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The Rise of Sustainable Fashion (Plus 3 Tips For Starting A Brand)

by Boris Hodakel  • September 22, 2019 • 8 min read

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Sustainable fashion, which is also known as a "green," "eco," "fair trade," or "ethical" clothing, is a manufacturing process that encourages quality production, ethical working environments, and adding real value to a product. It also provides both men and women with a way to control the environmental impact of their shopping choices.

In today’s rapidly shifting fashion industry, there is a significant amount of information that consumers don’t really know about the clothing they buy. Altering shopping habits and swapping fast fashion with style pieces that represent true investments is one approach to introducing longevity into a wardrobe, but there are other ways fashion brands can help reboot the consumer mindset and change shopping habits for the better. Take a look at some of the ways that brands and consumers are changing their attitudes towards sustainable living and embracing the rise of ethically made clothing.

What Is Sustainable Fashion?

As the harmful environmental effects of the global textile industry become increasingly apparent, sustainable fashion is becoming more and more popular. Any industry can be considered to be sustainable when it doesn't take away more than it gives back; the most sustainable industries actually improve the environment, but any industry can be considered sustainable if its continued operation doesn't cause environmental destruction or promote unethical manufacturing habits.

Improving working conditions in the textile industry is a vital aspect of sustainable fashion. At every stage in the supply chain, people who work with unsustainable fabrics are exposed to toxic chemicals and hazardous working environments, and they are often denied reasonable pay. Faced with these seemingly unavoidable truths of the textile industry, many consumers have chosen to purchase secondhand clothing. Sustainable fashion, however, gives men and women around the world the opportunity to purchase new textile products without the associated guilt.

Types of Sustainable Fashion

Fashion products can be sustainable in a number of ways:

  • Sustainable materials: One of the best ways to make fashion products sustainable is to use eco-friendly materials to make these products. Synthetic fabrics are invariably bad for the environment, but natural raw materials, such as cotton, hemp, and bamboo, can be cultivated sustainably and processed without causing significant harm to the surrounding ecosystem.
  • Sustainable workplace practices: If the wrong practices are used to manufacture textiles, even inherently sustainable materials, like cotton, can be harmful to workers and the environment. Therefore, sustainable brands make sure to use high-quality natural textiles that have been farmed sustainably, and they also make sure to process their textile products without using toxic chemicals.
  • Sustainable business models: Fair trade is an important aspect of the sustainable fashion industry. All too often, workers in the developing world are exploited by international textile corporations, and making sure that textile workers are provided with fair pay and safe working conditions is a critical concern of many sustainable brands.

How to Wear Sustainable Clothing

Wearing sustainable fashions is about a lot more than just checking price tags and purchasing new clothing. Living the sustainable lifestyle isn't something that you should keep to yourself; make sure to tell all your friends that your clothes are organic or environmentally friendly, and encourage them to make sustainable fashions as well. However, you might be able to help spread the sustainable fashion movement without taking any direct action; it's often possible to identify a low-impact T-shirt with a tiny carbon footprint on sight based on its impressive manufacturing quality.

Examples of Sustainable Fashion Retailers

While you might not know it yet, there are plenty of mainstream clothing companies that have adopted overtly sustainable business models. Some of the following fashion companies can even be caught showing off their wares at prestigious events like Fashion Week in New York:

  • Patagonia
  • People Tree
  • Everlane
  • ABLE
  • thredUP

How Fashion Brands Become Sustainable

Evolving from an average clothing brand to a high-end fashion powerhouse isn't easy. This transformation requires many sacrifices and hard choices, but it's all worth it in the long run.

Many clothing retailers start by taking a look at their raw materials. It's natural for companies to seek out the cheapest materials around to protect their bottom lines, but cheaper isn't always better in the world of sustainable fashion. The cheaper a textile product is, in fact, the more likely it is that it was made with unsustainable methods.

While choosing to work with sustainable textile producers might reduce margins in the short term, sustainable clothes command higher prices, and customers are willing to pay much more for products that they know are sustainably sourced.

During the process of transitioning to a sustainable fashion brand, it may also be necessary to make changes in the way you do things around the shop. Reducing waste is one way to make your brand more sustainable, and it's also important to make sure that your workers are properly paid.

How Textile Manufacturers Become Sustainable

While it's hard for brands and online retailers to become sustainable, this process is even harder for companies that produce raw textile products. Simply put, it's much easier for companies in the fashion production industry to use synthetic fabrics or natural fabrics that have been grown or processed unsustainably than it is to go the extra mile and only use sustainable, natural textile materials.

When textile manufacturers expend the time and effort necessary to create sustainable fabrics, they open up a whole new market of sustainably-oriented fashion brands that are constantly hungering for new fabrics to incorporate into their high-end fashions. More and more, the fashion industry is moving toward embracing sustainability and shunning environmentally harmful clothing, so the best way for a textile manufacturer to secure its future is to start observing sustainable manufacturing processes.

Why Is Sustainable Fashion Important?

As the 21st century progresses, sustainable fashion will become increasingly critical to the enduring advancement of the human race. People around the world are starting to realize that resources are limited and that pollution is steadily encroaching on quality of life. Discarded synthetic textiles are filling up landfills, polluting waterways, and ruining forests, and unsustainable agriculture practices used to grow raw textile fibers are causing soil erosion and introducing toxic contaminants into the biosphere.

The current unsustainability of the fashion industry is reaching a tipping point; within a matter of years, the incredible pollution that has long choked the developing world will start affecting consumers in the developed world, and there's only so long that factory workers living and working in squalid conditions will put up with their fates. There's something critically wrong with the fashion industry as it stands, and the fashion brands and manufacturers who will be remembered by history are those that choose to take this chance to stand up for what's right.

Sustainable fashion protects the planet, defends workers, and brightens the future of the human race. Clothing products that have been made with sustainable methods are safer to wear, safer to discard, and fairer to the people who make them. Across the board, sustainable fashion is the spearhead of the global movement to make consumer products more ethical. It's only a matter of time before the majority of fashion products are sustainable, and the only way to avoid being left behind is to embrace this trend today.

Researching sustainable fashion brands

Taking the time to look at the facts gives you an idea of the scale of the problem modern consumers and textile manufacturers are facing. With most of the fashion industry’s focus on boosting volume, the ethical aspects of the clothing cycle start becoming unachievable goals. Resources such as Fashion Revolution are questioning the standards in the industry and encouraging transparency with campaigns such as #whomademyclothes. This collective voice is helping consumers understand the whole fashion cycle from factory to hanger and is showing the fashion industry that there are some significant improvements to be made.

Purchasing ethical clothing

Trying to get out of the mindset of cheap, "see now, buy now" fashion is going to be a tricky task, but many designers and brands are rising to the challenge. Sustainable fashion is starting to make waves in mainstream trends and is far from the stereotypical lackluster style associated with ethically-made clothing. Brands are embracing the need for change and they are educating their target audiences about a new way to go about fashion shopping.

One of the best ways that fashion brands can help consumers make ethical and sustainable fashion choices is by offering collections that are classic and timeless. These investment buys last longer than throwaway garments and create on-trend style throughout various seasons. Beautiful and sustainable materials, skilled creators, and safe working environments all cost money, and this cost needs to be carefully examined not only as an investment in style but as an investment in the future of people and the environment.

Making clothing with sustainable fabrics

Synthetic materials such as nylon, polyester, and acrylic make up a sizeable percentage of fabrics sitting in landfills today. They take years to decompose and the manufacture of this clothing has a notably negative impact on the environment. A study by Plymouth University also found that washing these fabrics releases microscopic plastic fibers into the environment, which can cause harm to marine life. Prioritizing natural materials such as jute and organic cotton in clothing manufacture can make small but important changes to this global pollution trend.

Change the sustainable clothing stereotype

Sustainable clothing has evolved considerably over the past few years, but there is still a stigma attached to green living. Last year academic research discussed the gender stereotypes regarding consumption of sustainable products and the “prevalent association between green behavior and femininity, and a corresponding stereotype (held by both men and women) that green consumers are more feminine”. [1]

This interesting study offers brands the opportunity to evaluate how they promote and sell sustainable products to ensure they are proactively eliminating this prevalent stereotype. As shoppers, there is also a chance to break down the stereotypes associated with green or sustainable living by prioritizing conscious choices related to eco-friendly fashion and the environment.

Starting a sustainable fashion brand

In the current market, starting a sustainable fashion brand is favorable to the success of your business. The way people shop has changed, and a focus on buying ethical fashions or green clothing is now a key consideration for shoppers across the globe. Starting this type of fashion brand isn’t as difficult as you might first think, and there are a host of clothing manufacturers that can help to source organic and ethically-made fabrics to produce your clothing.

In addition to the materials you use to make your clothing, there are some other aspects to think about when starting your fashion business. Take a look:

  • Pricing - Naturally, sustainable fabric is more expensive as the processes used to make this textile don't just churn out mass-produced clothing. Price points will be important to your customer, but creating a brand identity that focuses on the benefits and positive impacts your clothing has in the industry will help to distinguish you in the market.
  • Define your ethics - The act of starting an eco-friendly fashion label should be built on authentic ethics and standards that resonate with your target audience. Just following the crowd is not a useful tactic for new companies as consumers need to believe your reasons for producing ethical clothing. Gaining certification with eco-friendly associations could have a beneficial impact on your brand identity as you work to build a loyal customer base.
  • Think outside the box - As mentioned above, there can be stereotypes about the type of person who buys sustainable fashions. Breaking down this stigma can be achieved by thinking outside of the typical design scope. Use sustainable fabrics to your advantage and experiment with different styles and cuts to embrace the beauty and raw nature of its composition.

Sustainability in the fashion industry is a hot topic of conversation and is making its mark in becoming a critical movement that shouldn’t be dismissed as a passing trend or fad.

[1] Aaron R. Brough, James E. B. Wilkie, Jingjing Ma, Mathew S. Isaac, David Gal; Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 43, Issue 4, 1 December 2016, Pages 567–582, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucw044

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.