Perhaps you’ve heard, but fashion isn’t the most, shall we say, eco-friendly interest. Though that much-touted stat that apparel is the world’s second most-polluting industry is definitely hyperbolic, there’s no denying that clothes do terrible things to the planet. And it’s your fault.
Corporations are, ultimately, amoral – they care about profit, not whether children can breathe, and as long as their customers are willing to buy £2 T-shirts, they’ll keep churning them out. But that means that the power to change things is in your hands.
To make brands change, we need to change. We need to shop better, from labels that do the right thing and in ways that reduce our carbon footprint. We need to care about our clothes, rather than treating them as disposable. And we need to think long-term, rather than flitting between trends every six months. It’s not easy, but if you avoid these especially egregious missteps, you can slash your wardrobe’s impact on the environment.
The Problem: You Constantly Buy New
The carbon footprint of any new item of clothing, even those from brands that focus on sustainability, is significant. The footprint of something pre-owned is significantly less. The fashion industry drives our obsession with newness, but trend-hopping is the quickest way to build a wardrobe that’s bad for the planet. If you’re replacing everything you own every time a silhouette changes or a designer changes jobs, that means a lot of clothes in landfill.
The Fix: Shop The Classics
Buying clothes that last isn’t just about how they’re made – it’s also about how they look. A great pair of jeans or a leather jacket will never date, so rarely need replacing. And start thinking old before new – charity shops contain unexpected treasures and you can satisfy your fashion itch without killing the planet by buying from high-end vintage or resale sites like Grailed and Vestiaire Collective.
The Problem: You Fall For ‘Greenwashing’
In June, one of the UK’s biggest fast fashion brands announced its first ‘environmental’ range, a 34-piece collection made from recycled plastic. On the same day, the company was lambasted by the Environmental Audit Committee for a business model based on cheap tat that’s destined for landfill after a few wears. These PR stunts are known as ‘greenwashing’ – seemingly eco-friendly moves that distract from how unsustainable a company is elsewhere. See also: retailers offering recycling vouchers, which just encourage consumers to bin the old (and often unrecyclable) and buy new.
The Fix: Be More Cynical
Fast fashion especially is, by its very nature, unsustainable. The occasional collection made from recycled bottles doesn’t outweigh the cheap, polyester clothes their profits are built on. Rather than taking these claims at face value, do your research and buy from brands that rank highly for transparency – generally a marker of being eco-minded.
Stella McCartney has never used leather and invests in materials research to create eco-friendly textiles.
The Problem: Your Grooming Routine Is Ageing The Planet
The long-overdue ban on microplastics in cosmetics shone a light on how much ends up in the oceans, but the grooming industry is still far from eco-friendly. Almost all products come packaged in single-use plastic, which is wrapped in yet more plastic – 70 per cent of the industry’s waste comes from packaging, according to Ren Skincare boss Arnaud Meyselle. What’s inside is rarely much better – from palm oil to hydrating chemicals, the goop that makes you more handsome wreaks havoc on the planet.
The Fix: Ditch Plastic
Brands like Ren and Bulldog are moving to recycled – and, importantly, recyclable – packaging, which at least slows its journey into the water. But it’s also possible to go plastic-free. Soap and shampoo bars are more sustainable options, but don’t be fooled by glass – it’s heavier, which means more carbon to ship it around the world.
The Problem: You Wash Your Clothes All Wrong
To grow the cotton for a single T-shirt requires 715 gallons of water, according to the World Wildlife Fund – that’s enough for three years of drinking water. But research by the sustainable fashion campaign group Fashion Revolution found that a quarter of each garment’s carbon footprint comes from how it’s laundered. Washing wastes water, fills waterways with microplastic and toxic detergent run-off, and damages clothes, so you bin them more frequently. And that’s before you factor in the energy costs of running your washer and – even worse – your dryer.
The Fix: Wash Smart
First, avoid artificial fabrics. Natural textiles like cotton and linen don’t shed plastic and can survive longer between washes because they breathe and don’t pick up smells. Then wash less and wash better. Besides towels, few things need washing above 30C. Avoid spin cycles (they warp fabrics) and use eco-friendly detergent from brands like Ecover or Soapnuts, a natural product that you sling in your machine and, after it cleans your clothes, you chuck on the compost heap.
The Problem: You Bin, Rather Than Recycle
Research by environmental agency WRAP UK found that we send around 350,000 tonnes of clothing to landfill every year. If your wardrobe isn’t full of polyester blends (which often can’t be recycled), then there’s no reason to bin any of your clothes. But that’s where around 25 per cent of clothing ends up. The average shelf life of a garment is 2.2 years – if we extended that by just nine months, our clothing’s carbon, waste and water footprints would fall by 20-30 per cent.
The Fix: Get Thrifty
Learn which issues can be fixed and how to fix them. If you can’t sew a button onto your Oxford shirt, or darn a small tear, that’s no reason to throw something out. For clothes that are still wearable, just not by you, charity shops should be your first call. For anything ruined, your local recycling centre can salvage the fabrics.
US brand Veja makes its jeans in the world’s most eco-friendly denim factory.
5 Eco-Friendly Fashion Brands To Buy From
The OG of sustainable style, Patagucci’s shift from mountain-wear to Wall St-wear might be fairly recent, but its commitment to eco-friendliness is not. It uses recycled materials wherever possible, donates one per cent of sales to environmental charities and even sued the Trump administration for its attacks on national parks.
The US basics brand makes its jeans in the world’s most eco-friendly denim factory, and it claims to use less virgin plastic for its trainers than any other brand. But besides how its clothes are made, Everlane’s designs are equally sustainable – simple, classic and paying little heed to trends, these are clothes you can wear until they fall apart.
For the last decade, Christopher Raeburn has been intent on proving that ‘sustainable’ is not synonymous with ‘beige’. The British designer has made recycling his brand’s USP, turning everything from old parachutes to inflatable life rafts into lust-worthy, limited-edition clothing, often emblazoned with the slogan: “Remade, Reused, Recycled”.
The sneaker industry has rarely been on the right side of sustainability, from reports of sweatshops in the ’90s to the hyper-consumerism of modern sneakerheads. Veja does things differently. Its timeless shoes are made in Brazil under Fair Trade principles from responsibly sourced materials, including organic cotton and natural rubber.
Sustainability has never been a trend to Stella McCartney. Her ethical, vegan fashion brand was forged on hard choices – she’s never used leather, invests in materials research to create eco-friendly textiles and brought her planet-first approach to mainstream consumers in her collaborations with Adidas and H&M. She’s proof that the luxury industry can look good, and do good.