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The Birth of Sustainable Fashion

The Birth of Sustainable Fashion

Illustration of a woman holding up a giant bag of recycled clothes to convey the concept of sustainable fashion.
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The birth of sustainable fashion originated from the seminal book Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Louise Carson. This book, and subsequent writing by the author, sparked a global environmental movement, exposing the use of agricultural chemicals as a major cause of pollution and a measure of fashion’s environmental and social impact. Arne Dekke Eide Naess, a key figure in the late 20th-century ecological movement and the Norwegian philosopher who coined the term ‘deep ecology,’ was influenced by this movement.

As decades of research showing the results of human activities on the environment were published, the cumulative effects of industrial activities were particularly noted. New phrases, such as sustainable development, first used in the Brundtland Report in 1987, were created to discuss these effects.

Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins owned the famous outdoor clothing companies Patagonia and ESPRIT, respectively. They soon realized that exponential growth and consumption are environmentally unsustainable. Incorporating environmental concerns into their business strategies, they started looking into the consequences of the fibers used in their numerous enterprises in the late 1980s. This prompted Patagonia to evaluate the durability of four textiles, including cotton, wool, nylon, and polyester. At the time, cotton accounted for 90% of ESPRIT’s manufacturing; as a result, the company focused on creating superior alternatives.

The Earth Summit, or Rio Meeting, also known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), was a significant United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro from June 3 to June 14, 1992. The conference examined environmental and sustainability concerns related to fashion and textiles, with the results finding their way into publications.

American designer and educator Victor Josef Papanek became a fervent supporter of creating tools, infrastructure, and socially and environmentally conscious goods. His publication Design for the Real World (1971), later translated into more than 24 languages, made a significant global impact.

Ernest Callenbach’s utopian book Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston was a novel published in 1975. It portrayed one of the first ecological utopias and impacted the counterculture and the green movement in the 1970s and beyond. The author asserted that although societal objectives and values governed the society in the novel, it was imperfect and still in the process and was not a true utopia (in the sense of a flawless society). Furthermore, this imperative is also related to the “ethics of care” promoted by Carol Gilligan, Vandana Shiva, Carolyn Merchant, and Suzi Gablik, as well as a feminist understanding of the ties between humanity and nature.

Sustainable fashion supporters believe that the fashion industry has an opportunity to pursue profit and growth while also creating new value within the circular economy. Through these activities, sustainable fashion aims to create flourishing ecosystems and communities. This is about more than just fashion textiles or products. It addresses the entire process of producing, consuming, and disposing of clothing; who, what, how, when, where, and the product’s expected useful life before entering a landfill. The sustainable movement seeks to combat fast fashion’s large carbon footprint by reducing the industry’s impact on air pollution, water pollution, and overall climate change.

Use of hemp textile to help launch the birth of sustainable fashion


A Definition

According to Ana Alves’ definition of sustainable fashion: Sustainable Fashion, which is also known as Eco-Fashion, is an all-inclusive term describing products, processes, activities, and actors (policymakers, brands, consumers) aiming to achieve a carbon-neutral fashion industry built on equality, social justice, animal welfare, and ecological integrity.


The Environmental Impact

The fashion industry has a disastrous environmental impact. It’s the world’s second-largest polluter after the oil industry. And, as the industry expands, the ecological damage grows. For example, the textile industry has far-reaching environmental effects, requiring increasing amounts of water and agricultural chemicals to grow cotton and leading to water shortages and environmental pollution. Sustainable development can reduce these types of environmental hazards. According to scientific evidence and research, various sustainable work areas are identified in the Earth Logic fashion research action plan that is most likely to contribute to addressing challenges such as climate change. From the perspective of Earth Logic, humans and the planet need to come before profit. Putting the earth ahead of the doctrine of unlimited economic growth is one of the most significant barriers to sustainable fashion.

Fast fashion is all around us. The temporal elements of fashion are the most apparent causes of the system’s unsustainable status. Fast fashion is the constant flow of new products onto the market. As a result, more raw materials, energy, and water are required, which causes a rapid release of pollutants like carbon and other chemicals into the environment. This rapid manufacture of goods is often unethical and negatively impacts exploited workforces. Slow fashion is a term that corresponds to sustainable fashion and is the reverse and opposite of fast fashion—Kate Fletcher of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion coined the phrase. Inspired by the slow food movement, Fletcher saw a need for a slower pace in the fashion industry.

Christopher Marquis estimates that Americans buy new clothing every five days on average. Clothes are now viewed as almost disposable due to their extremely low pricing. According to a McKinsey study, out of every five pieces of new clothes produced annually, three are thrown away. Surprisingly, the research found that 90% of our clothing gets thrown out before it needs to be. The emergence of this rapid fashion has had significant negative repercussions on society and the environment. For instance, each year, workers at Zara alone make 840 million items of apparel, with the majority paid salaries below the poverty line.

The same factory wastewater discharges have ruined once-prosperous rivers in China, India, and Bangladesh, turning them into biological dead zones full of dangerous chemicals. Additionally, our water supply and food chain are contaminated by the tiny plastic microfibers shed from synthetic clothing after washing. However, some companies are fighting back by putting more of an emphasis on slow fashion, creating clothing with classic designs and long-lasting quality.

The apparel industry has a significant adverse effect on the environment. The cotton for a single pair of jeans takes about 1,800 gallons of water to grow. The environment is endangered by excessive water use, chemical dyeing, manufacturing processes that release pollutants, and the disposal or cremation of vast amounts of unsold apparel. Given that most textile production occurs in places with freshwater stress, the current water usage by fashion materials (79 billion cubic meters annually) is hugely concerning.

Women working with renewable textile to create sustainable fashion.Only about 20% of clothing gets recycled, and most fashion products are either burned or dumped in landfills. Approximately 350,000 tons of apparel are thought to go to waste annually in the UK alone. At least 8,000 chemicals, or 25% of the world’s pesticides, are used in the production of textiles, according to Earth Pledge, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting and supporting sustainable development. Non-organic cotton grown using chemicals results in permanent harm. Yet, two-thirds of a garment’s carbon footprint occurs after it is purchased, harming both people and the environment. Every year, the average American discards around 70 pounds of apparel.

Besides, microfibers, minute threads that fall off synthetic and cellulosic fabrics during laundering, pollute groundwater. These microfibers permeate our natural water systems and contaminate our food chain since they are too small to be detected in wastewater treatment facilities’ filtration systems. The Changing Markets Foundation published research on the fashion industry’s reliance on oil extraction in February 2021. The study examines how the fashion industry’s existing production model depends on extensive fossil fuel extraction to power the manufacture of fibers. The study emphasizes how oil extraction is necessary to create the most widely used fibers, particularly polyester. Polyester production is the area of the fashion industry that is expanding the fastest, having multiplied nine times since the 1970s. Polyester’s appeal is due to its low price and versatility as a material.


Sustainability and Environment

The following actions need to be widely adopted by the industry to safeguard the environment, underscoring the significance of sustainable fashion.


Recycling of Material

Items made of cloth, paper (or cardboard), glass, metal, and plastics are usually recycled. However, objects made from plastic or glass do not convert into simple components by quick decomposition in the environment and continue causing long-term pollution. We can protect our resources from wastage by adopting the 3R technique (reduce-reuse-recycle) to reduce environmental pollution. The first aim of this technique is to reduce, i.e., minimize the use of such subjects. The second aim is to reuse, i.e., not discard anything after a single use but use it again and again to reduce landfill pollution. The third step is to recycle, i.e., these objects should be melted down when they become useless, and melted material should be transformed into useful new things.


Conservation of Resources

Coal, minerals, trees, and animals are examples of resources. The available resources on earth are finite. Many of them are non-renewable or cannot be replenished quickly. For this reason, their preservation is essential. They should not be wasted. They will soon become scarce if their irresponsible use is not curtailed, and the environment will face irrevocable damage.


Environmental Campaigns

Organizations such as the Ellen McArthur Foundation in the UK, the Ethical Fashion Initiative under the auspices of the UN, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), an international initiative, are committed to both remaking industry practices and reframing the debate.

While the Ellen McArthur Foundation promotes the circular economy through several initiatives, GOTS certifies cotton with a minimum of 70% organic material.

Increasingly, campaigns like these create awareness about environmental pollution and advocate for adopting techniques to reduce it.

Ultimately, it’s our collective responsibility to preserve the environment by reducing our environmental pollution. In this regard, a collective sense of responsibility and effort are needed at individual, corporate, and governmental levels.



One of the most critical social issues concerning fashion is labor. Labor rights in the fashion industry have been at the forefront of this debate since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Factory workers’ rights are not protected. People who live near factories are also affected by the toxic chemicals emitted. Sustainable fashion attaches great importance to social issues and offers various solutions. The environmental effects of the fashion industry also impact communities around industrial locations. There is little information readily available about these effects. However, it is known that the water and soil contamination caused by harmful chemicals used to create and dye garments has a detrimental impact on the people who live close to factories. The workers who work long hours to mass produce the garments are left to bear the social costs of quick fashion. They struggle under the demands of the fast fashion industry while enduring hazardous working conditions and poor compensation that doesn’t reflect their effort. This is a critical factor in why slow fashion is growing in popularity. In contrast to fast fashion, it places a high value on moral behavior and consideration for those who labor across the supply chain.



The controversy over fast fashion stems from its widespread affordability. Even those on low incomes have access to cheap, accessible, and fashionable clothing regularly.  Globally, more people are adopting consumption habits once reserved for the wealthy in the mid-20th century. This becomes problematic with global population growth allied to disposable items produced in vast quantities. The economic fallout from fast fashion can be resolved by slow fashion and the circular economy, rental and sharing fashion, vintage and resale models, and many other sustainable fashion models evolving to address economic concerns.

Since sustainable fashion appeared on the radar in 1962, numerous researchers have studied the subject. Today, as a result, we see the emergence of significant initiatives. Whether they can scale rapidly enough to outpace fast fashion is open to question. Apparel is something that all humans require, and we need a code of conduct for its manufacture to ensure that we and our world are safe. To make our earth safe for life, we must adopt the policy of sustainable fashion collectively and individually. Sustainable fashion advocates for preserving the planet’s ecosystem to safeguard our Earth and its natural environment for future generations and all living beings.


Edited by Michael Moss


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