Sustainable fashion and sustainability within the apparel industry is the practice of manufacturing, producing, and dyeing apparel with a lower environmental impact than the typical garment.
Sustainable practices and options are becoming more popular to address the impact that the apparel industry has on our environment. However, the apparel industry was and is still one of the highest contributing industries to waste, pollution, and water/energy consumption.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to the apparel/fashion industry is "Fast Fashion". The term "Fast Fashion" refers to mass produced garments made and sold cheaply typically to respond to trends within the industry. These garments are not made to last and result in a significant amount of waste both within the production cycle and after the trends have passed.
Keep in mind that every piece of apparel produced has a negative impact on the environment but there is a huge difference between a piece of apparel that is produced without keeping the environment in mind (I.E. Fast Fashion) and those that do (I.E. Sustainable Fashion).
1. Water & Energy
The apparel industry continues to be one of the leading industries when it comes to water and energy consumption levels. The process of manufacturing, dyeing, and producing a single shirt takes a few hundred gallons of water and significant amounts of energy to complete varying slightly depending on the material and dye used.
The use of chemicals is prominent in every aspect of manufacturing and producing apparel to the point where they become a major component of the clothes we wear. Some of these chemicals, such as pesticides and formaldehyde, can be extremely harmful to us causing long term problems to our hormones and organs. While some countries ban the use of certain harmful chemicals, many countries still do not (typically to reduce cost of goods).
Apparel waste is not only limited to the resources discarded while producing the apparel itself, it also includes the disposal of the apparel piece after usage. Only a small percentage of apparel gets recycled while the rest ends up in landfills. Not only that but the manufacturing and production process is a major contributor to water pollution which comes primarily in its dyeing process. After the apparel is dyed, the leftover water and dye is dumped into nearby bodies of water (I.E. river, stream, lake) rendering that water unusable and destroying nearby marine wildlife.
Our consumption of plastic continues to grow as more of the world relies on plastic products and the apparel industry continues to be one of the major contributors to our plastic issue. Plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade naturally and fill up the majority of landfills. On top of that, microplastics and microplastic pollution have become so problematic for our environment that it's become part of the air we breathe and the water we drink.
What can we do about it?
The best way to address these issues and reduce our carbon footprint is to be conscious of the apparel we buy, how often we buy new apparel, and what we do after we're done with it.
The immediate solution to help the environment is to reduce buying apparel from fast fashion brands. A significant portion of the negative environmental impact from the apparel industry comes from fast fashion because of their need to mass produce cheap products to meet trends in the market without any consideration for the environment.
The long term solution would be to support sustainable/eco-friendly apparel brands and their growth so that the pressure of competition would force those who aren't eco-friendly to adapt. However, it is important to note that sustainable options at this time are more limited and typically cost more so it will take time for this solution to become prominent.
What's makes a brand sustainable?
One way, and probably the easiest way, to tell whether or not a brand is sustainable is by the material composition of the apparel. Look out for eco-friendly materials such as organic cotton, recycled/upcycled cotton, recycled plastic/polyester, and bamboo but also pay attention to the percentage of those materials in the apparel. The percentage matters because some brands will mark their products as "sustainable" but only have 3% of a blend of eco-friendly materials which is still better than nothing but not what is commonly expected from something that is marked as "sustainable".
When it comes to the manufacturers themselves, two standards to look out for are OEKO-TEX and BlueSign. Having an OEKO-TEX certification ensures that the textiles and apparel of that particular manufacturer are certified to not have harmful chemicals and that everything used/produced within their facilities is safe for us to wear. A BlueSign certification takes it one step further by also addressing sustainability of the manufacturer's process on top of eliminating harmful substances from production and the products.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be conscious of the decisions we make when it comes to buying and discarding apparel and the impact it may have on our environment. Change doesn't come easy but it starts with us. Be the change you want to see in the world!