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What Does Sustainable Fashion Really Mean?

You've heard about sustainable fashion. But what does sustainable fashion really mean? Here's everything you need to know.

Written by
Brightly Staff

Sustainable fashion is a hot topic right now. Not just because the eco-friendly materials used are much better for the planet, but because that tends to go hand-in-hand with better treatment of people making the clothes, too. Not to mention the better treatment of animals. But what does sustainable fashion really mean?

The Fashion Industry's Environmental Impact

At its most basic, the word "sustainable" means something can be maintained at its current rate or level. It can be applied to business: Can a company keep going while earning the same amount of money? It can be applied to the way you’re living your life. You’ve probably been admonished at least once by a well-meaning friend about your packed schedule, poor sleeping habits, or workload. “You just can’t keep going like this. It’s not sustainable.” 

The same could be said for how we’re treating the planet, and how the fashion industry makes clothing. We can’t keep going like this. It’s not sustainable.

Currently, the fashion industry is pulling non-renewable oil out of the ground to turn into plastic packaging, polyester threads, and polyurethane shoes, all of which will end up in the landfill within a few years—if not a few months—where they will languish for anywhere from 500 to over a thousand years.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 85% of all textiles wind up in landfills every year. To give you an idea of the environmental impact, look at it like this: That's the equivalent of one fully loaded garbage truck dumping clothes into the landfill every second.

The fashion industry also has a hefty carbon footprint, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions. In addition, it's responsible for nearly 20% of wastewater from growing water-thirsty cotton in water-scarce areas.

Other factors that add to the fashion industry's environmental impact is dumping pesticides on the land and ruining the soil, which leads to dumping more synthetic fertilizers on it. It also cuts down rainforests in Indonesia and Canada to feed into pulp mills, mixing these precious trees with toxic chemicals to create viscose fabric

Fabric mills run on dirty coal and diesel. Dyehouses dump toxic dyes into waterways and kill aquatic life. Leather tanneries in Asia poison their communities and their workers with chromium effluent. Factories pay their workers such low wages in such poor conditions that they are trapped in a cycle of poverty and poor health. 

This isn’t sustainable. If we keep going like this, we will run out of trees, out of clean water, out of fertile soil, and we will heat our planet so much it will be unlivable. The shocking thing is that this is normal in fashion. It’s business as usual. 

What Is the Definition of Sustainable Fashion?

As more and more people find out about what their dollars are supporting, they are starting to seek out sustainable fashion. Unlike the items made by fast fashion retailers, sustainable fashion is made in a way that protects and preserves the environment for future generations.

It may be created in an efficient factory using renewable energy and resources—like wind, solar, geothermal, or hydropower—so it has low or neutral greenhouse gas emissions.

The sustainable fabrics used may be light on the environment, like polyester made from recycled water bottles, nylon made from old fishing nets, upcycled or vegetable tanned leather, linen, alpaca, or Tencel—a viscose that is made in a closed-loop process from sustainably harvested wood. It may be dyed in a factory that carefully treats its wastewater. 

Fashion brands are also switching to organic cotton, which uses 91% less water than non-organic cotton—and growing it using sustainable farming practices. You'll also find brands using deadstock fabrics, recycled fabrics, and more natural materials.

Most importantly, sustainable fashion is high quality and made to last for years and years, so that you don’t have to keep buying more of it every month. Because that isn’t sustainable for your finances. 

Is Sustainable Fashion Completely Sustainable?

If we’re honest with you, what we call sustainable fashion right now is not actually, technically, truly sustainable. All fashion creates greenhouse gas emissions during manufacture and shipping. Less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothing. We need more research to have some definitive answers on the best choices. We’re still trying to figure out whether vegan polyurethane leather or real cow leather is better for the environment, for example.

But we’re in a period of intense innovation and excitement. In a few years, we might even have regenerative materials to choose from. These are sustainable materials that take carbon out of the atmosphere, like viscose made from recycled cotton, and wool sheared from sheep that roam outdoors like the bison used to do, in perfect harmony with nature as they lightly munch on wild grasses.

So what we currently call sustainable fashion is actually fashion that’s trying to improve on the status quo. It’s fashion that is created by people who care deeply and who want to help create a better future for the planet, people, and animals. It’s fashion that is taking the leap to try out new innovations, or alternatively, getting back to our roots of natural fibers and dyes and repairing our clothing. It’s fashion that is made by artisans and workers in a safe and clean factory who are being paid fairly. 

The Takeaway

We know this can seem like a lot for you to think about when all you want to do is buy something nice for yourself or as a gift. That's why we created a platform that only has more sustainable and ethical fashion from brands working on making a positive impact on the world around them.

The Brightly team looks into each sustainable fashion brand's supply chain to ensure they have ethical and sustainable practices. If the brand claims to be Fair Trade, B Corp Certified, or Leaping Bunny certified, we verify with those third parties that the brand is, in fact, in possession of the certification. We also ensure these brands are using sustainable materials and/or recycled materials.

Shopping for sustainable fashion is actually a pretty powerful way to engage in the fight against climate change. Sustainable fashion brands are exquisitely attuned to what customers want. And the more people like you who say they want something better, something planet-friendly, the more brands will feel compelled to take the leap into a clean, just, and abundant future. 

So have fun! And if you have any suggestions or questions for how we define sustainability here at Brightly, ask away. Like we said, the definition is evolving, and we’re here to push it along.