Sustainability in Fashion: A Terminology Breakdown

Sustainability has always been a pillar of what we do – our mission is to #ChangeBeyondTextiles – to make rural artisanship sustainable, shift designers’ approach to their process, and inspire customers to value provenance.

As a purpose-driven business that exists within the fashion world, we believe it is our responsibility to stay informed about the movements happening around us – be it social, environmental, ethical or political – and to do our part in conversations that matter. This is why we are writing a series on Sustainability in Fashion to dive deeper into what sustainable fashion really means.

Sustainable fashion terms are popping up all over the internet, so we’ve taken some time to define a few of these key terms. 

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1. Organic Clothing

If you own an organic cotton shirt, you have probably bought from an organic clothing line. Organic clothing may be mostly associated with organic cotton, but not all organic clothing is made of cotton. Linen, wool and hemp can also be organic, that’s because organic means clothes that are made without the use of harmful chemicals, pesticides or toxic dyes. Organic clothes are often biodegradable and can be broken down by bacteria into their natural fibers. This means they return back to the soil where they came from.

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TIP: Textiles do not have to be 100% organic to use the organic label, and they often contain accessories like zips and button that may hinder the process of disposing it sustainably. So it is important to look beyond the label.

2. Slow Fashion / Fast Fashion

The accessibility created by fast fashion and the societal pressure to follow trends that change with the seasons has resulted in more textiles wastage in the world today than ever. Slow Fashion is a movement in opposition to fast fashion (surprise!). So instead of a profit-driven business model that mass produces styles seen on the runways, it encourages slow production schedules, and designing, creating and buying garments for quality, things built to last.

As an advocate for slow fashion, we believe it is our responsibility to be transparent about our production process and to educate our customers about the importance of what we do. The intention behind why we produce is essential to being a slow fashion brand, and changing the consumerist relationship we have with our clothes is something you might find common in slow fashion brands.

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3. Conscious Fashion

Why we should care about what we wear and how our clothes are made are often not legal issues but moral ones. Conscious fashion is about being aware of the ways in which our material decisions matter in places far beyond what we buy, from how we take care of the clothes to how we dispose of it. It means caring for our surroundings, including people and the environment both near and far, that are affected by our buying habits.

As a conscious consumer, details are important. Clothing labels can clue you into just how sustainable the apparel is, which could lead you to research further on a particular brand. While researching, it helps to keep in mind the a brand’s philosophy to see how they practice transparency about what goes on in their supply chains and how prices are set. Conscious fashion values this transparency because it helps to build trust and understanding between the consumer and the company.


4. Fair Trade (or Fair Fashion)

Fair trade may sound like an economic concept, but it really just has a social and ethical goal: to address the injustices of conventional trade. This means companies ensure that workers are paid fair wages (preferably beyond the current averages, because they have proven to be unsustainable) and are working in factories that meet certain safety guidelines. When people talk about fair trade or fair fashion, the term “ethically made” often pops up as well. This is because fair trade falls under the ethical trade movement.

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But it is important to note that while ethical trade is a broad term that is not certified or precisely defined, putting the fair trade label on an organisation requires certification from an international governing body.

5. Vegan Fashion

This is for the animal lovers out there. Vegan fashion is a cruelty-free way to avoid garments and accessories that are made with the use of animal products, like skin, fur, bone or horns. This means avoiding garments like leather jackets, down coats, cashmere scarves, wool mittens, suede shoes, just to name a few. Vegan fashion is more common among outerwear and accessories like bags, shoes, wallets and watches, so watch out for items in those departments.

TIP: There are some drawbacks with vegan fashion. For one, companies might use plastics as an alternative to bone, especially if they are mass-produced, and producing and disposing plastic comes with a whole other set of environmental problems. Also, vegan materials are a way for producers to reduce cost, so be careful not to sacrifice quality while going vegan.

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6. Cruelty-Free Fashion

Cruelty-free means that a company has not tested their products (or any ingredients in those products) on animals during its development phases. But this does not mean the same thing as vegan fashion, because while animal testing is prohibited, using ingredients made from animals is still allowed. such as beeswax or lanolin in beauty care products.

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Sustainable fashion wears a lot of different hats and can be approached from several angles. But true sustainability must incorporate three important factors: ethics, the environment and the economy. If you feel disheartened in your sustainability journey, just remember that it is a very personal one, so take your time to figure out what is important to you. It is more important to recognise why we should care about our clothes, how they are made and by whom – shopping consciously based on ethics that ring true to you will guide you in implementing sustainability into your life for the long term.

We compiled a list of websites you can check out to find out more about what other companies in the sustainable slow fashion movement is doing, and how you can help them in their missions to mainstream sustainable fashion.

1. Folkdays sells products made by artisans around the world that make design sense in the western market.
Undress Runways works with ethical designers from around the world to increase public awareness of sustainable and ethical practices.
Allie Frownie is a climate scientist who founded a sustainable fashion brand and who blogs about sustainability.
Reformation works heavily with Tencel Lyocell and pushes for lower resource use across their business, from their offices to their retail spaces.
Alternatively, you can check out the list of B Corp businesses. These are for-profit companies certified by the non-profit B lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.

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