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Sustainable fashion: What is it and who does it?

What is sustainable fashion?

Understandably so, there’s a huge shift towards shopping and living greener at the moment and this includes our clothes.  Fashion brands are under huge scrutiny to change the ways they work to be more sustainable and to stop promoting fast fashion.

According to www.greenstrategy.se “Sustainable fashion can be defined as clothing, shoes and accessories that are manufactured, marketed and used in the most sustainable manner possible, taking into account both environmental and socio-economic aspects.”

Sustainable fashion is the complete opposite of ‘fast fashion,’ a term that refers to retailers' practice of producing cheap clothes as quickly and as frequently as possible.  Sustainable fashion takes into account the full lifecycle of the product — from the design, sourcing, and production processes.  It looks at everyone and everything being affected by it, from the environment, to the workers and communities where it is produced, to the consumers who purchase it.

It’s a complex issue and there isn’t one brand that’s currently capable of tackling everything, but right now there are five main issues being tackled by the fashion industry:

  1. Water usage: Shortages of clean usable fresh water means that some brands are now looking at the supply chains to see how they can cut back on how much water they are using.

  2. Hazardous chemicals: Dyes and finishes from the production processes may not be a problem for the consumer but they are dangerous for the workers and they get into the community water sources. Fashion brands are now tasked with coming up with new ways to address dyes and finishes.

  3. Agriculture: Natural materials such as cotton often look like the best option from the outset, but they are often grown using pesticides and treatments that are harmful to the farmers, workers, and wildlife in the area. There are now more options for organic cotton, linen, and other fibres available, which also use less water than the conventional growing methods.

  4. Short lifecycle: The biggest goal in sustainable fashion is to buy less and use things longer instead of encouraging ‘fast fashion.’

  5. Waste: The fashion industry also needs to make products less wasteful. This could be done by using recycled materials or encouraging repairs and upcycling of items.



Which fashion brands are sustainable?

As I mentioned above, no one fashion brand is completely sustainable at the moment but lots have started to tackle the issues and make headway in becoming a more eco-friendly fashion company, including the 10 below.

1. Levis

This household name synonymous with Rock & Roll are also trying to change their production ways for the sake of the environment.  By 2020, the Levi’s brand aims to make its denim production sustainable by producing 80% of its products using the Water<Less™ technique. It has also set a 25% reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 for its direct emissions and consumed electricity, and is a pioneer member of the Better Cotton Initiative.

In 2012, Greenpeace named and shamed Levi’s for connections to dangerous water pollution in Mexico in their ‘Toxic Threads’ report. Levi’s has since pledged to reduce the hazardous chemicals used to dye and treat its clothing, and is aiming for the elimination of hazardous chemicals by 2020.

2. H&M

In 2013, H&M were the first fashion brand in the world to launch a global garment collection initiative, allowing customers to hand in any unwanted clothes or materials to any H&M store.  These clothes are either reused, reworn or recycled with 0% going to landfill.

Previous to this, they also launched their first sustainable clothing range with the Conscious collection.  As stated on their website “garments containing more sustainable materials can be found across all our departments— just look out for our green Conscious hangtags.   To qualify for a green hangtag, a product must contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester — but many of our garments contain more than that. The only exception is recycled cotton, which can only make up 20% of a product due to quality restraints. We are, however, working with innovations to increase this share as soon as possible.”  

Buying sustainably can sometimes cost more but H&M are a great example of showing that this is not always so.   I placed an order for this part recycled bikini last week and it cost me less than £20 (yes I am still hoping we can get on that post lockdown holiday!).

Recycled H&M bikini

3. Zara

Perhaps still known for their fast fashion but Zara are making an attempt to go green by pledging to have all of their clothes made out of sustainable fabrics by 2025 with their Join Life collection.  The company has other green goals, too, including making all of Zara's stores "eco-efficient" by the end of 2019, which will allow it to reduce carbon emissions, save energy and minimize waste. It also wants 80% of the energy from its stores, distribution centres and offices to be clean in 2025.

4. Marks & Spencers

Not all the fabrics M&S use are eco-friendly nor have they set a date to when this will happen but some of their clothing range is already made using materials that are environmentally-friendly, such as recycled nylons, recycled polyesters and organic cotton. M&S also see plastic as a last resort and have made a commitment to design plastic completely out and replace it with eco-friendly alternatives.  The brand hopes to eliminate 1,000 tons of plastic over the next year!

5. Boden

Founded over 25 years ago, Boden is a longstanding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, and their clothes are ethically and sustainably produced with recyclable and eco-friendly packaging when possible.  They also actively promote ‘slow fashion’ by offering a 365 money back guarantee to show their commitments to well-made clothing that lasts.

6. People Tree

Based in both London & Tokyo, People Tree are seen by their customers as pioneers of fair-trade fashion and online clothing retailers.  According to their website, “every product is made to the highest ethical and environmental standards from start to finish. Contemporary, versatile designs and playful, exclusive prints inspired by the V&A archives create stylish, innovative and affordable fashion while respecting people and the planet. Collections featuring organic cotton, TENCEL™ Lyocell and responsible wool, are made using traditional artisan skills such as hand weavinghand knittinghand embroidery and hand block printing.

7. Mango

Over the years, Spanish label Mango has declared its commitment towards eco-friendly fashion through its Take Action programme. In 2017 the high street favourite launched a capsule collection of sustainable fashion and its goal is for 50% of the cotton used in its collections to be sourced sustainably by 2022. However, many still see it as a ‘fast fashion’ brand and think it has a long way to go before the brand can be considered as fully sustainable.

8. Alternative Apparel

It’s unusual to find a brand that is both ethical and sustainable but according to www.thegoodtrade.com Alternative Apparel ranks highly on both.  Based in the US, they already make over 80% of their clothing range from sustainable materials and according to The Good Trade the company “respects and values the rights of workers in all countries and believes in the right to fair and safe workplace conditions.”

9. Monsoon

Monsoon was a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, so its commitment to fair fashion is a longstanding one and it prides itself on its commitment to worker rights.  However, in terms of sustainability they weren’t seen as doing enough until more recently.  Last year, Monsoon announced that 50% of their SS20 collection would be sustainable, with significant sustainable improvements throughout 2020 with its S.E.W. collection (Seeking an Eco-friendly World).  Featuring key fashion favourites made from sustainable fibres such as organic cotton and denim, this new eco-friendly range is a nod to both their ethical credentials and a step in the right direction towards sustainability.



This dress is made from denim that has been sustainably-sourced and uses less water, energy and chemicals. Monsoon have also recently made some small changes in their packaging and waste procedures to make them more environmentally friendly such as only using FSC certified paper and biodegradable plastic.  However, in my opinion a lot more can be done on the packaging front to ensure they only use compostable packaging.

10. Adidas

For almost 20 years, Adidas have been working on their vast company wide sustainability initiatives.  They have pledged to cut in half the amount of water its materials suppliers use and wants to phase out the use of new plastic from its products, stores and offices and opt for recycled goods instead.  They are also on target to cut their waste in half and trim energy consumption by 20%.  Adidas also created and trademarked ‘Ocean Plastic,’ a material made entirely from plastic found on beaches and in coastal communities. You’ll find this plastic in 28 of their products including trainers, with each pair of shoes preventing about 11 plastic bottles from the possibility of entering our oceans.

Womens Ultraboost Ocean Plastic Trainers

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