When I started this blog I didn’t think there was a need to write an article that explains what is sustainable fashion. Sustainable energy, sustainable food, sustainable fashion – it’s all everybody talks about these days. Well, as it turns out, people don’t talk about it. That was just my social bubble.
People around me actually have no idea what is sustainable fashion. They think it’s okay to buy a garment at Zara because it’s made of cotton. They think cheaper clothes are better because you don’t have a responsibility to take care of them, you can just replace them with more cheap clothes. And the list goes on.
So here I am, writing a comprehensive guide through sustainable fashion. Because we all need it.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE FASHION
I don’t think that a widely accepted definition of sustainable fashion even exists today. Some sources say it’s a movement that suggests using eco-friendly practices, others say that it also includes social justice. If you ask me sustainable fashion is the one that doesn’t hurt the environment, animals or humans who work with it.
This means that every other type of fashion is harmful to the environment, animals and/or humans who work with it. You might have read this already and thought it’s a bit farfetched or just something that’s modern right now. But this is actually true and it’s hurting the planet more than we can imagine. Let’s see how.
WHAT ARE SUSTAINABLE FIBERS
In order for us to buy a piece of clothing, this piece has to be made somehow, somewhere by someone. This process is very complex and can be harmful to the environment and people in every one of its stages. If we put aside the design and concept, the first step in the actual making of a garment is the raw material. In this case fibers.
Clothes can be made from natural or artificial fibers. The natural ones can come from plants (mostly cotton and linen, but also kapok, jute, hemp…) or animals (wool, silk, alpaca, angora, cashmere…). The artificial ones can be made from natural polymers (cellulose, lyocell…) or from synthetic polymers (polyester, polyamide…). Synthetic fibers are obviously the most dangerous ones since they are usually made from oil, natural gas or coal which are all non-renewable resources, they are essentially plastic, they release microplastics when washed (which is how they pollute our oceans, make them acidic and kill the fish, coral reefs and other living things) and should be eliminated from production and use right away. However, natural fibers carry their own problems as well.
In order to use animal fibers we often have to kill or at least hurt the animal. (And I just want to point out that we’re just talking about fibers here. Leather and fur are a completely different story that I’ll write about in future articles.) Therefore, for me, animal fibers can rarely be sustainable. Theoretically, they could be sustainable if we wore A LOT less of them and got our wool or alpaca from local suppliers with a safe working environment and employees who treat animals with dignity.
Plant fibers are, on the other hand, the future. But not in the way we use them now. Let’s just look at cotton. According to WWF, cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Cotton cultivation severely degrades soil quality, it requires fertilizers and pesticides that often harm farm workers who work with it (farmers in India committed suicides over it) and contaminate rivers and lakes. Also, it requires massive amounts of water. In order to produce one kilogram of cotton, you need 20.000 liters of water and that will get you just one T-shirt or one pair of jeans. This is why we need organic cotton, the one that’s grown without pesticides, we also need crop rotation and we need to use as much rainwater as possible as well as other renewable resources like solar or wind power. Also, we need more natural fibers from pineapples or mushrooms which were recently developed and are already used by brands like Stella McCartney or even H&M.
WHAT ARE SUSTAINABLE DYES
When we finally have a healthy, organic and sustainably grown fiber we need to dye it. Chemical dyes are another huge problem in the supply chain since they often hurt the skin and respiratory systems of people who work with them and they need to be disposed of somewhere and somehow which is a step during which they contaminate rivers and our drinking water.
The solution to this is natural dyes since we can find really vibrant colors in our environment from plants like beats, turmeric, onions, tansy and many more. Brands like Pangaia or Fragmentario are already doing it. It’s not impossible.
WHAT IS A FAIR TRADE SUPPLY CHAIN
Once we have grown a sustainable, healthy and organic plant and dyed its fibers with organic, natural dyes, there is still one problem left before we can deal with the end of the supply chain (distribution, sales, marketing…). The garment has to be sewn.
Now, you’ve already realized that people in different parts of the world aren’t treated with dignity or provided with a healthy working environment when it comes to growing the plants or dyeing their fibers afterward. But they aren’t treated with dignity when it comes to sewing either.
There still aren’t sewing bots developed for wide use in the garment industry and that is why human skills are fundamental. However, there are huge social inequalities in the garment industry across the world. There are cases of violence, oppression, negligence, and all of this leads to modern slavery that is very real and has huge consequences. The disaster that happened at Rana Plaza, Bangladesh in 2013 is just one example where over a thousand garment workers died when the building collapsed due to a structural fail what the workers kept warning their employers about but were forced to keep working. These people, mostly women, made clothes for brands like Mango and Benetton, clothes that all of us in the West wear so carelessly. Think about that when you go shopping.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO MAKE ALL FASHION SUSTAINABLE
This blog is about finding the answer. The garment industry is too big and it can’t just reset with a new law or policy (even though the policymakers should take action as soon as possible). The change comes from us.
First of all, we have to shop less, take care of our clothes and understand that we don’t need that many stuff, that new trends don’t really matter and that we can love and wear quality garments for a very long time. And once we do need to buy something new, we should be very conscious of what we’re buying and of all the steps in the supply chain that a piece of garment has gone through. If you live in Croatia and buy something that was made in Vietnam, you probably won’t be able to retrace those steps back to the source. Just think about that thought for a bit.
The facts in this article were learned from Tansy Hoskins’ “Stitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion”, from UAL’s and Kering’s course “Fashion and Sustainability: Understanding Luxury Fashion in a Changing World” that can be found on Future Learn as well as other sources on the internet like WWF or Fashion Revolution.
Cover photo from @stellamccartney Summer2019 collection.