Sustainable fashion

What’s not to love about clothes?

At the very least, clothes protect us from the elements, and at best, fashion gives us a way of expressing our identity, fitting in or standing out!  However, the fashion industry and clothing production can be contentious because of:

  • Carbon emissions – it is responsible for 8-10% globally (see this review of the environmental price of fast fashion).
  • Excessive waste, and thus resources, by off-cuts, samples and discarded clothing.
  • Worker exploitation through poor working conditions and pay.
  • The chemicals used in manufacturing are harmful to the environment, workers and consumers.
  • Plastic pollution of waterways from synthetic clothing, such as polyester.

What do we mean by sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion indicates that clothing has been made respectfully to the environment and the people making them.  I am guessing most of us as consumers like the idea of being sustainable, so this term is somewhat overused by creative marketing folk wanting to give their products a positive spin.  So, perhaps be mindful when you see this term brandished across clothing.

How to find sustainable fashion

Your own wardrobe

On the podcast, Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas quotes the co-founder of Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro, “The most sustainable garment is the one already in your wardrobe”.  This sentiment gave me a renewed contentment with my wardrobe and the staple garments within it that get worn time and again.  I like the fact that I still have a jumper my dad came home with from America when I was a teenager and a sparkly jumpsuit that seems to come in and out of fashion (I wear it regardless!).  For the more creative and makers among you, adjusting and upcycling existing items can be a way of revitalising your wardrobe.  I appreciated too, the viewpoint supplied by Natascha, in valuing your clothing for what it means to you.  When and where did you get it, what occasions have you worn it, and what memories has it given you?  This makes them more precious, doesn’t it?  Even my aged, comforting Adidas trackies come out regularly when I want to have a relaxing day at home.

Your friend’s wardrobe

Outside of your existing wardrobe, perhaps there are opportunities to access clothes belonging to someone else.  Do you have friends of similar size that would share items for particular occasions or even permanent swaps?  When I was pregnant with my daughter, I went on holiday to Spain, and a wonderful friend lent me some summery gear, ideal for the early stages.  This was a memorable loan, as on my return, I discovered that one of the items I had been wearing as a short dress was in fact a top – hormones, huh!

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Once you have exhausted sharing and swapping, the next step might be to pay for the privilege of wearing clothing that you don’t own.  For certain items, this is quite a common occurrence – say for wedding attire.  When I got married, all the key men wore rented morning suits.  However, it never crossed my mind to rent a wedding dress; it seemed important at the time to own it and keep it?  Sadly, it has been in my attic for over 25 years, and I’m really not sure what to do with it?  Now though, renting clothes is a much more widely available option.  There are plenty of options, particularly online, and some are even accompanied by innovative apps. 

Charity shops and second-hand

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but charity shops are everywhere.  This widespread availability is marvellous for giving you opportunities to buy second-hand and not increase your environmental impact from buying new things.  However, the preponderance of so many is a clear indicator that we’ve bought into fast fashion, and surplus clothes have to be discarded somewhere.  And yes, charity shops are way better than landfills, as they potentially keep products in use, but relying on them to alleviate our over-consumption presents problems.  The charity shops are often unable to sell the ever-increasing supply of donated goods through their shop, so they end up getting shipped to other countries.  Great, you might think, but low-quality fashion isn’t that helpful to developing nations either, and it can end up being added to their landfills instead.  It can also negatively impact their local markets.  The upshot then, is yes, use charity shops to find new-to-you fashion, but be mindful of your overall consumption.  In addition to charity shops, there are plenty of online options to buy second-hand covering all manner of styles.

Buying new

Although there are quite possibly enough garments in the world to adequately clothe us all for some time, new clothes will inevitably be purchased. Choosing sustainable clothing can be tricky – here are a few points to perhaps consider:

  1. Materials – natural fibres such as cotton can have a high carbon footprint and water usage but do break down. Polyester is plastic made from burning fossil fuels and will not degrade. Whatever the material, keep it in service.
  2. Mixed fibres – if possible, select garments composed of only one fibre as mixes of fabric are more difficult to recycle.
  3. Quality – fast fashion has been responsible for cheap, poor quality garments. So, picking a higher-quality, more expensive item that will last longer is most likely preferable.
  4. Love it – choose a piece because it makes you feel top dollar wearing it, and then you will more likely want to keep it.
  5. Take a look at the retailer – how transparent are they about their manufacturing process? The supply chains can be very complicated, not least because fibres may be grown in one country, spun into fabric in another, transported to a different country to be made into a garment and sold elsewhere. There are resources to help you with this.  For example, The Good On You app was cited by Natascha and Ethical Consumer online (subscription required for details) also offers a wide range of information on fashion and other consumer goods.

Overall, when it comes to buying fashion, buy new less and high-quality, and keep garments in circulation for as long as possible.

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