Fast fashion, characterized by its lightning-fast production speeds and ultra-low prices, has made a large and trendy wardrobe attainable for more people than ever before. In the process, though, it has also contributed to severe environmental degradation, exploited countless workers in many parts of the world and generated immense amounts of needless waste. 

But amidst all those challenges, a new and more conscious movement has emerged—sustainable fashion. Once considered a niche trend, sustainable fashion is now an imperative in the fashion industry and actively shapes the way clothing is designed, produced and consumed. To ensure your sense of style is kind to people and the planet, learn what sustainable fashion is and how to incorporate it into your closet.

Understanding The Concept of Sustainable Fashion

A woman wearing a button-down shirt sitting at a table and operating a white sewing machine. She’s using the sewing machine to sew the edges of a large piece of blue and white chevron-print fabric. 
In the Skillshare class “Sustainable Fashion for Everyone: Quick & Easy Ways to Design & Sew Your Own Clothing With Clo3D,” teacher Cloudia David hand-sews a garment she designed herself using 3D software.

Sustainable fashion refers to a holistic approach to clothing production and consumption that considers environmental, social and economic factors alike. First and foremost, it involves minimizing the environmental footprint of garments throughout their lifecycle, from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal. 

For instance, a sustainable fashion brand could: 

  • use organic cotton rather than synthetic fibers;
  • create high-quality pieces that are intended to last for years;
  • opt to produce garments in small quantities to avoid overproduction; and/or
  • provide a recycling program so consumers can send in their used clothing instead of throwing it away. 

Many sustainable fashion brands also emphasize fair labor practices, ensuring workers involved in the production process are treated ethically and paid fairly. 

For example, a brand looking to prioritize ethical production could: 

  • source materials exclusively from Fair Trade Certified factories; 
  • only purchase materials from countries with strong workers’ rights; and/or
  • pay each of their own employees a living wage, from fashion illustrators to sales associates and everyone in between. 

The Importance of Sustainable Fashion

A rack of women’s dresses and coats hanging on a metal rack placed outdoors in front of a brown grassy meadow. All the clothes are dyed various shades of orange, red, pink and brown
In the Skillshare class “Botanical Dye 101: Create Sustainable, Natural & Stylish Clothing,” teacher Geraldine Lavin shows students how to dye clothing with hues produced by plants, flowers and other natural materials. 

The importance of sustainable fashion cannot be overstated, particularly in the context of climate change. 

That’s because the global fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental pollution. It generates significant carbon emissions, consumes an immense amount of water and results in thousands of tons of clothes being thrown in landfills. 

By embracing sustainable practices, such as using eco-friendly materials, reducing energy and water usage and implementing circular business models, fashion brands can significantly mitigate their environmental impact. As such, it’s the responsibility of every clothing brand to do their part, and consumers can speed up that process by supporting the ones that do.  

Sustainable fashion also promotes a shift towards a more mindful and responsible consumption culture, encouraging consumers to buy fewer, higher-quality items and cherish their clothing for longer periods.

Tips for Sustainable Fashion Shopping

A woman in a gray shirt browsing through a rack of clothing in a retail store. The walls of the store are painted white, and a large sunlit window is visible in the background. 
In the Skillshare class “How To Build a Sustainable Fashion Brand,” teacher Edwina Huang explains how the fashion supply chain gets clothes from factories to shoppers. 

As a consumer with a conscience, you can embrace shopping practices that promote and support sustainable and eco-friendly fashion. 

Not sure where to start? Here are several key principles to keep in mind:

  • Prioritize quality over quantity: Invest in well-made pieces built to last longer and withstand trends. This will result in less waste and a timeless wardrobe to boot.
  • Choose natural and organic materials: Opt for clothing made from natural materials like cotton, wool, bamboo, linen and hemp. These types of fabric aren’t just more breathable and gentler on your skin; they’re also biodegradable which means fewer microplastics in the environment. And when you do purchase clothing made from synthetic materials like polyester or nylon, look for options made from recycled materials instead of virgin ones. 
  • Support ethical brands: Research sustainable and ethical brands that prioritize fair labor practices and transparency in their supply chain. As the sustainable fashion movement grows, more and more brands are popping up on a regular basis, so keep tabs on new arrivals and try to support those you like best. 
  • Shop secondhand: Embracing sustainable fashion doesn’t mean you have to stop experimenting with trends and expanding your wardrobe. By shopping from thrift stores, consignment shops and online marketplaces, you can find pre-loved pieces of clothing that are trendy, unique and more affordable than their brand new counterparts. (Hint: ThredUp, Depop and eBay are all great places to find secondhand clothing at great prices).
  • Consider the lifecycle of the garment: Look for brands that use sustainable production methods and offer take-back programs or recycling initiatives. Alternatively, consider donating your used clothing to thrift stores or charity programs instead of throwing them away.
  • Reduce water and energy consumption: If you wash your clothes after every wear, you could be reducing their lifespan and wasting water. Try washing your clothes less frequently, and when you do, wash them in cold water, air dry when possible and avoid unnecessary ironing or dry cleaning. 
  • Practice mindful consumption: Resist the urge to impulse buy and instead focus on purchasing items that align with your personal style and values. And if you do feel the urge to make a trend-based purchase on a whim, turn to online or in-person secondhand clothing stores instead of shopping from fast fashion retailers. 
  • Mend and repair clothing: Extend the life of your garments by learning basic clothing repair skills so you can fix minor damages yourself (or if you’re not a fan of sewing, consider using your local tailor instead). Once you do, you’ll no longer need to say goodbye to a treasured garment due to a ripped seam. 
  • Get the most out of your non-sustainable pieces of clothing: Transitioning to a more sustainable wardrobe can be fun, but don’t use it as an excuse to generate more clothing waste by throwing away your unsustainable items prematurely. Instead, take a truly sustainable approach by getting the most out of your fast-fashion garments before recycling or donating them. 
  • Educate yourself: Stay informed about the latest developments in sustainable fashion and continually seek out resources to deepen your understanding of ethical consumption.

Considering Starting A Sustainable Fashion Brand?

As the demand for sustainable fashion continues to grow, there are ample opportunities for entrepreneurs and independent designers to enter the market. By prioritizing sustainability right off the bat, aspiring fashion designers and small business owners can create brands that not only resonate with consumers but also make a positive impact on our planet and society. Whether it’s by using eco-friendly materials, implementing more ethical production practices or fostering a transparent supply chain, sustainable fashion brands and consumers have the power to drive meaningful change in the industry. 

Interested in starting a sustainable fashion brand of your own? Skillshare’s vast library of online fashion classes can help you learn how to sew, design and even dye clothes, plus teach you the ins and outs of running a successful business. 

Written By

Carrie Buchholz-Powers

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