Conscious Fashion: It’s as easy as ABC
Ok… admitted, conscious fashion isn’t really as easy as ABC, it’s more like learning a whole new language of marketing concepts. There is no rule book out there that dictates what is and isn’t included under the conscious fashion umbrella and fashion moves fast. Even if we did have a dictionary for these terms, it’s likely it would be irrelevant by the time it was published.
In an effort to help translate some of the terminology, ideas, and concepts of conscious fashion I’ve made you a fun little alphabetical list of some ideas you might like to know about. It’s by no means exhaustive but it’s a start!
As the world becomes increasingly obsessed with fast fashion and global fashion trends there is a concern for the continuation of artisan knowledge. With the growth of the fast fashion industry there has been an exponential growth in the amount of unwanted secondhand clothing from the West. We don’t really have the market for ALL the secondhand clothing (there’s LOTS, here in Australia we throw away 6,000 kilograms of fashion and textile waste every 10 minutes) in developed nations so much of it is shipped offshore- creating a World-Wide secondhand clothing trade. The influx of secondhand clothing to these nations has been said to create a decline in local industry as people buy Western clothing from secondhand markets instead of supporting local traditional businesses. It’s also seen many local clothing producers focusing on creating clothing for Western markets. When you choose to shop ‘Artisan’ you may be purchasing from a label that encourages the continuation of traditional knowledge by making clothing and accessories for a western market.
Considering biodegradation is an important part of being a conscious consumer. When an item is biodegradable it can be broken down or ‘decomposed’ into simpler substances, usually through the help of microorganisms, water or the sun. Many non-treated natural fibres (cotton, flax, hemp, etc) or man made fibres made from cellulose (modal, bamboo) will return to the soil in a compost bin. If sent to landfill the anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions make the break down process much slower. Some synthetics are designed to break down, however, unless they are made from bio-plastics (which are still contestable), they aren’t likely to turn into anything other than smaller bits of plastic within our lifetimes.
To be conscious is to have knowledge! This word is the NEW buzz word for eco, ethical, and sustainable fashion. It’s been accepted as an umbrella term to cover all mindful fashion choices because there is a huge divide between Vegan and Eco friendly marketing campaigns. As sustainability means something different to everyone, and ethics can be animal centric, human centric or both, this umbrella term that covers all the choices has been a welcome addition.
As consumers we use our money to vote for the world we want to live in. Each time we make a purchase we express gratitude (in money format) for the item or service we are consuming. When we demand low prices at the cost of ethics and the earth we are saying that we are ok with this compromise. While most of us have limits to our funds, we all have the capacity to spend them better. While shopping from locally made boutique sustainable fashion artisans might be a pipe dream for someone that’s living below the poverty line, the accessibility of secondhand clothing is making it increasingly easy for people to be able to afford to avoid having to buy directly from fast fashion brands.
When we demand that businesses operate in more sustainable and ethical ways they are likely to comply (especially if there is high demand for it). Why? Because that how the economy works! Businesses create demand through marketing campaigns and we buy. Or buyers say what they want (through social media, directly contacting the company, signing petitions, and the stock reports companies assess about the way we spend our money) and companies provide more of it.
Depending on the company or person using it, Eco is typically a term applied to an item that is environmentally friendly or ecologically minded. This is a ‘green’ or ‘environmentalist’ values based claim that should see the item having at least one earth positive impact. Beware that sometimes this term will be used as a marketing ploy for items that have very little contribution to environmental and ecological good. In fact, years ago, I saw this on an ATM and could not work out why it was ‘eco’, a further Google said that it had something to do with a mobile phone recycling scheme they were involved in. The term can be used VERY loosely
Fast fashion is the current model that the Textile Clothing and Footwear industry champions. It is based on the fastest possible turnaround time from inspiration to shop floor. The desire for weekly fashion drops year round has seen production systems move from four seasons a year with long production planning times, to near instantaneous street style or catwalk to shop ready to wear systems. The fast fashion model relies on consumers treating clothing as ‘disposable’ and updating their look regularly. The clothing is created where the wages are the cheapest in order to keep manufacturing costs down and still return a reasonable profit margin on a modest end price for consumers. In the fast fashion model the environment is externalised, animals are often mistreated, and people along the WHOLE supply chain can be exploited.
This is one of the ‘older’ style terms for environmentally friendly fashion. While generally not used by product designers as often as other marketing terms (ethical, eco, sustainable and vegan) Green is still favoured by journalists. Green, like Eco, is a term that’s used to describe an item with some form of environmental or ecological attributes. As eco’s wishy-washy marketing friend Green is slightly confusing. Why? Because it’s also a colour! Green-washing is common in the marking world. It’s were a product is ‘painted’ to seem more eco friendly than it actually is. It can be as simple as using eco colours, fonts and style in the packaging, or by highlighting one small aspect of good that a company is doing, while covering up the other not-so-pleasant practices.
No matter what the marketing and technology giants try to tell us, most things we buy have been touched by human hands. We like to think that we are advanced enough to have machines to do all our jobs for us but the truth is that the majority of our fashion items have been put together by humans. ‘Handmade’ is used to sell us a variety of products but it could truthfully be applied to nearly all our products. That sequin dress you got for $20 from a chain store- it’s likely each of those sequins were hand stitched!
This term means that the item is originating or occurring naturally in a particular place, or created by someone local to that place. When we look at the term from a fashion marketing point of view it’s usually applied to items that have been made by indigenous cultures. Here in Australia you might see it used to describe items that have been made by Indigenous Australians, our lands traditional custodians. When you are shopping for items marketed as indigenous make sure that those who created it are being properly acknowledged for their art financially and with cultural respect.
The word just isn’t a common key marketing word, but it’s used regularly in the context of conscious fashion. The idea of being ‘just’ is that one is behaving according to what is morally right and fair. An appropriate word to add to your conscious fashion vocabulary, but be wary that morals fairy from person to person so what one deems to be right and fair might not align with your ideals.
Like ‘just’, the word kind is commonly used in conscious fashion circles but is more a describing word than a marketing term. Kind is favoured by animal rights movements as it’s an emotive noun that stirs up feeling within most of us. An item that’s described as being a kinder choice for animals might not mean a kinder choice for the planet. Many ‘Vegan’ fashion items are cleverly marketed synthetics. Along the same vein of though items that are ‘kind’ to your health might not be good for the planet or animals. Sometimes we see kind being used in the content of an item being more gentle on the planet, which can sometimes be a bit of green-wash to make it look less damaging than another polluting product. The moral of the ‘kind’ story? Always check the info AROUND the noun to see what’s so kind about the item and if it fits with your values.
Many of us (probably not-so-much readers of sustainable fashion blog) don’t assess our clothing purchases with a long term frame of mind. Conscious consumption is all about futures thinking for our closets. When we shop consciously some of the most important considerations are
- ‘How long will I wear it’ and
- ‘What will happen to it when I’m finished.
Thinking long term is vital to saving yourself time, money, and helping reduce the footprint of the clothing industry on our finite resources.
If you have spent any time on Instagram or Pinterest you might have noticed a trend towards supporting ‘makers’. Makers and makers markets describe small scale artisan and crafts people who are committed to bringing unique designs to willing consumers.
Makers usually design, make and sell their products. They are usually niche items and sometimes have an ‘arts and crafts’ vibe to them. As mentioned before, nearly all items are handmade- but not everyone tries to support themselves solo with what they make. Shopping at makers markets supports independent and indie designers and artists.
Societal norms are what make many of us do what we do! When we are part of an active society, be it the one we find ourselves geographically located in or societies that we choose to be a part of (like social media, makers markets or sustainable fashion forums) we tend to follow group norms. Norms are what help us keep a sense of morality and order. When we choose to participate in a conscious fashion discussion we accept that there are norms for the fast fashion industry (profit over people and planet, animal welfare issues, etc.) and norms for the conscious style group we choose to identify with (animal ethics, environmental ethics, social ethics). While one set of norms may never be agreed upon by all, being aware of what is considered ‘normal’ for fast fashion, and what we conscious consumer think should be the norm helps to guide the industry towards a more sustainable future.
Organic items are items that are said to be made without the use of chemical, synthetic fertilisers, or GMO’s. It’s better for people, planet and animals as it keeps environmental flows clean and prevents exposure to illness causing chemicals. Organic is one area that comes with some guarantees if you shop in the right places for certified products. Different nations, bodies and companies adhere to different certification systems so research what one is appropriate to you or the origins of the item you want to purchase. The leading body for organic textiles certification is GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard). Shoppers beware that organic content is often used as a greenwashing tool. Check to see what in the item is organic (if there is ANY organic content… I’ve seen the word misspelt and used on products with no organic content in the beauty industry) and what other components are used.
As I used up ‘F’ for fast fashion I’ve moved the idea of people friendly purchases (Fairtrade) to the letter ‘P’. Just like organic Fairtrade items come with certification schemes. There are a few different ones around and it’s likely that you will have to research the specific one shown on an item you would like to buy. In Australia and New Zealand many of our Fairtrade purchases are certified by Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand and carry the fairtrade mark. This mark ensures that your purchase is the result of a partnership with farmers to provide fairer prices, better terms of trade and additional funds for business and community development such as education, healthcare and environmental sustainability.
Arguably one of the most important conscious fashion considerations! Quality is a standard of manufacturing or the degree of excellence to which our fashion items have been made. In the industry there are people whose specific roles are to assess the quality of sample garments to ensure that they are made well enough to suit the brands expectations for item performance and longevity. It is believed that in the past, when fashion turn around time was slower, that items were better quality. In many cases the apparel instore today doesn’t have the finishes of slower made clothing. However, fast fashion doesn’t necessarily mean bad quality, and vice versa with slow fashion. The longevity and finish of a garment is largely decided by how fussy the designer or design house wants to be. Shopping for high quality items you will wear for a lifetime is one of the easiest ways to have a conscious consumer mindset.
Recycled items have been created from what was considered to be a ‘waste’ resource. One of the most prevalent examples of this is EcoNyl a high quality nylon that been adopted by activewear designers across the globe. This fabric takes unwanted plastic (which is mostly fishing nets retrieved from the ocean and plastic bottles) and processes them into fabrics. What’s important to consider in this recycling process is that recycling takes energy and can sometimes create pollution (depending on the use of renewable vs fossil fuel energy, and if the whole item can be recycled). It’s also important to think about the end of life of recycled items. If companies can take them back and recycle them again then it’s more sustainable. Otherwise your recycled plastic bikini or leggings will likely end up in landfill. Again, it’s about thinking long-term with your conscious shopping options.
One of the most convoluted and over used marketing terms sustainable and sustainability can mean nothing and everything. Generally speaking an item is sustainable when it is economically viable, socially responsible and environmentally responsible. Ideally the most sustainable model of production is ‘Cradle to Cradle’ design or ‘Circular Economies’ (see zero waste for more info on these). However, the term is used in fashion to describe pretty much everything and anything. Many labels call themselves sustainable when they have only one environmentally friendly feature (such as organic cotton, bamboo fibre or a recycled nylon). Sustainability is also confusing because many have taken the fact that a diet of less meat and dairy (such as a Vegan diet) and used the term ‘Vegan’ to market non biodegradable -petrochemical- based clothing as being sustainable (when it’s clearly just landfill fodder). This example clearly shows that values really influence what sustainability means to the individual and why it’s not easy to define in the context of fashion.
Shopping secondhand is always a great way to reduce the reliance on virgin resources. It’s also a form of recycling because it diverts items from landfill. Due to the amount of clothing the fast fashion industry churns through we have more variety of secondhand clothing than ever before! In fact you are likely to find never worn or worn once items in most thrift stores as trends change quickly and consumers buy blindly or with a disposable mindset. Secondhand shopping is NOT the answer to our global fast fashion problem and it’s mostly just part of fast fashion. When we choose a second-hand item we do it a service by preventing it going to landfill, but until we have textiles recovery and recycling systems in place, it’s likely that item will still go to landfill when we are done with it.
Shopping secondhand is a really affordable way to be a conscious consumer. If you can afford it try to pepper your secondhand closet with items that are purchased from ethical and sustainable designers. These designers are competing with big budget fashion houses. They have higher price points because they account for the full cost of production and their target markets are niche. Unfortunately this niche target market is made up of conscious consumers who shop less frequently, wear clothes longer and will often look to buy secondhand first. A business model that sadly ends up with designers working unethical hours, taking on additional jobs to support their label, or going out of business. When you can afford to, mix designer items from these designers with secondhand purchase to ensure that our economy takes the hint that sustainability minded businesses can be long-term sustainable
Upcycled is the more eco friendly best friend of recycled. Upcycled fashion items take something that was considered as waste and turn it into something of value. The difference between upcycled and recycled in the context of fashion is that upcycled items are considered as a viable material in their own right, while recycled items generally take the waste material and use it as a new resource to create a new fibre or fabric. Upcyled designs can look very ‘crafty’ and artsy or they can be done with fashion forward prowess. Denim and tyre innertubes are often successfully upcycled into modern designs retaining the characteristics of the original item but in a less obvious (read- crafty) way. The reason why upcycled is more eco friendly than recycled is that it doesn’t require as much energy or resources to reuse a material as it does to break one down to it’s elements and create a new one out of it.
Virgin materials are new materials. Meaning that they have not been previously used or consumed, or subjected to processing other than for its original production. Nearly all of the items you will buy from conventional stores are made from virgin materials. Each and every single item you purchase will have come from non renewable sources or extracted from our production systems. When a resource is managed responsibly and sustainably the use of virgin materials isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as long as we are not consuming excesses of it just for fun). A responsibly managed organic hemp farm would be an example of a more sustainable virgin resource. However, for the most part our virgin resources aren’t managed in a holistic way. Which is why conscious fashionistas should always rethink purchases, look for secondhand alternatives, swap, make, borrow, and then- if necessary- buy virgin (new).
One reason that you may choose to be a more conscious consumer of fashion is waste. As you read earlier, Aussies are pretty wasteful when it comes to clothing. But this trend is global. One of the best resources for learning about the wastefulness of the fashion industry is The True Cost. You can check out the trailer below if you haven’t already seen it. Well worth a watch!
While this isn’t a term that you will see splattered around Instagram on sustainable fashion feeds it’s an important topic to discuss when looking conscious fashion. A Xenophile is a person attracted to that which is foreign, especially to foreign peoples, manners, or cultures. In fashion there is an attraction to that which is foreign to us in terms of design. We enjoy new trends from across the globe and want to look cutting edge. Sustainable fashion rhetoric is very focused on the ‘foreign’. It looks to support and create equality for those in developing nations and enjoys sharing visuals of factory workers in far off places.
This is of great importance to a more fair and equable fashion model, but it creates a narrow view of the effects that fast fashion has on people. Exploitation isn’t exclusive to developing nations and fast fashion. In developed countries many of the models, designers, interns, photographer, sales clerks, marketing teams (and more) are forced to work for free, for extended hours, in unsafe or unsuitable conditions, or to endure bullying and harassment (just to name a few). While many may assume this is only in the fast fashion industry conscious design houses can have similar issues. Large numbers of ethical and sustainable minded fashion folks work around the clock and often across several jobs to make their vision a reality. Lots fail.
A truly conscious consumer should take a broader look at ethics and sustainability and accept that there is more to mindful fashion than photos of smiling cotton pickers in wanderlust inducing locations.
Shopping consciously is really about your choices. You get to choose what you want to use your dollar to support. Many people who are driven by a desire to reduce harm to animals will have no issues with purchasing something made from petrochemicals. It’s their choice! Same goes for someone who chooses a cruelty free wool scarf for it’s natural warmth and the ability to biodegrade. What is right for one person might not be right for another. Which is why we should celebrate the diversity of choices we have in the fashion landscape.
Zero Waste and Zoning
(because I accidentally wrote two for Z)
As mentioned earlier, Zero Waste is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to manufacture clothing. It’s a more sustainable way to produce because it assumes responsibility for all the tangible outputs of the production system. Two common practices for this style of production are Cradle to Cradle and Circular Economies.
Cradle to Cradle is focused on product design that considers the birth and rebirth of the item. The goal is to design an item that can be taken back at end of use and reused to make a new item. C2C is a certification system from the Cradle to Cradle think tank that awards a gold, sliver or bronze standard to products.
Circular economies are similar to C2C. Companies aiming for this model try to be a circle, where production systems have no ‘out’ and waste is fed back into the system. MUD Jeans are a good example of a circular production model, they lease jeans, sell jeans and reclaim old denim to make new clothing.
It’s pretty tempting to look at the list above from A to Z, dusts ones hands with accomplishment, and think ‘hell, I’ve got this fashion thing sorted’.
Sadly its not that easy. When we look at the globe, the economic system, trade, cultural norms and governance you will soon work out that zoning will play a huge part in your access to conscious fashion choices and the way they are marketed to you. What would be an environmentally sound choice for a consumer in Australia- an Aussie made organic cotton tee- could easily be a total waste of time if flown across the globe to a consumer in Canada (air travel is one of the most carbon intense activities). Same goes for certifications, different countries have different ways of certifying products and every council has different textile disposal and recycling capacities, so it’s best to research what works for you in your local area.