< U.P. Blog

What is sustainable about fashion?

When posed with the question, “What is sustainable fashion?” the industry has come to no agreement. The luxury and couture designers claim it’s timeless design and quality that allow their designs to be handed down from generation to generation. Let’s call this “heirloom sustainability”. Crafters argue that employment of skilled artisans, low quantity production eschewing large machinery emissions, and the reduction of shipping impact by using local production is what defines sustainability. We call this “handmade/local production.” A related approach is the “sustainable communities” model when humanitarian entrepreneurs team up with local craftspeople in war-torn or impoverished regions to form collectives to produce and sell regional crafts. The profits, in turn, are used to build schools, teach skills, and acquire much needed resources. From a completely different perspective, the fast-fashion market has been known to play loose with semantics and claim that it’s an affordable price-point for customers that makes a brand “sustainable.” Guess we could call that “sustain-a-wallet.”
Countering the first three models, large factories claim that efficiency is key and due to their bulk orders which lead to more consistent quality goods, they are in fact more “sustainable.” This does not address the waste and overproduction, and equitable pay and benefits. A potential ethical solution would be the requirement of “Fair-Trade” certification – where factories must meet certain standards for working environments and fair wages. There are also special regulations and standards for companies to receive certification as “green factories.” After being nailed by negative press, mega-corporations (like Wal-Mart) have agreed to regular “green” auditing by third parties to show they have cleaned up their acts environmentally. By taking measures such as using cost and energy efficient light bulbs and machinery, lowering their toxic waste spillage by using less toxic chemical treatments on their products and/or by cleaning the chemicals out of the water they release back into the local water supply, companies looking for green certification are trying to right some of their past wrongs. Unfortunately many of these companies still won’t even post their “green” certifications, because there will always be some part of the production process that is not sustainable, leaving them vulnerable to further press and consumer objections.
These various ways of looking at sustainability show that there is still no ‘sustain-a-standard’ yardstick that would effectively cover environmental protection, workers rights, product quality, and customer affordability all at the same time. Quite frankly, when you take all of the above into account, any fashion brand labeled “sustainable” begins to look a bit suspect–not dissimilar to the way a bottle of new and improved “Green” Tide laundry detergent looks. New label, same problems. At the end of the day, what’s keeping these companies from making the necessary improvements immediately is their ‘bottom line’, and in this respect, consumers are also complicit in the crime, in that we all want easy access to affordable products.
And that’s just the tip of the iceburg in the sustainable conversation. Textile fiber farming, manufacturing, dying, and finishing are whole other cans of worms, sometimes very slimy ones. So on that note, this conversation shall be continued…
In the meantime, let’s turn this into a proper dialogue. Give us your thoughts and perhaps we can come up with some better ideas and approaches to these increasingly important issues. Comments welcome!


Michael says:
I'm currently participating in a movement to introduce an ethical fashion label that helps brands identify their products as "ethical fashion". We're having some difficulty even defining the term, though. One thing that I think's going to force the issue is our inability to continue with the consume/dispose cycle. The Earth's just not able to provide us with the sort of titanic over-consumption of resources we've grown accustomed to. As for our definition of "ethical fashion"? This morning I proposed "Goods sourced and made in a way that: * respects the people who obtain the raw resources and produce the goods * respects the communities and environments in which sourcing and production takes place * minimizes the consumption of the Earth’s resources" We'll see if it sticks. P.S. It might be just me (or my Mac) but I find the lightweight, 50% grey, italicized text of your blog hard on my eyes.
2010-07-12 23:57:56
marci says:
First of all - congratulations! I am jumping into the discussion a little late but full of enthusiasm for your blog, and more specifically your efforts, creativity and ability to raise eco-friendly awareness while still looking pretty! I Have been learning and discovering many new ideas, and your insights (and those of your followers) offer a refreshing relevant point of view. For my part, though there are many arguments to the contrary (yes, I have heard them all!) I offer an online clothing exchange for women that in its own way offers a way to recycle and re-use in a responsible 'fashion'. Clothing available on the site run the gamut from homemade and vintage to fast fashion like H&M and Zara. However, it is a realistic start for me. My company (suzieswapper.com) also partners with a non-profit that specifically raises awareness for sustainable fashion, as well as partnering up with FTA (Fashion Takes Action)a group dedicated to providing resources to it's members. I am also creating ways to encourage discussion about eco-fashion in local schools. I am always looking for resources and partnerships to continue to find new innovative ways to remain pretty and would love to chat!
2010-06-29 16:53:24
Audrey says:
Congratulations must get out of the way first- for an amazing project, in all its facets, including this fantastic site. I'm glad to find a forum for this discussion- talk of sustainable practice in all areas of human production seems to be popping up more and more frequently, giving me hope for the future. There are a number of over-reaching factors to consider on how to encourage the general consumer to live a more sustainable 'fashion' life. Celebrity culture and the negative self perceptions it fosters- selling the next big fashion fad on the self esteem its just stripped straight off your back, helped in no small part by the rapid cycling of the couture fashion world, is one of the major areas where focus needs to shift before change can occur. A young girl seeking materialistic guidance so that she can feel stylish is rarely going to consider the environmental impact of a purchase she knows will make her more attractive to her friends and peers. All the amazing efforts in the world of creative conservationists are going to fall on deaf ears until there is a focus on re-education and re-affirmation at a young age- self identity, personal branding, setting up paths for children to examine why they choose to wear and brand themselves the way they do through clothing. I know through studying high school psychology this topic is approached at the senior level, but by that stage the damage is already well and truly done- this should be primary school fodder. It may seem a naff suggestion, but at the truly grass roots level, being able to dispell consumerist habits comes out of overwhelming self love- when we love ourselves, we do not find ourselves wanting ever quite so much. This is the role of the parent, the teacher, the community to invest in its future. The next major problem is the under exposure in the media to the overwhelming and truly torturous methods of slave labour cheap companies use to manufacture these clothes/products. Individuals, especially those who haven't travelled (those in low socio-economic brackets, who are also those most susceptible to low self-esteem fuelled consumerism, and the purchase of cheap products hinged on trends))have trouble imagining the overwhelming state of social and personal degradation these people exist in. There needs to be much more awareness and lucidity in the production of these objects which we in the West covet so much, so people can really understand just what it is they're supporting. This should be a governmental responsibility. Yeah, but fat chance of that huh? So it is up to the individual... On a personal level, I have always been an eccentric dresser, keen to try to make things myself out of recycled and found fashion. As I've gotten older and more financially secure, I've begun spending more money on buying less, but far better quality vintage clothing which I know is going to last me forever. Getting tailor made clothing is the best alternative- you support local industry, get to own things which you love and feel connected to, because you've hand picked your design and fabrics (and can choose eco-friendly/sustainable choices for yourself), and in the long run it is guaranteed to be cheaper. Try going down to local fashion colleges and checking out student work, seeing if you love anything- it could mean beautiful, unique clothes for you and a head start for someone desperate for one... Love your local community- there are struggling artists out there all around you!
2010-06-27 21:56:10
Ratabnossejat says:
Just want to say what a great blog you got here! I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work! Thumbs up, and keep it going! Cheers Christian, iwspo.net
2010-05-25 09:08:14
The Uniform Project « Fix says:
[...] UPDATE: They are now finished for the year but it looks like there will be another follow up. The first year raised just under $80,000 and put more than 200 kids in school, yay! Also there’s this great discussion going on “sustainable fashion”. [...]
2010-05-04 20:04:30
Zo says:
What a great discussion so far! Thanks for really thinking about this, I'm currently doing my thesis on how meanings of sustainability are constructed by individuals, and this has been very interesting! To me sustainability more generally is about an outlook, that fundamentally ask questions about the consequences of our own actions on society. Many companies have tried to do things like recycle etc, without genuinely thinking and caring about consequences, and this is when it appears gimmicky. Obviously there are structural influences that restrain our actions, so often it's not intentional apathy that plagues companies and individuals to act in certain ways. Anyway, there are some questions that I find useful to guide me not just when buying, but in using and "throwing away" (a phenomenon which is actually very recent). 1. What is the actual cost, not in numbers, but in consequences? What "externalities" are hidden behind the price tag? 2. Who made this, where, under what conditions, and why? Do I feel comfortable with this? 3. Where will this go if I am "throwing it away", and what effects will this have? Can I use it again instead, or use it another way? How? Is this practical? Can someone else use it "better" now that I don't need it? 4. Is this product/service that is labelled "green" really sustainable? What does it actually mean? What's not being considered? 5. What don't I know, and how can I better inform myself? As you can see I'm not so concerned with what a product is made of. I'm not about to eschew all plastic for ever, for example. Instead, I question the real cost of the product/service, because in some cases, it may be better to make it out of something synthetic, although not always. It's this critical outlook, rather than always taking a label that signifies a particular material or method for granted, that is important.
2010-05-04 19:44:54
Corne Edwards says:
I enjoyed reading all of the above! And I learned so much aswell! I just finished studying BA Visual Communication Design in Stellenbosch (South-Africa). And I am planning to do my masters in Sustainable Fashion. I did my final year thesis on sustainable fashion development, mainly focussing on cotton production. Linking my research directly with my practical work, I started a 'label' called kottonree. During the year I worked with an NGO (which has a thrift store aswell), which I think can be a great aspect in in adding to a label's overall sustainability. There is also a wonderful NGO company in Amsterdam called MADE-BY. They are a an umbrella company for fashion labels, giving 'sustainable' marketing advice! I am still busy with my wesite, but please have a look at my label : kottonree. I would love to hear some feedback or suggestions! http://www.facebook.com/pages/kottonree/393980727393?ref=ts
2010-04-15 16:22:33
Loretta Dolman says:
To me, "sustainable fashion" are things that are your basics, such as a black dress,(or favorite color dress) denim skirt, jeans, turtlenecks/mocks, etc that can be dressed up/down to fit the need. Fashion changes every season, with most of geared to fit certain body types,so that shopping can become boring and frustrating going from store to store finding the same stuff in the same colors! This project has showed me how to dress a little more creatively and use what I have. I just wish I could dress how I want at work - I'm a nurse and we're going to uniform scrubs, so I'm going to be different and wear crazy socks. Got the inspiration for the crazy socks from UP. Does the UP have a physical address to send a check to?
2010-03-28 20:36:17
olivia says:
Hi Eliza, Your thrift store shopping tips are great! - and UP's finds for Sheena's daily looks are fantastic! Would you please provide some tips for successful shopping on eBay? - Thanks!
2010-03-28 18:50:41
Beth says:
What an inspiring project - I just love it! I sew. A lot. But I live in a small town (Darwin in Australia) far, far away from, well, anywhere really. When I go to the single massive fabric shop, the fabrics are such poor quality and so uninspiring I often walk around and around and then leave feeling flat and sad. So I have been doing two things. First, salvaging clothes from the second hand shop, taking them apart and putting them back together again, and second, buying fabrics when I visit Melbourne and Tokyo. But this brings me to the sustainability issue - I still feel uncomfortable buying the fabric new. I can't always get much information on the origin of the fabric, the kinds of dyes used, where the fibre was grown and any idea of fair trade is just alien. What I would like is for this information to become standard for textiles. Another idea I like came up on your blog too - sewing The Dress for people in the local area. I'd would love to do this! I could easily do a community based project teaching people to sew the dress. What fun!
2010-03-25 05:05:40
acekards says:
this blog acts as a resource for people interested in sustainable fashion and textiles. I’m learning endless amounts of information about the ever-growing sustainable fashion world and the clothing industry...
2010-03-11 09:18:36
Schauleh Sahba says:
Love your project! I agree with heirloom sustainability but hadn't heard about fast-fashion calling a product that's easy on the wallet "sustainable." Here are some additional thoughts I had recently on the definition of sustainable fashion. http://bit.ly/9uogty
2010-03-11 01:10:45
E.J.Starbuck says:
@ Payal, I love that you connect falling in love with fashion and with your clothes. Loving your clothes is loving yourself; They are a projection and representation of the self, so the practice of loving them is not only sustainable, IT'S HOLISTIC! That may be as much of a stretch to some as the idea of sustainable fashion, but in mind all things are connected and related in some way, which is why something like getting dressed in the morning needs to mean something to Sheena and I. Much love to you, Lady! I get the feeling you're more of an expert sustainable philosopher than you give yourself credit for ; )
2010-03-10 21:12:46
Payal says:
Thanks Eliza, not only for starting this discussion, but also for bringing the words 'sustainable-fashion' into my vocabulary! With the ever-changing trends, it’s hard to even imagine those words together. Prior to UP, I always thought sustainable fashion had to be timeless classics, something that told a story. But what I’ve come to realise is that every outfit you wear could be a future classic. I may not be as powerfully insightful about the topic as you smart ladies above are, but I am learning! I'm embarrassed to admit, I am a shopaholic and sucker for buying stuff 'in vogue'. At least I used to be. But the funny thing is, I realised how l hated fitting in (read: blending) and being part of the 'cookie-cutter' culture, as you guys call it. I've always tried to reinvent my wardrobe with what I have, but keep getting sucked right back into I-don't-have-anything-to-wear or don't have the guts to try something radical. Thanks to Uniform Project, I've opened my eyes and wardrobe to sustainable fashion. Having promised to not shop till the UP auction, I’m having a great time picking out what to wear each morning! For me, fashion has to be fun. I have to feel good and different – stand out without pulling a Gaga! And much like love, when you look at your old clothes and try to remember how you felt when you first bought it, you’ll fall in love with it all over again! And if love isn’t worth sustaining, what is? For most people, like myself, shopping isn’t only about getting new stuff – it’s also a social outing of sorts. When you hang out with your friends, you’re just tempted to buy random things. The aim of the game is to hang out at the right places. And with my redefined tastes, it’s only a matter of time before I rope the rest of them in!
2010-03-10 01:34:23
E.J.Starbuck says:
@E, we like the home-made DIY crafting movement that has recently picked up and has pushed crafting and home sewing to a whole new level of art and fashion. We're huge fans of the SANS brand model, which sells pattern and suggests you make it yourself or get it made at a local tailor, and the Etsy community which continues to expand and inspire at an increadible rate. @Ellen, great point about "green" production. It's true, sustainable production is still producing and consuming. It's ultimately up to the individuals to decide what kind of consuming they're going to do. Are you going to shop until you drop every time you get the shopping itch or feel uninspired in your wardrobe? Or are you going to decide to spend that time and energy going through your closet start to finish, trying on your wardrobe to see what you can do to work with what you have: raising hemlines, styling, layering & wrapping in ways you hadn't considered before. Or if there's really no way to work with the stuff in your closet, you absolutely must have the newest look or proportion from the runways, and you can't sew, why not go to the thrift store and shop to your hearts content. When I worked in the industry, and needed to show "trend currency" (which in the fashion industry gets you more respect) I would check out all the runway shows, note my favorite looks and then head out to The Salvation Army and spend $100 on an entire wardrobe for the season. I can promise you that was a whole lot more full filling then spending the same $100 at Forever 21 or H&M. Not to mention the fact that vintage and second hand lasts a lot longer than the ill-fitted, synthetic junk you pick up on high street. If you're a novice at thrift store sifting, check out my tips on how to thrift store shop like a pro at www.eyelashers.blogspot.com
2010-03-09 22:54:49
rollergirl says:
I've been mulling over the fast-fashion thing a bit. I think young people tend to prefer fast (disposable) fashion because they're at the age when they're being experimental. When you're a bit older, you've got over that, found your groove and are happy to get creative by revisiting old stuff. To generalise, I think young people like novelty, and being poorer, they obviously will shop those unethical high street brands as they're cheaper. However, as you say Ellen, when you were younger, you enjoyed 'finding creative ways to put things together' and hello, this is how punk (in terms of fashion) came about. So yes, we need to encourage young people to forget about celebrity culture and being sheep and learn to be innovative stylists. But perhaps this is happening a little bit already - vintage, street style photography... they all help give a more creative slant to fashion.
2010-03-09 19:14:06
Ellen Carey says:
Thank you, Eliza, for your introduction to this discussion. And thank you Beth an E for your thoughts. E touched on the main concern I have when I think about sustainable fashion. The mass production - and mass advertising - of cheap fashion, along with an increasingly celebrity-focused culture, perpetuates the idea that you must have the latest look in order to be stylish. If you have yesterday's look, you'd better throw it away in humiliation and run out there to buy today's look...and then do the same thing tomorrow. No matter how "green" the production of these fashions becomes, the disposable culture and emphasis on always having what's new that is the m.o. of so much of the fashion industry will forever be at odds with true sustainability. I've gotten dazzled by having what's new myself, but projects like the Uniform Project and The Great American Apparel Diet have caused me to rethink the way I approach fashion. I've gotten back to my DIY roots, to spending money only for used items, and to shopping in my own closet and finding creative new ways to put things together. I approached fashion this way when I was younger out of financial necessity. Doing so now for environmental reasons has reminded me how much more fun it is to create something truly original than to pop into a store to "consume" the latest look. True sustainability will require all of us to make a similar change in the way we approach any purchase - a change that, as E suggests, will force manufacturing industries to rethink how (or whether) they sustain themselves. And by the way, I love the idea of being able to purchase the pattern and make the dress myself!
2010-03-09 17:15:10
E says:
I think one of the hardest things about sustainable fashion is the need to "look good" I certainly have been guilty of buying crap I didn't need because I felt frumpy that day. I don't think its wrong to want to look nice and feel confident, but the advent of cheap fashion makes it so easy to convince yourself that dropping a hundred dollars can help shape who you are. I like what you said about the "green" label. It's important to understand that sustainable is often just a catch phrase or an ad line. I do think it's important however to not get overwhelmed by the complexities of sustainability. The problems will only get bigger if people with smart, cheap, clean or big ideas don't speak up. If instead we feel that producing any new product will cause an ecological burden we lose the chance to share sustainable ideas with the world, and potentially change the face of manufacturing. It could be very exciting. One idea that could be neat would be if you sold the pattern, and encouraged crafters to make their own versions with reclaimed fabric. This would of course leave out folks that don't sew :) Another idea is to collaborate with local tailors in various cities, and buyers could custom order from them, which would keep it on a smaller scale.
2010-03-09 13:34:42
Beth Weaver-Kreider says:
I really appreciate this thoughtful discussion about different ways that the term "sustainable" can be applied and mis-applied to fashion. At a recent conference of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture, a similar discussion ensued. The word "sustainable" has definitely been hijacked, often by the very corporations we were trying to differentiate ourselves from in the first place. That said, I plan to continue using it to describe the mode in which we work as farmers. The way you have used the semantic quarrel to set out your own clear definitions here is a great example of how to reframe the questions, and it will inspire me to continue to hone my own ideas about what it means to farm sustainably as well. Thanks to both of you, Eliza and Sheena, for the great work you do.
2010-03-08 22:05:53