Who makes the clothes we wear every day? Where are they being made? And what happens to all the clothes we discard? These are the questions both fashion brands and consumers are starting to ask more than ever. Fashion as we know it, whether we like to hear it or not, is an industry largely built on low-cost labor, horrible working conditions, animal cruelty, and environmental degradation.
In step sustainable fashion, the trending alternative to “fast fashion” that dominates the current clothing marketplace and, unfortunately, tends to emphasize quick manufacturing at low costs at the expense of labor and the environment. Also called eco fashion, sustainable fashion sets out to revolutionize the fashion industry by creating a system of clothing production that is totally renewable and minimizes or completely negates any ecological or social impact.
The substantial rise of sustainable fashion is in large part thanks to a greater societal move toward sustainability and socially-conscious consumerism being led primarily by younger shoppers. In fact, over 79 percent of young consumers say they are much more likely to engage with a brand that can help them make a difference, according to a recent report. On top of this, 44 percent of millennials said they would like to more eco-friendly fabrics used in clothes.
While sustainable fashion is without a doubt heading in the right direction and is very promising, it’s important not to jump too far ahead. Sustainable clothing is still only in its infancy in terms of trendiness. Consumers still overwhelmingly value price in comparison to sustainability.
And, realistically, sustainable fashion has no chance in the greater clothing marketplace if it can’t look as chic and stylish as normal high-street clothing.
But it definitely must be said that sustainable fashion has made huge strides since its early days when it was associated with a non-fashionable look that often tended to be Bohemian and dull, mostly due to hemp, cotton, and canvas being the most eco-friendly and readily available materials at the time.
But with the rise of technology, this has changed drastically. Now fashion brands are pushing bright, colorful, high-fashion worthy eco-friendly and ethical clothing that are so stylish that many consumers can’t even spot the differences.
So in addition to significantly changing consumer behaviors favoring eco and socially conscious buying, the key to sustainable fashion’s recent trendiness essentially comes down to technological innovations helping fashion designers easily create clothes that both look good and still feel comfortable.
And with 66 percent of consumers willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand and when the costs of creating sustainable clothing inevitably come down as tech progresses, we should only expect sustainable fashion to trend faster and higher in the years to come.
“Sustainability or responsible innovation is by far the biggest trend in the industry right now,” said Eva Kruse, CEO of Global Fashion Agenda, in an interview with the Guardian. “And it’s not a philanthropic quest—this is a business development.”
Even fast fashion giants like H&M and Zara, who have been criticized in the past for poor working conditions and not being the most eco-friendly companies, see the writing on the wall and have committed themselves to manufacturing renewable clothing and improving worker conditions. Marie Claire, one of the most popular fashion magazines, also recently published its first ever sustainability issue.
Trends pushing sustainable clothing forward
AI and big data are two of the biggest forces leading the sustainability charge in fashion. Up until recently, how much clothes a company should manufacture at any given time was pure guesswork with fashion brands regularly making too much apparel for not enough demand with the leftovers ending up as waste. AI, and in turn, massive amounts of consumer data that is now at our fingertips helps fashion brands make better decisions in production and eliminate huge amounts of misused resources that otherwise would end up in a landfill.
Another burgeoning trend in sustainable fashion is the rise of organic fabrics that are turning pollution into apparel. Slowly but surely, fashion brands are moving away from traditional clothing materials like cotton and wool and turning their eyes toward microbes and harmful pollutants as resources to create clothes. One trending example is using ocean plastic in shoes, accessories, and clothes. Major brands like Nike and Adidas have already made investments in similar technologies.
Seasonal clothing is one of the prime culprits when it comes to waste generation in the fashion industry. Partly due to the fashion industry’s increased reliance on seasonal production, consumers often buy clothes only to discard them when the next season rolls around. The advent of adjustable and modular clothing could go a long way in quelling this problem by adapting to a wearer’s environment or current situation.
Another way fashion brands are minimizing their eco-footprint is by placing a larger emphasis on one to one manufacturing rather than mass production. One to one manufacturing is essentially creating and designing products on an individual level by utilizing recent innovations in 3D printing and other digital technologies and, in turn, only producing as much apparel that is needed to meet consumer demand. Not only does one to one production reduce waste but it also offers customers much more customization and personalization.
Successful examples of sustainable fashion
Initially created for the specific niche of outdoor enthusiasts, Patagonia quickly rose from their humble beginnings to a mainstream brand and a pioneer of sustainable and eco-conscious clothing.
The outdoor clothing company consistently places a massive priority on making sure that every part of their supply chain is designed to leave as little environmental footprint as possible while also providing their workers with loads of benefits like healthcare, paid maternity and paternity leave, and subsidized childcare. They also offer to restore worn down and old Patagonia products with their Worn Wear program in an attempt to keep their customers from buying more.
Patagonia was perhaps the first fashion brand to show that being socially conscious doesn’t have to be a hindrance for a company’s bottom line. In fact, they showed it could be a major selling point.
Reformation is a fashion startup that is boldly combining fast fashion production turnarounds and stylish clothing with sustainable fashion. Unlike the usual fast fashion brands, Reformation is ditching subpar materials that lead to clothes with short life-spans.
On top of this, Reformation has invested heavily in reducing their environmental footprint and being completely transparent to their customers. In last quarter, Reformation’s production created 53 percent less waste and used 77 percent less water than their competitors.
The Scandinavian denim brand, Nudie Jeans, is another great example of sustainable clothing—all of their jeans are made from 100 percent organic cotton and they use 91 percent less water than traditional denim production practices.
What’s more, Nudie Jeans pays all their workers a living wage, they either recycle or resell second-hand clothing, and they do unplanned checkups on each of their factories and suppliers to make sure working conditions meet a high standard.