Fashion brands nowadays are becoming more eco-aware, and so are consumers. From production to disposal, fashion retailers and upscale designers alike are rethinking the effects their fabrics have on the environment. Even though we tend to see fashion’s ecological impact as a brand focused problem, as consumers, we can play an important part in creating a path toward a sustainable, and more importantly a zero-waste future. It is as simple as changing our mind-set and being more mindful about the choices we make. All it takes is to gain a little more knowledge about the clothing we wear.
The textile industry draws significantly upon the ecosystem for the raw materials that create our fabrics, but some production processes tend to be more “unfriendly” than others. The great news is that as major brands become increasingly eco-conscious, sustainability standards are also gaining traction across the industry, such as the internationally recognized Organic Content Standard, Responsible Down and Wools Standards, and Global Recycled Standard by Textile Exchange as well as the Global Organic Textile Standard. These standards support best practices and contribute to the emergence of organic or recycled fiber alternatives. As most of us understand the detrimental impacts that fiber production has on the environment, organic and preferred options which are more sustainably produced and far “greener,” are readily available.
Brands are making commitments. Since 2017, 39 major fashion brands such as Asos, H&M, Burberry and Nike have signed up for Textile Exchange’s “2025 Sustainable Cotton Challenge” and pledged to achieve a 100 percent sustainable cotton production line by 2025 indicating increased accessibility to these garments. Organic and more sustainable counterparts from almost all types of natural fibers, including cotton, linen, down and wool, are becoming similarly available at retailers across the globe.
Sustainable wood and pulp-based textiles derived from certified and controlled renewable forests minimize the effects of deforestation. Renewable fibers with plant-based origins are increasing in popularity. These fibers, such as lyocell, are sourced from sustainably grown forests with third-party certification and are manufactured using closed-loop technology, lower impact chemicals and emissions, with high recovery rates.
New innovative alternatives to animal-based leather, such as leathers from plant-based or waste-based feedstocks, which tend to use much less farmland than traditional cattle production, are also showing promise, for example, the rise and development of grape or apple leather use. These preferred manmade cellulosic, together with these new innovative fibers will increase the choice and contribute to the environmentally conscious choices and disposal decisions we make.
While large-scale brand-led initiatives have paved the way for these positive shifts, we as consumers can make our mark on sustainability, too. Start with buying products that you truly love and with good quality, knowing they will have a longer life span. By making this investment, you will gain more wear, saving money over time by being able to wear the garments longer. Buy quality. Pay a little extra to get sustainably sourced items. To identify these products, take time to read product labels. All sustainable textiles carry recognized eco-labels, so look out for industry standard accreditations such as “EU Ecolabel,” or “bluesign” and “IMO certified,” in addition to names of different preferred fibers such as organic cotton, preferred viscose, such as lyocell, and down certified to the Responsible Down Standard or wool to the Responsible Wool Standard, etc.
To go the extra “green” mile, explore the brands you purchase and check out if they are participants of Textile Exchange’s “Preferred Fiber & Materials Benchmark” or other industry initiatives. Participation to initiatives like the Preferred Fiber and Materials Benchmark program is vital for brands to align, measure progress and explore sustainability and transparency in sustainable fiber options together. They also provide a way for brands to remain accountable to their stakeholders.
Last but not least, consider the next life of your clothes — reuse options such as swapping with friends, or reuse via charity shops. To extend their useful life even further, follow instructions on care labels and wash them accordingly. This will ensure your clothes look great, and that they are not adding to the growing landfill waste problem any time soon. Be a thoughtful consumer, purchasing clothes that you absolutely love or need can also enhance ones’ motivation to keep clothes longer and reduce the amount of clothes you buy.
Today, even with an environmentally conscious consumer base, surprisingly only less than 1 percent of our clothing is recycled. While it may seem challenging to determine how best to discard the array of underutilized clothing in our wardrobes, many new services have been created to streamline that experience. For example, the ReGAIN app locates more than 20,000 drop off points across the U.K. for unwanted garments and sorts out the recycling process for free. In the U.S., Planet Aid has 19,000-plus conveniently located yellow bins for recycling. More supply means brands have more ways and capacity to buy back recycled fabrics and rework them into new fabrics, minimizing their ecological impact.
Fashion’s impression on the environment is clear, and it may seem daunting to attempt change alone, but it isn’t as complicated as we think. Next time you’re out shopping, have a look at the product labels and do some research online. It is as simple as that. By changing our everyday fashion habits, having a better understanding of preferred fibers and knowing which brands we can buy them from, we can all make a positive impact on the fashion industry, the environment and the world.
LaRhea Pepper is managing director of the Textile Exchange.