What Does Sustainable Fashion Really Mean?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
"The words slow fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, etc. are frequently used... but what do they actually mean? Our team of experts investigates."

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 better treatment of animals. But what does sustainable fashion really mean?

What Is the Definition of Sustainable Fashion?

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 we make our fashion. We can’t keep going like this. It’s not sustainable. 

We’re 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. 

We grow water-thirsty cotton in water-scarce areas, dumping pesticides on the land and ruin the soil so that we have to dump more synthetic fertilizers on it, too. We cut 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 all 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. 

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

It may be created in an efficient factory using renewable resources—like wind, solar, geothermal, or hydropower—so it has low or neutral greenhouse gas emissions. The materials may be light on the environment, like polyester made from recycled water bottles, nylon made from old fishing nets, upcycled or vegetable tanned leather, organic cotton, 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. 

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. 

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 fashion is recycled into new fashion. 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 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. 

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. So we created a platform that only has more sustainable and ethical fashion. All of our recommendations align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the Brightly team looks into each brand’s supply chain to ensure their operating practices are ethical and sustainable. 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. This is all so you can relax and have fun once you get here. 

Shopping for sustainable fashion is actually a pretty powerful way to engage in the fight against climate change. Fashion brands are exquisitely attuned to what customers want. And the more people like you who say they want something better, something sustainable, 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, do give us a shout. Like we said, the definition is evolving, and we’re here to push it along. 

Hey there! Want to help us change the world every day through easy, achievable, eco-friendly tips and tricks? Sign up for the Brightly Spot and join our movement of over a million changemakers.

The words slow fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable fashion, etc. are frequently used... but what do they actually mean? Our team of experts investigates.

This post may contain affiliate links. Brightly will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links.





at Brightly, we believe in the power of every day actions and conscious consumerism to change the world.

Everyone is welcome. Join our movement. The world is waiting.

good news. delivered.