What is Sustainable Fashion?

Welcome to the ultimate guide to cutting through the obscurity – a shortcut to being a more conscious and responsible fashion consumer.

Shedding light to key sustainability-related terms and understanding what qualities to look out for allows us to be intuitive about the impact of our shopping habits on the environment. Researching where our money is going or what policies are in place on energy or waste is vital. Not sure how environmentally friendly a supplier’s practices are? Don’t be shy – ask. If you communicate what you care about, fashion retailers will be forced to start listening more closely.

Since in the United States, alone, an estimated 1.8 million people are employed in the fashion industry, being extra vigilant of where you choose to spend your money, moving forward, is pretty powerful.

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The total amount of greenhouse gases produced by an individual or business, usually represented in tonnes of carbon dioxide. Producing clothes massively in factories, is unequivocally the single biggest contributor to increasing the industry's carbon footprints. So being careful and circumspect about production details of an item or an entire clothing line is of vital importance. Minimise excessive shopping, don't jettison clothes, try to repair or recycle them instead, choose energy-efficient brands.


Net-zero carbon emissions is declared when businesses measure the amount of carbon they’re responsible for releasing and then balance this out with an equivalent amount, usually through the purchase of carbon credits. Fashion brands start rallying towards achieving carbon neutrality by working out the emissions from their factories, production lines, channels of mass transport and reinforcing this by supporting renewable energy practices.


As of right now, there is no mandate for any company to certify their products; everything is completely voluntary and brands can choose which labels to get based on things like their industry, budget, and how much they want to show off how ethical and their operations are. However, there are several ethical and sustainable certifications, including Fairtrade International, Global Organic Textile Standard - GOTS, OEKO-TEX, Better Cotton Initiative, PETA.

In addition, accreditations from third-party assessments, usually through an audit, signify that an operator has conformed to a standard of practice. EarthCheck is a leading system of scientific benchmarking, certification and advice. BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) denote green building principles. Browse B Corp’s accredited businesses, all of which have been legally required to consider the impact of all decisions on their workers, their customers, their suppliers, the community and the environment. 


A closed loop where operations aren’t wasteful and supply chains are usually ethical. Striving for this virtuous circle involves using traceable suppliers and goods that are reused or repurposed and then put back into the economy, rather than following a traditional linear approach to procurement, which generally involves buying goods, using them and then disposing of them.


Slow fashion is emerging as an alternate method for clothing production. Slow fashion entails the localisation and regionalism of design and production to reduce carbon footprint and promote a localised economy. Localised fashion markets are emerging in the United States and forming concentrated clusters of value services in cities including Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. Researchers found Nashville has the largest per capita concentration of independent fashion companies outside Los Angeles and New York, employing more than 16,200 artisans and adding USD 5.9 billion to the local economy. Companies, including Elizabeth Suzzane in Nashville, Tennessee and Esby Apparel in Austin, Texas, are ensuring high quality standards throughout the production process, creating garments at a slower and more deliberate rate via the slow fashion model.


Eco-fashion is about making clothes that take into account the environment, the health of consumers and the working conditions of people in the fashion industry.

Eco-fashion clothes are made using organic raw materials, such as cotton grown without pesticides and silk made by worms fed on organic trees
don't involve the use of harmful chemicals and bleaches to colour fabrics
are often made from recycled and reused textiles. High-quality garments can be made from second-hand clothes and even recycled plastic bottles
are made to last, so that people keep them for longer
come from fair trade - the people who make them are paid a fair price and have decent working conditions.

With the eco-fashion industry still in its infancy, the main responsibility at the moment lies with clothes manufacturers and fashion designers, who need to start using sustainable materials and processes.


Sharing knowledge is the most powerful way to change the world for the better. It doesn’t always have to be through formal channels: as Gunter Pauli, author of The Blue Economy, says: ‘If you really want to have a positive impact, then tell a great surprising and inspiring story to a child, every single day, for the rest of your life. It will make a wonderful difference when we all think about solutions and we are all ready to act – that will be what sets off that spark that will turn the world around.”


NGOs play a significant role in the implementation of a circular economy. The creation of industry standards, tools to aid transition, and consumer education initiatives pose unique opportunities for NGOs to move the fashion industry towards circularity. 

The creation of consumer educational initiatives is necessary to ensure a circular economy is created. Good on You (source) provides articles for consumers on clothing sustainability issues and a simple, scoring tool for a business’ planet, people, and animal impact. Fashion Revolution offers a variety of educational tools and marketing paraphernalia for businesses to use to increase education for their customers. Printable signs bearing the #whomademyclothes campaign and digestible statistics on the impact of the industry are available for free for businesses to use to educate their customers.


Millions of tonnes of plastic enters our oceans every year, and 80 per cent of this junk comes from the land, so the best thing we can do is to eschew polymers in all their forms. As single-use plastic is vilified, bioplastics are increasingly wheeled out as substitutes – but recycling experts say that these alternatives present their own challenges. Disposable packaging made from plants instead of fossil fuels needs to be composted in specific conditions. If it isn’t, it can contaminate recycling and affect the pH levels of soil or water as it degrades. It’s complicated. So play it safe – avoid all things disposable.


This term relates to the origin of goods but is best known in relation to food, with particular reverence being shown to high-welfare meats and ingredients that have not been farmed industrially. The sustainable option for anything you buy is to always choose natural, local or seasonal – even for amenities. Marking a move away from mass-produced junk even in the mass market, Scandinavian Airlines has curated eco-friendly Filippa K washbags (for business-class passengers) that include a corn-starch toothbrush and natural mint-flavoured toothpaste by socially responsible The Humble Co, Verso Skincare products, SwedSafe ear plugs and Swedish Stockings, which use recycled materials and environmentally friendly dyes.


An important consideration when away from home is whether you’re a burden on local utilities – especially somewhere with water in limited supply. Sorry to be a killjoy, but holidaymakers splash about in a lot more water than locals with gallons pumped in to operate resorts, pools and golf courses, particularly in tropical regions. Do your hosts manage water as a shared, public resource or are they recklessly tapping into a supply that suits them best at the cost of others? Are you heading to a desert island where seawater needs to be desalinated using diesel generators? There’s much to consider. A helpful indicator that a hotel is a good guy is when it has its own borehole for extracting water (The Zetter in London’s Clerkenwell), so it’s not depriving locals of municipal water. It’s even more significant on tourist-heavy farming islands such as Bali. (Nice going, Desa Potato Head.)


The holy grail is when nothing goes to landfill. Trash is never the sexiest subject, but honouring the tenets of sustainability – reducing our reliance on stuff, reusing, recycling and repurposing all we can, and, of course, prioritising a closed loop in terms of supply – is important. Patagonia is a company that works towards achieving zero-waste status by giving all disposable products the heave-ho and prioritising local suppliers who sidestepped packaging in deliveries.