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Becoming a Leader in Sustainable Fashion

12 Min Read

The fashion world is changing — and leaders can harness that change

Sustainability is on the mind of both consumers and forward-thinking leaders in every industry to some extent, but it’s easy for fashion to fly under the radar. Clothing, after all, seems innocuous; we wear it every day, and we don’t see it belching smoke or accumulating on the street.

Nevertheless, the fashion industry has a key role to play in the future of the environment, and in a field that sometimes veers toward excess and waste, achieving sustainability will be a challenge. That’s the mission of the sustainable fashion movement.

The challenges for sustainability in the fashion industry

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much the fashion industry contributes to pollution and climate change on its own because the industry is intertwined with others at every stage in its supply chain: production of fibers and textiles, transportation of clothing items, and consumer use of those items.

Synthetic fibers, such as nylon and polyester, are made from fossil fuels. Significant amounts of carbon emissions come from both extraction of oil from the ground and production of the synthetic fibers themselves.

Synthetic fiber production has other byproducts, too; nylon production, for example, has nitrous oxide (laughing gas), a potent greenhouse gas, as a byproduct. Finally, synthetic fibers do not biodegrade as natural fibers do, and when they accumulate in landfills, they release additives such as heavy metals into the environment.

Natural fibers like hemp and cotton are generally more sustainable than synthetic fibers, but the environmental impact is still notable. Cultivation of these plants requires fertilizer, and most conventional farms use synthetic fertilizer which itself has a substantial environmental impact. Emissions are also associated with mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control, and other aspects of conventional farming.

Other resources, too, are consumed in the cultivation of natural fibers; cotton, for example, requires huge amounts of water, and it is often grown in dry environments where water is at a premium.

Once fibers are produced, they must be woven into fabric, a process that requires significant amounts of electricity and thus, in areas where electricity is primarily provided by fossil fuels, carbon emissions. Like all physical goods, fabrics and clothing have to be transported, and there are further emissions associated with transportation.

At the end of the supply chain, fashion products are often made to be used for a short period of time and thrown away; indeed, the clothing and accessories industry is the second-largest contributor of plastics in the ocean, behind only non-durable household goods. Throwing away clothes not only contributes directly to pollution but also requires even more clothing to be made, exacerbating the environmental impact of the rest of the supply chain.

In short, making the fashion industry sustainable is far more involved than simply replacing synthetic fibers with natural fibers or other single adjustments. Truly making a global environmental difference requires an overhaul of the entire mindset of fashion, and carrying out that overhaul will require both high-level vision and fundamentally sound business knowledge.

It’s a challenging task, but it’s also necessary. If the fashion industry wants to remain relevant and economically viable in a changing world, it needs to embrace sustainability in meaningful ways.

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Changing the pace: “fast” and “slow” fashion

By definition, fashion is linked to time: it’s the prevailing trend now, at a particular moment in time. This creates an immediate sustainability challenge. As currently conceived, the fashion industry must always move on to the next style, and that means there is great potential for waste as older garments are thrown away.

The problems with fast fashion

“Fast” fashion, according to sustainable fashion advocates, is the low-cost mass production of clothing that moves rapidly from the catwalk to retail shelves. The overarching theme of fast fashion is the opportunity to get the “next big thing” or “hot new look” at an affordable price. Fast-fashion brands such as Zara and H&M may release multiple new products in a single calendar week to stay on top of the latest trend.

From a sustainability perspective, then, fast fashion is dangerous because it cultivates a “disposable” mentality. If garments only have value so long as they are in style, they can simply be discarded when they are no longer in style. This not only contributes directly to solid waste in the environment but also forces the industry to produce even more garments relative to the number of wearers.

Because of the need to produce apparel as quickly and cheaply as possible, fast-fashion products are often made overseas in countries with fewer environmental regulations and poor working conditions compared to the United States. To facilitate this ongoing cycle of consumption, fast-fashion manufacturers predominantly use synthetic materials, which have higher carbon emissions associated with production.

Moreover, garments made from synthetic materials are difficult to recycle and slow to break down in the environment. Too many fast-fashion items are purchased, worn only a few times, and then tossed in landfills where they linger for years, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment and leaving a gap for the cycle of production and pollution to fill.

Proponents of fast fashion argue that it allows regular people to keep up with the latest trends at an affordable price. Fast fashion claims to have “democratized” fashion by allowing everyone, not just the wealthy and influential, to participate. To green fashion proponents, though, this tradeoff just isn’t worth the environmental damage.

An alternative: slow fashion

“Slow” fashion, a term coined by Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, is an alternative approach that emphasizes reducing production and consumption by looking at all the processes and resources required to make clothing. Some of the pillars of slow fashion include:

  • Using high-quality, sustainable materials, such as linen
  • Locally sourcing and producing garments to reduce transportation costs
  • Releasing fewer specific styles per collection, with only two or three releases per year
  • When possible, making garments to order to reduce unnecessary production
  • Not treating clothes as disposable, instead encouraging repairs, upcycling, and buying secondhand

In other words, the difference between fast and slow fashion is more than just a change of pace; it’s an entirely different mindset centered on efficient use of resources and elimination of waste. Rather than pushing the next new thing, slow fashion encourages consumers to ask whether they really need to buy something new, or if a secondhand garment or repair of something they already own can accomplish the same thing. Put differently, it’s a way to achieve a form of ethical luxury fashion by redefining the word “luxury” to value timelessness and durability over trendiness and cutting-edge style.

A thoughtful approach to creating and distributing garments

Slowing down the fashion industry and emphasizing locally sourced materials are only part of sustainable fashion. To achieve long-term sustainability, fashion professionals need to critically consider and engage with every aspect of the supply chain.

Locally sourcing materials and production

Much like the sustainability movement more generally, slow fashion includes the idea that clothing should be locally sourced: made from locally grown materials, manufactured close to the point of sale, and often sold by local retailers instead of large chains.

There’s a direct environmental impact to the locally sourced approach: it reduces the emissions from transportation. Fewer trucks and ships are needed to move textiles and finished products from place to place. Consumers who are close to the production of a product can also be more aware and mindful of the way the product is manufactured, how the workers are treated, where the electricity that powers the factory comes from, and so on.

Locally produced clothing made from locally sourced materials not only promotes sustainability, but also supports jobs in the the community. The idea of “shopping local” is a marketing message that resonates with consumers and helps to shift the mindset around fashion.

Considering the type of garment

How sustainability intersects with fashion is somewhat dependent on the type of garment in question. Some types of clothing, such as winter coats and outdoor wear, are designed for long-term use, so they should be designed with durability in mind. It’s often possible to design these types of clothing so that they last for many years and acquire a certain patina that comes with age.

Other types of garments — party tops, underwear, and so on — have a shorter lifespan by nature, so the sustainable approach is to make sure they’re made from biodegradable materials. Hemp, linen, organic cotton, and some types of wool are ideal for this type of usage. Linen, for instance, is a biodegradable material made entirely from natural materials and can be sustainable so long as the flax that makes it is grown sustainably. Synthetically made fibers originating from cellulose, like rayon and viscose, are also suitable for this purpose as long as the raw materials are sustainably sourced and don’t contribute to deforestation.

Sustainably sourced color

The base material used to make garments is only one ingredient, of course. Color is a huge part of fashion, and the dyes and treatments used in production can have a significant environmental impact, including releasing toxic chemicals when garments are discarded.

Sustainable fashion emphasizes natural, plant-based dyes, digital printing dyes that use less water, and non-toxic dyes. The Bluesign and OEKO-TEX Standard 100 labels reflect testing for toxic chemicals, creating a valuable resource for consumers who are interested in sustainable products.

Working conditions and wages in garment production

Sustainability is about more than climate change and other environmental impacts; it’s about ethical business practices that contribute to human flourishing at every level of the supply chain.

Unfortunately, wages and working conditions are a huge problem at the manufacturing stage of the supply chain. Many of our garments are produced in countries with exceptionally low wages and few if any legal protections for workers. Poverty wages, 14- to 16-hour working days, and terrible health and safety conditions, such as poor ventilation and exposure to toxic chemicals, are common. Sadly, child labor and forced labor are also common in parts of the supply chain.

Of course, the fashion industry is not solely responsible for poor working conditions around the world, but the industry does contribute to workers’ suffering in impactful ways. Again, “fast fashion” is often the culprit here: when the fashion brand has to hit a deadline, low-wage workers may be kept at the factory until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., sometimes without overtime pay.

Sustainable fashion, then, offers a way out, not only from the climate change and other environmental effects of current practices in the fashion industry but also from contributing to the misery of garment workers around the world. Sustainable fashion companies can put in the effort to ensure their materials are sourced and their products are manufactured by well-paid workers in better conditions, and the lower level of consumption enabled by slow fashion reduces the runaway demand for cheaply manufactured garments.

The future of sustainable fashion

It should be said that even the most sustainable fashion practices available right now are not perfectly sustainable. Even the staunchest green fashion advocates will say as much. In part, that’s because fashion exists as part of a larger economic ecosystem where fossil fuels are used for power generation and transportation. In part, it’s because we don’t know what the most sustainable materials and practices are, and further research is needed.

What’s clear, though, is that there are more and less sustainable ways for the fashion industry to operate, with fast fashion near one end of that continuum and slow fashion near the other. Eliminating environmental impacts is not possible yet, but they can be mitigated, and savvy leaders can shift the mindset of the fashion world to think critically about how we make the things we wear and whether we value trendiness or permanence.

Fundamentally, sustainable fashion advocates ask “what are we paying for?” Currently, consumers pay a premium for brand names and insignia, regardless of the actual quality or usability of the garment. Green fashion invites the consumer to instead pay for quality, durability, and sustainability.

Sustainability and the business of fashion

It’s clear that there is a need for sustainable fashion, but it’s equally clear that the sustainable fashion movement faces significant ongoing challenges.

True sustainability requires a deep understanding of the entire supply chain, including raw materials, production processes, transportation, and retail, not to mention the source of electricity for each element in the process. A highly efficient factory that is nevertheless powered by fossil fuels undermines the entire sustainable enterprise. Managers and leaders who are committed to sustainability need to pay close attention to everywhere their products come from in order to make that vision reality.

Another key challenge is cost. Fast fashion products are usually quite inexpensive at the point of sale — of course, those savings vanish when they wear out sooner, but that drawback is less immediately obvious to the consumer. Sustainably made products are often more expensive upfront, and the case must be made to the consumer that the longer lifespan and environmental benefits are worth it.

In short, implementing sustainable business practices in the fashion industry requires a mindset change, both among people working in the industry and consumers of fashion products. It requires creativity, both in the design and business sense of the term, and a solid business and pricing strategy to pursue sustainability in an ethical and financially viable manner.

That said, there is a grand opportunity to invite consumers to do their part for the planet by shopping for sustainably made clothes. Every year, the business need for green fashion becomes more significant — the environment is the top concern for Gen Z consumers and will most likely be similarly important for the next generation after them — and fashion companies that can truly achieve sustainability, rather than simply “greenwashing,” will reap the rewards.

The fashion industry needs people who understand design, business, history, and entrepreneurship to move forward into a future where sustainability will be key. Advancing the cause of sustainable fashion will require more than passion; sustainable success will need vision, market research, analytical skills, and a solid marketing strategy. Those are some of the skills you’ll learn in the online BS in Fashion and Entrepreneurship program at Lindenwood University.

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