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First up, why is it so important that things change in the fashion world? As most of us know, the fashion industry has an enormous environmental impact on mother earth. But looking at the actual numbers is quite staggering.
The fashion industry produces around 10% global greenhouse gas emissions and is the second most polluting industry in the world (after petroleum). Non-sustainable fashion accounts for 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides, which pollute our water supplies and destabilize ecosystems.
The bad news
Let’s have an honest approach. There is no such thing as 100% sustainable fashion! You could go naked with the family, but if you’ve ever experienced Berlin in winter, that’s not really an option for the long run.
As most of us know, the fashion industry has an enormous impact on mother earth and all its inhabitants. In various forms, the industry pollutes the soil, oceans and our sky. The hunger for newness in fashion results in a truckload of clothing wasted every second across the world (The Guardian, report MacArthur’s foundation). Not to forget about the over 33 million people who work in the industry, where child labor sadly is still noticed. The list of impact is endless.
The good news
You can make a more sustainable choice in fashion. Each and everyone of us has the power to make better decisions. Every time you go shopping in the city or when you’re browsing through online stores, you can choose fashion brands that are friendly to the environment. The number of more sustainable options is growing.
Let’s start to unravel the complexity!
Sustainable fashion - the basics
Roughly put, you have three options to make a better choice in sustainable fashion.
Luckily there can be an overlap between the three. And as you figured already, the sweet spot is in the middle. The next time you go shopping, ask yourself the following questions.
Question to ask: who made my clothes?
As the name already explains, this part of the fashion industry is focused on an ethical outcome for the people in it. Honest fashion, with ethical standards and a huge dose of human rights. Think of labour standards, fair wages, agreements on healthcare and protecting kids from child labor. A fashion brand should have a code of conduct with their suppliers.
Question to ask: what is done to lower the environmental impact?
This part of the industry revolves around the environmental impact of fashion. For example, the use of pesticides on crops, chemicals during production such as bleach or water recycling. This is where organic fashion comes in as well. A GOTS certificate is a good indicator for organic cotton for example. Ask a brand for its material policy and scan the products you like on the raw materials which are used.
Fair Trade Fashion
Question to ask: does everyone in the supply chain get a fair share?
This is where fair trade comes in. When we talk about fair fashion, this is focused on the economical side of the business. The goal is to achieve better terms of trade for all parties and to create a minimum selling price. Are the processes profitable for all parties to create a normal standard of living? When a brand is transparent and open about it suppliers, this is already a good sign.
Sustainable Fashion - A Practical Guide
Let's dive even deeper. We've looked at how to generally think about making a positive change in our fashion consumption. Here are the things you should look out for when you visit a store and talk to a brand:
Much of our clothes today are made out of cotton. But not every cotton is the same. Non-organic cotton, which dominates the fashion industry today, uses a heavy amount of herbicides and pesticides and needs a dramatic amount of water - 2.700 liters of water per T-shirt to be exact. Organic cotton in contrast is cotton that is grown from non-modified plants and without any synthetic fertilizers. It has a 91% reduced blue water consumption and 46% reduced global warming potential.
But there are more materials that you can choose with a good conscience. Linen and hemp for example require much less water than non-organic cotton and make for extremely sturdy fabric.
The way your clothes are made naturally has a huge impact on the environmental impact of fashion. For example, are toxic chemicals and other harmful substances avoided during production? The overarching term that describes a sustainable way of production is ‘organic fashion’. So when shopping for new clothes, check whether the label carries an organic certification to make sure that the environmental impact of production was as low as possible- The most important certification is the GOTS standard, but there are also several other organic certifications that you can trust.
Unfortunately, child labour and wages below the living standard are still the norm for fashion chains. Choose honest, ethical fashion instead, which pays attention to healthy working standards and keeping human rights intact. The good thing is: the organic labels discussed above also monitor the social impact of the fashion that you buy.
In the journey of your clothes, they will make several stops before they arrive in the store or in the warehouse of an online shop: Cotton fields, the yarn producers, and then the actual manufacturer who weaves, colors, cuts and sews the clothes. It's important that fashion brands are transparent about each and every step of your clothes so that you can be sure that everyone in the supply chain is being treated fairly.
Another thing to watch out for - especially when buying online - is how clothes are shipped to you. Whenever you can, choose a green shipping method that offsets the carbon footprint of the transport and see whether a label packages their clothes with sustainable materials.
Sustainability is not just about how and by whom our clothes are made, but also about the type of items you buy and how we treat them. By buying a selection of cool basics and going less for seasonal trends, we create a staple wardrobe of timeless pieces that we wear much more often. More bang for the buck :)
And there's more we can do. Sometimes, it's best to simply buy second-hand - not every piece needs to be spanking new. Lastly, let's recycle and upcycle those clothes that we simply don't want to wear out every day! We can turn old T-shirts into running shirts or cut off the legs of old jeans to turn them into work shorts, and enjoy every piece a little longer.
Be the change!
There are many different ways to label a fashion product ‘sustainable’. As a consumer and fashion-lover, you have a vote every time you buy something new. Your new tee or jeans might not tick all of the boxes above, but becoming more aware of what you buy is the first step. You’re doing a great job already!
Let’s head towards a future where our kids think ‘green’ and ‘organic’ are common sense.