Clothing has an enormous impact on the environment and, very often, an effect on the people who make it. When purchasing, remember these Rs ‒ reduce, recycle, resale, repair, repurpose and even rent.
As if getting dressed isn’t fraught enough; these days the question is less “what to wear” and more “what are these clothes made from, by whom, and how is the planet impacted?”
Humans cannot live without clothes as they’re needed for warmth and protection as well as being an expression of personality and taste. Fashion is big business and understanding how the fashion industry impacts the planet helps consumers make informed choices.
Fashion’s contribution and cost
The fashion and textile industry employs approximately 300 million people worldwide, often in countries with few opportunities for high-wage employment. In New Zealand, the fashion retail industry alone employs close to 15,000 across 2120 businesses. According to the website, fashionunited.nz, New Zealanders spend four per cent of their income on clothes and shoes equally – some $5.4 billion a year.
Now, more than ever, it's vital for brands and consumers to think more sustainably in order to look after our planet. Thankfully, many players in the fashion industry are paying more attention to the climate crisis and making greener choices as a result. Yet, with more and more now striving to become sustainable – or, in some cases, to appear as though they are – things can become increasingly confusing.
You'd be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed when it comes to knowing what is worth spending your money on. With endless buzzwords to understand and issues around greenwashing, it can be difficult to know exactly where to look for truly eco-friendly and ethically made clothing. With that said, there are plenty of fashion brands out there that are producing high-quality, eco-friendly collections – and which don't sacrifice style – so that you can enjoy shopping with a clear conscience.
Of course, being more sustainable with fashion goes further than the labels you choose to buy from. Whether it's shopping at sustainable shopping destinations, embracing the rental market, or opting for secondhand over buying new, there are many steps you can take toward becoming greener when it comes to shopping. It doesn't stop there, as caring for your purchases properly is also key to making sure they last as long as possible and don't end up getting thrown away.
But, if you are shopping new, then there are sustainable ways to do so. There are plenty of brands out there to invest in that are working hard to carve out a greener space in the fashion industry. We have asked some of our favourite labels what it means to be a sustainable brand in fashion today – see what they had to say on the topic below.
Our favourite sustainable brands
A single clothes wash can release about 700,000 plastic particles from the synthetic fibres. Polyester is the worst offender. The fashion and textile industry also contributes an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Those emissions are created during production and when the garments are discarded to the landfill, which is where the vast majority of clothing ends up.
Each kilogramme of fabric sent to the landfill is associated with more than 2kg of greenhouse emissions, says Bernadette Casey, creative director at The Formary, a Wellington-based company addressing climate change by building the systems and technology to extract greater value from clothing.
“Specifically, those gases include methane, which has 72 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. Textiles are the fastest-growing waste stream in many areas around New Zealand. The Auckland Council conservatively estimates textile waste at nine per cent of landfill, and it’s growing,” she says.
Combine the after-use environmental costs with those accumulated during a garment’s production and it is clear: the price of fashion is far more than the figure on the swing tag.
LOWER PRICE, HIGHER COST
When buying, check the label for more than price, she says. The type of fabric clothes are made from must be declared. Ensuring it is sustainable is one of the best ways of constructing an eco-friendly wardrobe. Here are some ideas about what fabrics to look for – and those to avoid. Generally, choose natural and organic fibres, as these are made from plants and few pesticides are used. They are also biodegradable and don’t shed microfibres.
Recycled & organic cotton
Nearly a quarter of all clothes, and half of all textiles, are made from cotton as it’s light, breathable, durable and easy to use and care for. But one cotton can be better than another cotton. Organic cotton, while still water-dependent, is usually rotation-grown to minimize chemical use. Organic cotton should be GOTS-certified to ensure high standards in production. (GOST stands for Global Organic Textile Standard.)
Even better, choose recycled or upcycled cotton garments. These might be made from cotton waste, either from factory off-cuts and remnants or post-use recycled cotton fabric. That has the added bonus of keeping cotton out of the landfill. (But at least cotton is biodegradable.)
Consider renting or leasing clothing. Check out, for example, lendthelabel.co.nz or designerwardrobe.co.nz, which allow renting and reselling. Similar to reselling,renting is a quickly growing market. For example, renttherunway.com in the United States has been valued at US$1 billion.
Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action
Net-Zero Emissions by 2050
In 2018, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) introduced the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. This charter is an industry-wide initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the fashion sector by 30% by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. By joining the charter, fashion brands, retailers, suppliers, and other stakeholders commit to collaborate on implementing low-carbon strategies and greener practices throughout the supply chain.
Working Groups and Best Practices
The Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action consists of several working groups that focus on different aspects of sustainability in the sector. These groups develop best practices and guidelines on topics such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, sustainable materials, circular economy, and policy engagement. By sharing knowledge and expertise, the charter aims to accelerate the industry's transition towards a low-carbon future.
World Cotton Day
The Importance of Cotton Production
Cotton is one of the most widely used natural fibers in the global textile industry, accounting for approximately 25% of total fiber usage. It provides livelihoods for millions of farmers and workers worldwide, particularly in developing countries. However, conventional cotton production has significant environmental and social impacts, making it essential to promote more sustainable practices in the sector.
Impacts of Conventional Cotton Production
Conventional cotton production relies heavily on the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and large amounts of water. This leads to soil degradation, water pollution, and negative impacts on biodiversity. Moreover, the cotton industry has been linked to labor rights violations, including child labor and forced labor in some countries.
Promoting Sustainable Models of Cotton Production
World Cotton Day, celebrated on October 7th, aims to raise awareness about the importance of cotton production and promote more sustainable practices in the sector. Initiatives such as Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), and Fairtrade International work towards improving the environmental and social conditions in the cotton industry by promoting the use of organic, fair trade, and responsibly sourced cotton.
International Cooperation on Sustainable Fashion
Globalization of Fashion Value Chains
The globalization of fashion value chains has led to increased complexity and fragmentation in the industry. As a result, ensuring sustainability throughout the supply chain has become more challenging. To address this issue, international cooperation is essential for sharing best practices, harmonizing standards, and fostering innovation in sustainable fashion.
The Role of International Cooperation in Achieving SDGs
International cooperation plays a crucial role in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in the context of the fashion industry. By working together, countries, businesses, and organizations can develop and implement effective strategies to reduce the environmental footprint of the fashion industry, improve labor conditions, and promote inclusive economic growth.
Final Thoughts on Environmental Sustainability in the FashionIndustry
The fashion industry has a significant impact on the environment, from greenhouse gas emissions to water pollution and waste generation. However, there is growing recognition of the need for sustainability in the clothing industry and many brands are making efforts to become more environmentally friendly.
Consumers also play a crucial role in promoting sustainability in fashion through their purchasing choices and behaviors. By reducing consumption, recycling, reselling, repairing, and choosing sustainable fabrics, individuals can contribute to a greener and more responsible fashion industry.
International cooperation and industry-wide initiatives, such as the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, are key to driving systemic change and achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. By working together, stakeholders can develop and implement best practices, promote innovation, and create a more sustainable future for the fashion industry.