Few things in our life define us as much as what we wear. Whether we’re partial to the classics or we follow the latest trends, our clothes make a statement about who we are.
Fashion has historically been one of the most resource-intensive industries relying heavily on animal products and toxic chemicals that are harmful to people and our planet. Not only is it responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
And fast fashion – with its focus on here-today-gone-tomorrow trends, cheap products and a high turnover – is contributing to a throw-away culture. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.
Despite these problems, fashion can be sustainable. There’s a growing number of designers proving that couture runway-worthy looks can come from eco-friendly materials.
So if you want to be a sustainable fashion business, here are a few things you need to consider.
What are your clothes made of?
Common Objective argues that ‘choosing the right fabric is the most important consideration – fabric choice determines the key physical and technical characteristics of your garment’. But ensuring that you’re choosing a fabric that won’t have a negative effect on people or the planet is key.
They have a brilliant guide with loads of data for you to dig into, but a few top-line recommendations are to choose material like organic cotton (which uses less water and doesn’t use harmful pesticides), linen, Tencel and bamboo.
You can use what otherwise would be considered waste material for your product – Ananas Anam uses Piñatex uses the fibre from pineapple leaf discarded in the harvesting process to make a leather alternative – or you could use deadstock or surplus fabric instead.
You’ll also want to consider the environmental impact of any treatments, finishes and trims that you use. Dyeing fabrics or creating a distressed effect can often rely on chemicals that can pollute local water ways.
What will your fashion calendar look like?
How many collections will you put out each year? Will you offer trend-based fashion lines or focus on creating timeless classics that never go out of style?
By producing fewer garments that are higher in quality, you can help encourage sustainable consumption as your clothes will last longer and fit better.
As you produce your clothing lines, consider how much you need to make at once. Instead of fulfilling a bulk order that may or may not sell out, could you instead make your clothes to order?
‘It’s a far more ethical and sustainable approach because there is no overproduction, reducing the risk of excess unwanted stock going to landfill.’ Emma Slade Edmondson told Elle. ‘It avoids encouraging a culture of wanting more and more newness at rapid speed. Instead, it promotes slow fashion, quality and the love for one well-made piece that can become an heirloom.’
Who is making your clothes and how are they treated?
From the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013 to the allegations of modern slavery at Boohoo’s factories in Leicester earlier this year, fashion has a spotty record when it comes to human rights.
Sustainable businesses must also operate responsibly to their workers and the local communities – paying living wages, limiting the hours worked each day and ensuring clean and safe working conditions.
Ask yourself if you have to outsource or if you can make your products in your own country, where you may have more transparency into your supply chain.
Be careful when you pick your suppliers and ensure you can trace where the materials are coming from that end up in your finished products. Regardless of where your factories are located, be sure you are auditing them regularly. And if they subcontract work out, get assurances that those factories are also doing right by their workers.
How are you designing for their end of life?
We loved this definition of a circular fashion model from Trace Lifestyle:
‘As oppose to a linear model, a circular economy aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life. This model could solve some of the issues within the current fashion system by making the most of natural resources and reducing waste.’
Their suggestions for putting this into practice are to:
- Use recycled materials to make products
- Offer a clothing rental service
- Provide a clothing repair service
- Implement a return scheme for when your customers are done with the items
How are you transporting your clothes?
If you’re moving textiles over long distances, look into whether you can use ships rather than planes to cut down on carbon emissions.
Whether you’re shipping your products direct to your customers or you’re going through a retailer first, look for ways to remove unnecessary labelling and packaging, especially plastic. Opt for recyclable or compostable packaging instead.
And wherever possible, try to use electric vehicles for the final delivery of your product.
To wrap up, we wanted to share this this inspiring quote from Dilys Williams, Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability and Director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion:
‘What we stand up in, should reflect what we stand up for. It’s time to question whether we are being well represented, as well as whether we are well presented.
‘We can create a new era of beauty and style borne out of an understanding and intimate connection with our most precious asset; the earth, the greatest designer the world has ever known.’