Sustainable fashion (also known as eco-fashion) is a movement and process of fostering change to fashion products and the fashion system towards greater ecological integrity and social justice. Sustainable fashion concerns more than just addressing fashion textiles or products. It addresses the entire manner in which clothing is produced, who produces it, and how long the life span of a product is before it reaches the landfill. This sustainable movement combats the large carbon footprint that the fashion industry and fast fashion have created by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the environmental impact of fashion can combat air pollution, water pollution and overall climate change that could possibly prevent millions of premature deaths over the next century.
Sustainable fashion deals with considering fashion from the perspective of a variety of stakeholders ranging from contemporary producers and consumers of clothes, to future producers and consumers.
In 2020, it was found that an approach of voluntarily self-directed reform of textile manufacturing supply chains to substantially reduce the environmental impact of fashion by large companies themselves has failed.Measures to reform fashion towards sustainability beyond marketing campaigns of greenwashing may need to involve policies for the creation and enforcement of standardizedcertificates along with related import control and subsidy- and eco-tariffs-like interventions.
Background and history
The origins of the sustainable fashion movement are intertwined with those of the modern environmental movement, and specifically the publication in 1962 of the book Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson. Carson’s book exposed the serious and widespread pollution associated with the use of agricultural chemicals, a theme that is still important in the debate around the environmental and social impact of fashion today. The decades which followed saw the impact of human actions on the environment to be more systematically investigated, including the effects of industrial activity, and new concepts for mitigating these effects, notably sustainable development, a term coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Report.
In the early 1990s and roughly coinciding with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit, ‘green issues’ (as they were called at the time) made their way into fashion and textiles publications. Typically these publications featured the work of well-known companies such as Patagonia and ESPRIT, who in the late 1980s brought environmental concerns into their businesses. The owners of those companies at that time, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, were outdoorsmen and witnessed the environment being harmed by overproduction and overconsumption of material goods. They commissioned research into the impact of fibers used in their companies. For Patagonia, this resulted in a lifecycle assessment for four fibers, cotton, wool, nylon, and polyester. For ESPRIT the focus was on cotton—and finding better alternatives to it—which represented 90% of their business at that time. Interestingly, a similar focus on materials impact and selection is still the norm in sustainable fashion thirty years on.
The principles of ‘green’ or ‘eco’ fashion, as put forward by these two companies, was based on the philosophy of the deep ecologists Arne Næss, Fritjof Capra, and Ernest Callenbach, and design theorist Victor Papanek. This imperative is also linked to a feminist understanding of human-nature relationships, interconnectedness and “ethics of care” as advocated by Carolyn Merchant, Suzi Gablik, Vandana Shiva, and Carol Gilligan. The legacy of the early work of Patagonia and ESPRIT continues to shape the fashion industry agenda around sustainability today. They co-funded the first organic cotton conference held in 1991 in Visalia, California. And in 1992, the ESPRIT e-collection, developed by head designer Lynda Grose, was launched at retail. The collection was based on the Eco Audit Guide, published by the Elmwood Institute. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the movement in sustainable fashion broadened to include many brands. Though the primary focus has remained on improving the impact of products through fiber and fabric processing and material provenance, Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard were early to note that exponential growth and consumption are not sustainable. ESPRIT placed an ad in Utne Reader in 1990 making a plea for responsible consumption. In 2011 the brand Patagonia ran an ad and a PR campaign called “Don’t Buy This Jacket” with a picture of Patagonia merchandise. This message was intended to encourage people to consider the effect that consumption has on the environment, and to purchase only what they need.
In parallel with the industry agenda, a research agenda around sustainable fashion has been in development since the early 1990s, with the field now having its own history, dynamics, politics, practices, sub-movements and evolution of analytical and critical language. The field is broad in scope and includes technical projects that seek to improve the resource efficiency of existing operations, the work of brands and designers to work within current priorities as well as those which look to fundamentally re imagine the fashion system differently, including the growth logic. In 2019, a group of researchers formed the Union for Concerned Researchers in Fashion (UCRF) to advocate for radical and coordinated research activity commensurate with the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. In the fall of 2019, the UCRF received the North Star Award at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards during Milan Fashion Week.
Followers of the sustainable fashion movement believe that the fashion industry has a clear opportunity to act differently, pursuing profit and growth while also creating new value and deeper wealth for society and therefore for the world economy. They believe that clothing companies ought to place environmental, social, and ethical improvements on management’s agenda. The goal of sustainable fashion is to create flourishing ecosystems and communities through its activity. This may include: increasing the value of local production and products; prolonging the lifecycle of materials; increasing the value of timeless garments; reducing the amount of waste; and reducing the harm to the environment created as a result of production and consumption. Another of its aims can sometimes be seen to educate people to practice environmentally friendly consumption by promoting the “green consumer”, which can allow for the company itself to gain more support and a larger following.
There are doubts within the movement as to the effectiveness of “green consumerism.” Business models based on selling more units of clothing or accessories are widely not considered to be sustainable, regardless of how “eco-friendly” the garments themselves are. Thus the industry has to change its basic premise for profit, yet this is slow coming as it requires a large shift in business practices, models and tools for assessment. This became apparent in the discussions following the Burberry report of the brand burning unsold goods worth around £28.6m (about $37.8 million) in 2018,exposing not only overproduction and subsequent destruction of unsold stock as a normal business practice, but the behavior amongst brands that actively undermine a sustainable fashion agenda.
The challenge for making fashion more sustainable requires to rethink the whole system, and this call for action is in itself not new. The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion has argued that the industry is still discussing the same ideas as were originally mooted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When taking the long view and examining fashion and sustainability progress since the 1990s, there are few actual advances in ecological terms. As the Union observes, “So far, the mission of sustainable fashion has been an utter failure and all small and incremental changes have been drowned by an explosive economy of extraction, consumption, waste and continuous labor abuse.”
A frequently asked question of those working in the area of sustainable fashion is whether the field itself is an oxymoron. This reflects the seemingly irreconcilable possibility of bringing together fashion (understood as constant change, and tied to business models based on continuous replacement of goods) and sustainability (understood as continuity and resourcefulness). The apparent paradox dissolves if fashion is seen more broadly, not only as a process aligned to expansionist business models, and consumption of new clothing, but instead as mechanism that leads to more engaged ways of living on a precious and changing earth.
Temporal concerns related to fashion
Fashion is, per definition, a phenomenon related to time: a popular expression in a certain time and context. This also affects the perception of what is and should be made more sustainable – if fashion should be “fast” or “slow” – or if it should be more exclusive or inclusive.Like much other design, the objects of fashion exist in the interzone between desire and discard along a temporal axis, between the shimmering urge towards life and the thermodynamic fate of death. As noted by cultural theorist Brian Thill, “waste is every object, plus time.”