Welcome to the world of sustainable fashion!
In this comprehensive glossary, we’ll be exploring the most important terms and definitions that shape the industry’s commitment to environmental and social responsibility.
From upcycling to fair trade, these definitions will provide a deeper understanding of the practices that drive sustainable fashion forward. With each term, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the intelligence and creativity behind the products you wear, and the positive impact they can have on the world around us. So buckle up and let’s dive into the exciting and rapidly evolving world of sustainable fashion!
Want to know something that they never tell you at school? Everything on the planet is biodegradable.
Given enough time, even lead wears away and ends up scattered in tiny pieces no longer visible to the eye.
But it’s that “given enough time” that matters when it comes to sustainability.
The reason plastics are not considered to be biodegradable in eco-conscious life is that they can take, quite literally, hundreds or even thousands of years to biodegrade.
When we talk about biodegradable we mean items that degrade quickly, ideally within a year, and even better if they are compostable (and can thus be degraded at home and turned into food for your garden).
We expect a truly sustainable brand to always use biodegradable packaging materials.
Carbon-neutral processes remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as they add to it. Of course, in reality, there is no such thing as an industrial process that contributes as much to the environment as it takes from it – though some come pretty close.
That means it becomes necessary to indulge in some form of carbon offsetting for an industry or business to become carbon neutral. Companies can be certified carbon neutral too.
Carbon offsetting is the act of carrying out activities not related to your business processes (or personal processes if you’re doing this as an individual) that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
You may have noticed that a lot of brands run “tree planting” schemes. This is a form of carbon offsetting. When those trees grow up, they will start to breathe in and break down carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis.
You can also pay for carbon offsetting if you don’t want to do the tree planting (or other positive activity) yourself.
It is for this reason that carbon offsetting has its critics and the fact that it’s much easier to “carbon offset” if you are rich than it is if you are poor. In fact, many carbon offsetting schemes are simply designed to take the carbon credits of the poor and sell them to the rich.
Circular fashion is the ultimate extension of sustainable fashion. It is a truly ethical fashion approach that seeks to ensure that your clothes, when they reach the end of their (hopefully long and extended) lives can regenerate natural resources and systems to help create more clothing.
That is there is no “cradle to grave” cycle but rather a “cradle to cradle” approach which puts an end to the idea of disposable fashion and instead, caters to renewable fashion.
This fashion revolution launched recently but we suspect that every fashion brand’s supply chain will eventually need to reflect circular principles.
Cruelty-free is a vegan standard but as we’ve already seen, veganism goes beyond cruelty-free.
In fact, this is simply a descriptor that assures you that no animal cruelty is involved in a product. That might mean, for example, in the case of makeup that it has not been tested on animals.
In the case of a leather belt, it might mean that animal welfare was a priority before the animal was made into animal products.
The makeup might be vegan too, but the leather belt could not possibly be vegan but it could be cruelty-free.
Diversity encourages creativity in the way that businesses approach their work.
In the fashion world, diversity and inclusivity extend to addressing the representation of everyone who buys fashion.
This can involve representing different body shapes, racial diversity, or gender diversity and celebrating differences.
It also means having management, employees and advertising which represent this diversity too.
It’s easy to use the terms sustainable fashion and ethical fashion interchangeably but really, ethical fashion is an extension of the sustainable fashion industry.
It looks to do what is “morally correct” in a wide range of situations. (Moral vs legal is a complicated thing).
For example, the raw materials for some fashion products include animal skins. This is certainly sustainable particularly if the animals are raised with animal welfare concerns addressed but is it ethical?
Do we need to wear animal skins in an age where there are cruelty-free options? An ethical fashion world says – “no”. Whereas in sustainable fashion it’s more of a grey area.
Check out our ethical fashion guide for more on this.
Fair trade is a movement that aims to ensure that the workers involved in producing goods and materials are paid fairly for their efforts.
They also seek to ensure that these workers have the right to influence the way that they work and are given decent working conditions and treatment while they work.
Fairtrade International is, of course, concerned with ensuring that fair trade standards are met by the companies that have attained their certification and which use their label in their garments.
Fashion Supply Chain
The fashion supply chain refers to all the component parts of the cradle to grave or cradle to cradle fashion system.
So, it begins with raw materials – this could be organic cotton or it could be oil for plastic production. And it can be more than one material – so a cotton shirt might have plastic buttons.
Then it looks at the people and processes required to grow and harvest those resources.
Then the transport of the resources to the manufacturing facility or facilities for garment production.
Then the actual manufacturing process and the people involved. This can be very simple or very complex depending on the company involved.
Then it is about the transport of goods for sale, the selling and marketing of those goods and their release to the consumer.
Finally, it may also be part of the process to transport and recycle/reuse/upcycle once the consumer has finished with the product. This can be seen in the rent-to-own business as well as with “buy back” promotions from sustainable fashion providers.
This is a complicated subject, in fact, and you can learn more about the supply chain here.
Fast fashion brands are the antithesis of sustainable fashion. The modern fashion industry looks to create clothing lines at a tremendous rate of turnover.
The entire production process is geared at helping consumers with consuming clothes. In a fast-fashion world, they want you to change every item in your wardrobe as often as possible.
In exchange, you get low-quality products made by low-paid workers in the developing world from raw materials that are anything but sustainable.
Everyone should avoid fast fashion brands and seek alternatives wherever possible.
The fashion industry is fantastic at marketing and when some things appear as though they are the most sustainable fashion options, they are often nothing of the kind.
Truly green fashion involves brands that want you to ask questions and the answers they give are about addressing critical environmental impacts. They want to show you that their manufacturing process is fully sustainable.
They opt for recycled materials and fair trade agreements with staff and they are unafraid for you to see this.
Greenwashing is opaque and ugly.
There is a big difference between minimum wage and a living wage. This is a major ethical issue, in fact.
In many countries, someone on minimum wage simply cannot meet their obligations to themselves and their family and may struggle to feed themselves or provide basic shelter or other material needs.
A living wage ensures that someone can feed themselves and their family, put a roof over their head, buy what they need, and have a little left to buy luxury items or to save for a rainy day.
We would note that the major fashion companies often operate in countries where the ridiculously low minimum wage only makes up 1/4 to 1/3 of a living wage.
Microfibers and Microplastics
Any particle of fiber or plastic that is smaller than 5mm in diameter is a “microparticle”. Microparticles are universally agreed as bad news for the environment.
Now, this is a horrifying fact, but it’s true in a single load of washing nearly 10 million microfibers end up swirling down the drain.
Clothing also adds a ton of microplastics to the world’s oceans and makes the planet a much less pleasant place to live on.
Minimalism is super popular at the moment and while sustainable fashion refers to the idea of a kinder fashion industry, minimalism focuses on buying less stuff. Marie Kondo is one of the people who has brought minimalism to the masses in an “acceptable” way.
When it applies to fashion, it means conscious fashion that is chosen to be long-lasting and flexible so that it can be used in many different situations.
The benefit to the user is simplicity in their life but this can still be environmentally friendly as long as the choices that a minimalist makes are also sustainable.
You can learn how to become minimalist on this site.
Organic (Inc. Organic Cotton, Textiles, etc.)
The term “organic” began in the food industry and to begin with, it was a fairly meaningless term (as many other nice, eco-friendly sounding terms such as “natural” still are) but now? The idea of organic which means “without the use of chemicals for fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides” is strictly regulated in the food industry.
It’s also strictly regulated in the fashion world but we should note – that while it is regulated, nobody is forced to use the regulatory body in fashion.
Thus, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is important because it tells you that a raw material, such as organic cotton, is “organic” but there are still companies claiming to be organic that are not certified (and which are organic) and those which are claiming the status of being organic and which most definitely are not “organic” in the way we understand it.
To make things more complicated, some materials are certified under other organic standards too such as Latex which falls under the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS).
That means it’s on you as a consumer to research what “organic” means in conjunction with the garment you want to buy and see if it meets your standards for “organic”.
Rana Plaza: Fashion Industry Horror
The worst disaster in the history of fashion took place in 2013 in a place called Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.
Everyone working in this overcrowded and poorly constructed building was involved in making garments many for big name Western clothing brands.
Then, one day, the complex simply collapsed beneath them killing most of the people inside and over 1,000 people in total!
This could never have happened if even minimal safety standards had been enforced in the building as they would have been in the domestic markets of the brands exploiting these workers.
The accident had a huge impact around the world with many people finally coming to understand the horrific impact of unsustainable fashion on people’s lives around the world.
The disaster also inspired the launch of Fashion Revolution Week (find them at Fashion Revolution) which takes place every April and encourages people to ask “Who made my clothes?” and to demand answers from the brands they buy from.
They also promote transparency from brands so that consumers can find it easier to get an answer to this vital question and ensure that the people who make their clothes are being fairly treated.
Recycling is when you take an item and turn it into a new kind of raw material.
One of the most popular examples of this in the fashion business is recycled packaging which is packaging made from other paper goods or plastic goods that have been used previously for other purposes.
One very popular reusable material in fashion design now is recycled plastic bottles (see how this is done here) – this can be transformed into plastic yarns or other plastic materials for fabric construction, shoe sole construction, etc.
We should more that not everyone thinks that plastic belongs in a discussion of “ethical fashion” even if it is recycled plastic as the original production process is so environmentally damaging.
We should take at least a moment to note that ethical clothes are not discarded because they are no longer in fashion.
They are, instead, re-used, until such a point as they no longer contribute to a decent life.
Clothes can be reused by being sold on to others, donated or sold to a thrift store, or in many other ways.
The environmental impact of reuse is almost always less than the environmental impact of any other kind of process for unwanted clothes. The only possible exception to this is if the clothes need to be mailed to the other side of the world. Then the carbon emissions might be a problem.
In an ethical fashion glossary, this is a term that would be given pride of place because there’s no doubt that sustainable and secondhand go hand-in-hand.
That means by not buying “new” products, you’re guaranteed to reduce your impact on the planet and the impact of whatever it is you are buying that would otherwise have been thrown away.
Slow fashion is concerned with making high-quality garments that last and where all the processes used in the supply chain are designed with sustainable development in mind and where the individuals involved in the production of the garments are in fair trade agreements that protect their wages and working conditions.
In short slow fashion, wants you to look amazing but in a way that your fashion becomes eco-fashion and is kinder to people, the planet, and everything on it.
Sustainability was officially defined by the UN and we paraphrase but that definition is – development can be considered sustainable when it meets the needs of people in the present without interfering with the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.
The idea behind sustainable fashion is that it should meet our needs for clothing but in a way that balances the scales so that future generations can enjoy their own fashion industry on a healthy planet.
This involves ensuring that raw materials are harvested from sustainable sources. That the production process is tailored to care for the individuals involved in making your fashion products and that entire supply chains are tailored to reduce waste and carbon emissions to as near zero as possible.
Sustainable fashion is more than environmentally friendly, it’s also a way for fashion brands to create positive change for people, animals, and the planet as a whole.
We have a directory of sustainable fashion brands here.
Sustainable brands promote transparency as part of their ethos. It is the practice of sharing (openly) all the data about how your garments are made, where they are made, who makes them, and how they get from A to B.
This allows you to see if a brand really is fair trade or if they just claim to be, for example.
When we recommend sustainable fashion brands on this site – we always try to investigate the transparency aspect of the brand so that we can feel confident in our recommendations to you.
If a company can carry out full tracing on a product then it has full control and understanding over its supply chain.
This means that every single component within a garment can be traced back through every step from the completed garment to the materials used to make it.
If a company can’t do this – then they cannot offer transparency, which we look at next, in any meaningful way.
Upcycling is an idea that comes from circular fashion and it is the idea that we can take textile waste and other material waste and transform it into materials that are better quality than the original products.
It can also be about the reuse and repurposing of pre-used items to create something new. Think about cutting up an old bedsheet and making bandanas, face masks, cleaning cloths, etc. from it and you will have a pretty good picture of how upcycling works.
The nice thing about upcycling is that it removes waste from the overall fashion system but also uses far less energy than traditional recycling methods which means, of course, it does less environmental harm.
We also like the fact that it’s fun and you can get really creative with upcycling.
Like with upcycled beauty which is a massive new trend.
Vegan fashion is a term that refers to any kind of fashion item that a vegan would be happy to wear.
So, vegan fashion emphasizes not just a cruelty-free approach but also that no animal has been exploited during the manufacture of the item.
This means, for example, that beeswax and silk, both of which are products made by animals in captivity – are not acceptable in vegan clothing, though they would be acceptable in ethical fashion.
Thus ethical fashion covers part of vegan fashion but not all of it.