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The many ways to describe sustainable fashion

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

I came across a post related to sustainability in fashion on LinkedIn recently. Usually, if the post is reasonably interesting, I always scroll down through the comments section to understand people’s reactions. Check out some of them below on this particular one:

Consumer comments on not understanding what sustainable fashion means

This is not the first time I came across such comments. Although being immersed in the industry, hearing such terms on a regular basis and even seeing them being used on popular brands’ websites now had made me wrongly assume that the majority of consumers understand the basic meaning of what sustainability means in fashion. Reading these made me realise that there is still no shared understanding of sustainable fashion and this leads to misleading claims and exploitation of a consumer’s ignorance.

So, what does sustainable fashion mean? Firstly, you may remember a simple definition of sustainable development that we were taught in school. In 1987, The Brundtlant Report by the United Nations defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sustainability, according to this report, is described as having three dimensions- economic, social and environmental. When we consider these three aspects, any development, in our case in garment production, needs to be considerate of biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, worker exploitation, child labour, etc. along with economic gains.

Now if we take a look at the ecological and destruction caused by the fashion industry (a simple Google search will render you some horrifying images) we don’t need any statistics to tell us that our planetary resources are dwindling and negatively impacting the lives of communities who live in these areas, leave aside leaving behind anything of value for future generations. Cotton farming in India has caused droughts that has led to farmer suicides, denim dyeing, and other toxic dyes have contaminated our water streams with chemicals, workers are paid pittances while being made to work round the clock, and so many other terrible atrocities occur, especially in developing countries, as a consequence of unethical production systems.

Your one piece of clothing comes via various complex networks and that’s why there are so many intersecting issues and terms that falls under the umbrella of sustainable fashion. Here’s a short list of terms that you need to be knowledgeable about in order to make a change in your wardrobes:

1. Ethical/ Conscious/ Eco/ Responsible fashion is often used interchangeably with sustainable fashion, brands use these terms to mean that their methods of sourcing are fair and that there has been no exploitation of resources and people in the making of their garments. Ideally, this should mean that each step in the process of creating a garment right from the growing of crops to how it decomposes at the end of its life should cause no unnecessary harm to us or our planet.

2. Biodegradable means that a product can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoids polluting the land or water where it’s deposited. Keep in mind that whereas an item made of materials such as cotton or linen can decompose in a matter of months, synthetic fabrics like polyester can take up to 200 years to decompose. That, definitely, is not very sustainable! Do check the material composition of a garment before purchasing. What you may think is a wool sweater may turn out to be a 90% nylon- 10% wool blend one.

3. Carbon footprint is a scientifically calculated value for all greenhouse gases released while manufacturing fabrics- carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Fabrics are usually divided into natural- cotton, linen, hemp, silk etc. and manmade- nylon, polyester, etc. The production of synthetic fabrics and even some cellulose ones are highly intensive processes that release a lot of these gases. Synthetics have a high footprint because they are sourced by extracting oil from the ground which requires high amounts of energy. Commonly used fabrics already have a calculated carbon footprint. You can read more in detail here.

4. Transparent vs traceable: Supply chains in the fashion industry are complex and this leads to unfair practices and a lack of accountability. Transparency is sharing information about the materials used and sourced from, where your garment was made and who made it so that consumers know what they’re buying. Traceability is a closely related term on the part of a company to know its supply chains right down to the field where the fibres were grown. This allows for greater transparency and interventions where needed.

5. Organic is raw material that has been grown avoiding harmful chemicals and keeping the water diet of the crop in check. Cotton is a thirsty crop, consuming more than 2000 litres of water per kg. When grown organically however and aiming for environmental sustainability, it consumes 98% less water. India being one of the largest producers of cotton in the world, cultivation of cotton needs to be shifted towards organic practices in order to protect from droughts. Currently, organic farming is just 1% of total cotton production in the world. The low supply makes organic cotton 3-4 times more expensive than the conventional source and hence, reflects in the higher cost of garments made from organic materials.

6. Diversity and inclusivity are critical components in working towards sustainability and representation of cultures. Indigenous cultures are storehouses of traditional knowledge that can be used as best practices towards sustainable changes in supply chains. Take in case, our cruelty-free silk, naturally dyed, hand woven scarves that have an almost negligible carbon footprint. Generational artisans have passed on the knowledge of silkworm rearing, yarn extraction, dyeing and weaving of fabrics that can be incorporated in to our modern wardrobes.

As you may understand from the above, sustainable fashion is a complex term that can’t be defined in a singular manner. You can read more in detail here. If we try to understand the basic meanings and terms, then it can help us in making wiser choices as consumers and contribute towards better, greener development for everyone’s sake and not just for the sake of looking good.

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