“Sustainability’ is an increasingly popular topic within the fashion industry yet there is no common, industry-wide definition of what ‘sustainable fashion’ actually means. This leaves a lot of room for misinformation and straight up greenwashing.
Fear not Remakers. We have broken down frequently used sustainable fashion jargon so you can be armed with the right knowledge to become a sustainable fashion warrior.
Rest assured that as a human rights organization, we hold fashion brands accountable and scan them through our rigorous sustainability index (chock-filled with these terms!), so you know that brands who have our seal of approval are doing more good, not just less harm.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Sustainable Fashion – This term usually means eco-friendly practices in the fashion industry, referencing the approach of designing, producing and consuming clothes that respect the planet by causing little to no damage, and therefore sustaining the environment. It also refers to the practice of recycling and reusing the product to extend its life.
At Remake, we define this term holistically by looking at both the planetary and human impact, defining sustainable fashion also as the industry’s practice of sustaining the healthy lives of the people who make our clothes through living wages, safe work conditions, and maker well-being.
Reference: Green Strategy
Ethical – The term ‘ethical’ usually refers to the people aspect of the manufacturing process. Many fashion brands simply define ethical production as adhering to local labor laws. At Remake we know that this is not good enough because our clothes are often made in places were labor laws are weak and enforcement is even weaker. Instead of asking, “Is this product doing no harm to the people who made it,” we reframe the question to ask, “Is this product leaving the people who make it better off?”. Ethical for us means brands committed to treating their makers with fairness, respect, and care.
Organic – Organic products are those produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. The term ‘organic’ generally has a positive context, but just because a product is organic does not make it ethical. For example organic cotton could have still be picked by a child. Organic also doesn’t account for added toxins (such as dyes) that maybe used later in the production process, that has negative health impacts on both makers and consumers.
Fair Trade – According to Fairtrade International, the Fairtrade Standards are designed to address the imbalance of power and injustices in trading relationships. Fair Trade provides an alternative to conventional trade, with fair trade products charging a premium to consumers so that producers (such as farmers) can earn a better living. While fair trade is a step in the right direction, it is not the same as living wages, which is what people would need to make to actually live with dignity. Moreover fair trade in fashion is more complicated than food because the fashion supply chain is more fragmented. For example the cotton in a fashion product maybe fair trade, but the factories where the clothes are cut and stitched may not. Gets confusing pretty quickly right?
Living Wage – A living wage is a fair salary or compensation that allows makers to make a decent salary and not remain trapped in poverty. The Asia Floor Wage calculates living wages based on some common factors including: the number of family members being supported, the nutritional needs of a maker and their dependents, and their other basic needs including housing and education. Very few pioneering brands, such as Nudie Jeans, have made a commitment to living wages.
Cruelty-Free – This term usually refers to animal welfare, and a product being free from animal testing. However, “cruelty-free” is not clearly defined by law, so companies use the term loosely. Some products can get away in using this term if: a) the ingredients have been tested on animals, but not the final product b) the manufacturer did not do the animal testing themselves, but relied on a supplier to test for them c) the testing was done in a foreign country with weaker laws. The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics (CCIC)’s Leaping Bunny Program and logo is currently the best resource for consumers who want to stick to cruelty-free products, as they hold companies to strict and rigorous standards.
Reference: MSPCA Angell
Compliance – This usually means that companies are adhering to the law, which is not always good enough, as labor laws in foreign countries (Myanmar, for example) are weak. Take a company’s claim of being “compliant” with ethical standards, or having a “code of conduct” with a grain of salt. Instead ask your favorite brands, “are you committed to doing more good for people and our planet?”.
Transparency – This is the practice of publicly sharing information about where products are made, and the makers that make them. It’s important to note that publishing a list of Tier 1 factories does not really make a brand transparent, but sharing the names and information about all the factories involved (from start to finish) does. Some brands such as Known Supply go a set further, linking actual makers and consumers.
At Remake we applaud companies that share transparency data with consumers is a user-friendly and easy to understand way, such as the Ref Scale by Reformation.
Tier 1 Factories – The facilities that handle the final step of the production process. This is where they may complete the product or simply prepare them for distribution. Some fashion brands have started to transparently share this final set of factories with the public which is a good first step. However sharing names and addresses of factories does not mean the conditions are good. Moreover many issues within a fashion brand’s supply chain are deeper down in their supply chain.
Traceability – This refers to the ability to trace products and their components back through each step of the supply chain, all the way to raw materials. However, brands often only trace conditions with Tier 1 factories. For true traceability to be achieved, a brand would need to know where the raw materials (ie. cotton) come from, and what conditions their mills or sundries (where zippers/buttons are made) are in, and everywhere in between.
Circularity – Circularity is the approach to designing and producing products that can be repaired remade, reused, and eventually recycled or biodegraded at the end of its use. Truly circular products must be non-toxic, preferably biodegradable, so that any waste generated is minimized.
Given the fashion industry’s massive waste problem, circularity is currently very trendy with brands having started recycling programs and ‘take back’ schemes (such as H&M and ICO’s partnership). However, while these programs are a good first step, true circularity requires knowing how much is actually recycled, versus incinerated and thrown away after being collected. Else take back schemes simply become marketing ploys.
At Remake we also look at the nature of materials used since materials blended with polyester take years to breakdown. In addition we believe that encouraging shoppers to consume less has to be a part of the circularity conversation.
Social Responsibility – This term refers to a business framework that prioritizes people and the planet as much as profit. It is an approach to developing businesses that have a positive relationship with the societies/environments in which they operate.
Social responsibility programs are positive, but some corporations have programs that are mostly limited to direct employees at their offices or headquarters, but not necessarily within their supply chain. Moreover it is often hard to balance profits with makers rights and planetary wellbeing. A “win-win” is hard to achieve when companies are up against quarterly investor pressure and growth targets. This is why privately held and smaller companies can keep their social responsibility commitments more so than publicly traded companies.
Greenwashing –This is the practice of branding or marketing a product in a way that misleads the consumer about its social and environmental benefits. It is common for fashion companies to use sustainability to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and appeal to socially conscious customers (like us!) without actually being committed.
For example, outspoken fashion activist Vivienne Westwood has been accused of greenwashing because though she claims to be environmentally friendly, most of her products are made from petroleum based materials (violating her ‘less plastics’ commitment), and she also doesn’t provide any concrete data to support her ‘eco-friendly’ claims.
The good news is, in the age of the internet and social media, it is becoming easier to spot greenwashed brands via the work of advocacy groups (like us!), nongovernmental organizations, and even citizen journalists, bloggers, and everyday consumers. At Remake, we filter hundreds of brands, and are committed to helping you discover truly sustainable brands, who don’t just greenwash.
Fast Fashion – Fast fashion is the approach to designing, creating, and producing products based on fast moving trends and cheap prices (such as H&M, Zara, and Mango). These brands have perfected bringing runway knockoffs to stores at affordable prices. While cheap and trendy, fast fashion is dangerous because it results in overproduction, waste, environmental degradation, and the overworking of factory makers.
Slow Fashion – Slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion, a deliberate choice from consumers to slow down their consumption, and buy less, while investing in high quality pieces that last longer. It is the ethos of “buying fewer better things”, embracing individual style rather than chasing trends. At Remake we are committed to breaking up with fast fashion and making slow fashion the new industry standard.
Now that you’re armed with a glossary of these terms, are you ready to be a sustainable fashion warrior? Check out the links below to join our movement:
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Cover Photo: Undress Runways