This Is What Sustainable Fashion *Actually* Means

Collage of a planet and two models wearing sustainable clothes

Becoming a more conscious consumer means wading through an alphabet soup of terminology — natural fibers, closed-loop production processes, sustainable sourcing, radical transparency — many of which tell you more about a company’s marketing efforts than they do the clothes you’re buying. As brands recognize the growing hunger for eco-friendly fashion, it seems like every one of them has a story to tell about what they’re doing to minimize their impact on the environment. For shoppers, though, this messaging can sometimes be more confusing than comforting — especially since there are no standards in place to even determine what “sustainable” fashion really means.

You can read uplifting headlines about Gucci’s commitment to go carbon-neutral and learn about the regenerated nylon Reformation used in its latest swimwear collection, but there’s no escaping the fact that fashion is a resource-intensive industry that relies on shoppers buying new clothes, shoes, and bags every season. Consumers also can’t ignore what happens to the stuff they get rid of: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans disposed of 12.8 million tons of clothing and footwear in 2017, nearly 70 percent of which ended up in a landfill.

With this in mind, companies walk a fine line between keeping customers informed and excited about their sustainability efforts and cashing in on the movement through greenwashing (that is, making false or misleading claims to paint themselves as more environmentally friendly than they actually are). What trustworthy brands should be doing is not just touting their achievements, but also acknowledging that the world can’t shop our way out of the climate crisis.

“The fashion industry is not growing trees, so we're not doing sustainable things,” says Maxine Bédat, founder and executive director of New Standard Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting research and innovation among apparel brands. “What brands can do, though, is reduce their impact. And I think a responsible brand would talk about what they are doing to reduce their impact.”

Sustainability, she says, doesn’t have to be as complicated as companies often make it out to be: It’s about greenhouse gas impact, water and chemical use, and labor conditions. What you can do as a consumers is understand how (and in some cases, whether) the buzzwords of the day actually relate to these goals — and even more importantly, be more selective about buying pieces that will stand the test of time.

Here’s a breakdown of a few of the most popular terms brands are using today:

Defining Sustainable Fashion: Carbon Neutral

Courtesy Madewell

While it would be all but impossible for any company that produces and sells clothes (or anything else for that matter) to entirely eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions, brands of all sizes are increasingly setting ambitious goals to monitor, reduce, and offset their impact. Carbon neutrality is achieved by counterbalancing whatever emissions remain, often through carbon offsets that fund renewable energy or reforestation programs.

Kering, the parent company of Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Balenciaga, among others, announced last September that it would commit to a net-zero carbon footprint, offsetting about 2.4 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. As part of its environmental accounting, it monitors its emissions back to the raw materials stage of its supply chain — something the vast majority of brands can’t or won’t do.

Last month, Madewell pledged to go carbon neutral in company-owned and operated facilities by 2030 as part of a new set of sustainability goals. Burberry has likewise promised carbon neutrality in its operational energy use by 2022, and cut greenhouse gas emissions in its extended supply chain by 30 percent by 2030 from a 2016 baseline. Rather than purchasing carbon offsets, the British fashion house is investing in carbon insetting, meaning it is working to support programs within its own supply chain, beginning with its wool producers in Australia.

Defining Sustainable Fashion: Circular Fashion

Under a linear model, garments are manufactured, used, and then disposed of. A circular model, though, takes waste and pollution out of the equation by ensuring clothes can be worn as much as possible and then recycled into new clothes at the end of their life (ditto shoes and accessories). This kind of closed-loop system requires not just better recycling infrastructure, but also for clothing to be made with more renewable materials to begin with.

Subscription rental services like Rent the Runway, Gwynnie Bee, and Nuuly are a step in the right direction toward achieving a more circular fashion economy because they keep items in near-constant use, but they don’t address production or recycling concerns. Brands like Levi’s, Patagonia, and Arcteryx also offer repair services, trade-ins, and refurbished secondhand styles.

One company that’s announced a commitment to full circularity is Outerknown, the sustainable lifestyle brand co-founded by surfer Kelly Slater. Earlier this month, it said it would move to materials and trims that can be renewed and reused or recycled by 2030, as well as supporting the development of new circular technologies that will ultimately be available industry-wide.

Defining Sustainable Fashion: Natural Materials

Mara Hoffman

Simply put, natural materials come from plants and animals, and are farmed much like the foods we eat. Similarly, these materials may be more or less environmentally friendly depending on the processes used at the farming stage.

Plant-based materials such as cotton, linen, hemp, and jute may be grown organically or with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, while materials derived from animals, such as wool, silk, cashmere, and mohair need to take into account factors like the impact of the foods the animals eat, water consumption, and emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more toxic than carbon dioxide.

Overall, though, current research indicates that natural fibers tend to have a lower carbon footprint than synthetics. Melanie DiSalvo, founder of the sustainable and ethical manufacturing resource Virtue + Vice notes that while fast fashion labels are critiqued for eco-focused collections, “if you're making a million pieces and you're changing from polyester to organic cotton, that's huge. That's a big deal.” She adds, “if you're making a million pieces and you're paying your factory workers a fair wage, that's amazing that you're impacting so many people.” Fair, of course, is also up for interpretation.

To help you navigate how different textiles measure up, there are tools like the Higg Materials Sustainability Index and certifications to look for, including the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Organic Content Standards (OTS), each of which provides a set framework for brands to meet.

Materials such as Tencel, viscose, modal, and bamboo may sound natural — they’re made from trees and plants, after all — but they’re considered semi-synthetics because they require chemical processing to be turned into fibers that can be used for clothes.

According to Canopy, 150 million trees are logged every year to support cellulosic fabric production, and the demand is contributing to deforestation. The organization is working with brands like Mara Hoffman and Eileen Fisher to eliminate the use of trees from ancient and endangered forests, while the Forest Stewardship Council certifies brands that use materials from responsibly managed forests.

Defining Sustainable Fashion: Recycled Plastic

You’ve probably heard at least one or two of your favorite brands talk about making shoes or leggings out of recycled plastic bottles. With more than 380 million tons of plastic produced globally every year and more than half of plastic waste ending up in landfills, it’s no wonder the industry is drawn to the idea of turning all those used bottles into pellets that can be melted down, extruded, and spun into polyester yarn.

The environmental impact isn’t as straightforward as brands make it out to be, however. “The big claim is that [using recycled polyester] is diverting plastic bottles from landfill. That is not true,” says Bédat. “What is happening is that our decision on whether we put that plastic bottle in the trash or we put it in recycling is what diverts plastics from landfill.”

Once the recycling has been collected, there’s a market for these plastic bottles, and today, the apparel and footwear industries are competing with companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to purchase the pellets, known as rPET. There’s a limited amount of rPET to go around — especially because in the U.S., we recycle less than 30 percent of all plastic bottles — and the demand is driving up the cost.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to the material’s recent popularity: One study found that carbon emissions from manufacturing rPET were 79 percent lower than producing its virgin counterpart.

With all polyester, microplastic pollution is also a concern: Washing synthetics over time releases tiny particles that can make their way into waterways and ecosystems. To help counteract these effects, you can launder clothes in a Guppyfriend wash bag or with a Cora Ball laundry ball.

Defining Sustainable Fashion: Upcycling

If you’ve seen Bode’s patchwork jackets, SVNR’s artsy earrings, or RE/DONE’s vintage jeans, then you’ve already come across upcycling in action. The term describes the creative reuse of materials, prolonging their lifespan by repurposing them into something more valuable that people want to buy and wear.

The strategy has become increasingly popular in fashion, but there are limits to how broadly it can be applied. “Taking the material that we already have and designing it into something new is certainly the most sustainable way of creating a new garment,” says Bédat. “But the challenge is how does a company scale that?” Upcycling may be ideal for a capsule collection or a smaller brand, but it is limited by how much of any given material a brand can find.

Defining Sustainable Fashion: Vegan Leather And Faux Fur

Vegan leather and faux fur may be cruelty-free alternatives to using genuine animal skins, but there are sustainability trade-offs — namely, that they’re mostly made out of plastic. Polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are typically used as leather substitutes, but they’re manufactured using fossil fuels and can shed microplastics over time. Faux fur, meanwhile is commonly made out of acrylic, a synthetic material made from a non-renewable resource.

Eco-conscious designers acknowledge these challenges and are trying to find alternatives: You can now buy shoes made out of “apple leather,” which uses the cores and skins from apple waste, as well as Pinatex, made from pineapple leaf fibers. Stella McCartney shoes and bags are made with alter-nappa, which the brand says reduces the amount of petroleum it uses, though it acknowledges that synthetic alternatives “are not without environmental concerns.”

At the end of the day, the most sustainable choice is likely the piece you can wear the longest without having to replace it.

“I think that just comes down to personal choice,” says DiSalvo. “Anything you do in fashion, there is no perfect, sustainable thing. Everything requires inputs, everything requires materials, everything has a cost.”

Interest in faux fur and vegan leather have been on the rise in recent years. According to Lyst’s 2020 Conscious Fashion Report, searches for “vegan leather” rose 69 percent between February 2019 and February 2020, averaging 33,100 monthly searches. “Faux leather” searches held steady at 60,500 per month. For the report, the global fashion search engine partnered with Good on You, a sustainable fashion app that rates brands on criteria including labor practices, carbon emissions, and use of animal products like fur and shearling.