Sustainable Fashion - What Is It?

We've all heard of sustainable fashion, but what is it?


It’s confusing right? And getting even more confusing by the day as more and more brands start to recognise the need to be more ‘green’ and ‘planet friendly.’ I’m using these really loose terms deliberately because there are few brands or even items of clothing that are wholly “sustainable.”

Brands and the media which use the buzz word “sustainable” have a very broad range of descriptions, that they believe qualifies them to use sustainable as part of their message and I loudly applaud them for making at least part of their processes or sourcing better for people and for the planet.

The complexity of the garment supply chain and the considerable number of processes and components that it takes to make what may appear to the consumer to be only a simple garment is far from the actual reality. If you don’t work in the fashion industry or have an in-depth knowledge of how clothes are made, it’s really hard to comprehend just how complex clothing is. We are surrounded by it, it’s been around for centuries, it now costs very little, so the assumption is that clothes are a pretty bog-standard commodity and easy to make; but this is far from the case. 

Here is my own simplified basic definition of the terms you may see or read about to help you grasp a better understanding of what they mean without having to read a lengthy report on each!

Ethical Fashionis the main collective term used and can cover one or all of the processes of design, production, retail, and purchasing.

Within this, ‘Ethical’ covers a range of issues such as working conditions, exploitation, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment, and animal welfare. You can see why it’s complex already. 

Sustainable Fashion – Is most often used in reference to producing clothes, shoes and accessories in environmentally and socio-economically sustainable ways. To give an example, many synthetic fibres are not sustainable as they are currently derived from petrochemicals, of which we know there is a limited resource.

A sustainable fibre can be cotton but only when grown under a sustainable programme such as those carried out by Marks and Spencer.

Transparency – A term gaining much attention in the industry as suppliers have previously rarely disclosed the source of the components in the supply chain and where the actual sewing factory of the garments may be ethical and sustainable, often the suppliers of the components are not. Manufacturers of the fabric, the zips, the threads, the dye stuffs, embellishments etc etc are now being traced and checked under the term ‘transparency in the supply chain’. The garment may have been sewn together ethically but that is no longer enough as it could have polluted rivers or used enslaved labour to weave and dye the fabric.  

Circular Fashion – A term that covers design, new materials, and reprocessing existing clothes. The objective is to create a zero-waste system where clothes continue to be reused or reprocessed. To put it simply, like we do with paper recycling. 

Up Cycling – This is where existing garments become customised or altered to give them a new lease of life. Alterations are a form of very basic up cycling. 


What we are achieving in the textile production and fashion world is in constant change and my simple definitions will no doubt be super seeded as progress is made.  They will hopefully become easier to define and make it clearer to the consumer what their impact is. Just as we have become used to colour coding energy consumption on our electrical goods and fat, sugar and salt coding on our food. I was delighted to read the piece following on from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which is suggesting (as I did over a year ago!) that we should adopt a colour coding system on clothing. But as you can see from above the complexity of what to code or how-to code is a vast subject in its own right, let alone auditing and assuring consumers compliance of such a system, should it be possible to create one.


There may well be a whole new trendy buzz word or hash tag created for us to adopt and that will be the all-encompassing sustainable, ethical, carbon neutral, biodegradable, non-toxic solution!  Suggestions welcome!


Stylish Sustainable Wishes



Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash