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A Guide for Practicing Eco-Friendly Fashion

Eco-Friendly Fashion: A Sustainability Resource Guide for Ethical Shoppers

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the products they buy and the ethical impacts these products may have. One concern that is becoming particularly notable in the public eye is the sustainability of goods and services. As evidence of a quickly worsening climate and pollution crisis mounts, consumers are gaining awareness of their role and how they can have an impact on this problem. 

While many of the issues are driven by larger forces like corporations, individual consumers can still have an impact. These impacts not only include small changes that may add up with increasing buy-in from large groups of consumers, but also pressure on corporations that may encourage them to shift their practices and policies. 

What Is Ethical and Sustainable Fashion?

The fashion industry is one area of goods and services that is significantly driving damage to the environment. Furthermore, as most people wear clothes, some level of engagement with the fashion industry is largely unavoidable. However, armed with an understanding of what to look for and how the fashion industry impacts the environment, consumers can make smarter choices in the interest of sustainability. It is possible to be both an environmentally-conscious shopper and pursue your preferred style

Best Practices for Sustainable Shopping

Best practices for choosing eco-friendly clothing include:

  • Buy small and local when possible: Mass production often causes a wide range of damage to the environment through procedures such as mass deforestation and byproducts such as high volumes of chemical waste.
  • Consider secondhand clothing: By lengthening the usage of an item, you can disincentivize harmful clothing production and prevent the item from being disposed of. 
  • Repair clothing when possible: You can extend the life of a clothing item by repairing it rather than replacing it. This may require smaller purchases such as buttons. 
  • Choose durable items: Ideally, you should choose items that will last for a long time before they need to be replaced. This is especially important for workwear and items that use a lot of fabric such as winter coats
  • Search for brands first: If you can find an environmentally-responsible brand that you like, it will reduce the day-to-day challenges of finding sustainable clothing items.
  • Look for certifications: Research legitimate certifications related to sustainability for businesses and products, and look for these certifications as you shop.
  • Look at business partners: It is important to not only consider the environmental responsibility of the clothing brand itself, but also the businesses that it partners with. 
  • Check the news: By checking to see whether a brand has ever been in the news, you will be able to determine whether it has ever faced criticism related to environmental responsibility or has ever been lauded on that topic. 
  • Check the mission statement: Brands dedicated to sustainability will typically advertise that fact in their mission statement. However, it is important to ensure that the business’s actions back up its statements. 
  • Look at the materials: Some materials are more sustainable than others, and therefore it is important to check what a piece of clothing is made of. 
  • Choose versatile items: By keeping some versatile items such as a few well-made, solid-colored t-shirts on hand, you can reduce the number of garments in your wardrobe.
  • Identify the major manufacturing locations: Unethical clothing brands will often source materials from locations that lack substantial regulations relating to sustainability and transparency. 

It is important to err on the side of skepticism when doing your research, as businesses are incentivised both to appear sustainable and to cut corners to reduce costs. 

Common Sustainability Issues Within the Fashion Industry

Common sustainability issues identified within the fashion industry and related operations include:

  • Use of wasteful materials: Some clothing materials take up more resources to create. For example, cotton requires a substantial amount of water to produce compared to other materials. 
  • Use of toxic chemicals: Harmful substances such as toxic dyes are sometimes used in clothing. 
  • Use of non-biodegradable materials: The less biodegradable a material is, the longer it takes to naturally decompose. Plastics are an example of a material that takes a substantial amount of time to naturally decompose. Meanwhile, materials such as hemp and linen are highly biodegradable. 
  • Use of non-resilient materials: The less resilient a clothing item is, the sooner it will be disposed of, often contributing to landfills and further production of clothing. 
  • Damage and destruction of ecosystems: Clothing production and distribution often result in serious damage to surrounding ecosystems, through issues such as clear-cutting land and chemical disposal. 
  • Carbon emissions related to production: Mass production of clothing often results in factories producing harmful emissions.
  • Carbon emissions related to distribution: Distribution can create harmful emissions through transportation methods that burn fossil fuels. 
  • Creation of waste from used clothing: Often, when people are done using clothing, they throw it away, which contributes to waste in landfills. 

Due to the benefits of cost reduction and efficiency, companies often utilise and intentionally try to obscure such harmful practices. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The philosophy of “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” provides a basic template with which the average person can reduce their negative consumer impact on the environment. Essentially, the idea is to reduce the number of products you use, reuse products when possible, and recycle discarded products when possible. These strategies are intended to minimise the damage caused by the production of materials, as well as minimise post-consumer waste. 

What Is “Fast Fashion”?

“Fast fashion” refers to a large industry that revolves around producing clothing quickly and cheaply. This business model is convenient for producers and appealing to consumers who benefit from reduced in-store prices resulting from lowered production costs. However, the means by which this clothing is produced quickly and cheaply often comes at a great cost to the environment.

Largely this damage is the result of cut corners during production, as well as the strategic production of goods in areas with few regulations that limit harm to the environment. Additionally, the fact that the clothing is produced cheaply often results in poor quality which leads to short longevity of goods. Therefore, the clothing is likely to be thrown away relatively soon after purchase compared to better-quality products. 

How to Identify Eco-Friendly Brands

The following are common indicators that a brand is eco-friendly:

  • Transparency: It should be easy to find relevant information about eco-friendly brands and their procedures. 
  • Legitimate certifications: Brands that are highly dedicated to sustainability will often earn some sort of legitimate certification. 
  • A brand history related to sustainability: If a brand is truly dedicated to sustainability it should provide information about its eco-friendly activities. 
  • Responsible business partners: Brands that are highly dedicated to sustainability will put in the effort to find and work with businesses that operate under similar principles. 
  • Political connections related to sustainability: Sustainable brands that you can trust will sometimes be affiliated with organisations and individuals that promote sustainability on a legislative level.
  • A mission statement about sustainability: A brand that is dedicated to sustainability will often advertise that fact. 
  • Relevant reviews: Sort through product and business reviews to find any that mention sustainability. 
  • Sustainability-friendly manufacturing and distribution locations: Some locations are less likely than others to engage in sustainability action.

It is also important to continue to keep up with the brand to hear any further news regarding their sustainability efforts.

What Does Sustainable Clothing Production Look Like?

Common hallmarks of sustainable clothing production include:

  • Use of sustainable materials: Sustainable materials may include materials that use few resources to create, create few harmful byproducts, are durable, or are reasonably biodegradable. 
  • Use of resilient materials and methods: Clothing that is sturdy and resilient will likely spend more time in use than less durable options. This is particularly important for clothing items that are subject to a lot of wear and tear, such as overshirts and work shirts
  • Low production volume: Mass production typically causes a wide variety of sustainability issues, such as large-scale emissions and damage to local environments. 
  • Consideration for local ecosystems: A production company that cares about sustainability will take steps to avoid damage to ecosystems surrounding their production areas. 
  • Responsible partnerships: Eco-friendly production companies should seek to partner with other businesses that are dedicated to sustainability.
  • Contributions to sustainability initiatives: Eco-friendly businesses may actively support larger sustainability initiatives. 
  • Constantly evolving practices: A business dedicated to sustainability will regularly reassess and update its efforts. 
  • Transparency: A production company that is dedicated to sustainability will not have cause to hide key elements of their production practices from partners and consumers.

When looking for sustainable clothing brands, it is important to also research their production and distribution partners. 

What Does Sustainable Clothing Distribution Look Like?

Common hallmarks of sustainable clothing distribution include:

  • Local distribution facilities: Distribution services can reduce their emissions by reducing the distance between the distribution centre and the consumer. 
  • Collaboration with local distributors: An alternative to establishing their own local distribution centre is to collaborate with existing distribution centres. 
  • Use of eco-friendly transportation methods: Transportation methods that reduce emissions can minimise damage to the environment related to travel.
  • Efficient transportation practices: By strategically distributing materials, the company can reduce distances traveled. 
  • Use of eco-friendly packaging materials: By using minimal, recyclable, or biodegradable packaging materials, a distribution company can reduce waste. 
  • Transparency: A distribution company that is committed to sustainable practices will typically advertise that fact. 

However, it is always important to be skeptical as to how honest and forthright a company is about its purported sustainability practices and values. 

How to Identify Greenwashing

“Greenwashing” refers to the practice of businesses espousing eco-friendly goals and initiatives while failing to pursue these efforts in an honest or meaningful way. Common indicators of greenwashing include:

  • Lack of evidence: Look for substantial evidence that a company made efforts consistent with its purported sustainability goals and actions. 
  • Underwhelming or shallow promises: A company that is truly dedicated to sustainability will point to specific ways that it supports sustainability goals and initiatives rather than voicing vague support for such actions. 
  • Lack of transparency: A company that is genuinely engaging in sustainable activities and procedures will not try to hide business procedures that should be involved in those activities and procedures. For example, if a company says that it uses ethically-sourced materials, it should be easy to find where they source their materials from and information about why those materials are ethical. 
  • Partnership with unethical businesses: Partnership with other eco-friendly businesses is a key element of sustainable business practice. 
  • Criticism from sustainability organisations: If a business has ever been criticised by a reputable sustainability organisation, it is important to determine whether it adjusted its practices in response. 

To better understand the minutiae of sustainable business practices, it is also important to understand some of the terminology that you may come across. 

Glossary of Terms Related to Sustainable Fashion

Common terms related to discussions about sustainable fashion include:

  • Biodegradable: Biodegradability refers to a material’s ability to naturally decompose.
  • Carbon neutral: Carbon neutrality, also called carbon offsetting, refers to the practice of minimising emissions in one area of activity to balance out emissions produced in other areas. 
  • Circular fashion: This is an ideal system where garments are cycled through use as long as possible before being disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way.
  • Cruelty-free: Cruelty-free products are not produced or tested at the cost of harm to animals. 
  • Fair trade: This is a developing gold standard for ensuring ethical practice in production and distribution.
  • Fast fashion: Fast fashion is a business model that mass produces cheaply-made clothing. 
  • Greenwashing: This is the practice of stating sustainable action while failing to engage with it in an honest or meaningful way. 
  • Microplastics: These are small pieces of plastic that are created by the breakdown of plastic materials. 
  • Non-toxic: Non-toxic materials do not contain toxic substances. 
  • Organic: Organic products conform to organic standards, which typically involve the minimisation of unnatural substances during the production process. 
  • Secondhand: Secondhand items are pre-used items. 
  • Slow fashion: This is a counter-movement to fast fashion that emphasises the importance of understanding business practices at every stage of the supply chain.
  • Traceability: This is the ability to trace and verify claims.
  • Transparency: This is a practice that allows partners and consumers to easily find information related to your business practices. 
  • Upcycling: This is the process of reusing and fixing materials to improve a product or extend its life. 
  • Vegan: Vegan materials do not contain animal products or products that were created as the result of cruelty to animals. 

There are also a variety of terms that are used interchangeably to describe sustainable fashion, such as sustainable fashion, ethical fashion, and conscious fashion. 

Other Ethical Problems Within the Fashion Industry

Sustainability issues are not the only ethical problems that plague the fashion industry. Further concerns include:

Even in places where such activity is illegal, laws may be under-enforced or companies may use various methods to avoid detection. 

Additional Resources Related to Sustainable Fashion

The following resources can help you better understand the issues surrounding sustainable fashion and how you can positively contribute to eco-friendly fashion initiatives:

  • Green Business Bureau: This company provides certification for eco-friendly businesses, as well as tools for earning their certification. 
  • This government body provides comprehensive information, tools, and resources related to sustainability. 
  • The Earth Institute: This Columbia University institute conducts and publishes research related to sustainability.
  • Conservation International: This international nonprofit organisation conducts valuable conservation research and creates avenues and resources to promote conservation activities. 
  • CERES: This organisation identifies, promotes, and empowers sustainable businesses. 
  • World Wildlife Fund: This organisation supports a variety of conservation activities. 

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