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Blog / Style & trends / What is Sustainable Fashion and Can I Dress Cool While the Earth is on Fire?

Style & trends

What Is Sustainable Fashion and Can I Dress Cool While the Earth Is on Fire?

What Is Sustainable Fashion and Can I Dress Cool While the Earth Is on Fire?
Alise Zindiga

By Alise Zindiga

10 min read

Sustainable fashion matters today because it’s all about getting dressed in a way that’s kinder to the planet and people. It helps cut down on waste, fights against unfair treatment of workers, and reduces the environmental harm caused by the fashion industry. 

This article delves into the multifaceted world of sustainable fashion, exploring what it means for people and fashion brands alike. We’ll break down what sustainable fashion really means, from reviewing your habits to picking eco-friendly materials. Let’s get comfy and explore how we can all make a difference in the ethical fashion world!

What is sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion, also known as green fashion or eco fashion, means at least two different things depending on the perspective of personal consumption or fashion manufacturing. 

In short, there’s nothing sustainable about fast fashion manufacturing. Still, on a personal level, your fast fashion items can be part of a sustainable wardrobe if you take good care of them and wear them for years to come. It’s for a good reason that the term sustainable fashion is used interchangeably with slow fashion.

Simply put, sustainable fashion for individuals starts with buying less and rocking your favorite outfits on repeat, extending the clothing lifecycle to the maximum. Only then is it worth exploring environmentally friendly materials and supporting ethical brands. We’ll dig into clever ways to practice these activities in a moment. 

For companies, the sustainable fashion game is a bit more complex. Brands have a whole checklist to tick off if they want to sell clothes that truly do good, from tackling the environmental impact of materials to ensuring top-notch garment quality and socially responsible working standards. We also can’t forget animal welfare if their products involve animal-derived materials. 

Consumer lifestyle factors in sustainable fashion

Sustainable fashion affordability

Contrary to popular belief, sustainable fashion doesn’t have to break the bank. Yes, it’s true that ethical and sustainable products may carry higher price tags, but that’s not the only way to achieve sustainable fashion goals.  

Before we dig into our shopping and garment care habits, here’s a list of often overlooked or forgotten conscious fashion practices that have nothing to do with spending money:

  • Passing down clothing items to family members or friends

  • Exchanging fashion items with peers

  • Participating in clothing swaps 

  • Borrowing clothes from friends or participating in clothing lending programs

These practices not only promote sustainability in the fashion industry but also foster connections within local communities, playing a vital role in sustainable fashion and fostering a culture of sharing and collaboration.

Most importantly, these practices extend the lifecycle of clothing items, which, you’ll notice, is a recurring theme in this article. By sharing clothes, individuals can also access a wider variety of styles and trends without contributing to overconsumption or waste generation. Isn’t that what ethical fashion is all about?

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How are wardrobe size and shopping habits linked to sustainable fashion?

According to the Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable report, the most impactful lifestyle change to reduce fashion-related carbon footprint is simply buying fewer new clothes.

The report assessed five lifestyle options:

  • Reducing new clothing purchases

  • Increasing use time

  • Reducing washing and drying

  • Buying secondhand clothing

  • Disposing responsibly

Their assessments stated that reducing the purchasing of new clothes would save 2.3 times more emissions than all other options combined.

In the same report, references to historical lifestyle guides suggest a minimum sufficient wardrobe size over time, ranging from 40 pieces of clothing in the ’50s and ’60s to a suggested size of 70 to 85 pieces in today’s world, which contrasts with reported real-life wardrobe sizes of up to 400+ pieces. 

a diagram of clothing itemsSource: Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable, Sample composition and size demonstration for a sufficient wardrobe

While a large wardrobe isn’t definitive proof of overconsumption habits, unfortunately, the two have a significant correlation. The same report demonstrates how higher-income social groups contribute to larger greenhouse gas emissions through their lifestyle and fast fashion consumption habits.

Despite numerous frightening clothing waste statistics, one fact is clear: slowing down and increasing the wear of your clothing pieces is the most important step toward ethical fashion.

Wardrobe longevity and garment care

Now, please refrain from a frantic decluttering spree after reading the previous section, and remember that the most sustainable clothing items are the ones you already have. If certain pieces no longer serve you, take time to responsibly find them a new owner or repurpose them creatively. Then, prioritize taking good care of whatever’s left.

Proper garment care helps extend the lifespan of clothing, reducing the need for frequent replacements and minimizing waste in the fashion industry. Moreover, some care techniques, such as washing clothes in cold water, significantly reduce energy consumption and thus environmental impact. Basic mending skills and a fabric shaver will come in handy, too. 

You can download a garment care cheat sheet from our article about fabrics and garment care, but a simple rule of thumb is to wash clothes less frequently in cooler temperatures and air-dry whenever possible. 

a line of icons with textSource: Unfit, Unfair, Unfashionable,  suggestions for achieving fashion sufficiency

Surely, there will come a time when you need to replace clothing items or fill gaps in your wardrobe. If you’ve been mindful of your consumption habits and resourceful with your clothing, chances are you can afford to invest in a few high-quality, sustainable brand pieces. 

Prerequisites of sustainable fashion brands

Sustainable fashion movement examples 

We’ve reached a point in the article where individual and fashion industry considerations intersect, and strangely enough, they often boil down to personal values. When asking the question, “What is sustainable fashion?” the reality is that there’s no official definition.

To illustrate, here’s a list of a few product qualities that are considered sustainable fashion examples in the fashion industry:

  • Made from natural and organic materials such as organic cotton

  • Made from recycled fibers such as recycled polyester

  • Produced ethically or following fair trade practices

  • Upcycled or refashioned, meaning made from pre-existing materials

  • Sourced locally or run by a small business owner

  • Manufactured on demand

  • Second-hand or vintage 

  • Transparent supply chain

  • Respectful of animal welfare

  • Vegan

  • Hundreds of other attributes

While some qualities are non-negotiable for sustainable fashion brands, others may be conflicting or even actively practiced by fast fashion brands. 

Therefore, besides factors like availability, price, and quality, business owners and customers alike have to largely prioritize based on their values.

Certification

One way brands can prove their sustainability practices is by obtaining globally recognized certificates, providing a reliable way for consumers to identify and support brands aligned with their values. These certifications verify that a brand or product meets specific environmental, social, and ethical standards, such as reducing environmental impacts or ensuring fair trade practices. 

Just as common in the garment industry are certificates that prove specific material content, for example,  natural and organic materials or recycled fibers.

Here’s a practical example of certifications that we, as a brand, use to ensure material content in our eco-friendly product collection. 

a white sheet with black textSource: Printful

While certificates certainly play a crucial role in verifying eco-friendly claims, keep in mind that they aren’t the sole indicator of a sustainable product, particularly for small businesses. Small businesses may face barriers to obtaining formal certifications due to various factors like certification fees, administrative burdens, or process complexity. 

However, this doesn’t mean their products are inherently unsustainable. Instead, small businesses can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability through transparent communication, ethical sourcing, local production, zero waste generation, and similar activities.

False eco-friendly practices

Unfortunately, it’s all too common for fast fashion brands to exploit various keywords without genuine efforts toward sustainability.

For instance, conventional cotton is praised for its natural fibers while synthetic materials are marketed as vegan. Few know that such statements overlook the environmental toll of natural resources and the use of toxic chemicals in cotton production or the microplastic pollution from synthetic fibers.  

A far more sustainable approach would involve substituting conventional cotton with organic cotton and using biodegradable materials in place of synthetic fibers.

This misleading practice is called greenwashing, which is the act of giving products and business practices the false impression of being eco-friendly.

As clothing companies increasingly engage in green marketing, other misleading practices have emerged:

  • Bluewashing: an exaggerated or false emphasis on contributions to water conservation

  • Rainbow washing: superficial support to LGBTQ+ rights or Pride events for marketing purposes

  • Healthwashing: Misleading tactics used to present products as healthier or safer than they truly are

Promoting such superficial or misleading claims of social and environmental impacts leads to a loss of consumer trust and damage to legitimate sustainability initiatives. Ultimately, these practices hinder real progress toward critical environmental and social challenges and undermine genuine efforts within the textile industry.

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How to build a sustainable fashion industry?

Basic sustainable fashion principles

Many wonder what it takes to make an ethical and sustainable fashion brand. Whether you’re a fashion brand owner or run a completely different business, there are basic principles to improve the sustainability and responsibility of your operations:

  • Sourcing natural materials with a smaller environmental footprint

  • Ensuring ethical labor practices

  • Improving energy efficiency

  • Striving for complete supply chain transparency

  • Reducing waste

  • Giving back to the community

  • Educating employees and customers to normalize sustainable practices

Most of the principles in this list are well-known, but education is often overlooked. Educating both employees and customers about basic sustainable business principles is paramount in avoiding unintentional greenwashing and recognizing genuine eco-friendly practices. This mutual understanding builds trust and transparency within sustainable brands and their communities.

All of these principles combined serve as guiding pillars for building a more ethical and sustainable fashion approach, creating a ripple effect of positive change throughout the garment industry.

On-demand business models

In addition to the previously mentioned sustainable fashion principles, the on-demand business model is often overlooked. However, on-demand manufacturing can complement various business niches, especially the fashion industry, which is infamous for heavily overproducing and ignoring environmental concerns. The on-demand production technique creates items only when an order is placed, reducing waste and eliminating leftover stock.

As a print-on-demand fulfillment company, we’ve also created various useful guides to help our customers improve their business practices:

However, to quote The Green Marketing Manifesto by John Grant, if you’re just starting out, it’s important to be great first and green second. That’s why we recommend reading this article on how to start a clothing brand if you’re starting from scratch.

Parting thoughts for ethical and sustainable fashion fans

Remember that as an individual, you have all the tools available. Use them, be mindful of your consumption habits, build a long-lasting wardrobe, and be a proud outfit repeater.

However, the path for sustainable fashion brand owners isn’t always clear-cut. Considering the complex nature of fashion brand management, achieving sustainability for your entire supply chain can be challenging. Nevertheless, there are numerous starting points available. Construct your sustainable fashion brand on foundational principles and continue improving it according to your values. 

A final piece of advice for individual consumers and the fashion industry alike is to not only prioritize product quality but also emotional durability. Instead of mindlessly following the latest fashion trends, focus on designs that look cool today and will continue to do so for years to come.

Ultimately, sustainable fashion is about combining resourcefulness and creativity, so have fun with it while making thoughtful choices that benefit the planet and a more sustainable future.

Read also: Gen Z Fashion: 12 Fashion Trends

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By Alise Zindiga on Apr 3, 2024

Alise Zindiga

CSR Project Manager

Alise is a CSR Project Manager at Printful with a fondness for sustainability and intentional living. Her background in environmental business management helps to turn the passion into practice.

Alise is a CSR Project Manager at Printful with a fondness for sustainability and intentional living. Her background in environmental business management helps to turn the passion into practice.