What is Sustainable Fashion

What is sustainable fashion

You might have come across coined wording like “conscious” “ready for the future”, “join life”, “outfit of tomorrow” or just “sustainable” when you are shopping for your next outfit, but most probably you wonder what do they stand for. Noticing the current sustainability boom, there is no surprise why Fashion Brands want to get the most of their environmental and social efforts by making use of green marketing. Unfortunately, there is also a tendency for greenwashing that makes consumers skeptical over the veracity of the overall sustainable fashion industry. This post helps to clarify what is sustainable fashion and it will provide with the necessary knowledge to equip you for a truly sustainable shopping spree!

Before we dive into the world of sustainable fashion, we must warn you that there is no such thing as sustainable shopping spree, and we are very sorry for bursting your bubble, but we prefer to come out clean sooner than later 😊. The Collins Dictionary defines to go on a shopping spree as to shop excessively; to buy a lot of things in an extravagant way which is in direct conflict with the holistic meaning of sustainability aiming at living within our means, being respectful with the rest of the humanity and the planet, minimizing our resource consumption and all those good deeds that back up this nowadays powerful word Sustainability, which individuals, companies and corporation want to be identified with, regardless on whether their actions back up them or not. 


Noting the lack of consensus on what is Sustainable Fashion and what makes a piece of clothes sustainable, we at Pangea Green, resonate with the definition of sustainable fashion as an all-inclusive term describing products, processes, activities, and actors (policymakers, brands, consumers) aiming to achieve a carbon-neutral fashion industry, built on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity. This definition encompasses the social issues as well as the environmental ones, which provides a more holistic and closer approach to the sustainable development goals. 

We would also like to add that regardless on whether a brand is truly sustainable or not, there are many steps in the ladder of fashion sustainability which also deserve the credit, and you as a consumer, would have to decide which brands and which clothes justify your interest and your money. Hence, other terminology (which their meaning can normally be entwined) to be aware of would be:

  • Eco-fashion standing for environmentally-friendly fashion mainly covers the environmentally responsible raw materials sourcing, the use of natural over artificial materials, the avoidance of harmful chemicals and dyes, the minimization of energy and other natural resources consumption, the use of recycled materials and the neutralization of the carbon footprint. 
  • Vegan fashion which avoids using animal products or by-products but also assures animal cruelty-free during the entire manufacturing process, meaning that no animals have being used to test any component of the garment.
  • Ethical fashion deals with the workers equal and fare conditions, the social justice of the communities where these brands operates as well as all its supply chain. 
  • Circular fashion refers to the one that keeps the product circulating by means of repairing, recycling the materials or upcycling the item. It also covers the second hand garments market, fashion rental niche as well and dealing with the concepts of product quality and durability. 
  • Other terms also used within this industry are conscious fashion or slow fashion in opposition to fast fashion, however we find them far too ambiguous. 

You will probably have concluded by now that there are not many truly sustainable brands, but many of them are already making measurable efforts to become sustainable, therefore they also deserve our support to help them achieve this status for the benefit of the planet and all living organisms inhabiting it including us. 

Law, legislation and regulation related to sustainable fashion

There is currently no international law, regulation or guidelines in sustainable fashion that, at this point in time, can provide consensus on what is considered sustainable and what not, placing this enormous responsibility on the good will of the fashion experts, retailers, wholesalers and industry’s brands. 

However, truth is told, few States have started taking baby steps in sustainable fashion legislation such as The Garment Workers Rights in California, UK’s Green Claims Code aiming at fighting businesses greenwashing or New York Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, under review. 

In addition to the REACH regulation, the voluntary Ecolabel and the Green Public Procurement (GPP) Criteria, there is also talks that the EU will further legislate on this sector with the aim of achieving textile products more durable and recyclable, free of hazardous substances, and respectfully manufactured for both, communities and the planet. 360° circularity employing repair and reuse techniques, as well as producers’ responsibility for the items they make, consumer aftercare service, and even at the end of the garment’s life. 

An UN alliance for sustainable fashion has also been formed with the aim of promoting active collaboration, knowledge sharing, strengthening synergies and achieving outreach and advocacy.


In a nutshell, companies in the business of fashion design and manufacturing will be mostly accountable for the raw materials they use to manufacture a garment as well as the energy and other natural resources they consume in the manufacturing process. They will also be accountable for the waste management and disposal as well as for the CO2eq emissions to the atmosphere resulting from their businesses and their supply chains.

Sustainable Fabrics:

The fabrics that a sustainable fashion brand will use must have a low environmental impact. In other words, fabrics that have been manufactured from raw materials that are natural or recycled, extracted from renewable plant-based fields free from toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and can assure animal wellbeing. Fabrics that will fall under this characteristic are:

  • Natural materials such as hemp, linen and organic cotton are the most environmentally friendly fabrics due to its renewability capacity, and its biodegradability. These raw materials are also vegan confirmed due to its plant based origin. 
  • Cellulose fibers like viscose, rayon or lyocell harvested from regenerative managed forest in a responsible and organic manner. However, you must pay attention of the possible toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process such is the case with most bamboo textiles. 
  • Wool is also classified as natural material. However, this material is extracted from the coat of the sheep which are normally living in poor condition and undertake abusive shearing processes. Look for the animal cruelty-free label for this textile. 
  • Despite silk being also a natural fabric it is made from the unhatched cocoon of certain insects like the silkworm. Hence, rising a question mark on the suffering of the insect being boiled or gassed alive inside their cocoons to allow workers to easily unravel the silk threads.
  • Recycled natural or artificial fibers as well as repurposed fabrics will also incur in less environmental impact due to its overall low impact of the natural resources consumption as well as the reduced impact on waste generation and landfilling. 
  • Fabrics made of recycled plastics are controversial. Despite of contributing to the reduction of plastics in our landfills and the oceans, the amount of energy and other natural resources needed compared to the same fabric made of virgin stock is a point of debate. Moreover, some groups argue that the amount of micro-plastics released from this garments in the washing machines carry as much environmental impact as the plastics itself due to the incapability of washing machines and sewage treatment plants to contain these microplastics which end up in rivers and oceans faster than the normal solid plastic waste fast-tracking the microplastic pollution process. Hence, if your are purchasing garments made of these type of recycled plastic fabrics, we would recommend you to buy only products that do not need often wash such as shoes, bags, hats and the like. However, recycled plastic accessories like glasses, watches and the like will be more appropriate to save the oceans. 

Sustainable natural fabrics might come up with the GOTS certification or the Vegan Trademark (if necessary), while recycled materials will include the OEKO-TEX label. If your garment is made of cellulose fibers look for the EcoVero or the Tencel labels. For a sustainable closet, you definitely need to avoid virgin, petroleum-derived synthetics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon. 

Natural dyes

The dyeing industry is well known for its enormous amount of water consumption, the certain groundwater pollution due to inexistent or inefficient waste water treatments and the contamination of livestock food chain and humans with persistent, toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals. However, these are not the only environmental impacts linked to this millennial man-crafts that has hardly technologically progressed. As high as a 28-30% of dye is lost to effluents due to the inefficiency of the dyeing process making the process quite wasteful. Additionally, the dyeing process requires huge amounts of energy to achieve high water temperatures and steam necessary in the dyeing methods. 

It is just recently when international organisations such as the European Commission started regulating on chemicals used in products to be commercialised in the European Union with respect to:

  • Carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic to reproduction (CMR)
  • Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT)
  • Identifiable as the probable cause of human or environmental health hazards

However, there is still a long way to go. Dyes are produced from a great amount of different ingredients to achieve the desired colour and specifically designed to dye different textiles. Dye producers are also not required to disclose all the ingredients which surprisingly as much as a 30% of those ingredients are accepted to be confidential. The lack of transparency of this industry added to the relaxation of legislation of the countries where this industry normally has got a foothold, makes the dyeing industry one of the most infamous of its sector. 

Luckily, the fashion industry has also started to take responsibility on the role they play in the indirect environmental impact of the fabrics and other materials they chose for their designs. Sustainable fashion designers and manufacturers will use fabrics dyed with sustainable dyeing alternatives such as:

  • Natural bio-based dyes made of plants, algae or even bacteria, such as the Streptomycin coelicolor (microbe that naturally changes colour based on the pH of the medium it grows inside). Faber Future, a UK-based lab, is using synthetic biology to program the bacteria to create a large range of colours that can be used to colour both synthetic and natural fibres (including cotton). We aRe SpinDye dyes recycled materials from post-consumer water bottles or wasted clothing before they are spun into yarn. Their technology melts color pigments and recycled polyester together without the use of water. huue. makes sustainable, biosynthetic indigo blue meant for the denim industry as simply as using sugar.
  • Water minimisation technologies like ColorZen pre-treats raw cotton to allow high efficiency during the subsequent dyeing process, significantly less amount of water and energy. AirDye uses dispersed dyes applied to a paper carrier, that are transferred to the textile surface afterwards using heat. Using insignificant amount of water compared to other methods and measurably less energy. It is also worth noting that the paper they use is also recycled. DyeCoo, using CO2 closed-loop processes to dye textile, does not require water at all.
Low waste design and Eco-design

Fashion design isn’t less guilty of waste generation when it comes to the tons of textiles that end up in landfills. When fashion designers work with print, tweed or checks fabric patterns, a minimum of 25% of textile will be wasted. 

Additionally, traditional fashion has encouraged over the last decades to literally change your closet every season bringing new trends that would become obsolete the following year. Moreover, trends have traditionally been designed to encourage customers to collect dozens of trousers, jeans, shirts, polo shirts, blouses, skirts, shoes, accessories and every short of detail possible to complement your attire for the perfectly tasteful outfit. This culture developed a tendency in the society of discarding up to 60% of our wardrobes every year as a sign of good taste and wealth. 

To overcome this high expenditure in the households of families not as affluent as others, fast fashion came into the game, providing trendy outfits for the average working class. Fast fashion literally flooded retailers and wholesale with very affordable, eastern manufactured low quality pieces that severely impacted the environment and increased the gap to social justice. It is estimated that up to a 60% of the clothes manufactured is never sold. Unfortunately, most of these textiles end up in landfills. 

Brands are taking note of the echo of the sustainability boom which have made many of them start re-thinking their business models as they no longer want to be associated with this image. 

Brands willing to take steps towards waste minimisation will look at making the most of their textiles, they might even repurpose unsold stock or recycle previous seasons textiles into new garments. Brands with low waste targets will also disclose their yearly achievement in their websites, and will market part of their products with a sustainability branded etiquette. 

Some brands are also innovating in the fashion design making a single piece of clothes more versatile allowing customers to personalise the way they wear. This trend might allow to reduce the amount of clothes and accessories a fashion-victim might need in the closet.  

Energy and natural resources consumption (specially water)

As already mentioned above when discussing dyes, energy and water are mainly the 2 most wasted resources in the fashion manufacturing industry. Conscious brands are starting to look at this cost very closely since the correct management of energy and water not only reduces the cost of the manufacture but it is also a good marketing hook. Using alternative energy sources in the manufacturing plants as well as capturing, treating and reusing the water resources are the 2 main solutions that brands willing to ride the sustainability wave are rapidly adopting. 

The importance of quality in Sustainable fashion

When it comes to sustainability, nothing is more important than durability of the purchased product. Sustainable brands will focus on creating pieces of clothes designed to last in your closet. Sustainable fashion brands will move way from volatile trends designing a-seasonal and a-temporal garments. Moreover, sustainable brands will focus on quality of the manufacturing process to deliver a piece of clothes that will stand the ups and downs of your active lifestyle. Finally, sustainable brands will also focus on providing you with the necessary after-care knowledge so that yo can take care of your clothes to last in your family for generations and even facilitate repair and re-commissioning services if the product gets deteriorated… 

… because sometimes shit happens 😊 

Worker’s conditions, welfare and communities justice

Since the slavery conditions’ scandal that hit Nike severely back in 1998, many highly renowned brands rushed to start disclosing fare trade conditions with their supply fabrics overseas. This single event triggered a new customer’s behaviour on their shopping patterns, who will start looking at where was the product manufactured, and as we associated certain countries with lacking of human rights we would instantly discard a piece of clothes if it had been manufactured in one of such countries. Over the years, humanitarian working and living conditions for workers overseas have improved. However there is still a lot more work to do if we really want to close the gap of inequality, social justice and fare trade.

Brands socially conscious will very often disclose all their achievements and contributions on this topic in their websites. Truly ethical brands will include social sustainability as be part of their business model.

Packaging and labelling

Packaging and labelling is also another piece of the puzzle of sustainable fashion not less important. Minimisation of packaging resources, utilisation of recycled material packaging and labels, as well as switch to dispensing cloth bags at the retail stores are some of the wide introduced practices to quickly wash the brand’s image when they start the journey towards sustainability. It is easy to switch to and does not need much investment in equipment/facilities upgrading. It normally involves a change in the supplier of packaging and labelling and a new cloth branded design in the shopping bags. 

However, like in many initiatives, after a while the innovation becomes trend and what it started being given for free, the brand sees a profit out of the branded shopping bag that has become trendy… and voilà! The fashion shopping bag was invented.  

Locally manufactured clothes

Finally, sustainability also depends on locality. The less movements of materials, products and generally the reduction of any unnecessary intermediary transportation will make the final product more sustainable for you. This means that small local companies that locally source their sustainable fabrics in smaller batches and trade locally their products will carry a substantially less carbon footprint compared to bigger corporations that purchase significantly bigger quantities of materials from multiple International suppliers and they also trade internationally.

For a truly sustainable shopping, you should ensure intermediaries (i.e.: distributors, retailers and wholesales companies) are committed to sustainable practices. Hence, supporting your local trade means supporting your community. In return provides you a local service in your neighbourhood or your town and keeps it alive and unique. 

How to differentiate between veridic green marketing vs green-washing

Greenwashing takes place when brands try to persuade the consumer through misleading marketing or incorrect claims over environmental and social protection achievements. Greenwashing will normally take the form of green and earthy colours’ looking on their packages and products, the use of deceptive certifications, or the use of wording in a misleading context. The most common is the use of the double meaning of the word sustainable as “the environmental and socially responsible actions” vs “the capability to maintain a continuous rate or level in certain actions”. 

An example would be: 

“Our production plant achieved a sustainable water consumption during the manufacturing process” 

The below are few tips you can adopt to make sure that when you are shopping sustainable clothing you don’t get ‘greenwashed’:

  • If the brand displays green labels or certifications, those should be issued by independent organisations not commercial enterprises.
  • Check whether the materials they use to manufacture the textiles are:
    • Natural or artificial
    • Made of renewable sources
    • Organic vs GMO (specially for cotton)
    • Made of recycled products vs virgin stock
    • Not coming from animal sources
    • Harmful chemicals
  • Check the origin of the materials of the garment and its supply chains 
  • Check the CO2eq per product if the brand displays it. This is always an indication of commitment to carbon reductions manufacturing processes
  • Review the brand’s sustainable policy or philosophy
  • Review their accomplishments on energy and resource savings
  • Check whether they allocate a percentage of the profit to environmental and social initiatives
  • Read on their future sustainable commitments
  • Check dedicated vintage or sustainable fashion marketplaces is marketing the garment’s brand
  • Engage with the brand to find out more about the materials used, supply chains, the packaging or even the worker’s conditions and make your own mind
  • Promote your local or regional manufacturing brands
  • Use your own judgement. The word “natural” does not necessarily mean “sustainable”. 

Finally, while we wait for our Governments and Policy makers to wake up and legislate on sustainable fashion industry in order to protect the environment and the affected communities, these are some not-for-profit websites you can check to make yourself an informed decision on whether a brand is doing the right thing or it is just riding on the crest of the sustainability wave:

Other ways to support sustainability in the fashion business

Second hand clothes and clothes rental stores are also simple ways to encourage circularity of the garment, reduce material resource consumption and minimise waste generation from overproduction and overconsumption of fashion items. This simple way of approaching your fashion style will also reduce the energy, fuel and water consumed in the process of the entire chain, and the final impact of landfilling of discarded old fashion. 

Just remember that what you consider old fashion could be the newest style for another person outside there and vice versa. When it comes to taste, there is no rules!

We hope this post helped you with your uncertainties and confusion regarding sustainable fashion and making the right thing when you shop. And now you are ready for a sustainable shopping spring* 😊.

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