What Is Sustainable Fashion? Making Conscious Clothing Choices

By Angela Tague in Thinking Sustainably

As the seasons change, I'm eyeing my closet. It'd be nice to have a new swimsuit for the upcoming pool season and maybe some breezy sundresses, too. As I shop, I'm seeing brands label themselves as "environmentally friendly." But, what does that mean? I decided to dig in to find out exactly what is sustainable fashion, and how can it become part of my evolving eco-conscious lifestyle?

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

As consumers, we often only think about clothing and accessories when we see them in our closets or put them in our shopping carts. But those working at the production level have a much different perspective of how these goods impact the Earth.

The sustainable fashion movement is an initiative focused on promoting awareness and changing the social and environmental practices involved in producing textiles and fashion accessories.

Principles of Sustainable Fashion

Climate change, labor conditions, women's rights, and activism are all elements that feed into the sustainable fashion movement. Here's a look at some of the core principles.

Environmental Awareness

The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of carbon emissions and 20 percent of global wastewater. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe considers this situation an "environmental and social emergency." Mills that spin fiber into yarn and weave it into fabric are greenhouse gas-emitting hot spots. To curb this, fabric producers need to implement more energy-efficient production methods, such as sourcing renewable energy instead of burning coal.

Fair Labor Conditions

Many of the people who assemble fashion pieces are women and children working for low wages in unethical factory conditions around the world. The United States Department of Labor documents countries where goods are produced through "forced labor in violation of international standards." A glance at the list shows that India and Nepal exploit child labor and forced labor to produce embellished textiles. Turkey, Vietnam, India, China, Bangladesh, and so many more are cited for child labor exploitation to make footwear. Living wages and safe working conditions need to be demanded globally.

Production Transparency

Change begins with us, the consumers. Learning how our favorite clothing brands and accessories are created, and where they come from, is the first step. Then, you can make your buying power speak volumes by asking brands to be transparent with their processes. If you want to live in a greener world, buy from eco-conscious manufacturers.

yoga pants rolled up in a drawer

Fast Fashion vs. Sustainable Fashion

When I thumbed through the hangers in my closet this morning, I realized clothing choice is yet another way I can be more mindful of what I'm putting on my body. In addition to being conscious of what's in my personal care products, food, and makeup, what's in my closet is important, too. I know I have a few pieces that were mindfully produced, but many were not.

Have you heard of fast fashion? It's a new concept to me, but one I'm going to be chatting about more often with my friends and family, because I didn't realize what impact it had beyond my budget and style choices.

Fast fashion refers to mass-produced garments and accessories created quickly to reach consumers in time for seasonal buying trends. It's often made as cheaply as possible to get in front of consumers ASAP.

In the United States, we generated 16,890 tons of textiles in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, we sent the majority—11,150 tons—to landfills. To reduce that number, we must choose better, more durable products that will, in turn, generate less waste.

Sustainable fashion is created with intention and awareness for everyone and everything affected by the process. This includes how fibers are selected, how they are grown, what chemicals are used to process them, what waste is produced, how much water is used, and what impact it has on agriculture and—at the end of the garment's life cycle—landfills.

And that's just the garments themselves. As I mentioned earlier, we also need to be mindful of the people producing these products and how they're treated, compensated, and valued.

clothing label in a shirt

How to Build a More Sustainable Wardrobe

As I update my closet, I'm going to do more than look at the color options and price tags. I challenge you to do the same.

  • Research the brands you shop regularly. Browse their websites for stories about their supply chain, processing practices, and workforce environments. Message them on social media with questions. Ask how and where they produce their products. Once your questions are answered, ask yourself: do you feel comfortable with their practices? You can also check out this list of sustainable brands shared by Remake, a nonprofit that supports conscious consumerism.
  • Look through your closet. As you decide what to keep and what to pass on to resale shops or recycling centers that accept textiles, take time to study clothing labels. Were the garments made in countries with sound labor laws? Are the fabric components derived from renewable resources, such as cotton and hemp?
  • Decide what you truly need. Have you heard of a capsule wardrobe? It's a pared-down collection of quality, core garments that mix and match. You can then dress it up with unique accessories, such jewelry, shoes, and scarves. As your thoughts about fashion shift, so will what deserves a place in your closet.

As you slowly update your wardrobe to include long-lasting, quality pieces, you'll naturally make a positive impact on the sustainable fashion movement. While you're thinking about more ways to be kind to the environment and its people, browse the Thinking Sustainably board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest.

Image Sources: Unsplash | Angela Tague | Angela Tague

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Perhaps you're already thinking about ways to choose environmentally friendly health and beauty products. Now, look to your closet. Being mindful about the fibers your clothing is made from, how it's processed, and who's behind the sewing is another way to become more eco-conscious and support ethical manufacturing practices. What you buy truly does matter.