What is Sustainable Clothing?

Aim to lessen your environmental footprint – and look good doing it – with these Pro Tips on eco-friendly fashion.

Your outfit can say a lot about you. What you wear can be the perfect way to express your personality, interests and beliefs. But what if you could do more than just express yourself through your fashion? What if your clothes influenced the world around you?

Sustainable clothing allows you to make greener choices in your everyday wear. Use this Pro Tips guide to learn more about these eco-friendly clothing options.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE CLOTHING?

Most sustainable fashion goods strive to be planet-friendly and/or worker-friendly. Manufacturers of sustainable clothing aim to uphold ecological standards and healthy working conditions for their employees.

There are multiple factors and areas that manufacturers can look at. DICK’S Sporting Goods Director of Corporate Social Responsibility James Rooney says companies can typically highlight one or two main issues or platforms to showcase their company values.

“It’s everything from animal cruelty, to the types of chemicals you use, to the cotton […] recycled polyester, water usage, supply chains,” he says. “It can really encompass a lot of things.”

Manufacturers also look to increase product longevity through quality practices and craftsmanship. Items that are more durable can last more seasons, keeping them out of landfills for longer. In turn, less materials pile up in disposal areas.

There are many ways these brands may strive to maintain ecological and social integrity. Learning and identifying these traits can help you make a more informed purchase.

ECOLOGICAL ETHICS

One major way manufacturers can support the eco-fashion movement is by using sustainable fabrics. These textiles are renewable fibers that can be easy to grow or produce.

There are a few popular sustainable fabrics you can look for, including:

  • Organic Wool: Organic wool comes from organic sheep farms. Many of these institutions look to avoid harmful pesticides to maintain healthy pastures for the animals. Also, farmers raising sheep to harvest organic wool need to monitor their herd’s nutrition. No antibiotics or other chemicals can be used to help the animals meet “organic” certification standards.
  • Bamboo: Derived from the fast-growing plant of the same name. Bamboo linen can be a soft, comfortable textile.
  • Alpaca Wool: A more sustainable option than cashmere, alpaca wool comes from alpacas.
  • Linen: Made from flax, linen can compost easily and is recyclable.
  • Hemp: Hemp doesn’t require many pesticides and herbicides to grow. This helps make it an easy option for sustainability.
  • Organic Cotton: Organic cotton is grown and harvested different from conventional cotton. Farmers promote the health of the soil and water through multiple eco-driven practices. “The beauty of organic is you aren’t using a pesticide,” adds Abel Sueiras, DICK’S Sporting Goods Senior Manager of Research/Development and Testing.

This, he says, comes from the National Organic Standards Board’s addendum on the labeling of clothing made with organic cotton. Additionally, certified organic cotton cannot be genetically modified or treated with conventional dyes.

  • Silk: A natural, lightweight and durable fabric that comes from silkworms. Silk can also serve as a warm thermal alternative.
  • Lyocell: Made from wood pulp, lyocell can be a wrinkle-resistant option that’s easy to care for. Workers typically reclaim the chemicals used in this production process. This allows them to use the chemicals again for other cycles.
  • Responsibly Sourced Down: Down and feathers are a popular insulation choice for jackets and outerwear. Workers harvest responsibly sourced down through practices aimed at safeguarding the welfare of ducks and geese.
  • Recycled Polyester: This fabric option uses recycled plastic bottles as its raw material. This can help keep plastics out of landfills longer by repurposing them for other uses.
NATURAL DYES

Another trend in sustainable fashion is the use of natural dyes. Natural dyes can aim to alter the textile color through natural processes. Workers can ethically harvest natural dyes from plants, animals or insects.

Natural dyes cannot be used with organic cotton, however. According to the National Organic Standards Board, organically grown cotton dyed with “natural” dyes or low-impact dyes cannot be labeled as organic. This is due to both dyeing methods using heavy metals in the process.

BONUS PRO TIP: Unbleached fabric can also be a quality sustainable option. These options can use fewer chemicals since the textiles aren’t bleached to change the color.

RECYCLED MATERIALS

Eco-friendly fashion can also come from reused or recycled materials and fabrics. Recycling goods, like old polyester for new polyester, can use less energy and create more sustainable products. Using recycled polyester can help lessen the manufacturing footprint. This can also keep plastics out of landfills for longer periods. Other examples include synthetic insulation fills composed of recycled materials and recycled yarns.

Lastly, sustainable fashion also takes shipping and packaging practices into consideration. Using recycled, recyclable and biodegradable materials can lessen landfills and pollution. Shipping clothing can be easier than other exports. This can be a simple way to lower the environmental impacts of the supply chain.

WHAT’S IN A STANDARD?

To keep all these processes in check, there are certification bodies to help manufacturers. A good example would be in organic cotton. DICK’S Sporting Goods’ Vice President of Responsible Sourcing Chris Bereznay notes there are multiple certification bodies involved in the organic cotton process. Examples include:

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
  • National Organic Program (NOP) Standard
  • Organic Content Standards (OCS)

“Manufacturers typically have to show they can implement processes to properly manage organic cotton raw material and finished goods inventory from the seed/farm level through final production,” Bereznay says. These steps can help ensure customers receive properly labeled organic goods.

Certification bodies can seem confusing, especially when multiple certifications can apply to one piece of clothing. Some certification boards have grouped themselves together for a more general label, deemed “Preferred.” This is to help make comprehension easier for customers.

Some manufacturers have been using these “Preferred,” listings, particularly with cotton products. “Preferred,” refers to cotton that is ecologically and/or socially progressive. This means it’s intended to have more sustainable properties when compared to other options.

SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS CERTIFICATIONS

Some sustainable clothing companies aim to have a social impact as well as an environmental one. These manufacturers often aim to pair their ecological principles with emphasized worker rights.

“To really kind of talk about having a sustainable clothing line, you really need to focus on both,” Rooney says.

A popular term seen in sustainable clothing is “Fair Trade,” in reference to the Fair Trade Organization. This group aims to promote sustainable working and living conditions for farmers and workers. Examples include:

  • A healthy, living wage for all employees.
  • Maintaining safe working conditions.
  • Encouraging and promoting community involvement.

Rooney notes Fair Trade is popular because of the criteria the certification holds. “They’re very reputable, and so that’s one that a lot of organizations get,” he says.

BLUESIGN is another certification board that monitors how manufacturers use chemicals. Their objective is to monitor chemicals used in manufacturing for the sake of the environment and workers. Their list of restricted chemicals is constantly evolving. This can help companies support their responsible and transparent production practices.

Sustainable fashion can be a fun way to make greener choices and look good doing it. Use this Pro Tips guide to learn more about these environmentally savvy apparel options.