Why choose sustainable fashion? And what does sustainable fashion even mean?
The term “sustainable fashion” refers to a movement within the fashion industry to design, produce, and market clothing, shoes, and accessories in a way that minimizes negative environmental and social impacts. Sustainable fashion sometimes also goes by “eco fashion,” “slow fashion,” or “fair trade fashion.”
The mainstream fashion industry has come under massive criticism in recent years for a number of legitimate reasons including its wastefulness, its immense negative impact on climate change, and its poor working conditions. In response, some fashion designers, brands, and retailers have begun to explore more sustainable ways of doing business.
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There are so many reasons to choose sustainable fashion over modern-day “fast fashion.” Let’s backtrack first and dig into the main problems behind fast fashion. Understanding why fast fashion is so harmful will answer the question as to why choose sustainable fashion.
Table of Contents
- The Evils of Fast Fashion
- Why Choose Sustainable Fashion
- Making Your Wardrobe More Sustainable
- Why Choose Sustainable Fashion in a Nutshell
The Evils of Fast Fashion
Wait, What Is Fast Fashion?
Fast fashion describes the quick turnaround of designs from the catwalk to stores. This form of fast manufacturing is possible by mass production with low-quality materials and cheap labour. While fast fashion might appear convenient and affordable to consumers, it is grounded in the exploitation of both workers and the environment.
The rise of fast fashion has coincided with the evolution of a “throwaway culture,” where people are more likely to buy cheap, disposable items rather than invest in well-made, long-lasting pieces.
This form of consumerism puts pressure on fashion brands to keep churning out new designs at ever-faster speeds. In turn, such fast-paced manufacturing puts pressure on consumers to keep up with trends and constantly replace things. It’s a vicious cycle of exploitation on all fronts.
One of the most troubling aspects of fast fashion is its impact on the environment. The mass production of clothing requires huge amounts of water and energy. Let’s take a quick look at what that means.
The Fast Fashion Impact on the Environment, People and Animals
Carbon Footprint & Natural Resources
The fast fashion industry leaves behind a massive carbon footprint and is responsible for a significant percentage of carbon emissions. The production of clothing, bags, footwear, and other fashion items requires a great deal of energy and resources. This results in the huge carbon footprint. After all, the textile industry is the third largest industry after automotives and technology. Additionally, the transportation and distribution of all these items also contributes to their carbon footprint.
Fast fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, contributing to climate change and environmental degradation. The production of clothing and textiles is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 10% of global emissions that are polluting our air and water.
This industry has a significant impact on the environment and is a major catalyst in feeding consumer fuel to keep purchasing, keep up with the latest trends, and thus continue to pollute the planet. It takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow the cotton to make just one pair of jeans (source), not to mention the thousands more litres needed for dying and washing the garment. That equates to over three years’ of drinking water for one person.
All to make just one pair of jeans!
Fast Fashion Hurts Aquatic Life and Animals
The water pollution directly caused by the fast fashion industry is extreme. Today’s fibres often contain microplastics which wind up in our oceans, rivers, and ground water. There, they contaminate aquatic ecosystems and are ingested by marine life.
McKinsey’s The State of Fashion cites ten to twenty percent of the world’s pesticides being used in textile manufacturing, with the solvents and dyes deployed in clothing manufacturing responsible for one-fifth of all the industrial water pollution in the world.
As you can see so far, fast fashion is a hugely problematic industry for a variety of reasons. One of the most egregious, however, is the way it abuses animals.
Because the industry relies on animal products at cheap prices, it is notorious for its animal cruelty. Fast fashion brands often use leather, fur, feathers, wool, and other animal-derived materials in their products. These typically come from factory farms and other cruel environments. They also come from creatures you might not expect them to, such as dogs.
More often than not, these animals live in cramped, filthy conditions where they’re subject to cruel treatment , routine drugging, extreme stress, and tortuous procedures such as dehorning, branding, and mulesing in order to produce the materials that fast fashion brands use.
Our Landfills Are Full of Fast Fashion
The fast fashion industry is built on a model of mass production and consumption. This means that huge amounts of clothing are produced quickly and cheaply, and then sold at low prices. In turn, garments are being discarded at a record rate.
Today’s $5 t-shirts from Shein, Primark, Zara, Trendyol and the like often look scuzzy after just one wash, and every third young woman regards garments she’s worn only once or twice as “old.” A lot of clothing is never even worn once at all. Into the garbage it goes. “It was so cheap, I’ll just get another,” is the new mindset.
Further, the clothes produced by fast fashion brands are often made from synthetic materials that are not biodegradable. They ultimately sit in landfills for centuries. Only a small proportion of old textiles are ever indeed recycled. Manufacturers need many, many million barrels of crude oil a year to make polyester fibre, yet that fabric takes more than 200 years to decompose.
“…while 95 percent of used textiles can be recycled, 85 percent land in the trash.”Ready-to-Waste: America’s Clothing Crisis
In the US alone, 9% of all municipal waste can be attributed to fashion, with the average American discarding roughly 81 pounds of clothing each and every year. This is a problem of preposterous magnitude.
The Fast Fashion Industry is Exploitative
The rise of fast fashion has led to the increased exploitation of workers in the fashion industry, particularly women. Fast fashion brands produce clothing quickly and cheaply in order to meet the latest trends—usually by carbon-copying the designs of real fashion houses right off the runway—, often at the expense of workers’ safety, rights, or even lives. This has resulted in widespread reports of poor working conditions, low wages, and slave-like long hours.
The fast fashion industry has come under fire in recent years for its poor workforce standards. In most cases, workers’ wages in fast fashion factories are exceptionally low. They work excruciatingly long shifts at a fast pace to meet targets, and don’t get proper breaks or time off. Oftentimes their workplace and sleeping quarters at the factory are in a dangerous condition.
It’s hard to forget the death of over 1,100 workers at the Dhaka garment factory in 2013, and that is only one tragic example of the human suffering behind cheap clothing.
These conditions have led to a number of protests and calls for reform from both workers and consumer groups. The fast fashion industry relies on a business model of mass production and quick turnover of inventory. Few, if any, fast fashion brands have proper safety standards in place, which leads to accidents, injuries and sometimes even tragic deaths. As a result of these poor conditions, workers in the fast fashion industry often experience a great deal of stress and anxiety on top of their physical exhaustion.
93% of the brands surveyed by Fashion Checker are not even paying their workers a living wage. This is despicable. Especially when you consider the many factory workers doing 12–18 hour long sweatshop shifts, six days a week.
The Fast Fashion Industry Is Sexist
Fast fashion is also sexist. The industry supports and upholds gendered pay to the disadvantage of women. The industry relies heavily on female workers in its factories, yet pays them less due to their sex. The sexualisation and objectification of women in fast fashion advertising is common practice, and their labour is exploited in order to produce the low-cost clothing. This is a major problem in an industry that is already notorious for its poor treatment of workers.
Even in Western countries, the fast fashion industry typically only pays its largely female workers minimum wage, with no notable benefits and no unionisation.
Why Choose Sustainable Fashion
You may be feeling down in the dumps now, or perhaps even somewhat guilty for your latest H&M purchase. The good news is, it’s never too late to start spending more intentionally, and putting your purchasing power towards different choices. You can still enjoy fashion, and you don’t need to adopt a radical black-white mindset to start curating a conscious closet.
Sustainable Fashion Is Longer Lasting and Better Quality
You know the saying: quality over quantity. Consumers can help protect the environment and prevent exploitation through conscious fashion consumption. Less quantity and more quality means buying fewer clothes, and buying pieces that are better made and therefore last longer. They may be more expensive than cheap goods and you might even need to save up for certain items, but the price will pay for itself over time because you’ll get a better cost-per-wear out of it.
Timeless pieces that never go out of style are always a smart choice. A good trench. Classic loafers. A white shirt and a black blazer that fit well. Real gold or silver hoop earrings. You can combine items like these in a myriad of ways, and wear them for decades or even a lifetime if you take care of them. They’re also easy to update. Instead of buying a bunch of fast fashion items to stay on trend each season, you can refresh your classics by adding a trendy accessory here and there.
If you do get sick of something after some time, timeless styles will still fetch you a good amount on the preloved market. Because they’re classics, they’re always highly sought after!
Another benefit to building your wardrobe around classic staples? It’s simply more relaxing not being subject to constantly changing fashion trends.
If you’d like some inspiration for quality over quantity, check out Harper’s Bazaar’s list of best wardrobe staples, or The Cut’s 50 simple classics.
Sustainable Brands Are More Environmentally Friendly
Sustainable fashion is better for the environment. Eco brands typically use less water and energy in their manufacturing processes, and they generate less pollution and waste. They also take into account the entire life cycle of a garment, from the sourcing of materials to the manufacturing process, through the end of the garment’s life.
Another reason sustainable fashion is better for the environment is that its manufacturers place value in using sustainable materials with a low environmental impact, including recycled and upcycled materials. Plus, natural resources like bamboo and hemp require less water and land to grow, and they also release fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
They also use manufacturing processes that are gentler on the environment and require less water and energy. Finally, sustainable fashion brands often have programs in place to ensure their garments are properly recycled or upcycled at the end of their lifespan. All of these factors add up to clothing that has a much lower environmental impact than a traditionally manufactured garment.
Fabrics like organic cotton can also be grown without the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides. Not to mention they’re coloured using natural dyes, which are less toxic and polluting than their synthetic counterparts.
When purchasing your next piece of clothing, look for a label specifying organic materials or sustainability. You’ll not only help reduce the burden on the environment, but you’ll also be supporting social ethics because sustainable fashion brands tend to provide better working conditions and and pay their labourers a living wage.
Making Your Wardrobe More Sustainable
So now you have a better understanding of everything that’s wrong with the fast fashion industry. But how can you can start making your own wardrobe more sustainable? There are a number of different ways.
Buy Pre-Loved, Vintage and Second-Hand
You can buy and sell clothing in second-hand shops, online, and at flea markets. The number of marketplaces out there is huge, and there’s something for everybody regardless of age, sex, or personal style. Going the second-hand route is great for the environment because less has to be produced. Plus it can save you a load of money and you can find inexpensive, unique garments that no one else has. Or even special editions and valuable vintage outfits.
Check out my top tips for online marketplaces, which includes a run-down of the most popular sites for buying and selling online.
Swapping clothes is another environmentally friendly way to get your hands on some new outfits. Your friends, family or colleagues might love some of the stuff you’ve banned from your wardrobe and vice-versa. In many cities, there are public clothes swaps with a larger selection to choose from, and some apps like Vinted allow users to trade clothes.
You might also consider hosting a private clothes swap party. Invite some friends over and ask each person bring the same number of garments. Have some drinks and nibbles on hand, and trade your old duds amongst one other. If there’s anything left over, donate it to your favourite charity!
Borrow or Rent Instead of Buying
For special events and one-time occasions such as weddings, festivities, or celebrations, it’s often not worth buying a new outfit. The workaround? See if you can borrow what you need from a friend or acquaintance. There are also rental shops for special garments like tuxes, suits, wedding dresses and ballgowns. The garments get dry cleaned after they’re rented out to the next person. It’s a great way to look sharp for your special event without investing in something you’ll never wear again.
Platforms like Rent the Runway are also becoming increasingly popular. For good reason! Members select a few pieces a stylist curates for them. Then they specify how long they’d like to “keep” the items, which are in fact only rented. Once they’re done, they send everything back and pick something new to them. It’s a great way to add a few trendy pieces to your wardrobe for a season.
Repair, Care for, and Upcycle Your Clothes
In the past, clothes were valuable. You didn’t have many, and you repaired them when they weren’t looking tip-top. Shoes were kept polished, shined, and got new soles at the cobbler’s when they were run down. For those who value timeless fashion, this is still true today. With well-made textiles, minor damage can be easily repaired.
It’s also important to wash clothes properly so you can maximise their lifecycle. To keep your favourite clothing for a long time, you should only wash things as often as necessary to protect the fibres. Be sure to follow manufacturers’ laundering recommendations. Check your garments’ labels before randomly tossing them into the wash.
Clothes which no longer fit or spark joy can be turned into new pieces. Sewing, DIYing and repurposing clothing items has become popular, with lots of TikTokers and YouTubers pointing the way of fashion hacking.
If you don’t sew yourself or feel particularly gifted in the craft department, take your garment and your idea to a tailor for alterations or re-designing. This is also a great way to support local business in your neighbourhood.
Recycle and Donate
Clothes in good condition that you no longer wear can be given away or donated to charitable organisations, some of which run clothing shops or social department stores where things can be dropped off directly. Avoid illegal clothing collections that pick up old clothes on the street or set up containers without a permit. Look for suitable containers from reputable organisations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or Oxfam.
Garments that can no longer be worn should be recycled. Clothing made of natural materials such as cotton and wool can go to textile recycling at your locale collection point. Synthetics are made with plastics and oil, and thus need to be recycled accordingly. They can be turned into polyester yarn and new fabric. Ask your recycling compound which container they should go into.
Even if garments are very worn out, parts of them such as buttons and zippers can often still be salvaged and re-used on other clothing, or in new sewing projects!
Less Is More
Keeping your wardrobe small minimises your personal fashion footprint, and it also helps you save money. It’s a good idea to clean out your closet at least once a year so that you have an overview of your wardrobe’s inventory. This will give you the opportunity to sort things out which no longer fit or are beyond repair, and take stock of any basics you need to replace or new pieces you think you’d like to add.
Keeping your closet cleaned out also creates space and makes you more conscious of what you actually wear in your everyday life, and how you feel in it. You become more intentional with your spending and more critical about introducing new pieces to your wardrobe. Ideally, you grow to really like and use the things you have.
If the thought of taking on your closet sounds daunting, why not try my 52-week closet challenge? It’s a slow, easy and very sustainable way to pare down your clothing over the course of one year.
Why Choose Sustainable Fashion in a Nutshell
Ultimately, the decision of whether to buy sustainable fashion or fast fashion is up to you. There are, however, a number of good, ethical reasons to choose sustainable fashion, including its benefits for the environment and workers.
Why choose sustainable fashion? It is point blank better for the planet. Fast fashion relies on mass production and uses harmful chemicals and dyes that pollute the environment. Sustainable fashion is also better for workers. Fast fashion relies on sweatshops where workers are paid very little and slave away in poor conditions. Sustainable fashion brands are more likely to trade fair, which means workers receive an honest wage and work in a safe environment.
Finally, sustainable fashion is better quality than fast fashion. Because sustainable fashion brands take the time to produce higher quality garments, they last longer and you end up saving money in the long run.
Making conscientious decisions when buying clothes, investing in classics, recycling and going second-hand are some of the ways you can make your wardrobe more sustainable. Fashion will still be fun, and you’ll find you don’t have to make huge sacrifices to create a conscious closet.