What Do We Actually Mean When We Talk About Sustainable Fashion?


Sustainable fashion is the new buzz word. And that is a result of sustainability being bandied about everywhere, with big brands chomping at the bit to show they are sustainable. But there are multiple ways a brand can claim to be ‘sustainable’, so this is where the confusion lies; it’s an umbrella term.

So what do we actually mean when we talk about sustainable fashion?

Ultimately, to be sustainable means to be long lasting [and in use! We are not talking about long lasting polyester floating around the oceans here!], and to ensure that, both the people who make our clothes can sustain their lives, and that the planet can sustain its health, in that we do not take from it more than we should.

This is just three asks. It might seem that this combination of requirements is difficult for brands to uphold, but in truth, it's simple. We do need brands to play their part, the advertising agencies to not constantly push products on us, and for more transparency in the industry, but consumers do have a part to play. Sure, this shouldn’t all fall on the consumer, [after all, it is the brands creating the product] but even a simple change in mindset will go a long way, and will, at the same time, continue to put pressure on brands to change, by us simply not buying from those that aren’t making the change. As consumers we have a lot of purchasing power; the brands need us to buy their products. If they aren’t creating sustainably, we can send them a clear message by shifting our spending elsewhere. 

Saywood cotton shirts in lilac and pink, and yellow and orange, on rose gold hangers - a close up image showing just the shoulders, with a palm tree image vaguely seen in the background.

The Jules Shirt in pastel shades of lilac and pink, and the Lela Shirt in pastel orange and yellow. Saywood only produces in small order quantities. Each piece is just 1 of 25 only.

So can fashion ever be sustainable?

Absolutely! Ok, so let’s be totally honest here. If we wanted to be 100% sustainable, we would all be walking around in the nud. But many of us love getting dressed and wearing our clothes, and we can still be sustainable in the way we do this (let’s say 95% sustainable).

First things first; the most sustainable pieces are the ones you already own. It has been estimated that there is approximately £30 million worth of clothing that goes unworn in our collective wardrobes.* And that’s just in the UK! *(https://wrap.org.uk/resources/guide/textiles/clothing)

So we can definitely shop our own wardrobes. But of course we are all human; occasionally we are going to want to buy something new. And our bodies change throughout our lifetime; we are going to have to get new clothes sometimes. And to help us, when shopping, ask those three key questions:

Can I see myself wearing this in 5 years time? 

Do I have items in my wardrobe I can wear this with? 

Do I love it? 

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes great things are just on trend, but it’s important to look beyond that trend moment. Will that piece still be something you’ll like long beyond that? Making things last is sustainable in itself.

Made to last sustainable fashion. Saywood's Zadie Boyfriend Shirt in olive green, hanging on an old pine wardrobe, with two plants sitting atop the wardrobe in turquoise and pink pots.

And we do have options when we shop. We can shop second hand, pre-loved and vintage. We can shop from ethical brands, and from brands that source responsibly and sustainably. We can make sure items that we outgrow, or no longer work for us are passed on to someone who is going to love them after us, keeping the piece in circulation. And ultimately, reduce our overall consumption. Thinking about how many new additions we really need in our wardrobe. We don’t really need 15 new items a year; just a few. Two or three each summer and winter season maybe, if that. Remember; die hard love, or a real need for it - that change in mindset will make a huge difference. And bonus, if you are buying less, you can invest what you might have spent another way, either in that hobby you’ve been dreaming about, or investing in that special clothing item you’ve been after for ages. (Plus, cost per wear brings the cost of that special item right down, because if you love it, you may well wear that item hundreds of times over in its lifetime.)

As consumers, this is something we can do. But for brands, they are right at the start of the chain. They have the power to make sure the suppliers they work with are those that are doing right by people and planet: Raw materials, such as cotton, are ethically and sustainably sourced, making sure that soil health and biodiversity is not being depleted, making sure water is not being over consumer, and the harmful pesticides are not used, and not overused full stop. They can choose to use 100% recycled when it comes to polyester, and that they do not create excessive waste that goes to landfill. Brands can ensure that their supply chain is paid fairly, that their garment workers go to work in a safe and healthy environment. And brands can ensure that they do not overproduce. If they don’t pay their suppliers, or manufacturer enough, those suppliers cannot pay their workers. It all starts with the brand.

What exactly is fast fashion?

Fast fashion is certainly the thorn in fashion's side when it comes to sustainability. It’s what it says on the tin; fast. If it’s fast to come in, it has to be fast to sell out. It’s based on a full speed rotation. And it is made in very large order quantities.

But here’s the thing; everything you create is a gamble. Nothing is ever guaranteed to sell out. And when it doesn’t sell, brands have to get rid of it, quick - the warehouses don’t have room to store it. So it's a cut price sale, then, commonly, burning or landfill if there’s too much left over. Ouch!!!

No one is advocating that fashion should be plain, basic, zero fun. But fast fashion has created a prominent problem. It is based on high volumes without really thinking about their purchase. They can have a new outfit for the weekend, and it doesn’t need to last; the next time they want something new, that fast fashion brand will be ready to promote the next weekend’s outfit. 

Fast fashion has a habit of telling us that we need something new. That is how it functions. It’s fast. It is trend based, and trends move on, frequently. (But in terms of a sustainable wardrobe, trends often come back around! So keep hold of your items if you love them!)

One of the biggest problems with fast fashion is the volumes. Not only does this mean mass quantities of raw materials are required, but too much product is being made and not sold. So much of it ends up in the sale, or overflowing in charity shops, or goes to landfill or gets incinerated because the brands can’t continue to hold onto the stock that isn’t selling. 

Overproduction of garments is happening in order to get cheaper prices; higher volumes need to be made, to reduce the make time per item (cutting time - imagine 100 units being cut in one go!) And this is where ethics come into play. The machinists that make those clothes are skilled workers, but they have such high targets to hit each day - they are not given the time they need to spend on the sewing. So everything is rushed to meet the price demanded by the brand. Corners are cut, and quality doesn’t shine. 

Our ethical factory, Apparel Tasker, in East London. Image shows the back of the machinists sewing the shirts, in a bright open space in the factory. Everyone here is paid well above the living wage, whilst the factory have a policy of allowing the necessary time to make. Nothing is rushed, and the quality is beautiful.

Our ethical factory, Apparel Tasker, in East London. Everyone here is paid well above the living wage, whilst the factory have a policy of allowing the necessary time to make. Nothing is rushed, and the quality is beautiful.

Brands demand low prices from the factories, which then passes down to the workers - low cost prices means low wages. It takes 4-5 hours to make a shirt, with time to ensure quality. So that should be 4-5 hours worth of, at least, living wages, plus fabrics, buttons and trims, labels, packaging, shipment, brand profit and overheads, taxes. All of these things have to be included in the final price point. So can a shirt from a fast fashion brand really cost £30 at retail and still be sustainable and ethical?! Sadly no. Brand profit usually sits at 60-70% margin, so that would leave around £12 so make, materials, factory costs, shipping etc - imagine! With so many people involved in the supply chain, someone somewhere is getting heavily squeezed.


So what can we as consumers do when shopping for ourselves?

If you want to be more sustainable when shopping, look for the brands that are more open to telling you about the product, where it comes from and what it’s made from; natural fibres will always biodegrade and are much easier to recycle. It is often easier to do online, but you can research brands. Ask the sales staff, email the brands. If it’s a small brand or independent there will be a person at the end of that call or email that can answer your questions. 

But most importantly, ask yourself before buying, can I see myself wearing this in 5 years time? Do I have items in my wardrobe I can wear this with? Do I love it? And don’t forget, shop your wardrobe first. Make sure you know what you already have; you don’t want to be buying something you already own something really similar too - will you wear them both?

The key is to make your clothes last. Take care of them, keep them in your wardrobe, or in circulation if you no longer wear them; pass them on to someone who will continue to love them afresh. Remember: The very act of prolonging the life of your clothes is sustainable in itself.
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