Start here: What makes a fashion brand ‘sustainable’

There’s nothing suss about sustainable fashion, but if you feel unsure about how brands are able to claim that term for their products, I don’t blame you. It seems more and more brands are jumping on the ethically and sustainably produced bandwagon, but who’s to say whether or not they really make the cut?

Sustainable fashion indexes like Good On You and Project Just use certification schemes like Fair Trade, OEKO-TEX STeP and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to rate brands on their impact on the environment, and to people and animals. But in a lot of cases, brands simply can not show every step of their supply chain because they don’t have the buying power to warrant that conversation with a supplier.

It is a grey area, mostly because there are so many elements that make fashion extremely taxing to people, the environment and animals, that brands almost can’t make a profitable business if they were to adhere to every one of these. In saying that though, it’s not an excuse, and as a consumer, you have the power to choose brands that support causes meaningful to you.

The big issues in the fashion industry

Fashion is major contributor to global carbon emissions, and that’s just the first of many issues. After pollution, there’s human rights and fair treatment of animals too, but focusing on every issue makes it an unbeatable game. Where we can really make a change is in choosing brands whose values align with ours, so we can vote with our wallets and have a say in who gets the market share and leads the industry.

Here’s a bit about the big issues in the fashion industry, so you can choose the brands you want to see in front of their unsustainable competitors.

Environmental issues – Waste management, water usage and pesticides

Let’s start with an easy stat: Australians are the world’s second-largest consumers of clothing, taking home 27 kilograms of new clothes every year. It shouldn’t be surprising then that 6000 kilograms of clothing are thrown out every ten minutes. And while some of these textiles are biodegradable, a lot of them are synthetic fabrics which don’t break down easily in landfill.

How brands can do this sustainably: Use recycled or upcycled fabrics, use natural fibres in production.

Next, there’s the popular textile fibre, cotton, which accounts for 31% of all worldwide fibre production. To meet this demand about 33 million hectares are planted each year, producing 26 million tonnes of lint. What this means is that A) a butt load of water is being used, and B) a butt load of (carcinogenic) pesticides are being sprayed. The issue with pesticides is that they’re not only harmful to the bugs they’re killing, they also affect the well-being of people who come in contact with them.

However, farms that choose to go organic with their cotton face a different set of issues. Even though they’re not genetically modifying seeds or using harmful pesticides, it often takes more water to grow the same amount of cotton, as it takes up to four times longer to grow adhering to organic standards (by the way it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one non-organic t-shirt).

How brands can do this sustainably: Support farms that recycle water, use tank water etc, and be aware, organic cotton is great, but not always the better option.

Another major issue is water pollution. Documentaries like RiverBlue uncover the devastating effect textile manufacturers are having on rivers around the world. Instead of treating used water, which is filled with dyes and chemicals, factories are releasing these poisons back into rivers that people depend on for bathing and drinking. It’s so hard to track the pollution back to specific factories (and then find the brands that they are supplying to), that it all gets swept under the radar.

How brands can do this sustainably: Work directly with suppliers and factories who show transparency in their supply chain and have waste management policies.

Keeping with the waste issue, brands are using huge amounts of plastic packaging in packing and transporting their goods on shore and to their stores. And then there are plastic bags at the point of sale. There’s also a lot of textile waste going down in factories around the world.

How brands can do this sustainably: Use textile offcuts for other items, reduce plastic packaging and opt for recycled paper bags in store.

Labour issues – Wages and safe working conditions

This is not as black and white as you may think. Initially, the problems with labour were that people were underpaid or not paid at all. While I’m sure that’s still going on in some places, organisations like Greenpeace and Fairtrade have made major impacts in these areas and put the pressure on big manufacturers to adhere to laws around ethical and human rights.

So the next big issue is safe working conditions. Just because staff are being paid a minimum wage, they’re often overworked, exposed to harmful chemicals and made to do repetitive, arduous tasks without breaking. And then there are things you wouldn’t even think about like building structures and fire exits that could cost someone their life. This was brought to our attention when 1134 lives were lost in the Rana Plaza collapse.

How brands can do this sustainably: Keep production onshore or be heavily involved with the factory producing the garments. Get to know the factory’s capacity so they know when they’ll need to start outsourcing.

Animals – feathers, fur and skin for clothes and accessories

Obviously if you are wearing leather or fur, an animal died for your clothing. Where you sit on this issue is up to you. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. The only positive thing that can be done here is using the whole animal in production – i.e. it’s more sustainable to kill a cow and use every part of it for meat, leather etc, than to just kill for the hide. It’s hard to police this one though.

Another issue in the mistreatment of animals is mulesing sheep that are farmed for their wool. This is where farmers cut the flaps of skin from around a lamb’s breech and tail to create an area of bare, stretched skin. They do this to stop flystrike, but it’s technically cruelty to animals as the pain is comparable to castration and can last up to 48 hours.

How brands can do this sustainably: Make sure that the source of any animal products is clear and make an effort to reduce the impact to animals through supply chain management. Avoid using down in clothing.

So you can see why it’s difficult for brands to create an end-to-end supply chain that is 100% sustainable. On the plus side, fashion brands around the globe are taking huge steps towards being more sustainable in their production. Brands like Gorman reduced their use of plastic packaging by 90%. Brands like Nobody Denim are manufacturing onshore to avoid labour issues. Brands like Citizen Wolf are making cotton from single origin Australian super cotton which uses less water and pesticides to produce than average conventional cotton. All big steps towards sustainable production. So now you know what some of the issues are, it’s up to you who you want to support.

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About Author

Brittanie Dreghorn

Brittanie Dreghorn is the founder and editor of Britt's List, and an advocate for sustainable and Australian fashion.

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