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We get it, navigating sustainable and ethical fashion terminology can be overwhelming. The conversation around fashion’s environmental impact is riddled with jargon, and the sheer volume of words, terms and definitions out there can leave your head in a spin – us included.
In a time where we’re all trying to make more information decisions, we’ve pulled together a guide of commonly used terms, how they’re defined and how to interpret them. So, whether you’re just curious or simply want to make more informed purchasing decisions, we hope our guide will help you cut the good from the greenwashing.
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Understand the impact of your choices on both people and planet. Take full responsibility for it.
Accountability is an aspect of control and responsibility that is, unfortunately, often lacking in the fashion industry. Clothing and accessory production chains are usually long and fragmented since facilities specialized in different types of manufacturing are scattered across the world. Factories and plants tend to be run by intermediate companies that only communicate with the latest stop in the row, making a garment's journey hard to trace. Often retailers simply do not understand the actual impact of the product they’re selling, or just choose to look the other way.
Accountability in fashion means taking responsibility for the whole process, from raw material to finished product. It extends well beyond accepting and following minimum legal demands – accountability is rather a voluntary commitment, a choice to deliver garments made with concern for human rights and the environment. It does require more work, such as research, direct contact with all different companies and facilities involved in the supply chain, and a constant strive to implement solutions with lower impact. And most of all, it builds on a shift in perspective from the conventional aim of fast economic growth, to prioritizing industry workers' wellbeing, garment quality, and the environment.
While it’s encouraging to see consumers make more informed choices, the liability should sit with the retailer. There seems to be a general inclination towards talking about the environmental crisis like individual change could solve it.
All focus is on the separation of waste, recycling, shopping organic, and using less energy. Indeed, all who have the means to make active consumption choices need to be sensible in their everyday habits.
But, consumer responsibility and -power should not distract from the underlying issue of the apparel industry operating in an imperfect system that is in desperate need of reform. It’s much more effective to work in solidarity with factory workers against actors abusing them than shaming fast fashion buyers or people who don't recycle.****
With that said, taking responsibility for our actions not only leaves us feeling good about our choices, it’s also a way to change norms. Today the relationship between buyer and maker is basically non-existent, which has helped reinforce consumer culture. Due to this disconnect, it can seem like sweaters, jeans, and tees appear out of thin air, without any human or environmental harm. Transparency is a precursor of accountability for this reason – the story of a garment deepens the understanding of why we need to care for our clothing items instead of participating in wasteful consumption habits. Transparency helps customers make good choices and puts pressure on the rest of the industry to research their own supply chain and make real changes.
Stop buying redundant garments. Size down your wardrobe and only fill it with what you actually need, will use, and care for.
A shift in how we, as a collective, perceive clothing is desperately needed today. People shop more than ever and use less of what they own, which feeds the idea that garments are worthless single-use products. In reality, they are products of hard labor and precious resources, regardless of their cost and brand. Between the years 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, and the average shopper buys 60 percent more today compared to 15 years ago. Add that items are, in general, kept only half as long today, and it’s a case of consumption in overdrive.(1)
The single best thing we can do as individuals is to buy less. But it’s hard to do without updating your closet from time to time – not least for social reasons. Though, we can definitely curb our fast consumption habits and make sure we love, need, and have room for what we end up putting in our wardrobes. Choosing garments that fit into a long-term fashion plan does not mean restricting your personal style.
Rather, you’re infusing it with integrity and consideration, while avoiding the stress that comes with a messy wardrobe. To ensure longevity, garments should be crafted of Grade A materials by skilled makers. And, if we wish to buy less, it’s also important how we treat our apparel in the long run. Washing garments in lower temperatures and using a detergent that's soft on the fabric (and preferably the planet as well) further extends their lifespan. Last but not least, we should all remember to check the care label before tossing something new into the machine!
Truly practicing buying better involves an ethical aspect too. Everyone throughout the supply chain should receive reasonable salaries, have access to healthy work environments, and companies should implement regulations to reduce toxins and waste. To ensure that there is consideration behind a garment we need to distinguish the real deal, true acts of responsibility that is, from greenwashing.
To design away from the traditional linear take-make-dispose model and instead plan to re-use material from worn-out garments.
Circular fashion or -design is based on the main principles of circular economy – a market methodology aiming to reduce waste and pollution by maximizing the use of materials, products, and resources. It’s defined as a contrast to the current linear economy system coined “take-make-use-waste”. Instead, circular systems try to regenerate and reuse through innovation and design.
Circular fashion strives for maximum use of resources, materials, and products by reusing, recycling, and regenerating. A central part in planning for circularity is understanding material composition since some fiber combinations can’t be separated again. Natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool, and viscose are recycled separately from synthetic components like polyester, nylon, acrylic, metals, and plastics. When combining synthetic and natural materials in a garment, the producer has to ensure that they can be taken apart. Planning for end-of-use in this way is often called design for disassembly.
Other circular methods include zero-waste design, modular design, upcycling, and design for longevity. Creating garments for longevity means concentrating on durability, fit, and aesthetics. People tend to keep hold of Grade A quality garments with a comfortable, flattering fit and a timeless look.
While the increase in circular fashion models is great progress, it will not change the system on its own. Innovation, new techniques, and renewable resources will not automatically decrease global production and consumption. As long as the energy and material resource use keeps increasing each year, it does not matter how efficient recycling is or how well the regeneration of power works. Circularity without limits to growth isn’t a circle, it’s a spiral. Expectations of growth and development need reevaluation – both on a political and individual level – to reach a way of producing that does not harm people and nature. While it’s important to plant seeds of hope and change norms, which circular fashion does today, we need radical change across all industries to save this planet.
Requires large amounts of water, and many dyeing facilities are in areas with shortages.
The fashion industry is a major consumer of water, and about 20% of global water pollution is caused by dyeing and finishing textile products.(2) The majority of clothing production today, especially fast fashion manufacturing, is located in areas that suffer from water scarcity and have fewer health, environmental, and safety regulations. If you think that it doesn’t seem to add up, you’re right. Wastewater accumulated from dyeing and bleach processes contains toxins such as lead, mercury, and arsenic. It’s commonly dumped directly into local watercourses, causing health and ecosystem hazards. For example, the color in textile dyes prevents light from going through the water surface, causing a cut in photosynthesis and oxygen levels, affecting the entire marine life in that region. And, the quantity of water used is a health risk in itself, taken from the local population to produce clothing mainly for other countries with enough freshwater. The wastewater toxins are not only harmful to the local aquatic life and people living near the affected river banks. Eventually, the contamination will reach the sea and spread around the globe. (3)
So what are dyes, and are there any good alternatives out there? Fabric dye is a water-soluble colored substance that binds chemically to its material. There are natural and synthetic dyes, where the second includes many toxins and is most commonly used today. To color clothing, the substance is put into a (huge!) pot of water and the fabric, yarn, or fiber is added to the mix and stirred until the color is fully absorbed. Sometimes a binder such as aluminum or chrome is required to fix the dye to the fabric. After a finished garment sells, all these toxins continue to leak through domestic laundering. While natural dyes include fewer toxins, they still need generous amounts of water, can also cause pollution, and are often derived from fragile environments. Mechanical dyeing is the best alternative on the market today since water usage is significantly reduced compared to wet dyeing, and no chemicals are involved. The method relies on recycled fabric, where the material is collected, color sorted, shredded, combed, and spun into new fabric.
The combined use of renewable and non-renewable energy of farm, mill, manufacture, and transport.
The fashion industry contributes to about 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping together. Even though every stage of the supply chain demands energy, around 80% of a garment’s climate impact stems from the production phase. The main culprits in production are wet processes since heating the water is particularly energy-intensive.(4) By switching to mechanical- or dope dyeing, manufacturers could save water while reducing energy consumption. Through research and technology, production methods like these, with fewer emissions and less energy use, continue to progress and become more accessible. For instance, using renewable energy for electricity and heat, which has less impact on the environment than fossil fuel-generated power, is already quite popular. But, due to mass production, it has not yet made a significant difference on the whole.(6) Combining advanced technology with a decrease in production rate is the way to move forward.
Today, many garments, especially from fast fashion chains, tend to be thrown out long before reaching their end-of-use state. Items are, in general, kept half as long today compared to 15 years ago. But, where do they go?
Well, they end up in landfills, and most stay for a very long time. Globally, about 80% of disposed textile goods end up in landfills or incineration plants. Only 20% are actually reused or recycled. Most fast fashion items consist of synthetic material or synthetic blends from non-renewable fossil fuels that aren’t biodegradable. It can take 200 years for fabrics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon to break down, and they continuously emit methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide during this drawn-out process. (7) We are buying clothes to throw away, while racing through our global energy resources to produce them. Keeping a garment longer and using it more reduces its relative impact by offsetting new production. When investing in something new (or second-hand), one should always consider what to do with the garment when it has served its purpose, to avoid wasting precious resources. Knowing the material composition of your clothes helps to figure out if they are recyclable. If you’re not textile savvy, buying from circular fashion companies with take-back systems is a way to ensure reuse.
Fast, mass-production of cheap garments, designed to be obsolete and replaced.
Fast fashion is a model of production and consumption that relies on a rapid turnaround of cheap garments. Clothing production doubled globally from 2000 to 2014, and currently, a staggering 100 billion pieces of clothing are produced each year. Furthermore, studies show that a piece of clothing is worn only seven times on average before getting tossed.(8) An increase in production and decrease in price has got us acting like garments are single-use products – a behavior resulting in devastating social and environmental costs.
Some refer to fast fashion as the democratization of fashion since it allows buying in-style garments for less. But it’s really part of a global injustice system that’s being upheld by encouraging bad consumer behavior. Low- or middle-income countries produce 80% of the world’s clothes and account for 90% of the global textile export.The retail cost is cut during production – workers in the garment and textile industry often have 10-16 hour shifts, six days a week, for poverty-level wages without any insurance or benefits. Further, by using low-quality, oil-based textiles, or conventional cotton, which are both health hazards, expenses are kept down. The result of this? Those who work in or live near textile or clothing factories bear a disproportionate burden of health risks, while often struggling economically without health insurance. There is no democracy or justice behind this system.(9)
But we can stop this. Studies show that there is a discrepancy between consumer attitude and actions. Many want to act and shop less detrimentally, but it is not reflected in their actual habits. It’s time to take the step from wishing to doing. In order for people to change their consumer behavior, information about the individual impact has shown to be the most effective. Offering tools that can calculate individual impact and give solutions based on this data is therefore a good way to increase understanding and lower the demand for cheap clothing (5). The minute we see ourselves as part of the problem, there is space for change. And, if demand would lower, a drop in production would follow.
But, fast fashion is a structural issue. Taking a stand against individual consumers can easily give rise to myths that disregard social inequality and the history leading up to the current problems. While customized information directed at individual change is effective, it’s even more important to put pressure on both governments and commercial actors to implement regulations and ethical practices. Retailers can help by providing details on each piece of clothing’s journey and impact – transparency creates an understanding of the precious resources and delicate labor that goes into making garments. Furthermore, moving toward circular instead of linear fashion models and ethical instead of solely profitable practices, would lower environmental impact and suffering. Also, governmental actions, such as Sweden’s goal to implement chemical taxes on clothing containing harmful substances, have the potential to transform fashion production.(10)
The use of marketing to portray products and services as better for the planet than they really are.
We hear the word sustainability more and more, and it becomes increasingly vague and diluted. It has different meanings depending on who you ask – some focus on the water footprint of a textile, some on a t-shirt’s energy use and emissions, others on workers’ rights. Many all of them combined, of course – but what are companies referring to when they market products as sustainable? The lack of a clear and collective definition of sustainability makes it easy for actors to interpret the phrase themselves and use it in marketing without consequences.(11) It’s a way to tap into people’s will to do better, and offer an air of guilt-free shopping, by exaggerating the environmental and ethical responsibility taken.(12) This is what we call greenwashing – creating a favorable image and driving sales through positive messages communicated selectively, without full disclosure of related issues.
There are a few things to be aware of when trying to separate false claims from responsible ones. A commonly used term today is “carbon neutral”. While it can indicate long-term radical systems change, such as the implementation of an economy that does not rely on burning of fossil fuels (post-carbon economy), it most usually, in commercial contexts, refers to carbon offsetting. This is a compensatory action where businesses “balance out” their carbon footprint by funding projects focused at reducing emissions, often in low- or middle-income countries.
However, these types of initiatives are thoroughly criticized for not reaching the required carbon reductions, and can be seen as a way to not take true responsibility for one’s own carbon footprint. The term carbon neutral is thus also hazy, and seldom indicates zero emissions or any true change in production.(13) Further, promotion of “conscious”, “sustainable” or “green” lines by companies who don’t have the same standards in the rest of their offering, or loud environmental statements by businesses based on large-scale production, are clear indications of using ethics and values as a marketing technique.
The truth is, all shopping has a price beyond our wallets and accounts. Everything we produce and consume negatively impacts the planet, and the greatest danger of greenwashing is the risk of forgetting that. It glosses over the fundamental problem of overproduction and actually stabilizes the status quo, acting as a decoy. This is why we shy away from the word sustainability. Of course, ASKET has an impact too – after all, we are in the clothing business. Instead of trying to hide it, we wish to responsibly enhance our impact – by being fully transparent. Because we all deserve to know the true cost of the clothing we wear. So we’ll continue to keep our promise: to only create meaningful essentials, garments free of compromise, that allow us to pursue a life with less and end the era of fast consumption.
Products used to reduce plant damage in conventional farming.
Insecticides and pesticides are products typically applied on or near crops to protect them from damage. Sometimes the terms are used synonymously, but that’s not really the case. The broad term, pesticides, refers to all chemical pest-control products while insecticides are one kind of pesticide targeting insects that destroy crops, like larvae, caterpillars, and locusts. But as they’re not selective, other insects important for our ecosystems, like ants, bees, beetles, and flies are affected too.(14)
Conventional, or non-organic, cotton farms are heavy users of pesticides, as they’re growing such a demanding and sensitive crop. Globally, cotton farming covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land, but it uses 6% of the world’s pesticides and 16% of insecticides (that’s more than any other crop!). The chemicals in the substances strip soil of its nutrients and even though the global area percentage dedicated to cotton production has not increased for the past 70 years, soil exhaustion has led to expansion into new areas.(15)
The people working directly with the substances are at high risk for health issues – which is not surprising given that seven of the fifteen most used pesticides in conventional cotton farming are regarded as “possible”, “likely”, or “known” carcinogens. Around 20 000 deaths annually can be linked to the use of pesticides.(16) Pesticides also spread to the water and threaten the health of everything in and near the fields.(15)
Organic farming doesn't use chemical pesticides and insecticides. Instead, the methods used maintain soil fertility while not harming rivers or freshwater sources near the farms. Cotton farmers with families and communities benefit from this, as they don't deal with toxins and usually have better working conditions overall; GOTS is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers, and they also assure social responsibility.(17) That said, organic cotton isn't entirely flawless – it still demands large quantities of water, some research indicates even more than conventional cotton. But the reduced impact on farmers' health and land warrants the shift to organic cotton.