Sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion, also called eco fashion, is a part of the growing design philosophy and trend of sustainability, the goal of which is to create a system which can be supported indefinitely in terms of human impact on the environment and social responsibility. It can be seen as an alternative trend against fast fashion.

Origin and purpose

Sustainable fashion came into the public foray in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well-known companies such as Patagonia and ESPRIT brought "sustainability" into their businesses. The owners of those companies at that time, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins were outdoorsmen and witnessed the environment being degraded by increased use. They commissioned research into the impacts of fibers used in their companies. For Patagonia, this resulted in a lifecycle assessment for four fibers, cotton, wool, nylon and polyester. For ESPRIT the focus was on cotton, which represented 90% of their business at that time.

The principles of sustainable fashion as put forward by these two companies was based on the philosophy of the deep ecologists Arne Næss, Fritjof Capra, and Ernest Callenbach.

The work of these companies influenced a whole movement in fashion and sustainability. They co-funded the first organic cotton conference held in 1991 in Visalia, California. ESPRIT ecollection, developed by head designer Lynda Grose,[1] was launched at retail in 1992 and was based on the Eco Audit Guide, published by the Elmwood Institute. It comprised organic cotton, recycled wool, naturally processed wool, "low impact" dyes (focusing on water energy and toxicity), naturally colored cotton, non electroplated hard wear. Patagonia made a commitment to recycled polyester in 1992 and a company wide commitment to organic cotton in 1996. Both communicated their action for "sustainability" through point-of-sale materials, catalogues and PR. Both supported the work of The Sustainable Cotton Project, which ran farm tours for fashion industry professionals to meet directly with farmers growing organic and IPM cotton in California. Both companies contributed to the US NOSB standards to include organic fiber as well as food.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the movement in sustainable fashion broadened to include many brands. Though the primary focus has remained on improving the impacts of products through fiber and fabric processing and material provenance, Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard were early to note the fundamental cause of unsustainability: exponential growth and consumption. ESPRIT placed and ad in Utne Reader in 1990 making a plea for responsible consumption. Patagonia has since made headlines with its "Don't buy this Jacket" ad in The New York Times.

According to Earth Pledge, a non-profit organization committed to promoting and supporting sustainable development, "At least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into textiles and 25% of the world's pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton. This causes irreversible damage to people and the environment, and still two thirds of a garment's carbon footprint will occur after it is purchased."[2]

With the average American throwing away nearly 70 pounds of clothing per year,[3] the fashion industry is the second largest cause of pollution worldwide.[4]

Slow fashion

Slow fashion, the alternative to fast fashion and part of what has been called the "slow movement", advocates for principles similar to the principles of slow food, which are:[5]

  • Good: quality, flavorsome and healthy food
  • Clean: production that does not harm the environment
  • Fair: accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for producers

The expression "slow fashion" was coined in a 2007 article by Kate Fletcher published in The Ecologist, where she compared the eco/sustainable/ethical fashion industry to the slow food movement:[6]

Some elements of the slow fashion philosophy include: buying vintage clothes, redesigning old clothes, shopping from smaller producers, making clothes and accessories at home and buying garments that last longer. New ideas and product innovations are constantly redefining slow fashion, so using a static, single definition would ignore the evolving nature of the concept.[6]


There are many factors when considering the sustainability of a material. The renewability and source of a fiber, the process of how a raw fiber is turned into a textile, the working conditions of the people producing the materials, and the material's total carbon footprint.

Natural fibers

Natural fibers are fibers which are found in nature and are not petroleum-based. Natural fibers can be categorized into two main groups, cellulose or plant fiber and protein or animal fiber. Uses of these fibers can be anything from buttons to eyewear such as sunglasses.[7]


Cotton is one of the most widely grown and chemical-intensive crops in the world.[8] Conventionally grown cotton uses approximately 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the world's pesticides.[9] Other cellulose fibers include: jute, flax, hemp, ramie, abaca, bamboo (used for viscose), soy, corn, banana, pineapple, beechwood (used for rayon).


Protein fibers originate from animal sources and are made up of protein molecules. The basic elements in these protein molecules being carbon, hydrogen oxygen and nitrogen.[10] Natural protein fibers include: wool, silk, angora, camel, alpaca, llama, vicuna, cashmere, and mohair.


Fibers manufactured from natural materials include: Lyocell and polylactic acid (PLA).

Recycled fibers

Recycled or reclaimed fibers are made from scraps of fabrics collected from clothing factories, which are processed back into short fibers for spinning into a new yarn. There are only a few facilities globally that are able to process the clippings. Variations range from a blend of recycled cotton fibers with added RePET yarns for strength to recycled cotton fibers with virgin acrylic fibers which are added for color consistency and strength.

Upcycled fibers

Upcycled fibers are made from materials that are not originally used to make fibers, or they were thrown away being considered trash from origin. This includes fibers made of plastic and gillnets. An example of the use of this type of fiber can be seen in the shoe Adidas made with Parley for the Oceans.[11]

Another example is fish leather made from fish skins that are a by-product of the food industry.[12] Fish leather tanning is less harmful on the environment due to no hair-removal being required, leading to less solid waste and organic pollutants in the wastewater from the process.[13] Also, no poisonous, explosive hydrogen sulfide gas is released in the process.[14]


Designers say that they are trying to incorporate these sustainable practices into modern clothing, rather than producing "hippie clothes".[15] Due to the efforts taken to minimize harm in the growth, manufacturing, and shipping of the products, sustainable fashion is typically more expensive than clothing produced by conventional methods.[15]

Various celebrities, models, and designers have recently drawn attention to socially conscious and environmentally friendly fashion.

Eastern European prisoners are designing sustainable prison fashion in Latvia and Estonia under the Heavy Eco label,[16] part of a trend called "prison couture".[17]

Ryan Jude Novelline created a ballroom gown constructed entirely from the pages of recycled and discarded children's books known as The Golden Book Gown that "prove[d] that green fashion can provide as rich a fantasia as can be imagined."[18][19]

Eco-couture designer Lucy Tammam uses eri silk (ahimsa/peace silk) and organic cotton to create her eco friendly couture evening and bridal wear collections.[20][21]

Other sustainable fashion labels include Elena Garcia, Nancy Dee, By Stamo, Outsider Fashion, Beyond Skin, Oliberté, Hetty Rose, DaRousso, KSkye the Label,[22] and Eva Cassis.[23][24][25][26][27][28][29]

The sustainable fashion movement has begun to make significant in-roads in the bedding segment of the home fashion category. Brands such as Boll & Branch make all of their products from organic cotton and have been certified by Fair Trade USA.[30]

The Hemp Trading Company is an ethically driven underground clothing label, specialising in environmentally friendly, politically conscious street wear made of hemp, bamboo, organic cotton and other sustainable fabrics.[31]


There are some organizations working to increase opportunities for sustainable designers and increase the visibility of the movement. The National Association of Sustainable Fashion Designers is one of those organizations. Its purpose is to assist entrepreneurs with growing fashion related businesses that create social change and respect the environment.

Sustainable Designers provides specialized triple bottom line education, training, and access to tools and industry resources that advance creative, innovative and high impact businesses. The organization's mission is to create social change through design and fashion related businesses by providing education, training and programs that are transformative to the industry and to cultivate collaboration, sustainability and economic growth.

Red Carpet Green Dress, founded by Suzy Amis Cameron, is a global initiative showcasing sustainable fashion on the red carpet at the Oscars.[32] Talent supporting the project includes Naomie Harris, Missi Pyle, Kellan Lutz and Olga Kurylenko. Undress Brisbane is an Australian fashion show that sheds light on sustainable designers in Australia.[33]

Eco Age, a consultancy company specializing in enabling businesses to achieve growth and add value through sustainability is one of the most recognizable organizations that promote sustainable fashion. Its creative director, Livia Firth, is also the founder of the Green Carpet Challenge which aims to promote ethically made outfits from fashion designers.[34]

Ecoluxe London, a not-for-profit platform, supports luxury with ethos through hosting a biannual exhibition during London Fashion Week and showcasing eco-sustainable and ethical designers.[23][35]

Fashion Takes Action formed in 2007 and received a non-profit status in 2011. It is an organization that promotes social justice, fair trade and sustainable clothing production as well as advances sustainability in the fashion system through education, awareness and collaboration. FTA promotes sustainable fashion via social media, PR, hosting fashion shows, public talks, school lectures and conferences.[36]

The Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship program of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and World Trade Organization, enables artisans living in urban and rural poverty to connect with the global fashion chain.[37][38] The Initiative also works with the rising generation of fashion talent from Africa, encouraging the forging sustainabfdle and fulfilling creative collaborations with artisans on the continent.[39][40] The Ethical Fashion Initiative is headed by Simone Cipriani.

The advent of technology has opened an avenue of apps and websites to streamline ethical fashion experience for customers such as the Higg Index, Free2Workd and FairTrace Tool.[41]


Though organic cotton is considered a more sustainable choice for fabric, as it uses fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, it remains less than 1% global cotton production. Hurdles to growth include cost of hand labor for hand weeding, reduced yields in comparison to conventional cotton and absence of fiber commitments from brands to farmers before planting seed. The up front financial risks and costs are therefore shouldered by the farmers, many of whom struggle to compete with economies of scale of corporate farms.

Though some designers have marketed bamboo fiber, as an alternative to conventional cotton, citing that it absorbs greenhouse gases during its life cycle and grows quickly and plentifully without pesticides, the conversion of bamboo fiber to fabric is the same as rayon and is highly toxic. The FTC ruled that labeling of bamboo fiber should read "rayon from bamboo". Bamboo fabric can cause environmental harm in production due to the chemicals used to create a soft viscose from hard bamboo.[42] Impacts regarding production of new materials make recycled, reclaimed, surplus, and vintage fabric arguably the most sustainable choice, as the raw material requires no agriculture and no manufacturing to produce.[43] However, it must be noted that these are indicative of a system of production and consumption that creates excessive volumes of waste.

Western consumers’ environmental interest is increasing which may motivate companies to use sustainable and environmental arguments solely to increase sales. And because environmental and sustainability issues are complex, it is also easy to mislead consumers. Companies can use sustainability as a “marketing ploy” something that can be seen as greenwashing.[44]

Future of fashion sustainability

On May 3, 2012, the world's largest summit on fashion sustainability was held in Copenhagen, gathering more than 1,000 key stakeholders in the industry to discuss the importance of making the fashion industry sustainable. Copenhagen Fashion Summit has since then gathered thousands of people from the fashion industry in their effort to create a movement within the industry.[45]

In July 2012, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched the Higg Index, a self-assessment standard designed to measure and promote sustainable supply chains in the apparel and footwear industries.[46][47] Founded in 2011, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a nonprofit organization whose members include brands producing apparel or footwear, retailers, industry affiliates and trade associations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, academic institutions and environmental nonprofits.[48][49][50]

The Global Change Award, is a innovation challenge created by the H&M foundation.[51] It created a trend report in 2017 to look at the future of sustainable fashion. Five mega trends are identified by the organization that will lead the future of sustainable fashion. The first mega trend is "Power of Nature" which is the industry looking into materials that have always been looked at as waste as a more sustainable method to making new clothing.[51] The materials that will mitigate negative impacts from the industry include vegan materials from the earth and recycling old fabric into new clothing. The second mega trend is "Rent a Closet" this initiative has been around for a while. This trend ultimately lowers the new purchase of clothing and disposal of clothing, which means less waste.[51] Rent the Runway is an example of the "Rent a Closet" trend. Rent the Runway started as a company that would give luxury brands like Hervé Leger, Vera Wang, Etro to people who may not be able to afford the clothing at regular retail price. Renting and sharing clothing is also known as CFC (collaborative fashion consumption) a sustainable fashion trend consumers are getting involved in.[52] The third trend is "Long Live Fashion" is the revival of Vintage clothing.[51] Vintage clothing is a way to lower the amount of clothing that gets disposed of and ends up in landfills. Companies like RE/DONE, Vintage Twin and Frankie Collective sell re-paired vintage clothing. Repairing and reselling clothing has less negative impact than creating new clothing does. The fourth mega trend is "Innovative Recycling" which is looking at waste as value. The industry is starting to create incentives for consumers to participate in the recycling of clothing.[51]

See also


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Further reading

  • Choi, Tsan-Ming; Cheng, T. C. Edwin, eds. (2015). Sustainable fashion supply chain management: from sourcing to retailing. Springer series in supply chain management. New York: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-12703-3. ISBN 9783319127026. OCLC 907012044. 
  • Farley, Jennifer; Hill, Colleen (2015). Sustainable fashion: past, present, and future. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9780857851857. OCLC 860754344. 
  • Fletcher, Kate (2014) [2008]. Sustainable fashion and textiles: design journeys (2nd ed.). London; Washington, DC: Earthscan. ISBN 9780415644556. OCLC 846847018. 
  • Fletcher, Kate; Grose, Lynda (2012). Fashion & sustainability: design for change. London: Laurence King Publishing. ISBN 9781856697545. OCLC 778610112. 
  • Fletcher, Kate; Tham, Mathilda, eds. (2015). Routledge handbook of sustainability and fashion. Routledge international handbooks. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415828598. OCLC 820119510. 
  • Gardetti, Miguel Ángel; Torres, Ana Laura, eds. (2013). Sustainability in fashion and textiles: values, design, production and consumption. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing. ISBN 9781906093785. OCLC 827952084. 
  • Gwilt, Alison; Rissanen, Timo (2010). Shaping sustainable fashion: changing the way we make and use clothes. London; Washington, DC: Earthscan. ISBN 9781849712415. OCLC 656849440. 
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