Sustainability was this year’s fashion buzzword, but what does it mean in practice? Gina Gambhir examines whether smart fashion could be the answer to an industry plagued by environmental issues.

The fashion industry is taking a turn for greener pastures, with brands and consumers aligning on the same front and asking the questions that really matter. Is our fashion sustainable? Is it ethical? Are we being smart about our choices? With these questions becoming increasingly prominent in the consumer consciousness, we could be set to embrace a time of smart fashion. 

With influential decisions at our fingertips, we hold the power to redefine how fashion is sourced and produced for our future. Fashionista or not, our wardrobe choices are no longer simply about what just looks good. The decision of what to wear has evolved to encompass other factors that as a consumer we are ethically and environmentally bound to weigh in on.

With climate conditions calling out for urgent attention, the voices of pioneering designers such as Stella McCartney have finally hit home—
our only consolation here is that it’s better late than never. This year has seen an awakening for multiple leading fashion brands and designers, who finally appear to be delving deeper and rethinking their strategies. Of course, aesthetics matter—it’s fashion after all—but superseding the superficial pleasures of trendsetting comes a more objective consideration: sustainability. Can we uphold the balance between sustainability and trend, equating to the ultimate smart shopper of our time who embraces smarter fashion?


An increased awareness of sustainability is forcing brands to take responsibility for their actions as well as encouraging innovative methods to correct the mess being created.

Measures must be implemented that benefit people and their communities as well as reducing damage on the planet, from the design right through to the recycling of clothes. The fashion industry can no longer continue its detached existence. After all, doesn’t it make sense to preserve one of the greatest inspirations for those alluring trends that grace our runways?

You may be surprised to learn that second to the oil industry, the fashion industry is the largest polluter of the world. With a global mass production of over a hundred billion garments each year, the alarming statistic is that only 1% of this is recycled, while over 80% ends up in landfills. The difference in waste and percentage reusability is clearly too vast to ignore. It’s clear that the time to explore serious measures for sustainability couldn’t be more pressing. Whilst we strive to look and feel good, it is coming at a cost. A cost that is having catastrophic effects on our planet. Should vanity come at such a price? Surely not.

To understand the need for change we need to understand exactly what is happening beyond our consumer fashion bubble. Whilst choosing from the shop floor rails and discarding the obsolete garments from our wardrobes hardly sounds like the most drastic procedure (in the United Kingdom, consumers have about $46.7 billion worth of unworn clothes in their wardrobes, food for thought) the bigger picture has a different story to tell. In 2015, two billion tonnes of carbon emissions were produced by the global fashion industry, while it takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Very few communities have textile recycling programs and about 85% of this waste goes to landfills, whilst 95% of textiles could be recycled. In China the textile industry wastes over 2.5 billion tonnes of water, making it one of the top three global water wasting industries. If we were to use recycled cotton, we could save up to 20,000 litres of water per kilogram of cotton.

Needless to say, the rise of fast fashion does not exactly help the urgent nature of the situation. In fact, it is one the major contributing factors towards the increased global garment production. “Extreme convenience leads to extreme waste”, stated a lead speaker at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Summit 2017. However, the rising awareness of the need of sustainability has summoned the attention of global leading brands.


One of the core principles voiced at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2018 was the need for brands to take responsibility for their actions, taking smarter steps for production and manufacturing. Consumers still want access to great quality fashion but now the grounds rules are changing, calling for production methods which yield less waste whilst using materials that are both ethical and eco-friendly, transitioning the fashion industry to a more circular economy.

With one eye on the ball of sustainability, the path forward requires innovation and technology to reach the new goals. In production, industrial pioneers will be encouraged to source recyclable materials holding principles of restoration and regeneration at their core, ditching the old ‘take-makedispose’ system. Let’s look at polyester for example, one of the most common fabrics used for clothes. This material is made from petroleum, which means it is difficult to recycle to a high quality.

However, industrial innovation has found a microbe which can break down polyester back to its raw components, making it perfect for reuse. The silver lining to this, if one was needed: this process is actually cheaper then creating the material from petroleum in the first place.

As for cotton, it is not only hard to work to produce but also difficult to recycle, not to mention the pesticides required for production. However, an eco-friendly solvent has been created which dissolves old cotton clothing into a cottonlike material. This can then be spun into new fibres with an added benefit of eliminating waste. These are just a few examples which form part of the Circular Fibres Initiative Vision, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the future of the fashion industry. Chemicals which pose a harm to the environment and cause skin irritation will also be eliminated from the sustainable process.

When it comes to waste, brands will encourage consumers to become more mindful about their purchases and their garment’s durability. In order to encourage consumers to buy less and recycle more, brands such as Zara are installing collection bins across their stores in China and pledging that by 2020 they will no longer sell clothing that will end up in landfills. H&M were one of the first brands to introduce a garment collection scheme in all their stores around the world willing to accept textiles in any condition from any brand.

On the ethical side, companies are beginning to do more to ensure their workers have safe working environments as well as helping their local community. For example, the US brand Eileen Fisher run a project in India to empower their workers based in rural communities. With consideration being given to the impact of the garment process from start to finish, the value of the fashion industry is slowly but surely metamorphosing into something which adds greater value to its holistic existence. With the injection of radical changes to the mindset of the industry we are going into an era of smart choices with our fashion.


As brands make their much overdue shift towards a greener future, so must we. After all, we cannot underestimate the value of the influence that we as consumers hold. The key tool at our disposal is knowledge. Whilst the fashion industry evolves to embrace crucial issues about the origins and making of garments, so must we. The key emerging marketing point for brands is transparency. As consumers we are increasingly growing aware that we are not simply buying a garment from a brand, we are more drawn to buying into the ethos of the brand. 66% of the world’s millennials are willing to spend more on sustainable brands- and an ethos of credibility can only encourage loyalty. Do not hold back from raising questions where information is lacking whilst also researching the brands that are making the necessary changes.

The underlying principle is to become more mindful about our purchases from the moment we choose to own a garment right through to our means of discarding it. By no means does becoming smarter with our fashion warrant a loss of love for the creativity that inspires our daily attires. If there is anything to take from here, it is the power our choices hold. Small choices they may feel, but collectively they hold the power to create a profound difference on having a greener future for our planet.

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