What do I mean by “Sustainable Fashion” anyway?

Given the amount of time I spend throwing around the phrase “sustainable fashion” (for my Twitter followers, just throw on a #), I feel it appropriate to explain my definition.

I had a lot of conversations in New York City last week with designers whom I consider to be “sustainable.”  Many of them, however, are hesitant to portray themselves in that light.  Their hesitancy is both unfortunate and understandable.  Unfortunate that “sustainable fashion” still comes with a stigma of clothes that look like this:

What do I mean by Sustainable Fashion anyway?

And understandable that designers whose clothing actually look like this:
What do I mean by Sustainable Fashion anyway? want to avoid that stigma.  Yet the pieces above were all designed and manufactured on West 35th street in New York City.  That means that they were designed and produced by people paid a living wage, and were transported very short distances between the factory floor and the designer’s workshop, thus reducing their carbon footprints.  To me, that’s sustainable. What do I mean by Sustainable Fashion anyway?

I realize that designers are wary of the label. It’s a high standard to live up to, and opens them up to criticism.  But the way forward for this industry is not crying sweatshop and pointing fingers.  Rather, we’ve got to support companies that are producing fashion with a thought to the world around them.  They don’t have to be organic, vegan, fair trade, and made locally.  But if they are one of those things, GREAT!

What do I mean by Sustainable Fashion anyway? The key is to be thoughtful about how, with what, and by whom your clothes are made.  In today’s globalized consumer climate, we can’t reasonably expect perfection.  But we can and should expect effort and awareness.

Sites like LovingEco have the right idea.  Recognizing that there are many aspects to sustainability, they have a badge system that labels which categories a particular sale item falls into.  The categories are: organic, vegan, fair trade, cruelty-free, recycled Made in USA, energy and resource efficient, handmade, biodegradable, and locally-produced.  To that list I might What do I mean by Sustainable Fashion anyway? add traditional crafts and upcycling (incorporating recycled materials and repurposing).

Consumers that have strict guidelines – perhaps they only buy vegan products – can find things that fit their requirements, and those of us with looser ways (in fashion) can be informed about the products we are buying.  I like this.  I talked to a lot of designers in New York last week who are working towards sustainability.  They were all very honest about the difficult decisions and trade-offs they have to make.  I appreciate that honesty, and am looking forward to those decisions getting less difficult and our clothes getting cleaner.

22 thoughts on “What do I mean by “Sustainable Fashion” anyway?

  1. I really like the idea of the badge system. And I’m totally with you – it’s not about being the “perfect” definition of sustainable, but about progress towards it, in whichever way the designer sees works for their vision. Honesty, awareness and I would add, adaptability, are all important in recognizing the spectrum of sustainable fashion.

    And I go back and forth between identifying as a sustainable label and not. It’s still a work in progress!

    • Yes, you are one of the designers I meant when I mentioned those that are honest about the trade-offs! Way to be. I’m interested to see where you end up with the marketing angle, if you ever want to write a piece on that I’m happy to cross-post!

  2. Nice article… great to see so much being written about sustainable fashion. Longevity of a garment is something we try to focus on as well. Educating consumers about the production of their goods is a challenge but articles like this really help… thanks.

  3. It’s like food.. we often forget that much of our fiber is also produced via agricultural systems (wool, alpaca, cashmere, cotton, linen, etc). Considering the burden of production isn’t just who got paid to design vs. sew them together, but also who was paid to pick it or shear the sheep. There was an article about cashmere and environmental degradation (sheep in australia also provide other examples of wool’s potential negative impact on land) a couple of years ago that was an interesting peek into globalization and fiber production…

    “Sustainable” is in the eye of the beholder! However, I would argue that vegan does not equal sustainable. It’s certainly a valuable philosophy, but does not inherently make something sustainable.

    • Thanks for your comment! If you find that cashmere article do send it my way (heartsleevesblog@gmail).
      You make an interesting point about vegan. I tend to agree, just because vegan materials are often synthetic which can be less sustainable depending on how and with what chemicals they are made. That is an area I don’t know much about, though. If you fancy writing something on the subject I’d be happy to post it! Always looking for thoughtful contributors. – Ariel

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    • Haha thank you! You just gave me a good idea: I’ll link to the post in my “About” page. Keep in touch, and if you want to learn about a specific thing let me know and I’ll look into it and learn with you!
      - Ariel

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