Sustainability ABC: What Are The Differences Between Sustainable, Organic, and Vegan Materials?

With the rise of more sustainable materials comes new terms, processes, and materials which can cause great confusion if not explained well. The word “sustainability,” in regards to consumer goods, garners constant criticism from those who point out how undefined and vague the term is. Without clear guidelines, definitions, and information, this movement towards a fairer fashion industry is futile. Words can be tossed around by companies in an effort to seem relevant, but the true players are willing to go to bat for their commitment to this planet and its people. Therefore, we’ve unpacked three different categories of sustainable materials below which you may have heard before, though may not have understood.

Sustainable Materials

According to Rutgers University’s Center for Sustainable Materials, “sustainable materials are materials used throughout our consumer and industrial economy that can be produced in required volumes without depleting non-renewable resources and without disrupting the established steady-state equilibrium of the environment and key natural resource systems.”

In other words, a sustainable material is a material which does not harm the planet. You can see where one may be confused because this definition is incredibly broad, giving brands a lot of opportunities for greenwashing. Similar to the terms “ethical fashion” and “sustainable fashion,” the term “sustainable material” means virtually nothing without a clear definition. It’s unlikely that the fashion world will come together on an agreement of what sustainable material actually means, therefore companies and customers must do the work themselves.

Brands need to define each term they use to describe their products based on what the labels mean to them. It’s not enough for a retailer to announce they carry sustainable materials, they must make it clear to consumers what they are doing to actively protect people and the planet. The more specific a company gets on their site, the better. Specificity is a sure sign that the business is committed to transparency. From there, it is the customers’ job to read into those definitions, and resist taking marketing slogans at their word.

Sustainable materials
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Organic Materials

Organic materials normally refer to materials which are grown without synthetic fertilisers, GMO’s, or pesticides. Fabrics such as cotton, wool, silk, bamboo, and hemp all have the ability to be incredibly sustainable, or harmful, depending on how they are produced and processed. For example, bamboo can create a soft, durable, and eco-friendly fabric if responsibly harvested. However, if done without regulations, bamboo can be sourced from land which has been destroyed for excessive bamboo farming. Some believe organic materials can refer to any material made from naturally occurring raw materials, though that is certainly not the case.

Organic materials must be thoughtfully grown, harvested, processed, and treated in order to receive a seal of approval from certifiers around the globe. Just like brands claiming to use sustainable materials, organic materials require a bit of scrutiny as well. It’s important to look for materials and brands which have their statements about organic principles backed by reliable third party vetting. Certifications and memberships such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, Organic Trade Association, and Better Cotton Initiative set regulations for materials from fiber to finish.

If a sustainable material or collection lacks a certification (which can occur due to individual certification’s high cost or time-consuming evaluation process,) then keep an eye out for the company’s explanation of how their supply chain works, as well as where and how they source their raw materials. Again, the more details, the better.

Vegan Materials

Vegan materials are the simplest to define, though still carry many misunderstandings along with them. Materials produced without any animal products are considered vegan. This means no fur, no leather, no feathers, not even silk . If your top priority is to advocate and care for the animals on our planet, then searching for vegan clothing companies and materials is the way to go. However, there is a large misconception that vegan automatically means “good.”

Vegan fashion has come under fire recently due to the use of plastic to create animal-free alternatives to the aforementioned popular materials. Something labeled “vegan” strictly means that it is free from animal products, it does not inherently mean that it is sustainable. On the bright side, there are many innovative companies expanding the options for plant-based and sustainable alternatives to vegan materials. For example, the product Piñatex consists of food waste otherwise discarded from the pineapple industry and producing a sturdy, leather-like material. Inventions like Piñatex, Muskin (made from mushrooms,) Banana “Leather,” and Cork Fabric have paved the way for brands to create clothing which doesn’t harm animals, people, or the planet.

Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.

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