Fast fashion is a glaringly guilty culprit in the environmental decay we face today
Somehow, the fashion industry has convinced us that we need to buy this season’s clothes…every season. What do they want us to do at the end of the season? Throw it all away and start again!
Honestly, it’s madness, and it’s not sustainable.
Fashion has become one of the biggest sources of pollution on earth. Not only are we actively encouraged to get rid of clothes in what soon amounts to piles and piles of waste – but the way these clothes are produced is often both unethical and unsustainable.
In the past, fashion was often overlooked when we focus on sustainability. Now, people have woken up to the massive damage that the fashion industry has been causing the environment, and sustainable fashion has become a hot topic. Celebrities are endorsing sustainable fashion lines and brands are pushing for more sustainable clothing products. .
It is almost impossible for fashion to be completely sustainable. It almost always uses either unsustainable production methods or unsustainable labor. On top of this, the process of washing clothes and then eventually throwing them away is unsustainable. That is why it is so important to keep sustainability in mind when shopping for new fashion items.
Sustainable fashion is a growing concept, but there is still no clear definition of what sustainable fashion is. Most would agree that sustainable fashion refers to clothes that are manufactured, marketed, and then used in the most sustainable ways possible. The process needs to use as little energy as possible and cause as little environmental harm as possible.
Thankfully, the fashion industry is moving towards sustainability in many ways, and there are a lot of options for people to still look fabulous without supporting unsustainable clothing production.
Supporting sustainable textiles is one of the best ways to support sustainable fashion. Most of the time, when we think of textiles, we think of standard natural products such as cotton, or synthetic fibers such as polyester.
Textile farming accounts for a massive amount of agriculture, yet it is a sector that can be overlooked when we talk about agriculture and ethical farming. Most modern clothing brands are happy to use cheap textiles, but cheaper production is usually a result of two things:
- Unsustainable farming
- Unethical labor practices
Cotton is the go-to for eco friendly clothing manufacturers, but it is often farmed and harvested in unsustainable ways. Cotton is extremely water-intensive. Besides the obvious problem of water wastage, the ways that water is used for cotton farming can also be toxic and harmful to the environments that cotton farms are found in. The water used for cotton farming causes soil salinization and the degradation of soil fertility over time. This leaves land more and more damaged as more cotton is farmed. Eventually, the land becomes useless, and farming will move on to somewhere else – causing more destruction of land and resources. Cotton farming is also extremely energy-intensive and often uses technology that makes use of fossil fuels and adds to the greenhouse gas problem. There is also a pesticide problem in cotton farming. Cotton only uses 2% of agricultural land, yet it can account for 16% of global pesticide use
Cotton farming requires a lot of land for small returns (source)
Despite the harm, cotton is still favored in many fashion brands. Some brands have made a difference by focusing on sourcing sustainably farmed cotton. Cotton can be much more sustainable than the old, conventional methods have allowed.
Some sustainable cotton farms have made efforts to limit their water wastage and find new farming techniques that cause less damage to the land. New irrigation technology has allowed for less water-intensive cotton farming. Cotton farms are also reaching for sustainability by limiting their use of pesticides and herbicides, or by using more environmentally friendly pesticides.
The idea of sustainable cotton farming has birthed the Better Cotton Initiative(BCI), an organization that issues licenses to cotton farmers to recognize their efforts in achieving sustainability. To earn a license, farmers must demonstrate that they adhere to sustainable principles such as limited water and pesticide use, ethical labor, and the use of less harmful farming techniques that do less damage to land used.
The main principles that the BCI strives to achieve are:
- Minimized pesticides
- Efficient water usage
- Care for soil health
- Conservation of natural habitats
- Good quality fiber from sustainable farming practices
- Ethical labor, including no child labor or forced labor
It is great to see cotton farming moving in a better, more eco-friendly direction – but it is still worth exploring all the other options out there. There are so many alternatives to cotton – some more comfortable, soft, warm, and durable than cotton – all with the potential to be equally fashionable.
- Synthetic Cotton
Synthetic cotton is manufactured chemically. The upside is that it does not use farmland or water, and blends can be made with a certain end product in mind. Synthetic cotton blends are often more durable and useful in harsh weather conditions such as rain. The downside is that the chemicals used to make synthetic cotton can be harmful to the environment, as they are often fossil fuel-intensive and create harmful waste and byproducts.
Synthetic cotton (source)
Hemp has been used to make clothes for centuries, and modern developments have transformed hemp gear into the comfortable fibers we have available today. It requires much less water, land, and energy to produce, making it one of the top contenders in sustainability.
Hemp is easily one of the oldest ways to produce clothing. It has been around for centuries and has seen a comeback in recent years. It used to be the go-to product for sturdy and strong clothing and garments and has been making a comeback in recent years. It is durable and more sustainable to farm, so it is fairly obvious why!
It used to be that hemp products were stiff and uncomfortable, but modern technology has allowed it to evolve into a softer, more comfortable and extremely versatile product. Many brands are joining the hemp revolution and making innovative products from the tried and tested fiber.
Hemp clothing modeled alongside hemp plants (source)
Bamboo fiber is cultivated from bamboo grass. It requires hardly any water, no pesticides, and minimal energy. Bamboo plantations prevent soil erosion and improve soil fertility, meaning that bamboo farming can actually improve the land that it is cultivated on, while many other agricultural products destroy farmland. Bamboo fiber has seen a surge of popularity in recent years due to cheap production costs that have come with new harvesting technologies.
Bamboo is one of the most sustainable fibers around. It grows easily without the need for excessive land or resources. Much like hemp, it has a fast turnover and produces more product for less effort. So, it’s really no surprise that the bamboo clothing market is booming.
Bamboo cultivation (source)
Lyocell is a man-made cellulose-based fiber. It is made from wood products with eucalyptus being a favorite. It does not require a lot of watering or any pesticides, making it environmentally friendly. The process of creating lyocell from the cellulose can be quite energy-consuming, so it does have its downfalls, but the production process is improving as the product rises in popularity.
Lyocell has seen a surge of popularity in recent years. It is a fashion favorite due to the beautiful nature that lyocell fabric drapes in. It is also being celebrated for being breathable, comfortable, and of course, it is sustainable.
Lyocell boasts a large list of advantages and is often viewed as a superior fabric for a handful of reasons. It is a durable yet smooth texture with elastic properties that make it resistant to wrinkles. It has become a favorite in the sports fashion world because it is flexible and breathable. It is even said to be more antibacterial than competing textiles due to how breathable it is (as opposed to the moisture trapping nature of cotton).
These advantages make it attractive as a fashion item, but the highlight feature that lyocell offers is its environmentally friendly nature. Lyocell is a biodegradable textile with no harmful byproducts. It is a nontoxic product that requires minimal energy to farm, even though it does sadly consume a lot of energy to be produced. It is significantly less wasteful than other cellulose products. Production time on lyocell and allows a lot to be produced in a small time frame.
The main disadvantage that lyocell poses is its price. It is a fairly new product and it can seem painfully more expensive than traditional fibers such as cotton. We can only hope that with increased demand, the price will fall, allowing it to become a more accessible product.
The synthetic fiber is partially sustainable because it does not require a lot of water to be produced. The downside is that it can require a lot of energy to be made, and is sometimes composed of petroleum-based elements. A lot of work is being done to find new ways to produce polyester and some companies are trying to use recycled fabrics in the production process. It is not the most sustainable option right now, but it could be in the future.
With so many available options, there is hardly any excuse to be using sustainably farmed cotton anymore. More sustainable textiles are being embraced by all kinds of fashion lines. The next hurdle in the road to sustainability in fashion lies within labor practices in clothing and fashion.
Unethical labor practices
Many big names in fashion have built their empires on unethical labor practices. Sweatshops have become somewhat synonymous with fashion production and it is widely known that they are used in poor countries. The information age has shed a lot of light on the hazardous working conditions that some factory workers have been subjected to, and a lot of brands are actively working to eliminate unethical working practices. This is one of the many goals of sustainability in fashion.
A sweatshop is defined by US law as a factory that violates two or more labor laws. Sweatshops are less of a problem in the USA than in underdeveloped countries, but unfortunately, they do still exist as many violations go unnoticed in inspections. In developing countries, it is not uncommon to find children as young as 5 working in a sweatshop. Child labor is especially common in agriculture. Products that commonly come from sweatshops are clothing, garments, bricks, cocoa, cotton, and coffee.
These facts illustrate that sweatshop labor is a huge problem in the fashion production industry. With consumers becoming more aware of sweatshops practices, the good news is that much more is being done to eliminate unethical working conditions. According to the Cambridge Journal of economics, a study showed that doubling the salary of sweatshop workers would only raise retail prices by 1.8%, while most consumers would be willing to pay up to 15% more for products that were guaranteed to not come from sweatshops.
A mass scale sweatshop operation (source)
Consumers will not usually willfully support unethical labor, but it often goes undetected and supported unknowingly. That is why it is so important to look at the brands we are supporting – so that we can limit support towards unethical labor and unethical farming.
The boycotting of sweatshop manufactured items is a choice that consumers need to make. It is always worth looking into where the products that we purchase are coming from. As with many aspects of sustainability, shopping with more consciousness is the only way forward.
There are a lot of actions that consumers can take to support sustainable fashion.
- Upcycling and thrifting
Supporting thrift shops eliminates the need for new clothing to be produced. This is one of the best ways to feel good about sporting items that may not have been sustainably produced.
More and more brands are incorporating recycled fibers into their production process. Eco-friendly clothing limits waste and puts less strain on resources.
- Slow fashion
Slow fashion, as opposed to fast fashion, focuses on sturdy and strong fashion items that are designed to last instead of being worn for one season or one date and then thrown away.
- Support local
Shopping locally is one of the easiest ways to support sustainability. You are supporting your own community while limiting the miles that products have to travel to reach you, meaning that anything bought will automatically have a lower carbon footprint than if it had traveled around the world to meet you!
Following these simple guidelines makes sustainable shopping a much simpler task. There are lots of other tips you can keep in mind, too. Look for organic and non-GMO textiles – and of course, keep more sustainable textiles in mind. Support brands that use fair labor. Repair clothes when possible before throwing them away! Taking small steps towards sustainability can make a huge difference.
Even a few years ago, sustainable fashion might have seemed like an impossible feat. It is becoming more and more achievable. Supporting sustainable fashion brands is supporting a greener earth, and so is making smarter fashion choices. We can all use our consumer power to make the world a better place.