As the world prepares itself for a sustainable future, there are many acronyms and terms being created causing confusion to many. Words like compostable and biodegradable, that can be misleading without proper explanation, guidelines and labelling. Similarly, terminology within the fashion industry can become overwhelming. Let’s attempt to clear that up!
Sustainable vs Ethical fashion?
What is the difference? In essence they end up being similar and interchangeable. But to break it down technically, there are minor differences.
Sustainability is finding a balance in the system that preserves against the future depletion of natural resources that affect our social, environmental and economic future. This is normally done by designing systems that improve the whole supply chain and operations. In the case of the fashion industry, this would be looking at how materials are sourced, manufactured, transported and used. Ethical fashion is similar but puts extra emphasis on the legal framework and human labour behind all this, to ensure that both people and planet are treated fairly, covering worker rights and animal cruelty. By bridging the gap between the two terms, everything from climate change, water usage, veganism, trade agreements and infrastructures are addressed.
As the industry focuses on moving away from fast fashion to slow fashion, we need to consider the next stage in the cycle, which deals with post-consumer waste terminology. Terms like recycling, upcycling, circular fashion. Once again, similarities but differences. So let’s break it down.
Circular fashion is simply designing an entire system to tackle the waste pollution and encourage a natural regenerative approach that extends the product life. Upcycling is about turning waste into new products and materials. A system that is based on the cradle-to-cradle approach and that is growing in scale. For example, Patagonia takes damaged clothes and repurposes the material to create other garments and accessories. There is less energy used as materials already exist, and the room for creativity and innovation is endless!
Recycling in the fashion industry is more complex. There are only two types of textile categories – natural and synthetic. The latter is the main concern, as most synthetic materials is a derivative of plastics, commonly known as nylon and polyester, using a huge amount of non-renewable energy in the production process. The Ellen McArthur Foundation reported that over 98 million tonnes of oil are produced annually as a result, with around 73% of clothing material ending up in incinerators.
Though natural textiles are labour intensive and focus is now on organically sourced materials like cotton or hemp, synthetic materials are a required commodity within the fashion industry. Sadly, these materials do not biodegrade, thereby contaminate many waste streams, particularly oceans and landfills. To give weight to this, a staggering 9 million synthetic microfibres are produced in a load of washing across Europe!
This is where recycled plastics fibres are growing in trend, as it takes already existing single-use plastics and recycles them into new materials. Companies like Econyl that turn marine waste into nylon, and the Addidas Parley Collection which uses 75% of marine waste in its materials, are paving the way for future concepts.
Finally, there is second-hand. A concept that many charities are run on, with charity shops lined across high-streets to sell unwanted items to generate funds for their charity. A noble concept where funds are used towards medical research and care. It is also the most sustainable fashion model out there, as the environmental impact is reduced by not purchasing new products but rather giving a second life to items and preventing them from going into landfill.
But as so many of us fashionistas know….we love a good deal! So be it a new item (make sure where it comes from and how it’s produced) or a recycled or second-hand item, the world is our oyster in terms of choice! We just need to ensure we shop sensibly and ethically.