What Does “Sustainability” in Fashion Really Mean?

Kira Cook

BUHO’s entire mission is to highlight and endorse sustainable and ethically-made clothing and homewares. But what exactly does this mean?

Terms such as sustainable, eco, green, ethical, and conscious are currently tossed around with abandon, but in reality, they’re so much more than just another millennial buzzword.

The dictionary definition of “sustainability” in terms of Environmental Science is:

“the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.”

This means finding a way to meet the needs of now without compromising the needs of the future.

Even the smallest behavioral changes, when applied to resources, can affect massive change in the long-term. According to ecofabulous, if every office worker in the UK substituted a paper clip for a single staple every day, 120 tons of steel would be saved in just one year! There are endless examples of how replacing a single-use item with a reusable one can lessen our dependence on our planet’s dwindling natural resources.

So, how does this apply to fashion?

Eco ethics combined with social justice are the twin cornerstones of sustainable fashion (also known as “eco fashion”).

This means instead of merely replacing one fabric with another, the idea is to renovate the fashion economy from within. Rethinking and re-engaging not just from what clothing is made, but equally importantly, how and by whom it is made. Especially since the advent of fast fashion (but really since the advent of the industrial revolution), the clothing industry has been a longtime employer of unsavory practices that trend from low wages to horrible and unsafe working conditions.

Can Fashion Be Sustainable?

Materials

Some ways in which changes are being applied to the fashion industry include emphasizing the importance of using GOTS-certified materials (Global Organic Textile Standard). This means the textile products must contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers and have a functional waste water treatment plant for any wet-processing units. 25% of the world’s pesticides are used to grow non-organic cotton, which harms both the environment and human health. Despite the major uptick in organic cotton clothing, organic cotton remains only 1% of global cotton production.

Other textiles key to the sustainable fashion movement include those made of bamboo (fast-growing, with no need for pesticides), hemp, soy, kombucha(!), which creates a leather-like fabric, and naturally-colored cotton.

Reusability

Less than 20% of clothing is recycled or reused – the rest wind up in landfills or are incinerated. The vintage clothing movement is a commitment to the anti-waste sensibility that is the touchstone of the sustainable fashion movement, which is why Buho champions its vintage section. Clothing that tells a story, has a past, and has next-to-zero impact on the environment? Yes, please.

Zero-Waste and Reducing Toxicity

Some other ways that fashion is making a commitment to sustainability is through zero-waste patterning (where there is no leftover fabric once a pattern is cut to be created for clothing) and 3-D seamless knitting, which eliminates both waste and labor. DryDye (also known as ColorDry) is a toxicity-reducing method of dyeing clothing, which uses scCO2 dyeing (super critical carbon dioxide), which uses 100% of the dyes and reduces energy by 60% vs. traditional dyeing.

Ethical Labor Practices

And of course, fair trade and fair labor practices are another and equally crucial aspect of the sustainability movement in fashion. Knowing not just what environmental practices led to the creation of your clothing but also knowing that these products were created by people paid fair, living wages and given healthy working conditions is a major factor in the sustainable fashion movement.

The 2019 UK Parliament Environment Audit Committee published a report on the future of fashion sustainability, remarking that:

“Shifting business practice in this way [offering rental schemes, lifetime repair and providing the consumer with more information about the sourcing and true cost of clothing] can not only improve a business’s environmental and social impact but also offer market advantage as they respond to the growing consumer demand for responsible, sustainable clothing.”