Internet searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019, according to McKinsey’s latest report. Hits on the Instagram hashtag #sustainablefashion quintupled between 2016 and 2019 in both the US and Europe.
But what is sustainable fashion? “Consumers want more and better communication on sustainability from fashion companies themselves. Unfortunately, there is no common, objective industry standard on sustainable sourcing.” - Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel.
The term is thrown around so much now that it’s almost become meaningless. It’s such a loaded term and, without any common language or objective standards, to truly unpack it and apply it to a business at every level could lead to inaction.
Here are a few ways you may understand sustainability and our links to what we've found to be clear and balanced sources of information.
Sustainable fashion is about the environmental impact of the materials used in creating the clothing we wear. Brands are starting to use recycled plastic bottles in our shoes, our yoga tights, and our outerwear. Inventors have even figured out how to use mushrooms to create thread for sewing our garments.
Sustainable fashion is about the environmental impact of the manufacturing processes. For example, given how much water is required to develop, wash and dye yarn, are factories and mills recycling water in their facilities? Are the dyes used chemical-free? If not, how are those chemicals captured so they aren’t released into the nearby waters and environment?
Sustainable fashion relates to the social impact of the industry. More specifically, this refers to the conditions of factories, workers’ wages and the treatment of factory workers.
Sustainable fashion means transparency. Transparency of the supply chain, the materials used, the cost breakdown back to the raw materials and labor. Everlane comes to mind as the leader of the “transparency” movement.
Sustainable fashion is about transforming a linear supply chain into a circular economy where everything old becomes new again. Imagine a world where every product is designed to be either reused or upcycled into a new garment when no longer needed.
Sustainable fashion is about zero-waste: removing unnecessary waste generated by pre-consumer and post-consumer use (and we promise we won't frequently link through to Wikipedia!) Most estimates say that 15-20% of all fabric produced ends up on the cutting room floor (pre-consumer consumer) and 30% of garments produced go unsold and end up in landfills (post-consumer waste).
All of the above are important aspects to operating a more socially and environmentally responsible business but it doesn't help us narrow down a common language on the subject. The best summary we've found of how these add up to a bigger picture is from Green Strategy, a Sweden-based consultancy focused on sustainability and circularity in fashion.
We would love to tackle all of these elements at Public Habit but we are going to try and do one thing well first. We are focusing on a lesser known problem around textile waste from garments that are unsold due to the mismatch in supply and demand. 1 in 3 garments are never sold, meaning that they end up in landfills or, if they are lucky, recycled into something useful (<15% disposed items are recycled). We will go into this phenomenon in detail another day and share how we are approaching this at Public Habit.
If you're interested in going a little deeper on the complex, gnarly world of sustainable fashion, we highly recommend the Global Fashion Agenda's report on the Circular Fashion System released earlier this year.