The movement for sustainable fashion is booming. Conscious consumers are asking for more environmentally friendly products, especially in the fashion industry. People are starting to care more about how their clothes are being made.
Sustainable fashion started when apparel companies began to introduce environmental practices into their businesses in the late 1980s. It's part of the environmental movements creating more awareness on numerous environmental problems since the 1960s.
Many catastrophic events in the textile and apparel industry have contributed to the rise of sustainable fashion over the last 20 years.
It's easy to observe a regained interest in ethical fashion since the disastrous Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed 1,134 workers and injured more than 2,500 people.
Today, many organizations around the world actively work to reduce the negative social and environmental impact of the fashion industry.
We are on the brink of a global climate crisis. It's now more important than ever to raise awareness of these issues and motivate the general public to make more conscious purchasing decisions.
To learn more about how your wardrobe influences global warming, read up my article on the fashion industry's catastrophic contribution to climate change.
Luckily, sustainable fashion is gaining popularity. It's a great idea to educate yourself on its beginning, especially if you are looking to make better fashion choices.
Here is a brief history of sustainability and an answer to when did sustainable fashion start.
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History of sustainable fashion
Sustainable and ethical fashion is now in the mind of a lot of people. It's so much more than a trend.
Along with slow, conscious, and environmentally friendly fashion, sustainable fashion is a movement in the fashion industry that drives change and promotes a new approach to fashion products by prioritizing economic, social and environmental sustainability over maximizing profits.
It supports a more socially responsible and environmentally friendly way to sourcing materials, designing clothing and manufacturing garments.
If you are new to sustainable fashion, I encourage you to read my definition of sustainable and ethical fashion.
Ethical and sustainable fashion started more than 20 years ago. The movement helped raise awareness of the many social and environmental problems in the fashion industry.
A lot of pollution and unfair practices happen every day in the apparel and footwear industry. Garment manufacturing, especially for fast fashion brands and retailers, consumes lots of water and energy, emits a large amount of greenhouse gases, creates huge piles of textile wastes, and forces people to work for low wages in unsafe conditions.
Fashion industry giants such as H&M, Zara, Gap, and Nike reduce manufacturing costs as much as possible to increase earnings by outsourcing labor to the cheapest bidder in low-income countries.
The rise of sustainable fashion follows numerous controversies over the destructive environmental impact of clothing manufacturing and human rights violations, such as Nike’s low-wages and dangerous factories scandals in 1991.
Fashion was a lot more environmentally friendly and sustainable before the industrial revolution, which took place in the early 1800s.
Because of technological progress and the introduction of new manufacturing processes, the fashion industry changed forever and clothing became faster, easier, and cheaper to make.
In the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840, clothing manufacturing changed from a small-scale often home-based operation to mass-production in giant garment factories equipped with specialized machinery.
Clothing became more accessible and affordable. But it created dangerous working conditions, child labor, and modern slavery. The industrialization of fashion grew intense fears around its environmental and social impact.
During the post-war economic growth, shopping for non-essentials became an everyday way of life for many people in developed countries.
Fast fashion began when consumers took a liking for new clothing trends at an affordable price. Read up my article on who created fast fashion to understand how it became such a global and highly successful phenomenon.
Sustainable fashion aims to restore fashion like it was originally before fast fashion and the mass-manufacturing of cheaply made clothing.
The overproduction and overconsumption of disposable clothes made fashion unethical and unsustainable.
One of the first fashion brands created with deep concerns for people and the environment in mind is People Tree. It's an apparel company founded in 1991 by Safia Minney in Tokyo, Japan.
People Tree is a pioneering sustainable and Fair Trade fashion label taking the mission to offer consumers Fair Trade and ethical fashion.
It started by making handwoven and naturally dyed handbags and clothes. Its first clothing collection launched in 1997 using eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics to meet environmental standards.
The origins of sustainable fashion can be traced since the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The disastrous air, land, and water pollution due to toxic chemicals used in textile manufacturing processes is a recurrent theme.
The Nature Conservancy is a charitable environmental organization, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. It's establishment in 1951 arguably marks the beginning of modern environmentalism in the United States.
The publication in 1962 of the environmental science book Silent Spring is another key event of the environmental awareness development. In her book, Rachel Carson documents the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
Sustainable fashion began to emerge as an idea in the public consciousness to prevent the negative environmental impacts of textile and apparel manufacturing.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) also known as Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, spread awareness of pressing problems in the fashion industry.
The publications following the conference shed light on the environmental initiatives that fashion companies such as Patagonia and Esprit started to incorporate into their businesses in the late 1980s.
After witnessing the environment being harmed by the overproduction and overconsumption of cheaply made clothing, they commissioned the first research into the impacts of fibers used for textiles, such as cotton, wool, nylon, and polyester.
The term slow fashion was created in 2007 as an alternative to fast fashion. It's a sustainable and ethical approach to fashion that aims to preserve global resources and respect human living conditions.
"Slow fashion is about designing, producing, consuming and living better. Slow fashion is not time-based but quality-based (which has some time components). Slow is not the opposite of fast – there is no dualism – but a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers, and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities, and ecosystems."
- Kate Fletcher, textiles consultant, in her article on The Ecologist
Sustainable fashion still has a strong focus on finding better materials and environmentally friendly alternatives today. Read my article on the alternatives to fast fashion for a quick overview of the solutions.
Sustainable and ethical fashion today
Many people now consider the effect that consumption has on the environment when buying new clothes. They understand why ethical fashion practices are needed. Some of them even purchase only what they need.
"If you want to reduce the impact of your fashion choices - show the corporations you care about what your clothes are made of, buy differently, choose consciously and support new models of fashion that reduce impact. Fashion has always been a way to indicate who you are to the world - so now is the time to think about what you want your clothes to say about the kind of world and future that we should aim for."
- Elizabeth Bohm, Head of International Policy at the Academy of Medical Sciences in the U.K.
The fashion industry is putting pressure on natural resources, polluting the environment, and causing significant negative social impacts at local, regional and global levels.
A fashion revolution is necessary to change the industry and achieve the goal of climate neutrality set out in the Paris Agreement in the second half of the 21st century.
The apparel and textile industry is causing irreversible damage to ecosystems and endangering the health of animals and humans.
Luckily, many fashion brands and retailers now offer sustainable and ethical fashion. Some companies provide local, organic, recycled, and fair trade clothing to conscious consumers.
To tell if a brand or retailer is part of the sustainable fashion movement, do a bit of research. You can study their website or social media profiles, and contact them for more information on their products.
Read up my guide on how to check if a fashion brand is ethical to learn more about the best practices when buying new clothes.
Other popular examples of sustainable fashion designers and brands using alternative materials and ethical manufacturing practices are:
The future of fashion is sustainable. The demand for natural, organic, and recycled fashion will keep on increasing over the next few years, as well as the awareness of social and environmental issues in the fashion industry.
Consumers drive change by asking for more environmentally friendly products, transparency, and accountability.
Thanks to many movements and organizations, the rise of conscious consumerism is happening faster than ever before. The sustainable fashion movement is gaining in importance as more and more consumers change their shopping behavior.
It's now time for a more mindful and holistic approach to fashion. Sustainable and ethical fashion is becoming more accessible. Second-hand clothing is gaining in popularity, as well as recycling, upcycling, and other sustainable fashion practices.
It's difficult to imagine a world without any textile. The fashion industry is one of the biggest economic force in the world. It's also one of the largest polluters globally.
We don't have to stop buying beautiful and stylish fashion. But we must adopt a more ethical and sustainable way of living.
Do you think sustainable fashion has a place in the future of fashion?
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.