By Arwa Lodhi
With increasing numbers of fashion brands going green and the rise in popularity of the Fashion Revolution in April each year, ‘sustainable fashion’ is a phrase we’re hearing more of all the time. But what exactly does it mean?
Here at Eluxe, it’s a question we’re asked a lot, be it from brands who want to know whether they make the grade to be featured on our site, or from fashionistas who are confused by the labyrinth of information (and misinformation) on the internet.
One thing’s for sure: it’s not easy to define what makes a brand sustainable. For example, even a shirt handmade from upcycled organic grass by well paid widows in solar powered factories loses credibility if a rainforest was cleared to grow that organic grass, and the shirt was flown to a customer halfway across the world by FedEx, right?
The truth is, no fashion purchase is without its sins, so if you really care about the environment, your best bet is to simply stop consuming so much. But if you’ve already cut down your clothing purchases and want to know how to tell if a fashion brand is sustainable, we’ve thought of eight ways that may make the task a bit easier.
1. First, Check the Materials
Unless they’re made from vintage, upcycled or waste fabrics, the textiles used by sustainable clothing brands should be made from recyclable, renewable materials like linen, hemp, or silk. Organic cotton is ok, as it biodegrades and (unlike ‘normal’ cotton) isn’t GMO – but it does take a lot of water to produce. Many are now turning to bamboo for clothing, but converting the fibres into thread actually requires a whole lot of nasty chemicals (with the exception of hemp linen – is your head exploding yet?).
Then we need to think about the dyes. Though it’s harder to know the origins of the dyes used, if a brand says their dyes are natural, that should be a huge selling point: textile dyes are often very toxic, which not only pollutes rivers when they’re rinsed out, but can also damage your health when they’re absorbed by your skin (more on this below).
Wood accessories like watches and sunglasses are having a moment, and that’s great – IF the wood is sustainable, like bamboo or scraps from the furniture industry. If you’re buying endangered species like zebra wood, sandalwood, mahogany, teak and other hardwoods, you’re not doing the rainforests any favours.
And as for leather – unless it’s recycled from old car seats, coats and the like, sorry – it’s not eco-friendly. Cows themselves need a lot of land, food and water, and then killing them, skinning them and tanning and dyeing their skin takes even more energy and resources. The same goes for fur. And obviously, using animal products for fashion is not in any way ethical.
That being said, there are arguments for using animal by-products for fashion. Discarded fish skin, for example, is growing in popularity as a leather alternative, and while most leather is not (contrary to popular opinion) a by-product of the meat industry, some is. But there can be little doubt that vegan fashion is more sustainable and ethical – just please, please be sure your vegan leather alternatives are made from eco-friendly fabrics! (many are actually made from highly polluting plastics and even one of the most dangerously toxic materials around, PVC).
2. Don’t Be Duped By Hipsters
The hipster trend for ‘handmade, local’ goods is certainly a positive thing. Buying stuff made close to where it’s sold means less CO2 was used in its transport, amongst other good points. But this alone doesn’t necessarily mean something is sustainable, obviously. For example, locally handcrafted rings made from gold that’s the result of strip mining a former rainforest in Ecuador doesn’t make those rings sustainable or eco-friendly, right? Similarly, most of the top luxury brands make all their goods ‘locally’ (i.e. they’re made in Italy or France) but their materials (toxically dyed and tanned leather or fur, for example) make them far from sustainable – or ethical. Locally made is great, but it’s not enough.
3. Visit the Right Sites
Some not-for-profit websites like Rank a Brand and the Environmental Working Group use a credible criteria to determine whether or not a brand is sustainable, whilst others, like the deceptively named Sustainable Brands are simply greenwashing public relations tools and will release positive information about brands being ‘green’ just because the company has paid them to do so.
Greenpeace has a great part of its site called The Big Fashion Stitch Up (more on that in the video, below) that goes into detail on the dirty side of the fashion industry, and shames the worst brands into cleaning up their act.
So how can you tell if a site is truly trustworthy? In short, if the site is critical of some brands or has a .org at the end of its website, it’s highly unlikely to be selling green credentials.
4. Examine the Company’s CSR Policies
Almost all large labels practice some form of Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. This can easily be found on their websites. Always take these with a grain of salt – to keep shareholders happy, companies tend to exaggerate the good in their CSR reports and ignore the bad. For example, if you read that company X complies with all local labour laws, all that really means is they’re not criminals. If company Y is fully dedicated to recycling all the paper waste in their offices, frankly, who cares? Most offices in developed nations do that anyway. But if they say they’re creating their own eco-friendly methods of dyeing and tanning leather to ensure processes are as green as possible (as Gucci did) that’s going above and beyond the norm.
5. Beware the Cause Marketers
Ever had a boyfriend who acts like a total idiot then buys you some flowers or something out of guilt? That’s kind of like what polluting companies to when they support a charity. This isn’t an indication of a sustainable brand – it’s usually just a means of ’cause marketing.’ Sure, this helps non-profit gains better exposure and raises more funds. But the company behind the campaign also gets a load of great public relations and quite often, they hike up costs of goods to cover their ‘donation’ expenses.
Companies rarely publish how much money actually gets donated, according to one 2009 study, and can say they ‘donate a percentage of profits’ to a cause – even if that percentage is .0000001%. Even when they do reveal the full sum donated, the amount of that which actually goes to those in need (as opposed to a charity’s administrative costs) is opaque. Worst of all, hiding behind cause marketing can be a way for unethical companies to whitewash what they do – for example, Estee Lauder has supported breast cancer research for years, making many women believe they’re a ‘caring’ company. But in fact, many of their brands carry chemicals that may cause breast cancer!
That being said, several smaller brands have created their whole business model around helping others. For example, everything created by SeeMe.org is made by victims of domestic abuse, and the jewellery they make for the company sustains them. The same goes for APOCCAS – all of their textiles are made by fairly paid and highly trained artisans in Thailand, using organic and botanical materials. Brands like that are awesome, and we feature tons of them in Eluxe.
6. Check out the Results of the Fashion Revolution
After the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, the Fashion Revolution became a global phenomenon that has forced us to take a hard look at how our clothes are made. The people behind the Revolution have recently released a Fashion Transparency Index (FTI) that indicates which brands have shown improvement over the past few years and which still need to up their game. For example, Gucci, YSL, and Balenciaga are ranked high (perhaps because they’re all in the same luxury group, Kering) as do high street brands like H&M, Adidas, and Zara. Apparently, these brands have taken initiatives to open up and make their material sources, supply chains, production methods, and environmental impacts known to the public and their consumer base – the FTI is a great source of information for anyone who wants to learn more about which brands to trust.
7. Look Beyond the Obvious
Textiles, dyes and ethically paid workers are the three main factors to consider when purchasing clothing, but there are other things to think about, too – a company’s daily operations, for example. Conscious companies may use a green energy supplier or even have their own solar panels; they may recycle water from their offices to water plants, or go green with their Internet with hosting services like this. Energy efficient data centers are said to prevent 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions every year. This page on green initiatives sheds some more light on other issues we rarely think about, like giving out BPA free receipts, using recyclable or less packaging and other green practices.
8. Be Wary of Anything Made Far, Far Away
What do labels like Alexander Wang, Louis Vuitton and Opening Ceremony have in common? They (and many, many more brands!) are all made in China, which is not bad in itself. But when luxury labels move production to Asia to increase their profit margins by paying workers peanuts, that is not on. You want to charge me £2000 for a handbag? Fine, but the woman who made it better be pretty darn well paid!
It’s not just luxury fashion we should be wary of – fast fashion brands like H&M, Primark and Joe Cool can only exist because the slave-like working conditions of their Chinese, Bangladeshi and Cambodian employees and a blind eye turned to environmental regulations keeps prices low, low, low.
It is said that you can tell which colours will be ‘in’ next year by looking at the colour of some rivers in China. Yep, dying clothing actually does this to rivers, and believe me, clothing dye is toxic. To add colour to fabrics, fixatives made from metals like chromium or aluminum are used, and these kill off plants exposed to factory wastewater, destroy ecosystems, poison drinking water, and generally end up in our bodies, thanks to water precipitation cycles and food exports. There are laws against using such toxic dyes without proper disposal and filtration in most developed countries, but not in most developing Asian ones. And even when those laws do exist, the penalties for breaking them are so small, manufacturers have no problem paying the fine.
Of course, completely banning brands made in Asia is bit complicated, because many people rely on those companies for their income. Ultimately, it’s actually down to us to realise that a £5 tee shirt reeks of exploitation and environmental degradation, and to demand change. After all, wouldn’t you feel prettier paying £15 for the same shirt, knowing whoever made it was well paid, and the materials used for it won’t end up giving someone cancer?
Now that you know how to tell if a fashion brand is sustainable, it’s time to ‘vote with your wallet’ and let non-sustainable brands know what you think of their practices. Sustainability can be the new norm – it’s up to us, the consumer, to make it so.