Cheap Fashion Has a High Environmental Price: Lessons of the $3 Billion Sustainable Apparel Industry


Between writing posts for EcoSalon, I’ve spent several months researching and writing a study on the business of sustainable apparel – one of those big, comprehensive business reports that companies buy to better understand the dynamics of the market.

The International Market for Sustainable Apparel was published last week by Packaged Facts, weighing in at 170+ pages and maybe 50,000 words (read the press release here and the abstract here). Some of this tome is devoted to defining just what sustainable apparel means, as this international industry – estimated at $3 billion in retail sales in 2007 – is truly just emerging, despite already having some significant financial stakes.

Though I’ve worked for 15 years in the organic foods industry, and have been a clothing and textile artist and designer most of my life, some of the rules of eco-fashion are still relatively new to me and many of us. Here are a few things I know that might be helpful to you, the conscious clothing consumer:

Understand the difference between organic and sustainable or green.
Organic has a specific legal meaning for agricultural products (cotton, wool, linen, foods, herbs) in the United States and most of the world, and must be certified as compliant with the law. So, while anyone can call anything sustainable, only those whose products meet the legal standard can use the term organic in the marketplace.

It’s not just about the fabric. Companies that aspire to true sustainability should be using, or making substantive plans to change over to, low-impact processing, finishing and dyeing treatments, rigorous standards for ethical labor practices, and environmentally responsible packaging and distribution.

Watch out for green hype. Look for transparency and accuracy in marketing claims. Much of the hype I see centers on bamboo; most fabric sourced from bamboo has been subject to considerable chemical treatment to turn it from woody stalks into supple fabric (as have many other fabrics). Bamboo isn’t a bad fabric source by any means – it’s got tremendous potential as a phenomenally useful, eco-friendly, versatile plant — but the textile industry must become as innovative with manufacturing and processing it as they are in marketing it. In general, evaluate all claims carefully.

Cheap fashion has a high environmental price. The textile and clothing industryis enormous and has a huge global environmental and social footprint. As a consumer, it’s a good strategy to rethink your fashion values. Stop looking for lots of cheap, trendy clothes. Take the European or Slow Fashion approach: Invest in a small wardrobe of well-made pieces that work together, made by manufacturers with integrity. Use accessories to add spark and variety.

Image: Paul Posada