What Does Sustainable Clothing Actually Mean?

Sustainability has become one of the leading buzzwords of the 20s, the predecessor to the excesses of the noughties. In this article, we take a further look into what sustainable clothing really looks like, covering: 

  • What does "sustainability" mean
  • How you can make more sustainable choices
  • Sustainable fabrics
  • Recycling
  • Traceability
  • Longevity 

Gone are the days when we used to load up on cheap fast fashion with an emphasis on quantity over quality. This notion has been flipped on its head and now the term sustainability is at the forefront of consumer’s minds whenever they consider their next purchase. It’s about having a conscience and being socially responsible. Instead of buying cheap clothing in bulk that’s produced unethically, buy less - make considered choices of less pieces per season, items that are well made, will last much longer and you know you will cherish forever. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘sustainability’ as ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Simply put, not using more natural resources than the planet can naturally replace, and not producing anything that the planet can’t naturally reabsorb. The linear model currently employed by the fashion industry of ‘take, make, dispose’, is clearly misaligned with the concept of sustainability. 

Circular Fashion
Three pillars of sustainability

 What is ‘Sustainable’ fashion? 

'Sustainable' fashion refers to garments that have been made in a way that is mindful of the many environmental issues the fashion industry touches upon. When it comes to sustainability and fashion, there are four main considerations: 

  • Water consumption and contamination (high levels are not only consumed in the production of clothing, but also when we wash our clothes). 
  • Energy emissions (high use of energy in the production of synthetic fabrics, for example, and in the washing, drying and ironing of our clothes) 
  • Chemical usage (fertilisers and pesticides used in the production of raw materials like cotton). 
  • Waste creation (the levels of textiles that are incinerated or sent to landfills are enormous).  
Polluting Factory

What is Fast Fashion?

But what do we mean by the term Fast Fashion? It is defined as a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing. It replicates trends producing garments en masse using inferior quality materials in order to bring inexpensive styles to the masses.

Because they are so cheaply made and affordable, ‘trendy' pieces have resulted in overwhelming amounts of consumption. The downside to all this is not only the harmful effect it has on the environment, but the welfare of factory workers who often work in inhumane sweatshops and are paid low wages. 

The deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza, an eight-story garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 focused international attention on human rights in the garment industry - on what was the deadliest disaster in the history of clothing manufacture.

The building was known to have been built with substandard materials under faulty conditions and running at vast over-capacity. Yet the factory remained very active until the day disaster struck - warnings were ignored and the owner's sole focus was to drive down prices for international manufacturers and consumers.

Rana Plaza Building Collapse

Feeling pressured to carry on regardless, and fearsome that these stellar brands would not only walk away from Rana, but abandon ship altogether in Bangladesh, leaving their skilled workforce of some 4 million out of work.

Companies who employed Rana to produce goods included retail heavyweights of the likes of Adidas, Walmart and Gap to name just a few, who subsequently faced growing pressure to take action in the wake of the disaster. Some donated money to relief efforts but the feeling was very much that these measures were just not adequate enough.

Up until the mid-part of the Twentieth Century, the fashion industry operated on four seasons per year: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Fashion designers would spend months forecasting and predicting the styles for each season, essentially second-guessing what customers would buy. Currently, fast fashion brands operate a mind-boggling 52 micro-seasons per annum — equating to roughly one new collection per week. 

New men's clothing sustainable

According to author Elizabeth Cline, author of the bestselling book ‘Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion’ reveals the major change occurred when Spanish fashion giant Zara reverted to bi-weekly deliveries of new stock back in the early 2000s.

It has since become the norm for stores to stockpile garments to ensure they never run out. Looks that appear on catwalks and those snapped by street style photographers are able to be replicated within days - companies can create new, desirable styles, not just quarterly, monthly or weekly but more often than not daily. So much stock is created in such great variety that it satisfies the consumer's appetite to buy more. 

While big High Street fashion chains have borne the brunt of overproduction complaints, luxury brands have not been immune. According to data produced by the Fast Company, “clothing companies bring 53 million tons of clothes into the world annually. If the industry keeps up this exponential pace of growth, it is expected to reach an earth-shattering 160 million tons by 2050.” 

Together, we can make a change

But if sustainability is to succeed, each and every one of us has to play our part in securing the planet for future generations. Ultimately, it’s all about the propensity to transcend trends with garments that stand the test of time. For us, quality over quantity is definitely something that we have embraced as the damage that we're doing to our planet becomes much more clearer over time.

This is not a case of saying that we can't buy new products, just that we can all make smarter choices, and that over time all those choices add up to make a tremendous difference over the long-term. 

What are the most sustainable fabrics? 

Natural Fibres: 

There’s a rapidly-growing band of independent designers whose mission is to create inspiring pieces that are made to last. Whether you’re a tailor or a fashion brand, fashion’s impact on the planet is something that’s foremost in most people’s minds, choosing sustainable fabrics is one of the first things we can do to make our wardrobes more eco-friendly. 

Recycled Cotton - cotton recycling prevents unneeded wastage and can be a more sustainable alternative to disposal. It can come from second-hand clothing, textile waste or leftovers which are subsequently spun in to new yarns and fabrics.

Organic Hemp - deemed one of the world’s most wholesome plants, organic hemp is born out seeds of the Cannabis Sativa plant.

Organic Line - is made from flax, a natural raw material. Flax is a recyclable fibre that does not need irrigation and almost no chemical treatment. All parts of the plant are used ensuring zero waste.

Wool - is rapidly renewable, biodegradable, recyclable and can be produced organically 

 Future fabrics 

Tencel -  a fibre made from the wood pulp of trees. Unlike most cellulosic fabrics, Tercel is produced using recyclable earth-friendly solvents. When blended with cotton it adds wrinkle-resistance and lends a lustrous feel of silk.

Tencel Fabric

Piñatex  - is a natural leather alternative made from cellulose fibers extracted from pineapple leaves, polylactic acid and petroleum-based resin.

Pinatex Fabric Mulberry

Econyl - is regenerated nylon made entirely from ocean and landfill waste such as industrial plastic, fabric scraps from clothing companies, old carpets and ghost nets.

Econyl Trousers

Qmonos - is a tough, lightweight artificial spider silk with mass production applications. Spider silk is five times stronger than steel.

Qmonos fabric

 Recycling 

Today, only 20% of the clothing we wear is recycled. If the fashion industry is to become more sustainable, brands need to develop circular systems whereby garments become fully recyclable after use, decreasing the need to create virgin fibres.

While big industry players are already pursuing this path, the inherent complexities of the process mean it will take some time to take effect. But it’s a positive start. Meanwhile, addressing our individual consumption rates, by reducing the volume of clothing we buy, as well as dispose of, can help. 

Even Vanish, the UK’s leading stain remover, is getting in on the act. The results of a study made by the brand revealed that a ginormous 350,000 tonnes of clothing is discarded every year. On average, pieces of clothing are worn just 10 times before disposal, which is a both a staggering and disconcerting number.

As part of their ReWear Edit for London Fashion Week they are aiming to re-educate the masses. By re-evaluating what might be deemed as old clothing they reimagine and restyle  it to make completely new outfits which are then sold on Amazon Fashion. “We want everyone to look at their wardrobes in a new light, and make old the new new,” says the brand. "It’s time to change our throwaway culture."

Traceability 

Knowing where your clothing originates is an important consideration for those monitoring the impact of their own carbon footprint. With eco-friendly labels like Asket providing in-depth analysis of the origins of each component of their garments, it allows us, the consumer to make informed decisions about the clothing that we choose to invest in, and the type of businesses that we choose to endorse.   

Some suppliers are beginning to see transparency and traceability as a crucial component in the way they do business and for ensuring that supply chain impacts are verifiable and meaningful. 

Several fashion brands are taking a radical approach to transparency by disclosing every minute detail about how a product is made and how much each stage costs, even the retail mark-up percentage.  For as many products as possible, the brand traces the fabric through the supply chain of raw materials, yarn spinners, fabric weavers, printers, and dyers. 

Sustainable fashion traceability

Longevity 

In order for sustainability to succeed in the long run it's important we all change our mindsets from quantity to quality. There are only 24 hours in every day and 7 days in a week after all, so you’re better off in investing well-made, considered clothing rather than fast fashion items that are poorly made and quickly fall apart. Not only will you look more polished but your conscience will thank you for it.

“You can’t look at an item that’s been crafted by hand and question the longevity of it” says bespoke tailor Kathryn Sargent, putting a Savile Row slant on the subject in her new Instagram film series 'Cloth, Paper, Scissors': “Many many hours go into producing a bespoke garment, it’s invariably made from British cloth, very often wool, which is one of the most sustainable cloths. The future of bespoke tailoring is healthy.

In a world where we’re looking for solutions to our individual problems, I think we all want something that is unique to us and we don’t all want to look the same. Bespoke was ahead of the curve and now I think it’s going to be even stronger”. 

Kathryn Sargent

In the case of Savile Rowe, a bespoke garment from any of the Row’s distinguished tailoring houses is one of the most sustainable items of clothing you can possibly own. Anderson & Sheppard produce all of their clothing entirely from their cutting rooms and workshops at Old Burlington Street and the immediate vicinity.

Clothing is built to last and contains generous amounts of inlay, allowing room for alteration over the years as your shape changes, or as it's passed down between generations. Bespoke tailoring is a precise art creating minimal wastage: “We order cloth in accordance with each customer’s individual size, and uniquely trim each garment. We regularly donate unused cloth and spare trimmings to students”, says MD Colin Heywood who’s worked for the tailoring house since 1990.

Savile Row sign

"The majority of the materials that we use are recyclable, with many of them derived from natural sources.  We recycle all of our cutting room and workshop offcuts and source recycled materials in the production of our hangers and packaging.

We work primarily with British and Italian mills. The majority of cloths are woven in England, Scotland and Northern Italy. We ensure that every mill we work with practices an ethical code that respects both the care and well-being of animals and of the environment. 

Despite their centuries-old heritage, many of our suppliers are forward-focused and work directly with farmers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand to influence best practices for animal welfare and sustainability. They also seek to implement ecologically friendly procedures within their mills, such as responsible water purification after the dyeing process and restricting the use of chemicals.”

Sheep Farm Sunrise Sustainable Wool

There are a variety of options for your unwanted garments. You can deposit them in a clothes recycling bank at your local supermarket, take them to your local charity shop or list them on eBay – but this can be time-consuming.

If you can’t bear consigning your cherished pre-loves to the charity shop, then Cudoni Man, an initiative founded by serial entrepreneur James Harford-Tryer, provides a concierge-style service selling pre-owned luxury designer goods for a minimal amount of effort on your behalf. Understanding that time is one of the greatest luxuries, they centre their service around making resale effortless and rewarding.

They have partnered with one of the most recognisable faces in men’s fashion, Richard Biedul, taking the lead in providing the ultimate resale service for the modern man: “Cudoni’s concierge-style service allows me to sell my designer clothing effortlessly", says Biedul. "As a model, artistic and creative director, I’m constantly on the go, what little free time I have, I want to spend with the ones I love, doing the things I enjoy the most. This is why Cudoni is perfect for me. They help me to sell the designer pieces that I no longer wear, and I don't have to lift a finger."

Richard Biedul Cudoni
Richard Biedul Cudoni

As respected blogger and influencer David Evans says in his Sustainable Style series on his Greyfox blog, “it’s up to us as consumers to demand this change as the industry won’t do it unprompted. Fashion brands are driven by the need for profit rather than the health of our planet and environment. While a reluctance to revisit the High Street after Covid-19 may force change, this doesn’t reduce our responsibility as consumers to expect a sustainable approach from the fashion industry and enforce that by refusing to buy goods that damage our environment."

Conclusion

Now that you are fully informed on how brands can work towards being more sustainable, as well as the conscious choices that you can make to have a more sustainable wardrobe, what change will you be making? Will you start to look out for new fabrics, upcycle your existing wardrobe, or choose higher quality clothing from quality manufacturers?