What is Sustainable Fashion and Why Should I Care?

Let’s face the facts, we LOVE to buy clothes. In 2018, Americans were averaging sixty-eight new items of clothing per year (Fashionopolis).

Between sweater weather and shorts season, our closets tend to fill up. Online shopping has made it easier to find trendy and affordable clothes at the click of a button.

Luckily, as our consumption has increased, so has our interest in being better consumers. A study published in Forbes Magazine found that 87% of Americans surveyed said they would be interested in buying products with social and environmental benefits if given the chance. Across the board, shoppers are looking for companies to do more to protect the world we live in. 

However, when it comes to conscious consumption many of us don’t realize that the problem may start with the clothes on our backs. 

The Problem: Fast Fashion

Fast Fashion strives to make trendy clothes as quickly and cheaply as possible. While shoppers may enjoy the wide selection of inexpensive items that are churned out almost weekly, there’s a whole lot of hidden costs beneath that $2.99 price tag. 

Take your average t-shirt. Perhaps the shirt is 100% cotton. It’s natural, how bad can it be? 

As a matter-of-fact, conventional cotton production requires an incredible amount of resources. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, it can take up to 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt. To put that into perspective, that’s two and a half years of drinking water. 

To protect conventional cotton crops, farmers cover the plants in toxic insecticides. The cotton industry accounts for 16% of the world’s pesticide consumption.

With all the resources required to produce conventional cotton, it’s no wonder many fast-fashion retailers have embraced cheaper synthetic fabrics. It’s more likely than not that our t-shirt is a blend of cotton and a synthetic fabric like polyester. It may use less water but synthetic fabrics are derived from harmful fossil fuels. According to Forbes, nearly 70 million barrels of oil are needed each year to satisfy fast fashion’s demand for this harmful material.

The damage doesn’t stop with production. One of the biggest issues with cheaply made clothes is that they’re…well, cheap. Fast fashion products are meant to be poorly made so you have to replace them in a few months.

According to Newsweek, Americans throw away an average of 80 lbs of clothing every year. This is where materials become a real issue. While cotton is natural and will decompose fairly quickly, polyester won’t. It can take up to 200 years for polyester to fully decompose.

Want to see a more in-depth explanation of fast fashion’s environmental impacts? Check out this video:

The collateral damage of fast fashion is already filling our landfills and our oceans, but it doesn’t stop with the environment. This cost-cutting production method also has a staggering human impact. 

Garment workers in Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest clothing manufacturers, make an average of $96 per month. That’s 3.5 times less than what their government wage board deemed necessary for “a decent life with basic facilities.”

Fast fashion companies can sell a t-shirt for $5.99 because they didn’t pay the person who made it enough to put food on their table. The increase in demand for production that comes with the fast fashion model has resulted in huge demand for garment workers. The U.S. Department of Labor found that in at least nine countries this demand was being satisfied by forced child labor. 

Fast fashion has become profitable by abusing its workers at every level of production. So what can be done about it?

The Solution: Sustainable Fashion

Stopping fast fashion doesn’t mean we have to give up buying clothes; we simply need to be better buyers. The sustainable fashion movement focuses on creating products that are ethically made and environmentally friendly. When trying to figure out if a brand is sustainable it’s good to ask these two questions: Is it good for its workers? Is it good for the planet?

When shopping sustainably, you want to buy from companies that ensure living wages for all workers. Companies should guarantee they don’t rely on child labor or slave labor. It’s also a good idea to see if this company has a fair-trade certification, or something comparable, to help ensure workers are being protected. 

As to the environmental impacts, look for brands that use sustainable fabrics and manufacturing methods. When it comes to sustainable shopping, it’s about quality, not quantity. Well made items will give you a better bang for your buck and are much less likely to end up in a landfill after a few wears.

A big thing to look out for when shopping sustainably is greenwashing. Greenwashing is a term to describe a company that attempts to appear sustainable while failing to meet the above criteria.

Transparency is a great way to hold companies accountable. If they’re plastering their ads with eco-friendly buzzwords but don’t want to tell you how their jackets are made, it’s time to look somewhere else. As a rule of thumb, if a pair of shorts cost less than your morning cup of coffee, there’s no way they were sustainably made. 

So How Do I Make Sure the Clothes I’m Buying are Sustainable?

Eco-Stylist! With consumers becoming increasingly interested in sustainable shopping, it can be difficult to sift through which products are sustainable and which are just pretending to be. That’s where Eco-Stylist comes in.

We thoroughly research every brand we promote to ensure they’re eco-friendly and fair to workers. We also indicate whether or not products are vegan.

Eco-Stylist Curated Shop for Ethical Mens Clothes

Eco-Stylist‘s curated shop features over 500 options for sustainable men’s, women’s and unisex clothes, and our brands page features over 50 sustainable brands for everyone.

At the end of the day, your wallets can be your loudest voice. Supporting sustainable brands can help reverse the tide of fast fashion, creating a more ethical, green, and stylish world for us all.

*Featured image from Veja.

Eco-Stylist is reader-supported. If you make a purchase using our links, we may earn a commission. We only feature brands that pass our sustainable brand criteria. Learn more here.


5 thoughts on “What is Sustainable Fashion and Why Should I Care?”

  1. Love the article, check out OldYouth.co.uk they have awesome wooden sunglasses and natural fashion. They also plant 10 trees for every purchase.

    1. Thanks for sharing! We agree – wearing what you have, thrifting, swapping, and repairing are all great ways to have a more sustainable closet and many of them are free or more affordable options. We promote these options regularly too on our blog and socials.

      I heard a great thing recently – sustainability isn’t an “either or” conversation (example: sustainable brands vs. thrifting) – it’s a “yes and” conversation (meaning there are a variety of good and better options for different people in different circumstances). Thanks for sharing this resource here 🙂

  2. I just stumbled on this article. It is my belief that innovation could find a more sustainable way to produce cotton products but there’s no desire due to the fast fashion market. I crave and miss cotton tops. When they can be found they are thin, expensive or both. I also firmly believe we should be buying USA materials as our concern should lie in what our workers here are earning in this industry. Also, I totally embrace the idea of so many young people seeking vintage. My son and his friends always thrift and I love that! Oh! Stop buying from Amazon! Just stop!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Totally agree that Amazon isn’t a very ethical or sustainable option. You might find this article interesting – we rated their Essentials collection on its sustainability: https://www.eco-stylist.com/how-ethical-is-amazon-essentials/

      To your point about focusing on USA workers I have a different perspective – most fashion brands that we shop in the US are owned by Americans or Europeans and yet the vast majority of the manufacturing and production happen overseas (Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, etc.). It’s these workers who are being the most exploited (only 2% of clothing makers earn a livable wage) and having their local environment polluted by fashion (i.e. dumping chemicals in rivers). Fair wages are an important issue everywhere, including in America, but when it comes to fashion it’s a much bigger issue outside the US. People everywhere, no matter their nationality, deserve a fair wage.

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