In the last 18 months, the concept of ‘sustainable fashion’ has become more mainstream. Since the start of 2018, there has been a 66% increase in consumers searching for ‘sustainable and ethical fashion’ according to Lyst, the fashion search engine. But, what does it really mean for fashion to be sustainable? There is no single answer to this question.

Lori Cunningham

Lori Cunningham

As consumers, we’ve no doubt heard about each of these concepts individually being called ‘sustainable’, which they are, but it can be overwhelming to know how to make the best purchase decisions: should I only buy second-hand? Do I need to have all new clothing made to order? In fact, it can be so difficult to know where to begin, some consumers do not begin at all. But the fact is, that by even following one element of this pie chart, you are doing your part for sustainable fashion, and every small individual choice ultimately adds up to a huge impact.

So, let’s break each one of these elements down with a view to helping you, the consumer, decide how sustainable fashion can most logically fit into your life.

On Demand & Custom Made: This is arguably the gold standard when it comes to sustainability – only making exactly what is needed, thus reducing any oversupply of fashion that risks ending up in landfill. There are the more traditional means to achieving this – going to a tailor, making items of clothing for yourself – but they are respectively money, skill & time intensive, so not available to the average consumer. Some smaller brands are beginning to address this issue by manufacturing clothes only once an order is placed by a customer, but that means longer lead times for delivery, and inevitably higher costs. I do believe that technology will enable brands to create ‘made-to-order’ clothing more quickly & efficiently over time, but for the moment this option is not easily accessible to all.

Green & Clean: This second element is much more prevalent, but care needs to be taken in finding brands that deliver this ethos consistently. What ‘green and clean’ really means is that sustainability is embedded in each stage of the manufacturing process, from the raw materials right through to consumer packaging, with a view to reducing carbon footprint along the way. While there is no fool proof way to ensure that a brand is living up to these standards, it is worthwhile to consider the following: is the fabric organic and made from biodegradable material? How many miles did the garment travel for production before making it to you? Are the packaging & collateral materials, either in-store or online, also fully recyclable and/or biodegradable? By looking for brands that aim to embed sustainability through every part of their product lifecycle, you are already making a huge difference.

High Quality & Timeless Design: I think this is a cornerstone for sustainable fashion – only buying pieces that are truly timeless. Fashion has always been a trend-driven industry, and that is not going to change any time soon. However, being mindful of the trends you choose to follow is key. Ask yourself: is this something I would wear whether it were currently in fashion or not? If the answer is no, then give it a miss. Buying pieces that can be worn over a number of years is key to sustainability, and of course higher quality will mean an item lasts even longer.

Fair & Ethical: I long to see the day that there is not a subcategory for ‘fair and ethical fashion’, but that all fashion is made fair and ethically. This means that workers are paid living wages and work standard hours in safe environments. It also means that the artisanal skills of craftspeople around the globe are protected and valued, ensuring their survival for generations to come. Fortunately, there are more and more brands supporting fair trade and ethical practice, including my own brand Loskey. When making purchase decisions, try to support brands who clearly uphold this standard, and demonstrate that by sharing the details of who makes their clothing.

Repair, Redesign, Up-cycle: We’ve already spoken about timeless design being key to sustainability, and this is another way to tick that box, by literally taking something old and repurposing it into something new! That can be a simple as repairing the hole that’s appeared in your favourite pair of jeans (or turning into a feature), or going further and turning an old, perhaps out of style piece of clothing into something else altogether. This is something that you can do as an individual, but there are also brands that are doing this at scale, such as RE/DONE. The jeans branch launched by taking classic vintage Levi’s denim and redesigning and repurposing it for the current time. Even if supporting such brands is beyond your price range, there’s nothing stopping you taking a pair of scissors to that old pair of jeans in your closet to make them into shorts or a skirt – something I have done many times!

Rent, Lease, Swap: The sharing economy has made it to fashion, with lots of fashion rental sites like Rent the Runway offering to rent high fashion at a fraction of the cost of buying it. But the value and impact of renting is far higher when you consider that, according to a Barnados report commissioned at the start of the summer, British consumers were predicted to spend £800m buying wedding outfits that they would only wear once. All that unworn clothing needs to go somewhere, and the vast majority of it will end up in landfill. Far better to consider renting for those special occasions, particularly when you can get a quality piece for the same price as a high street one.

Second Hand and Vintage: This is the arguably the most well-known way to be sustainable – buy pre-worn clothing. I believe there is an artform to buying second hand, and some are truly gifted at finding wonderful pieces at thrift and charity shops. It’s something that I have never been particularly talented at doing, but I am getting better because I’m doing it more – going into these stores and looking for pieces on a more regular basis. I’d recommend that any consumer do the same and start embracing second-hand shopping as a means of adding wonderful pieces to your wardrobe.

So, there it is, seven ways fashion can be sustainable. It may be that only some of these are relevant to you. Perhaps you really prefer to but new clothing vs. upcycled or second-hand, and that’s fine. If so, just do everything you can to support brands that are green & clean and fair trade and consider the timelessness of every piece you add to your wardrobe. But even making one change, like renting your next wedding outfit rather than buying it, is taking a significant step to a more sustainable future for us all.

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