The Secret Life of Sustainable Clothes (Sustainable Clothes Aren’t What You Think)

What is Sustainable Clothing?

We often hear the term sustainability, but we may not be thinking about it through a fashion lens. Yet nearly 20% of global wastewater and 10% of global carbon emissions are produced by the fashion industry. Just like cars, your clothing has an impact on our climate.

Sustainable fashion has been rising in popularity in the past decades and is not slowing down anytime soon. Many consumers are trading in their fast fashion for sustainable and ethical brands that produce quality garments with planet Earth and people in mind.

close up photo of ropes on wooden table

What does sustainable clothing mean? 

Sustainable fashion is an all-inclusive term describing “products, processes, activities, and actors (policymakers, brands, consumers), aiming to achieve a carbon-neutral fashion industry built on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.” 

Since technology and the sustainability landscape is ever-changing, the definition has been reworked over the years to be all-encompassing.

What are examples of sustainable fashion? 

Sustainable fashion can be new clothing made with sustainability practices or items bought second-hand, like thrift stores, garage sales, online buy/sell/trades (BST), renting, clothing swaps, and more. 

Sustainable fashion supports closed-loop systems, which are essential in creating a circular economy that focuses on regeneration instead of careless production.

The more traditional method for fashion is a linear approach. The brands design, manufacture and sell the clothing, but little consideration is given to what happens to the clothing after the consumer is done with them.

A closed loop system considers everything and puts programs and processes in place to assist with this.

Patagonia as one example has a Worn Wear program, where they will repair, recycle, and trade in your Patagonia items to help extend the life of your gear.

What is sustainable clothing made of? 

Many sustainable clothing brands are made with certified organic cotton because it is grown without harmful chemicals and pesticides, along with certifications to ensure stringent safety measures. However, sustainable clothing goes beyond textiles and includes the factories they are made in, how they treat their workers, how they source materials, and more. Many websites will have a sustainability transparency page detailing what they are doing for the planet and how they are doing it.

What are 3 types of sustainable fashion? 

When thinking of ways to shop sustainably, there are multiple ways to do it.

  1. New – Buying from sustainable and ethical brands. When buying sustainable garments, brands will offer transparent information about how they treat their workers, living wage information, materials used, and other guarantees in the production process.
  1. Reused or Reusable – Buying garments you can recycle or garments produced from recycled materials. Some brands have programs where consumers can return their garments when done, and they will responsibly recycle the goods on your behalf. Able has a Size Swap program where you can swap the size of your clothing if your body size changes.
  1. Second Hand / Vintage – Visiting thrift stores, online secondhand stores, or swapping clothes with friends is a great way to reduce any new clothing coming into circulation and to wear what is already available. It’s also a great way to add unique pieces that nobody else has.

Why is sustainable clothing important? 

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, with the average consumer buying 60% more pieces of garment compared to 15 years ago. But, each garment is kept for half the amount of time. Due to the increase in garment production, the fashion industry’s general state is described as an environmental and social emergency. Opting out of fast fashion can help. Sustainable clothing is often higher quality materials that last longer. It’s items you will have for years to come, not just a couple of wears.

What makes a brand sustainable? 

Most consumers and experts agree that brands must have all three of these things to be considered sustainable. Many brands go above and beyond these three categories; this is just a baseline. 

“I made your clothes.” Increasingly, sustainable fashion show every step of the clothing production process including who stitched the garment.

  1. All-natural ingredients and textiles – Many brands will display their fabric content and use primarily natural fibers that do not include synthetic chemicals. Organic cotton produces around 46% less CO2e than conventional cotton.
  1. Fair trade and fairly paid – Sustainability takes care of the planet and the humans who inhabit it. Many sustainable fashion brands have information about their fair trade factories and how they fairly pay their employees. Some brands also have a strict Code of Conduct contract with the expectations of their factories and employees.
  1. Philanthropic mission – Many brands will donate a percentage of their sales to organizations and charities that further support their mission and sustainability practices. Many people will review who a company is donating to determine if that aligns with their personal beliefs. 

How do you know if a fashion brand is sustainable? 

Most sustainable brands proudly display information on their website about their efforts with facts and data to back it up. Transparency is a substantial positive to sustainability efforts in the fashion industry. 

Another way to determine if a brand is sustainable is based on what type of certifications they have. A brand can use organic cotton, but that does not mean it’s certified organic. A couple of different certifications to look for are GOTS and Oeko-Tex.

GOTS certification is the world leading textile processing standard for organic fibers. They go beyond just looking at the final product to determine if it’s eligible for certification. From harvesting raw materials and environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing to labeling, GOTS certification provides a credible assurance to the consumer. 

Oeko-Tex certification offers companies various certification levels to verify products’ safety and production processes for health and the environment. Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label ensures that every component of the article (every thread, button, and accessory) has been tested for harmful substances and, therefore, is harmless for human health.

What is the difference between ethical and sustainable fashion?

They are often used interchangeably, and there isn’t a massive difference between the two terms. Ethical fashion can lean more toward what is morally right for garment workers versus sustainability is focused on maintaining the ecological balance of natural resources. However, I believe you cannot have one without the other. 

Is sustainable clothing good quality? 

Typically, yes! Many sustainable clothing brands use higher quality materials that will last longer than cheaper materials produced by fast-fashion brands. Buying sustainable and good-quality textiles removes dozens of cheaply made and manufactured alternatives from landfills. 

What is the most sustainable fabric?

Organic cotton, or better yet recycled organic cotton, is the most sustainable fabric. Hemp and bamboo are two other commonly used sustainable materials.

Is sustainable clothing actually sustainable? 

Not always, but it can be if you act as a responsible consumer. With the massive consumerism culture of the United States (and other countries), it is essential to remember that overconsumption is not sustainable. If someone is purchasing 50 high-end sustainable sleepers for their baby to wear for one season, that baby can’t possibly wear all of them and those garments will have to go somewhere once the consumer is done with them.

Shopping “slow” and sustainably means intentionally purchasing pieces that you or your child will wear a lot over the season and be able to pass down, resell, or recycle once done. Sometimes parents will not let their children wear specific clothing for fear of dirt and stains so it gets barely (or never) worn – before being donated, or sold second hand to a consumer who repeats the process. 

What about donating clothes?

(Don’t they ascend to clothing Nirvana after you gift them?)

I donate a lot of clothing to charities, but it turns out that is not a cure-all for overconsumption. Just like over-consumption is a problem, so is over-donation. There is too much used clothing in circulation. Just because you’re not throwing it away in the garbage doesn’t mean the charity isn’t dumping it. (Spoiler: The charity probably is dumping it out. They’ve got way too much.)

According to research by the EPA and GreenAmerica.org, Americans generate over 16 million tons of clothing or textile waste a year. That’s 35,280,000,000 pounds (or 35.3 billion). Only 2.5 million tons (15%) of this clothing gets re-worn.

Much of this is donated clothing. The charity Planet Aid receives over 90 million pounds of donated clothes each year and Goodwill stores in just New York and New Jersey collect nearly 86 million pounds a year. These donations amount to an annual per capita surplus of 107 pounds of unwanted clothing, per person in the United States – on top of the “wanted” clothing that we are intentionally acquiring.

American’s “donated garments” is a major polluter in Southeast Asian countries like Bangladesh.

There’s more donated clothing than people who need or want it.

Many of these unwanted textiles do go to homeless individuals and low-income families. However, there are roughly 581,000 homeless persons in America and according to the US Census there are 37.2 million people living at or below the poverty line. If all donated and unwanted clothing items went to this combined total of 38 million Americans, that would be 934 pounds of clothing per person experiencing poverty or homelessness. 934 pounds is the equivalent of 1,245 pairs of Levi’s per person. (Or 2,135 heavyweight T-shirts.)

Clearly, not all excess garments go to the needy. 

A lot of excess clothing winds up in U.S. landfills or it gets shipped overseas to developing nations where it turns out that people in developing nations don’t need or want it. Often, it’s for the same reasons we rejected them. Additionally, these castoffs can wreak havoc with local markets and it’s bad news for their environment: most of our discarded garments land up in their landfills and water systems.

You can read more about the troubled second life of donated clothes. Virtually all consumers would be surprised to learn what Goodwill really does with your clothing drop-offs, or the costs to remove textile waste through incineration, waste stream cleanup, and transportation to landfills or overseas. 

Bales of unwanted garments and goods being processed for overseas export.

Why are sustainable clothes expensive? 

Sustainable clothing is more expensive than fast fashion because it sources the best materials, utilizes fair trade practices, provides living wages, and supports philanthropic endeavors.

Manufacturing materials in sustainable factories (and treating workers humanly) can add to higher costs than in fast-fashion factories (where human rights violations are prevalent). Workers’ safety and well-being are also at the forefront of sustainable brands; many pay their workers far above local minimum wage.

Mini Rodini is a high-end, sustainable children’s label with many garments priced at $50 – $200.

Mini Rodini has a program called the “Living Wage Project,” which gives extra money to workers to provide a living wage to their workers, not just a minimum wage. A living wage is the estimated wage that should cover a person’s basic needs, such as food, housing, clothes, healthcare, education, and the ability to make some savings. A minimum wage does not necessarily mean a living wage, which is an important distinction when researching a company’s practices.

What are some sustainable kids’ brands? 

With over 183 million pieces of outgrown children’s clothing going to waste, according to environmental charity Hubbub, it’s crucial to shop sustainable for kids’ clothing whenever possible.

And the children’s market is leading the way for fashion.

Sustainability advocates say the mainstream fashion industry could learn a lot from childrenswear business models and consumption habits, such as the tradition of hand-me-downs, focus on durable materials, and heavy regulation of safety and chemical treatments. 

There are some fabulous and sustainable childrenswear brands, with many companies going the extra mile to ensure the safest materials are used. Some of these brands include, but are not limited to: 

Bottom Line

The fashion industry is a 2.5 trillion-dollar industry and a key economic sector that needs to take steps to be more sustainable. Purchasing sustainably and using closed looped systems whenever possible can reduce our carbon footprint. As British designer Vivienne Westwood said, “Buy less, choose well, make it last.”

I’m trying, Vivienne. I’m a work in progress. 

I’m in awe of blogger moms who are so zero-waste-sustainable that they can wear the same wool dress for 100 days straight and fit a year’s worth of garbage into a mason jar. I’ve tried to live that lifestyle and ditch my body wash, shampoo, and conditioner for an all-purpose brick. My oldest wore cloth diapers. I also tried to capsulize my wardrobe and my kids’.

These changes did not last. 

It felt like deprivation. And while I love Mother Earth, shifting to 100% sustainability and self privation, even for a greater good, was not sustainable for me. Trying to make the conversion was like yo-yo dieting. And when I crashed, I crashed hard. 

While I haven’t been able to transition to minimal all-capsule wardrobes, I have definitely put in a lot more thought (and restraint) on how I can be a more ethical consumer. I buy mostly used, and when I do buy new, I try to buy from sustainable brands that use recycled fabrics.

My kids have more clothes than they need, but they have a lot less. I only buy pieces they can wear at least 14 times. This edits my impulses. Everything I buy has to go with everything else, and I let my kids wear their clothes everywhere – like Well Dressed Wolf dresses coated in mud and chalk or red rain boots with tutus and knit beanies for the library.

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