Words like “sustainability” and “ethical” seem to be bouncing around the fashion industry and rolling off the tongues of designers, fashionistas and critics alike. These may, in fact, may be the least sexy words to ever be used in such a context in the history of fashion!

But when these terms are broken down, what do they really mean? And how does one stylish socially conscious consumer navigate the unclear waters of 50 shades of sustainable fashion?

Sustainability isn’t just a pretty picture of waterfalls flowing into prosperous streams of abundant mossy rocks covered with flowers. Neither is it restricted to an image of the veggie garden in your backyard rich with the yummy kale to make your detox juice with.

Sustainability means living in a way that ensures that your life will not jeopardize the lives and needs of people in the future. But it also means “to sustain”, being able to continue doing what you are doing over a long period of time. This is where things can get a bit messy. If we were to only think of sustainability as the second definition of maintaining the status quo, of sustaining our current way of life, then we are all digging ourselves a hole (well, actually… we’re digging a hole to pile the Starbucks coffee cups, the plastic containers and immense amounts of disposables we keep continuously and ‘sustainably’ wasting). If we are sustainable about our waste, this means we keep wasting at the same rate we are currently doing. This is the problem with the term, and this might better explain what Orsola de Castro, fashion designer and campaigner of sustainable fashion label “From Somewhere” said when she explained that sustainable fashion IS fashion. “Everything else is unsustainable fashion or unethical fashion”.

When thinking of sustainable fashion, it’s not unusual for the image of a yoga pant wearing individual, sporting an oversized beige sweater clearly made of some hemp-like fabric paired with a colourful eclectic scarf that states “I have traveled to the depths of the Costa Rican jungle, and found this along the way”. Dear yoga pant lovers, as someone who owns and loves eclectic scarves myself, take no offence! What is important to remember is that sustainable fashion should mean all fashion, and not a trend that you can spot on the street.

And what about ethical fashion? Where does that come in? Ethical fashion refers to the production of clothing that maximizes the benefits of those who contribute to the making of the garment. Sounds fairly straightforward, but even ethical fashion can be difficult to navigate as there are so many complicated layers to the fashion supply chain. If the clothing was cut and sewn by women who were paid and treated fairly, does this make the clothing ethical if we have no idea how the cotton farmer was treated? Hence more shades of grey.
And is sustainable fashion ethical? And vice versa? Not necessarily. Good working conditions and fair pay doesn’t equal zero environmental wastage.

In a perfect world, ethical and sustainable fashion would BE fashion, but in the mean time, here are three things you can do to keep heading in that direction:

1. Inform yourself. Become more aware of what is happening on a local and global scale in relation to the production and manufacturing of the clothes you buy.

2. Ask! Don’t be afraid to ask your favourite brands where their clothing comes from, how they are made and what they are doing to better the environment. If we all start asking these questions, brands might start thinking twice about what we (the consumers) want.

3. Sustainable fashion can start in your own closet. Learn to fix the small tear in your favourite tee instead of replacing it. Small habits like this one can go a long way!


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