What to Look Out for When Shopping Sustainable Fashion

The news on fashion polluting the earth is not last season. Fast fashion accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output — more than international flights and shipping combined, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.  

Fast fashion is commonly understood as the design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on rapidly producing high volumes of clothing. This type of fashion is usually very cheap to produce, has a rapid turnover of clothes and styles and does not last very long. 

Ahead, we speak with Susannah Jaffer, founder of ZERRIN, a creative and conscious fashion platform for the future of fashion, to look at how we can curb our fast fashion choices and shop sustainably so that it’s better for you as well as the planet. 

Conscious Closet

Let’s be honest, it’s hard to resist a 50% off clothes rack. But if overcoming your fast fashion habit is a priority, for starters, you could peel back on this instinct and ask yourself what you really want at this moment that you think this new outfit could offer you. 

A conscious closet focuses on choosing thoughtfully instead of buying impulsively. This is a direct retaliation to the “see now, buy now” mentality that fast fashion advertising encourages. 

The process of shopping sustainably is also not just about jumping away from fast fashion to the next bandwagon of sustainably-sourced fashion, either. Jaffer highlights that it is more important to “be thoughtful about what you’re spending your money on; the businesses or practices you’re supporting. This will naturally translate to consuming less but better.” 

Accountability to The People Making Your Clothes

In 2013, the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh led to the death of more than 1,000 garment workers due to poor working conditions. This incident crystallised the conversation in the fashion industry about the people behind the clothes we wear, thus the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes was born. 

Since then, many organisations and individuals around the world have called for stronger and more transparent accountability of industry practices. This includes supply chain traceability, fair working conditions, gender and racial equality, sustainable material sourcing, water and chemical usage, and climate change. 

Image: Getty Images

How do these standards translate to someone trying to shop more sustainably? Look out for messages on the website, within the store and on clothing tags of the businesses you shop at. Businesses that have taken a fair stand on sustainability are more likely to communicate their processes with clarity.  If you find that the messages are a bit wishy-washy, your scepticism is likely to be right about greenwashing

Jaffer describes greenwashing as a minefield, especially within the wider fashion industry. She shares her personal defence techniques by avoiding brands that have vague language — like the words ‘eco’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘environment-friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘recyclable’ — without giving more information on how and why the product or service is sustainable. The same logic applies to brands that do not have label-sharing materials and washing practices. She also warns against brands that make sweeping, reductive statements like ‘shop and save the planet’.

When in doubt, do not hesitate to ask questions and drop into the brand’s DMs. Jaffer emphasises that our curiosity and interest in these matters are what will hold brands accountable to sustainable action.

Materials of Clothes

The majority of clothes worldwide are likely to contain plastic.  In fact, 64% of new clothes are made from plastic because of their malleable characteristics. Every time we wash these types of clothes they shed millions of plastic microfibres. These microfibres are unable to be caught in our washing machines and end up in our water bodies, in an equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.  

On your next shopping trip, look out for clothes made from natural sources such as bamboo or 100% cotton. As a rule of thumb, try to find out if the clothes are made from living matter like linen from the flax plant, bamboo, hemp, jute, ramie (Chinese grass) and Kapok. These are naturally found, and usually less harmful to the planet when treated and used well. 

However, labels these days are often confusing and deceiving, as they rarely indicate the full composition of materials used in production. When looking at labels, if you notice materials like polyester, acrylic, lycra, nylon, spandex, polyester fleece, elastane or polyamide, or details of glitter and sequins, these are most likely to have elements of plastic in their production. Truthfully, most of our activewear, winter wear and even intimate wear is made from these materials and may be more difficult to swap out for organic options. 

Cost Per Wear 

One of the most difficult shifts from fast fashion is the price point per clothing item. Sometimes, it’s common to find basics that go as low as $5, which is an equivalent of a burger at Macca’s. Realistically, it is bogus to expect that a business could profit from charging $5 per item and still pay its workers fair wages, plus the overheads to own the stores and run a business of that size. 

Jaffer explains that cost per wear is a way of breaking down how often you’ll wear a garment and therefore how ‘worth it’ the purchase is to you and your wallet. While this may justify a slightly higher spend on a more expensive, sustainable design, you can equally apply it to a cheaper item. For example, a white t-shirt that costs you $10 that you may only wear three times has a higher cost per wear ($3.33) than a 45-dollar white t-shirt that you’ll wear a minimum of 30 times or more ($1.50 per wear). It’s kind of like the ‘30 wears’ term coined by climate activist, Livia Firth, but more precise. 

Jaffer shares that holding clothes to this benchmark of pricing has helped her to think of clothes as investments and less like commodities.

Sustainable fashion, just like our fashion sense, is deeply personal. Jaffer encourages playful experimentation to figure out what works for you in a conscious and mindful manner. 

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Any representations, views, or opinions contained in this article are those of The Latch and do not reflect those of and are not endorsed by Suncorp Bank.