release methane gas, the most potent of all greenhouse gases.
SOLUTIONS: WHAT TO DO ABOUT FAST FASHION AS A CONSUMER?
A lot of these problems stem from the supply side. So what can we do as consumers?
We can use our buying power to make a difference. We (and so many others) have said this before but it’s so important to remember: Every time we make a purchase (of ANYTHING) we are casting a vote for the types of products we want to see made and subsequently the type of world we want to live in.
By supporting ethical brands that produce sustainable products, we are essentially saying we want more of those products. Fast fashion thrives only because we keep supporting it.
You don’t need to single-handedly change the industry overnight. Start with the “low hanging fruit” and implementing easy consumer changes that don’t require much more than a brief moment of mindfulness before buying.
Here are some things you can do, in order of impact!
DON’T BUY ANY CLOTHES AT ALL
The most sustainable fashion buying decision you can make is to make do with what you already have, through proper care and simple repair techniques.
According to Fashion Revolution, “If we want to see fashion become a force for good, we’re going to have to change the way we think about what we wear and why we wear it. We need to love our clothes more. We need to look at them as precious heirlooms and as trusted friends.”
Learn how to REALLY take care of your things. A few simple ways to extend the life of your wardrobe:
- Wash your clothes less often: Did you know, one wear doesn’t necessarily mean something is dirty?! Shocking! Treat every item of clothes (except maybe your ethical undies) like your favorite pair of sustainable jeans… they just don’t feel the same after a wash.
- Wash on cold: Saves energy and preserves the coloration of your clothing much longer.
- Handwash rather than machine wash: Again, saves energy and won’t shred and stretch your clothes like washing machine agitators.
- Line dry instead of machine dry: Probably the single biggest source of fabric wear-and-tear (far more than actual wear). Think about your dryer’s lint trap for a second; all that came from your clothes.
If something does get stained or damaged, learn how to fix it yourself. Fashion Revolution has a host of how-to resources for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending jumpers so that minor functional issues don’t mean you have to throw it away. Learn proper stain removal techniques for all sorts of stains, too.
If you’re really time poor or a little clumsy with a needle and thread, find someone who can fix it for you (even if it costs a tiny bit more than just buying a new one).
If you’re someone who likes to stay up on the latest trends, get creative with upcycling and repurposing things you own into fresh looks. You can become your own DIY fashion designer! Or again, commission a crafty friend into custom making something for you.
The capsule wardrobe concept and Project 333 demonstrate how few items of clothing you actually need to create a diverse and comprehensive closet.
BORROW, SWAP, AND RENT CLOTHING
Swapping clothing with friends is a great way to freshen up your everyday look without buying anything. Get a group of friends together and hold a closet swap event. That’s a way to not only be fashionably eco friendly, but just have some fun.
Got a fancy fundraising event coming up but nothing suitable to wear? Rather than buying something specific you’ll never wear again, rent and lease clothing from stores near you. Or browse the many online clothing and dress rental companies offering an endlessly sustainable wardrobe from the comfort of your couch.
Or just rock what you have and know that you are awesome for doing so! Fashion is 9/10 confidence anyway.
BUY USED CLOTHING
If you like getting clothes, at least challenge yourself to #NeverBuyNew.
There is a whole world of preloved and vintage clothing out there at your disposal (and for absolutely bargain prices). Ripped jeans are trendy anyway. Why shouldn’t those rips have a genuine story? Giving second life to garments already in existence is a great way to both satisfy your inner fashionista and stay more sustainable.
With so many great online thrift stores you don’t even have to leave your home or sift through endless racks that smell like your grandmother’s basement.
If you have clothes you no longer wear, close the loop by donating them to thrift stores or charity as well. As they say, one man’s last season trends are another man’s aesthetic.
But again, donating is not a fix-all solution, but rather a last resort. Composting cellulose-fiber garments is a better option with tons of environmental benefits, especially for items too worn or with no resale/thrift value (like the majority of fast fashion pieces).
Compost your natural fiber clothing, but ensure it is 100% natural because even small synthetic blends are not compostable. Compost it by first shredding the fabric into small bits, then removing any tags, zippers, buttons, and other embellishments (which you save those for reuse or donate them to a local seamstress).
IF YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO BUY NEW…
…do it consciously. Really scrutinize the options out there and opt for the best quality you can afford.
This doesn’t mean breaking the bank on a new pair of designer jeans; you can easily extend the life of your wardrobe on a budget by buying classic designs that aren’t subject to whimsical in-and-out trendiness. Some things just never go out of style or season!
Implement simple quality checks by looking at the stitching. If the seams are messy or the edges unfinished, avoid it. For visuals guides about the sorts of stitching you should be looking for, check out this Zine by Fashion Revolution.
Most of all, choose brands that take sustainability and ethics seriously. Acknowledge that no brand is 100% sustainable but do your absolute best to decipher which brands are the real deal and making the most impact by doing more right than wrong. Learn which things are simply non-negotiable.
This is where we hope to help. Keep reading to learn all about the criteria we use to determine whether something is sustainable and ethical, and how you can start using it, too.
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN LOOKING FOR SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL FASHION BRANDS
As is the case with ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in the food and cosmetic industry, ‘sustainable fashion’ and ‘ethical fashion’ are not well defined.
On the one hand, this is a positive as these are evolving concepts and subject to ongoing refinement based on present-day needs and ideologies, especially in the case of ‘ethical’, which is, by its very nature, subjective.
On the other hand, however, some argue that without a formal definition, brands and companies are free to make sustainable and ethical claims based on false or misleading audits and standards. That these terms, by and large, serve as nothing more than marketing lip-service in efforts to greenwash what’s really going on.
Because the fashion police don’t police fashion where it matters, it’s up to us as consumers to develop a working understanding of what sort of things constitute sustainable fashion brands.
Of course, with expansive supply chains and the subjectivity of the very notion of ethics itself, there are no easy answers.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL FASHION?
Wikipedia actually has a pretty good general definition so let’s start there: “Sustainable fashion is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice.”
Essentially, ethical and sustainable fashion is an approach towards sourcing, manufacturing and designing clothes which maximizes the benefits to the industry and society at large, at the same time minimizes the impacts on the environment. The two overlap in ideology, but they each have slightly different concerns both equally important to prioritize.
Sustainable fashion to us, predominantly applies to things that are environment-related:
- How the textiles are made (e.g. avoiding the use of pesticides and insecticides by using organic methods)
- What materials are used (e.g. hemp vs nylon)
- What standards are applied (e.g. GOTS or Fair Trade which affects the sustainability of local communities who are involved in the production and manufacture of the textiles)
- Whether the materials are upcycled and / or recycled.
- How the textiles are packaged and whether recycled / recyclable material is used for packaging
- Whether they make use of any energy-saving initiatives
- How wastewater and pollutants are managed and treated
- How they attempt to offset any environmental damage incurred
Ethical fashion deals with the moral side of the industry, namely animal rights, human rights, inclusivity, and supply chain transparency. It asks #WhoMadeMyClothes? and questions like:
- Where are textiles made?
- How much were the workers paid to grow the crops and to make the garments?
- Are their working conditions acceptable?
- How are they treated by their employers?
- Are Fair Trade policies and initiatives followed?
- Do they use animal materials and if so, how do manufacturers or their suppliers treat the animals (e.g. silk and wool)?
- Is their message and sizing inclusive and diverse?
- Do they reveal their fair work policies and factory locations?
- To what extent are they open and transparent about other aspects of their supply chain?
Ethical fashion is not just concerned about who fashion could potentially harm, but who it benefits, as well. Namely, is a brand in it for themselves or do they give back?
- Do they give to charity and / or have any charitable initiatives and policies?
- Do they support their local communities?
Now that we’ve at least sort of cleared up what these terms mean, let’s dive into how you can tell if a company meets these sustainable and ethical fashion criteria.
LOOK FOR SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS
Choose garments made from sustainable fabrics and materials.
This is one of the most important sustainability criteria, and it’s also a massive source of industry greenwashing. For example, companies may claim their garment is compostable, even though by certification standards, it can’t actually break down in a home composter. It’s especially important to remember here that biodegradable does not necessarily mean compostable.
Companies may also claim their fabrics are sustainable and biodegradable, even though they’ve been treated with chemical dyes that would contaminate wherever it biodegrades. All things to be aware of when looking at the choice of fabric.
Let’s start by looking at the types of fibers used in sustainable fashion manufacturing. The most ideal at this point in technology would be fibers that are:
- natural (cellulosic)
- organically farmed
- harvested in the most fair way possible
- fit for purpose (e.g. nice to wear)
- 100% compostable
With that in mind, these are the most sustainable fabrics (not all of them meet the above ambition). Essentially, sustainable fibers fall into one of three categories: natural, processed natural, and recycled synthetics:
NATURAL FIBERS (CELLULOSIC FIBERS)
These are just what they sound like, natural fibers with minimal processing, like cotton (though we don’t include traditionally grown cotton on this list for obvious reasons, already mentioned in this article). Instead, we only want organically grown natural fibers, so it’s important to look for organic certifications. The most important, common certifications are:
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Upholds strict ethical and ecological criteria for fibers, which must be produced 100% biologically from seed to shelf. This means no chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, or even machine harvesting at any stage in the manufacturing from packaging and labeling, must meet these criteria.
- Oeko-Tex 100: Ensures the fabrics and devices used to process them do not contain any harmful chemicals like heavy metals colorants, preservatives, and formaldehyde. It also keeps everything at a skin-friendly pH. Be careful here because (as we’ll see shortly) this cert can apply to either raw or finished materials, but not necessarily both, which leaves some room for greenwashing if we’re not careful.
- USDA-Certified Organic: This certification only applies to the raw material level. It says something was made with USDA-certified organic crops, but says nothing of the processing beyond that.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): Ensures plants are harvested using sustainable methods from well-managed forests. This minimizes the risk of deforestation as well as the endangerment of animals and ecosystems due to careful control of where sourcing occurs.
- Bluesign: Focuses on healthy, eco friendly production methods. It accounts for things like water conservation, dye toxicity, and chemical exposure both for workers and customers.
- Better Cotton Standard: The Better Cotton Initiative is the largest cotton sustainability program in the world. This certification is awarded based on seven social and economic sustainability principles including minimization of harmful crop protection (i.e. pesticides), water stewardship, soil health, biodiversity preservation, fiber quality, promotion of decent work for employees, and effective management.
Those are the biggest sustainable fabric certifiers (though there are a few more specific ones we’ll list below with their appropriate fabrics):
Organic Cotton: Cotton grown and processed without any chemicals, including pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic cotton certifications also ensure cotton farmers are treated and paid fairly, and work in safe, hygienic conditions. Organic cotton farming also requires 88% less water, and 62% less energy than traditional cotton.
- Certifications: Better Cotton Standard, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic
Recycled Cotton: Repurposed cotton derived from post-industrial (fabric scraps from manufacturing) or post-consumer (thrown away garments) waste. Recycled cotton is sustainable in the sense that its putting waste that would have otherwise gone to the landfill to use.
It’s unsustainable in the sense that it’s pretty much impossible to regulate or determine the types of cotton that came together to make it or how any of that was grown. There’s no way to organically certify recycled cotton because we just don’t know. The only certification it can obtain is Oeko-Tex 100, which would test the finished product for chemicals.
- Certifications: Oeko-Tex 100
Organic Hemp: One of the oldest fibers around and is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics. Aside from converting into fabric sustainability, it requires 50%+ less water than even organic cotton and no pesticides.
It’s also incredibly useful, being excellent at temperature regulation, both in hot and cold climates and has natural UV protective properties. Hemp can be converted into fabric sustainably
- Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic
Organic Linen: Linen is pretty much identical in sustainable growth and manufacturing and fabric properties as hemp but instead derived from the flax plant.
- Certifications: Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic
Organic Bamboo in (raw form, not processed), often called Bamboo Linen: Bamboo is one of the fastest renewing plants on earth as it can be harvested without killing the core plant. It also requires only natural rainfall to grow and consumes more carbon dioxide than hardwood trees.
Bamboo linen is made in a similar way to other types of linen (like hemp or flax per the above), using a process that is largely mechanical. This type of bamboo fabric is a bit rougher… i.e. not the super soft bamboo you’ve probably come to find very attractive and unfortunately, not very common, it’s unlikely you’ll come across this fabric much!
Bamboo must be approached cautiously as it can either be one of the most sustainable fibers or the least, depending on how it’s made into fabric. We’ll talk a lot more about this in the next section on processed natural fibers, which are the much more common types of bamboo fabric (Rayon/Viscose and Lyocell)
- Certifications for Organic Bamboo in raw form: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic
Protein fibers: These are all animal-based fibers and are thus not vegan. They include things like leather, wool & merino wool, down, silk, angora, alpaca, llama, cashmere, mohair, camel, and vicuna. To read more about our thoughts on these, check out our article on Sustainable Fabrics.
- Certifications: Leather Working Group, Responsible Down Standard (RDS), Responsible Wool Standard (RWS), Climate Beneficial by Fibershed (usually for wool)
Pros of natural fibers:
- If unblended, they don’t contain any plastic
- Should be compostable at the end-of-life
- Plenty of certification bodies making identifiying good options easier
Cons of natural fibers:
- For protein fibers, ethical treatment of animals can be a serious concern
- Some require heavy water use to grow (linen, hemp, and bamboo being the primary exceptions)
- Heavy chemicals used in growing (if not organic)
- Sustainable harvesting and deforestation concerns (especially in China for non-organic bamboo farms)
- Are often blended with synthetic fibers for their stretch and moisture-wicking abilities but are still marketed as natural
PROCESSED NATURAL FIBERS (PROCESSED CELLULOSIC FIBERS)
These have natural fiber bases that have been converted into a different type of fabric. These include:
TENCEL Lyocell: Often called by its brand name TENCEL (it’s by Austiran Lenzing Industry’s TENCEL brand), lyocell converts wood pulp into a fibre which can then be turned into a fabric. The solvent spinning manufacturing process used is made with a totally closed-loop process that uses non-toxic cellulose solvents (like amine-oxide) rather than sulfuric acid. All water and 99% of the chemicals can be recovered and reused for the same process over and over again. TENCEL fibres were largely marketed as made from eucalyptus but now appear to be made from various types of wood pulp from sustainably managed sources.
What we really like about these fibers is that “TENCEL™ standard Lyocell and Modal fiber types have been certified by the Belgium certification company Vinçotte as biodegradable and compostable under industrial, home, soil and marine conditions, thus they can fully revert back to nature” – TENCEL
- Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
TENCEL Modal: Also made by Lenzine and often confused with Lyocell because it was lyocell’s predecessor, Tencel Modal is made from the wood pulp of beech trees. The process is slightly different than Lyocell’s but it’s still closed-loop and produces a very similar soft fabric (if only a bit thinner and lighter).
- Certifications: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
Bamboo: Before we get stuck into the detail, given there is a ton of confusion and opportunity for greenwashing in the bamboo industry, here is a short summary on Bamboo fabrics which come in 3 forms, all of which vary in their sustainability attributes:
- Ultra natural/raw form Bamboo Linen (as mentioned above): rougher fabric but can made sustainably using a mechanical and organic process, although sadly not very commonly used
- Bamboo Viscose/Rayon: Most common form of bamboo fabric, given it’s soft silky feel. Made from bamboo fibre and processed using harmful amounts of chemicals and energy. Not considered sustainable.
- Bamboo Lyocell: Also soft and silky. Also made using a chemical process but made in a closed-loop system where the chemicals are re-used over and over again. More sustainable than viscose/rayon
For, more this is the best guide we’ve been able to find on Bamboo – key details elaborating on the above, included below:
Bamboo Viscose / Rayon:
Bamboo rayon is not a sustainable option and sadly, it makes up a large portion of “bamboo fabrics”.
Turning bamboo into rayon viscose requires a huge amount of water and toxic chemcials (like sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulfuric acid), which puts the workers who handle these fabrics at extreme health risk, not to mention the toxic environmental impact.
This form of bamboo “has largely been discredited as an [eco friendly] alternative source.” Bamboo Rayon cannot be GOTS certified.
This leaves room for tons of greenwashing. Lots of companies will claim their products are just bamboo rather than rayon made from bamboo. Can you say bamboo-zled?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US now requires companies using bamboo rayon to actually say on the label “rayon made from bamboo” so as to avoid greenwashing.
Best to avoid Bamboo Rayon/Viscose (and all other types of rayon) altogether.
Much like TENCEL, Bamboo Lyocell is made using less toxic chemicals in a closed-loop system. This means the chemicals are re-used over and over again and that workers and the environment are not exposed.
This one still has us bamboozled because there seem to be a bunch of sustainable brands using “sustainable” bamboo lyocell but we just could not find any suppliers that actually seem to make sustainable lyocell, unlike TENCEL Lyocell where it’s very clear that sustainability has been included in product design (e.g. FSC certified wood sources). We eventually found Monocel® (although they seem to keep a low profile and don’t have much information available) and Ettitude, the bedding manufacturer have made their own CleanBamboo™ process.
Before buying bamboo lyocell products, we’d recommend checking in with the brand to understand their sustainability metrics more fully.
- Certifications for Organic Bamboo in raw form: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Oeko-Tex 100, Bluesign, USDA-Certified Organic
- SCOBY: Kombucha drinkers may be familiar with this one. The live cultures used to make this delicious probiotic drink can be dried into a material similar to leather.
- QMilk: Not vegan-friendly as it’s made from the casein protein in milk. It produced a silky fabric that’s naturally antibacterial and hydrophobic. It’s 100% compostable, thermo-bondable (meaning it can be bonded with heat rather than harsh chemicals) and they self-label as the “material of the future”.
- S.Cafe: Made from spinning ground coffee beans into yarn. The conversion process takes very little energy and the fabric dried 200% faster than cotton as well as provides natural UV protection. Only con (or pro depending on how you view it) is that it always smells a bit like coffee)
- Qmonos: Quite possibly the weirdest option here, this pioneering Japanese fabric (still in testing mode) is a vegan silk alternative made from synthetic spider silk. Using biotechnology, the company Spiber Inc has achieved this through non-chemical microbial fermentation. Pretty futuristic!
- Pinatex: A durable, vegan-friendly leather substitube made from pineapple leaves. It provides a use for the scrap leaves which typically have no other value. The decortication production process requires no harsh chemicals. It’s often combined with wood-derived PLA and would be totally biodegradable/compostable except that it is currently typically coated with resins that are not. Though being such young technology, we have hopes that it develops more into being a totally compostable option
Pros of processed natural fibers:
- Very soft and versatile fabrics that better mimic the abilities of petroleum-base synthetics
- Still (typically) compostable at end-of-life
Cons of processed natural fibers:
- With some fabrics, greenwashing can be a problem as in some cases, harsh chemicals and plasticizers are used to convert raw natural material into workable fibers.
- Subsequent human rights and environmental concerns about exposure to these chemicals and runoff from factories
- Plenty of oppotortunity for greenwashing given confusing processing methods
RECYCLED SYNTHETIC FABRICS
There are some crazy innovations going on in the Waste-to-Wardrobe world.
These are comprised of recycled synthetic fibers which typically have a plastic petroleum-base (i.e. polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, polyethylene, and polypropylene). The most common type of recycled synthetic is made of PET (plastic #1) like old single-use water bottles.
Some specific recycled synthetic fibers are:
Produced by the Italian company Aquafil, this is one of the most notable recycled synthetics. It’s made from recovered ocean plastics such as ghost nets, or abandoned fishing nets which make up 1/10th of all ocean plastic.
ECONYL is a great option for making stretchy yet shape retaining fabrics that just can’t be accomplished with natural fibers. That’s why it’s used in a lot of ethical swimwear and ethical activewear.
Not super well-known or used as of yet, Taiwanese company, Spanflex is fully recycled spandex certified by the Global Recycle Standard (GRS). The holding company (Sheico group) is certified by Bluesign. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet seen much of Spanflex in the market, hoping this will change.
Recycled synthetic fabrics may not have quite as good of an end of life outcome as biodegradable fabrics but they’re still far better than their virgin synthetic counterparts and to us, using existing plastic that is currently polluting our waterways is a win.
Pros of recycled synthetics:
- Repurposes non-biodegradable plastic waste already in the system, reducing plastic building up in landfills and oceans and reducing the need for crude oil harvesting
- Often linked to social enterprises to collect the plastic from the oceans or from developing countries (e.g. collecting ghost nets and getting paid a fair wage)
- Manufacturing requires up to: 90% less water, 85% less energy, and produces up to 90% fewer CO2 emissions
- Can be recycled pretty much infinitely, repeatedly melted down and remade into new fibers (but this hinges on consumers properly recycling them)
Cons of recycled synthetics:
- They’re still plastic so there’s just really no good end of life outcome (except for recycling)
- Produce microfibres in the wash (solved with a guppy bag)
- Lots of potential for greenwashing (some companies say they use “recycled materials” when really it’s just a small percentage of the blend)
ECO FRIENDLY FABRIC DYES
Even if you have a totally organic cotton t-shirt, it’s not sustainable, eco friendly or compostable if it’s saturated with toxic dyes that used excessive amounts of water and damage communities…
So what are the options?
- Eco-friendly, natural dyes: Colorlfix is one example and a particularly innovative one where a group of scientists figured out how to use non-polluting renewable chemistry to create natural dyes that use 10 times less water and are non-toxic. Their dyes can be used on both synthetic and natural fabrics. Others innovations are contributing to solving the problem including developing dyes from agricultural waste
- For synthetic fabrics: CO2 dyeing, created by Dyecoo, uses no water, less energy and 100% of the dye itself (no wasted dye). Another company called Colrep uses patented AirDye technology, also using less water and less energy.
- Digital Printing: The industry is very short on good information on the sustainability of digital printing. While most seem to agree it uses less water, the concern seems to be about the inks used. Kornit seems to be the most advanced, using a waterless system and non-toxic inks.
You’re probably wondering how on earth you figure out what dyes or inks were used. Once again, your best bet (outside of asking the question of the brand) is to go for companies that are Bluesign certified and/or GOTS certified.
LOOK FOR SUPPLY CHAIN SIZE AND TRANSPARENCY
As important as environmental impact is, it’s only part of the picture. We have to make sure the social side is up to scratch across the entire supply chain. For that, we need some degree of transparency from the company.
As we mentioned above, full transparency across spider web-like supply chains is a lot to ask, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be demanding to know: #WhoMadeMyClothes?
SMALL, CONTROLLED SUPPLY CHAINS
While brands themselves may not be able to obtain perfect transparency, they can try, especially by trying to minimize their supply chain. Smaller supply chains mean more control and fewer unknown variables. Some good indications that a company has a pretty good handle on their supply chain:
- Products are made in their base country (i.e. made in the USA or made in the UK)
- Products are made in developed countries where workplace health and safety codes are more strictly enforced and employees are paid living wages.
- Small product line: The larger the offerings and the wider the types of materials, the larger the supply chain. Smaller offers mean more control. Solid brands don’t need to offer a huge array of garments, just a few simple things made really well will do. Our society’s valuation of convenience and the one-stop-shop isn’t always best.
- They utilize small, family-owned factories.
If companies do source and manufacture overseas (particularly developing countries), make sure they regularly audit these factories (see the next section for certifications on this) and suppliers by either hiring third-party auditors or directly visiting their factories on a regular basis.
TRANSPARENCY IS IMPORTANT!
We understand that larger brands with huge product lines simply can’t keep everything small, but if they can’t, they need to be open about their sourcing. We want to not only see them claiming to have ethical supply chains and sustainable sourcing, we want them to tell us exactly where things were made. That way, we as consumers can judge the ethics for ourselves.
Transparency leads to accountability which leads to CHANGE.
This is essentially the thinking behind Fashion Revolutions Transparency Index. Starting in 2017, they conduct a yearly survey of 200 major fashion brands on supply chain transparency, which includes factors like policy and commitments, governance, traceability, fixing, and spotlight issues.
In the 2019 Transparency Index, the average transparency was a dismal 21%, with no brand scoring above 70%. That may seem sad, but on the bright side, they’ve seen marked improvements each year of the survey (5% since 2018 where no brand scored about 60% and 9% since 2017 where no brand scored above 50%).
The demand for transparency is working, but as Fashion Revolution reminds us:
“Transparency alone is not enough to fix the industry’s problems, but it is a necessary first step towards wider systemic change. Transparency shines a light on issues often kept in the dark. […] Transparency helps to reveal the structures of fashion industry so we can better understand how to change this system in a fundamental, long-lasting and positive way.”
LOOK FOR ETHICAL BUSINESS PRACTICES
Once a company has disclosed some of their business practices and sourcing habits, we can start to examine whether or not they can be considered ethical.
BEWARE OF GREENWASHING IN “ETHICAL” FASHION
Again, greenwashing is a big concern here and companies can claim to be doing something special when really they’re just adhering to basic human rights laws across the fashion industry (as lax as they may be). There are just some key human rights standards every company should adhere to and they’re not special or extra ethical for doing so.
One baseline ethical standard is the Social Accountability Standard International SA8000, which ensures fair treatment of laborers. Though even here “fair treatment” is pretty loosely defined and only encompasses really big issues like no child labor (duh) and meeting a country’s minimum wage (which, let’s be honest, isn’t worth crediting the business with ANY gold stars in developing countries).
Unfortunately, companies have gotten so good at greenwashing that they require an absurd amount of mental gymnastics to see through it.
ETHICAL FASHION CERTIFICATIONS
Fortunately, other corporations exist to do the work so we don’t have to (or at least not quite as much).
The most bulletproof way to know a company isn’t BS-ing you is to look for special (non-mandatory) certifications obtained through third-party audits. Much like different fabrics can be certified, entire supply chains can be certified for ethical practices as well.
The big two (meaning the strictest and hardest to obtain) are:
- B-Corp: This is the top-tier all-encompassing certification, for both ethical and sustainable criteria. To get this certification, a business and its entire supply chain must meet high standards across 80 “impact areas” both environmental and social. This audit is repeated on a yearly basis in order to maintain the certification.
- Fair Trade: There are lots of different certifying entities here, like the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) along with individual chapters such as the North American Fair Trade Federation, Fair Trade USA, Fairtrade Foundation, and Fairtrade International
While these are not ALL the ethical fashion certifications out there, here are some other common, reputable ones:
- Ecocert: “Independent and impartial certification body assessing the conformity of a product, service or system with environmental and social requirements specified in a standard” – standards vary depending on what’s getting certified. For example they have an organic farming certification, a Fair Trade certification and an organic and ecological textiles certification.
- Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP): Another voluntary certification but its 12 principles should be considered a requirement for every company. Examples inlcude: no forced labor, no child labor, no harassment or abuse, fairly limited work hours, non-discrimination, healthy and safe workplace, and utilization of environmentally-conscious practices.
- International Labour Organisation (ILO)
- Worker Rights Consortium
- Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI)
- Labour Behind the Label
- International Corporate Responsibility Roundtable (ICAR)
- Clean Clothes Campaign
- Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI)
INCLUSIVITY AND DIVERSITY
This is the final criteria we use when judging the human rights side of a fashion company. While it’s not a make-or-break-it standard, we really do our best to prioritize brands that are size inclusive and promote diversity in their product image (such as through models chosen).
We say it’s time to end the days of flipping through fashion catalogues and seeing nothing but blonde skeletons. The thigh gap is a lie!
Truly ethical companies will make clothes for all genders, no matter their size, body type, or skin tone.
LOOK AT THE END-OF-LIFE OUTCOME
Sustainable clothing should be made with durability in mind. In other words, it should last a long time. Look for brands that use robust materials and back them with a lifetime warranty (if they do that, chances are they’re pretty confident in the quality of their product).
But even the best made fabrics do break down eventually. Sustainable brands will consider that inevitability when designing their products and business model. Look for companies that offer repair or return programs. If they do take things back, do they recycle them?
You can also look for products bearing a Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification. Products can have one of five levels (basic, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) depending on the LOWEST score they receive when assessed for five things: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
LOOK FOR BRANDS THAT MINIMIZE THEIR IMPACT
As important as product impact is, we also need to pay attention to operational impact, by looking for brands that consider other components of their business.
Aside from minimizing impact through fabric choices and garment durability, companies should minimize their impact through:
Handmade production elements: The less a company relies on machines, the less energy they consume and machine emissions they create. On the other side of the token, hand-making creates more jobs.
Zero Waste Packaging: Look for compostable shipping materials, tags, sleeves, etc. Or can the packaging be returned to be reused again?
Shipping: Do they use carbon neutral shipping services? Do they only ship by ground and freight? Do they ship overseas? Last mile logistics (which refers to the final step of the delivery process from a distribution center or facility to the end-user) account for a lot of GHG emissions. The better companies will avoid shipping overseas and avoid shipping by air.
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid carbon emissions. Conscious companies will be aware of this and purchase carbon offsets to account for it and any other sustainability gaps in the considerations above. Or offer for customers to pay extra to offset emissions from shipping!
Office policies on waste and impact: Conscious companies will operate low waste themselves, implementing office/factory recycling and composting, utilizing renewable energy, and eliminating as much waste as possible.
Deadstock waste: How do they handle it? Most companies don’t say (unless they offer a recycling program where even returned used items get remade into new products). It wouldn’t hurt to ask! Obviously burning is not the answer we’re looking for.
The ideal is that companies don’t overproduce products or best of all (though rare except among very small fashion brands) is companies that operate on a made-to-order basis. That way you know there’s never any wasted products being made.
LOOK FOR BRANDS THAT GIVE BACK
We like brands that are in it for more than just personal profit. Those that use their profits to better the world in some way, whether it be giving money to charities or organizing events and initiatives.
The 1% for the Planet Program (founded by Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard) is one of the most reputable give-back programs. Being a member essentially holds brands accountable for giving back a set amount on a regular basis.
Just be aware that giving back is not everything. In fact, it’s pretty low on the priority list compared to every other criteria. It’s also not uncommon for companies to hide their unethical business practices with well-promoted give-back scheme.
TOOLS TO HELP
Good on You: This website and app combo provides a free fashion brand directory that conveniently allows you to search by brand or article of clothing to see the full gamut of sustainability stats.
Rank a Brand: Similar to Good on You but a bit older, Rank a Brand helps you answers the question, “How sustainable is your favorite brand?” They provide comparisons for clothing and shoe companies, ranked on both sustainability and social responsibility.
GET INSPIRED BY WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FASHION INDUSTRY
Well, that’s largely up to us. We’ve seen monumental progress and truly innovative changes happening within the fashion industry.
Still, the huge amount of work left begs the question: Is it truly sustainable fashion even possible? Or is it just an oxymoronic attempt to cleanse our conscience?
Maybe fashion will never be sustainable by absolute ideals, and industry recognition of that fact is a sign of the truly better fashion companies out there.
Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia and their anti-growth business model is arguably one of these (scoring among the top spots in Fashion Revolution’s 2019 Transparency Index survey at 64%). Still, founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard writes in his memoir Let My People Go Surfing:
“Patagonia will never be completely socially responsible. It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.”
Perhaps then sustainable and ethical fashion as distinct from fast fashion should not be thought of as a dichotomy but rather on a spectrum. Some brands and businesses are just further along the line than others.
This approach is not only conscious of, but also allows for, a changing landscape of what constitutes as sustainable and ethical. It also encourages brands and businesses to improve, rather than creating an “us and them” scenario.
FAST FASHION COUNTERMOVEMENTS AND COMMUNITIES
If you need some inspiration about proof that change can happen, we encourage you to tap into these resources. Below are some of the most notable movements and entities pushing to make fashion a force for good.
Designer Kate Fletcher’s answer to fast fashion. Borrowing from the Slow Food Movement, Slow Fashion encapsulates much of what made that trend successful: awareness, responsibility, quality over quantity, protection of cultural identities, choice and information.
Slow Fashion, she envisaged, would enable “a richer interaction between designer and maker; maker and garment; garment and user” and the future would herald “an opportunity for business to be done in a way that respects workers, environment and consumers in equal measure”.
The founder of Fashion Revolution Week, which is perhaps the best expression of the power of the purchaser is the world’s largest fashion activism movement. The annual event takes place over the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster on April 24. In many ways, Fashion Revolution Week has formalized the Slow Fashion Movement.
There are now teams in more than 100 countries across the globe and hundreds of thousands of people attending local events asking the simple question #WhoMadeMyClothes. The aim is to open a dialogue with retailers and brands, to look at their supply chain and encourage transparency.
Fashion Revolution aims to reform the fashion industry via the 3 M’s: Model, Material, and Mindset. They are an AMAZING resource for all your fashion industry facts as well as updated info about counter-fast fashion movements. We could (and have) spent all day just browsing their information to help us be better consumers.
This UK based charity is working toward a circular fashion economy by stopping clothes from being thrown away. They “turn clothes waste into funds and resources to reduce the environmental and social impacts of our clothes”. They do this by increasing clothes reuse and educating people about the impacts of textile waste and production.
The FFC works with fashion industry CEOs to develop market-based solutions that economically incentivise a shift toward sustainable business practices. It’s essentially a think tank for coming up with ways fashion can be not just neutral, but a positive force in the world.
One of their projects is setting up a sustainability accounting standards board for the fashion industry.
We did a more in-depth analysis of this organization as well as interviewed their founder, Cara Smyth on our podcast.
This nonprofit aims to educate people about the problems of fashion as well as turn the tides on the industry. They started by making documentaries designed to bring people “face to dace with the women who make our clothes”.
They’ve got a ton of great resources for learning the ins-and-outs of sustainable fashion, including the Pre-Loved Podcast and a film archive exposing the realities of the fashion industry across the world. All these films are short and must-sees.
To really get a grasp on what circular fashion means, check out their circular fashion workbook.
In 2020, the SAC will launch the Higg Product Module (Higg PM), which will help companies determine the full life-cycle impact (seed-to-shelf, socially and environmentally) when produced at an industrial scale. This could be a huge turning point in creating a more widely accepted set of sustainable fashion criteria and legally enforced corporate responsibility.
If all this inspired you to learn more about the glitter and glue that holds together the fashion industry, these are some resources to get you started.
- Fashion Revolution’s Zine How to Be a Fashion Revolutionary
- Fashion Revolution’s Zine #001 Money Fashion Power
- Fashion Revolution’s Zine #002 Loved Clothes Last
- Wear No Evil by Greta Eagan
- Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
- Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes by Andrew Brooks
- Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change by Kate Fletcher
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SUSTAINABLE AND ETHICAL FASHION
We know this article has been overwhelming, with lots of fatiguing figures and some inspiring innovations. The fashion industry has just gotten so out of control, it takes a lot to understand the full picture.
We do our best here at Sustainable Jungle to put in the work so you don’t have to and now you hopefully have somewhat of an understanding of how we approach our sustainable fashion guides. We will always look for brands that meet as many of these ideals as possible and adequately mitigate their impact.
Here’s a list of all our ethical fashion brand listings (so far):
- Sustainable Clothing Brands (Master List)
- Online Thrift Stores
- Clothing & Dress Rental Online
- Ethical Underwear
- Ethical Activewear
- Ethical Swimwear
- Ethical Lingerie
- Ethical & Fair Trade Dresses
- Ethical Sneakers
- Eco Friendly T-shirts
- Eco Friendly & Recycled Flip Flops
- Sustainable Mens Clothing
- Ethical & Fair Trade Sweaters
- Eco friendly & Ethical Sandals
- Ethical & Fair Trade Pajamas
- Sustainable & Ethical Jeans
- Eco friendly & Ethical Slippers
- Eco friend Sweatpants
- Recycled Flip Flops
- Gender Neutral Clothing
- Ethical Winter Coats
- Eco Friendly Sunglasses
- Ethical Plus Size Clothing
- Eco Friendly Socks
- Eco Friendly Handbags
- Upcycled Clothing
- Fair Trade Scarves
- Eco Friendly Watches
- Dress Rental Online
- Ethical Jewelry Brands
- Eco Friendly Bedding
- Organic Linen Curtains
- Eco Friendly Pillows
- Eco Friendly Sofas
- Sustainable Mattress
Please let us know if you have any concerns with any of the brands on any of our lists. As much time and energy as we put into researching them, fashion is a fickle friend and we know that we fall victim to greenwashing from time to time. We’re human, too!
So collaborate with us and help us find the brands truly worth supporting, the ones that aim to make fashion a force for good. Styles come and go, but sustainability preserves the planet for a lifetime. Let’s all aim to make the most popular fashion trend of the future one that makes a positive impact on the world.