You have to consider how a brand operates. Brands must be judged by their deeds, not their words. What makes a brand sustainable is a combination of actions, and to be clear, there is no one-size-fits-all.
A big, established brand that already has a larger carbon footprint needs to take many more actions (relative to smaller brands) for it to truthfully claim to be sustainable.
Sustainable business practicesThe term sustainable business practices is used here to describe business practices that are both people- and earth-friendly. Earth-friendly, which is used interchangeably with sustainable and eco-friendly, describes business practices that are focused on the least consumption of natural resources, like water.
Such practices also reduce waste pollution and emissions that are harmful to the climate. People-friendly, on the other hand, describes business practices focused on paying farmers and factory workers a living wage and providing safe working conditions.
A lot of industries, including the fast-fashion industry, take a linear approach to business, extract resources, and make products at the lowest cost possible, thereby maximizing their profits.
Maximizing profits usually entails a disinterest in how products are consumed and disposed; often both the consumption and/or disposal is not done responsibly. It’s an extract–make–throw-away business model.
A sustainable approach, on the other hand, is more circular and encompasses mindful extraction of resources, mindful manufacturing, and mindful or conscious profit-making — making profits but still being fair to workers throughout the supply chain. It also entails thinking about a product’s entire lifespan, including how it will be disposed.
Circular in this context focuses on the concept of circular fashion, which involves using and circulating clothes responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible, disposing of them only when they are no longer fit for use. To this end, some sustainable brands offer ways to sell your preloved garments bought from them or even repair your clothes.
So-called eco-collections or eco-conscious lines of fast-fashion brands are not sustainable fashion. These fashion lines are usually guilty of greenwashing, which is when brands exaggerate or fabricate stories about their sustainability initiatives. Sustainability is not about having a few clothes made from recycled bottles; yes, that is a step in the right direction but really a drop in the bucket. What is needed is far more fundamental: a reworking of entire supply chains to be sustainable and ethical.The sustainable fashion industry has demonstrated that profitability, mindfulness, and fairness can co-exist.
For more about what makes a brand sustainable and more examples of sustainable brands, check out my book Sustainable Fashion For Dummies.
Sustainable environmental practicesThe fashion industry is polluting our air, water, and land. The scariest part of fashion-related pollution is that most of the damage has been done in the last 20 years, attributable primarily to the rise of fast fashion.
Thankfully, there are brands leading the way to a more sustainable fashion future, and I hope they can provide a blueprint for the whole industry. Following, I explain some environmental best practices for the fashion industry, not only to help you understand them and their impact, but also to help you appreciate how hard eco-friendly brands are working in an industry that is clearly not doing enough.
Zero- or low-waste practicesThe fashion industry is extremely wasteful. It’s estimated that fully 35 percent of materials in the fashion industry supply chain go to waste. Brands that engage in practices that achieve zero-waste (or a reduction) of materials in their supply chain going to waste are engaged in sustainable environmental practices. Practices that reduce or eliminate fabric waste are a major focus of sustainable brands.
One way sustainable brands waste less fabric is by hand-cutting the fabric, which achieves more precision and thus less waste than machine-cutting. Such brands also use any excess fabric they may create so that it doesn’t end up in landfills. For example, they make items such as totes and hair accessories from leftover fabric. Some brands use deadstock (also known as overstock, surplus, or remnant) fabric to make their pieces. These are textiles that have been discarded but are still usable.
Regenerative practicesSome sustainable brands obtain their natural fabrics from sources that engage in regenerative agriculture. Agricultural activities (including those that are part of the supply chains of fashion) inevitably lead to degeneration (erosion, pollution, and loss of fertility) of the soil.
But a growing regenerative agricultural movement is focusing on better stewardship of agricultural land and revitalization of soil nutrients, as well as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Fashion can be regenerative of the soil and soil nutrients when it supports regenerative agriculture.
Use of nontoxic and eco-friendly dyesTextile dyes became toxic with the introduction of synthetics in the 1800s. Prior to that, dyes had come from nature — from plants and insects. After the discovery of the synthetic dye mauveine in 1856, synthetic dyes began to be used on a large scale. The reactants or reagents used in the manufacture of some synthetic dyes have been found to be toxic and therefore dangerous to workers and to the animals in the waters into which wastewater from the dyeing process is discharged.
A practice associated with a brand being sustainable is the use of nontoxic and natural dyes. Natural dyes extracted from plants can be beneficial to the environment. For example, indigo, a natural dye, is extracted from a legume that is also a nitrogen-fixing plant and can replenish soil as it grows.
While natural dye production can’t keep pace with the current demand for dyes by the fast-fashion industry, use of natural dyes is something you can associate with sustainable brands that generally produce fewer clothes.
Another sustainable alternative to synthetic dyes is low-impact dyes. These are also synthetic but are manufactured without harmful chemicals, so they’re not harmful to workers nor do they produce toxic waste.
Groceries Apparel is an example of a brand that uses only nontoxic dyes from its Vegetable Dye Studio, including dyes made from pomegranate, carrot tops, onion skins, roots, bark, flowers, and real indigo.
Carbon neutralityAnother sustainable environmental practice is carbon neutrality. The fashion industry accounts for about 10 percent of global carbon emissions. This means that activities of fashion brands in the aggregate add up to this negative impact on the planet.
Sustainable brands achieve carbon neutrality in two ways: First, they do so by minimizing their carbon footprints, including favoring sustainable natural fibers over synthetic fibers made from oil, smaller-scale production, and other waste-reducing practices. Second, they offset the carbon footprint they can’t eliminate.
Eco-friendly packagingIf you shop online, you may have noticed that the items you buy tend to arrive wrapped in excess plastic, airbags, or bubble wrap, and a lot of this plastic is not recyclable in most curbside recycling programs.
As online shopping continues to explode, even from sustainable brands, utilizing sustainable packaging is very important. Some sustainable brands reduce plastic use by opting for recycled and recyclable paper mailers or cardboard or reusable packaging.
Innovations around packaging are resulting in more eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastic, such as bioplastic. There are questions as to whether these innovations are fully sustainable, but some sustainable brands are using them.
Hopefully, as these innovations get refined, these questions will be addressed and more sustainable packaging solutions will be brought into the market.
Practices that conserve and protect waterThe fashion industry is very water intensive. A lot of water is used to grow raw materials like conventional cotton, which requires extensive irrigation. Furthermore, textile production uses 79 to 93 cubic meters of water annually, which is about 4 percent of all freshwater, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The fashion industry also pollutes our water. Twenty percent of water pollution is from textile dyeing.
So sustainable brands engage in practices that minimize their own water use and pollution impact. They do this through such practices as water conservation and using nontoxic dyes.
One way a sustainable brand can reduce its water impact is through the use of low-impact dyes. These dyes require less rinsing than conventional dyes, which saves water. Additionally, low-impact dyes don’t contain harmful chemicals that pollute water.
TenTree, a sustainable apparel brand, shares some information on its website about how it minimizes pollution from dyes and conserves water used in the dyeing process. It uses nontoxic and natural dyes and recycles and reuses wastewater.
Sustainable certificationsHere a few of the certifications you should hope to see on the labels and what they mean:
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): is an international textile processing standard for organic fibers and includes both the social and environmental impact of the entire supply chain. Clothes with the GOTS label are certified organic, and this label also certifies that working conditions have met all International Labor Standards, United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) standards for fair labor.
- Fair Trade Certified: This is the first certification I came across; it is for fair-trade chocolate but also covers textiles. This label certifies that clothes were made in a fair-trade factory, meaning that workers received fair wages and worked under good working conditions.
- Bluesign: This entails certification at all levels of the manufacturing process that the fabric and other inputs used have the lowest possible impact on people and the environment. Bluesign certification also certifies the safety of the dyes and any other chemicals that may be used in the manufacturing process. Bluesign-verified fabric is nontoxic, sustainable, and ethically made.
- B Corporation (B Corp): This certifies that the business has verifiably met high standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and balances profit and purpose. Some sustainable brands will have this certification on their websites.
- Soil Association: Certifies that every step of a clothing brand’s supply chain has met environmental and social standards. The soil association looks at a brand’s use of harmful chemicals, whether or not they provide safe working conditions, its efforts to reduce energy and water usage, and many more criteria.
- Cradle to Cradle: This certifies the use of either natural materials that can safely return to the earth to decompose or synthetic materials that can be used over and over without downgrading their quality. This certification comes in levels, including gold, silver, and platinum, certifying each product qualitatively.
Regardless of their certification status, a brand should be transparent about both the environmental and social aspects of its supply chain, whether this is shown explicitly through its social media pages, its website, or via credible testimonials. Sustainable brand Tonlé publishes a sustainability series on its website, highlighting all its practices and testimonials.
Ethical labor practicesThe fashion industry is a labor-intensive industry; 1 in 6 people, mostly women in the developing world, work in the industry. A brand can’t be sustainable fashion without doing right by garment workers! Ethical labor means that each garment worker receives a living wage and works in a safe and healthy work environment.
A minimum wage is usually the bare minimum typically mandated by law; a living wage, on the other hand, means that a worker is earning enough to keep them out of poverty.
Clothes made using ethically compensated labor are more expensive, but people shouldn’t suffer so that our clothes are exceptionally cheap. Moreover, many sustainable brands have items that retail for under $100 and yet they pay a living wage.
Brands that qualify to be described as sustainable pay a living wage. I have heard it asked quite often: Can fashion brands afford to pay a living wage yet remain profitable? The answer, contrary to what some fast-fashion brands may want to admit, is yes. Smaller sustainable brands are being ethical and yet are still in business and are profitable. If there is a will, there is way.