There are a lot of different meanings behind what sustainable clothing can mean to different clothing companies and to different people. All the information out there can seem either too vague or so specific it is overwhelming to compare to other brands. It is hard as a customer to compare sustainable brands – is one more sustainable because it is a local business, or if it has a sustainable supply chain? It’s a difficult question to answer and can be a little bit like comparing apples to oranges.
Sustainable fashion is not just a new trend in the clothing industry. It has been a staple component of many brands (like Patagonia) since the 1980s, primarily driven by the founder witnessing the environment being harmed by overproduction and overconsumption. Patagonia, and many other sustainable brands, know that the biggest impact on the environment is related to consumption rather than producing clothing in a more sustainable way. Even in 2011, Patagonia ran an ad and a PR campaign “Don’t buy this jacket” to encourage people to consider the effect that consumption has on the environment.
This ad shows that Patagonia truly wants to walk the walk when it comes to sustainability – not just use it as a marketing ploy also known as “greenwashing”. Greenwashing is conveying the false impression or providing misleading information about the sustainability of a company’s practices. Greenwashing is an epidemic across many industries but can be especially prevalent in the way clothing companies talk about their products. H&M was recently called out for greenwashing in their Conscious collection, which included organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel. H&M made a lot of claims about the products being better for the environment but didn’t back it up with any information or data on how exactly these products were more environmentally friendly.
Like Patagonia advertised, the most sustainable way to consume is to not consume at all. But in today’s day and age that is not always an option. In some cases, sustainable fashion itself seems oxymoronic – fashion is constantly changing and being reinvented while sustainability is continuing what is already in use. Below I’ll outline some of the key considerations when searching for sustainable fashion brands. If you want to learn more about some of the ways to reduce your overall clothing consumption, check out my other blog post on the topic here.
Supply chain practices
One of the largest contributors to the environmental impact of the fashion industry is the emergence and prevalence of “fast” fashion. These brands have extremely short lead times for production of garments and have constant releases of collections and product drops often made from synthetic fibers from fossil fuels. The constant production and consumption of new clothing means that almost 60% of all clothing made every year ends up in landfills.
Supply chain practices include all of the components to producing and transporting the item of clothing. This includes the process of producing the raw materials, turning materials into textiles, cutting and sewing the product, shipping to warehouses, and eventually shipping to the end customer. Supply chain practices that significantly impact the environment are high water usage, pollution from dyeing and overwhelming landfills with unused clothing.
Most brands do not give customers a view into their supply chain – and many may not have complete transparency themselves. The first clue about a brand’s supply chain practices is the raw materials that they use. I’ll discuss that below in more detail.
Additionally, the manufacturing process can lead to pollution. For instance, dyeing of fabric creates pollution that bleeds into natural sources of water. During the cutting and sewing process, there may be extra textiles that go to waste. Zero-waste is designed for a garment so that when the textile is cut, there is no extra fabric going to waste. This is a way to ensure that there is no waste going into the production process.
The final process is shipping the clothing. If the clothes are made in an overseas factory, then they need to be cargo shipped to their end location. Cargo shipping can be incredibly polluting to the environment.
Overall when looking for sustainable supply chain practices for brands, there are 3 key questions you should ask:
1. How transparent is their supply chain? Do they provide information on where their factories are in the world?
2. Do they mention ways that they cut down on waste or pollution during the production process?
3. How does the company ship their items? Do they reduce the amount of times an item is transported?
There are many factors when considering how sustainable different fibers are in a piece of clothing: the renewability and source of the fiber, the process of how it is turned into a textile, the impact of dyeing the fibers, energy use in production and preparation, the working conditions of the people producing the materials, the material’s total carbon footprint, transportation, how to care for and wash the material, and what happens at the end of life. There are no clear ways to have a completely sustainable material for clothing. However, a good rule of thumb when browsing is to find materials that are made from natural fibers. Almost 60% of our clothes are made from synthetic fibers that, like mentioned above, are often made by fossil fuels. The current production of these synthetic fibers is reliant on massive fossil-fuel extraction, and accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption.
Not only do synthetic fibers come from unsustainable practices, but they could be wreaking havoc on our planet in other ways. Microfibers from synthetic fibers are a significant concern in polluting natural water systems. One study found that almost 35% of microplastics found in the oceans come from textiles such as polyester, polyethylene, acrylic and elastane. PET plastics, however, are recycled bottles that can be turned into fabric.
Below is a quick list of natural vs. synthetic fabrics.
- Metallic Fiber
When looking at the fashion supply chain, shipping raw materials, yarn, and completed garments around the world and back again is incredibly unsustainable. Finding brands that source raw materials, manufacture and ship clothing out of the same country is one of the most sustainable ways to shop. Depending on the country you live in, finding a brand that manufactures their garments in the same country as you reside is the best way to act sustainably. Buying local clothing increases accountability, especially when it comes to labor standards, paying workers a living wage, and animal welfare.
The last piece of the supply chain is the transportation to the end customer. There are companies such as Cloverly that calculates and purchases carbon offsets to neutralize the impact of shipping. Packaging can also produce a lot of waste and may not break down in a landfill. Finding brands that use sustainable packaging can be a useful way to cut down on waste in the industry.
Sustainable fashion is complicated and understanding all of the components that go into a garment can be overwhelming. By being aware of the major portions of the supply chain that have the largest environmental impact, it can be easier to know what brands to shop. Next week, I’ll discuss different ways to understand ethical clothing brands.