How to Make Your Fashion Business More Sustainable

by | Jul 29, 2019 | Fashion

Looking to start a sustainable fashion business? Prehaps you already have a brand and you’re looking to make it more sustainable? Either way, here is a guide for how to make your fashion business kinder to people and planet. 

The fashion industrys impacts are far reaching and complex.  We want to make businesses more sustainable but where do we begin when the problems in fashion manufacture range from forced labour in cotton fields to chemical pollution poisoning water systems. One we start researching it can all be a a bit overwhelming.  Luckily for you, I have taken some of the leg work out of the research for you! I have recently written the paper “Fashion, Speed and Consumer Culture: Investigating a sustainable future for the fashion industry”. I have since written these recommendations, based on my papers findings, to help you make your business operate with consideration to people in supply chains and the planet we call home. 

Materials

One of the major focuses of sustainable research so far has been into more sustainable materials ie materials that don’t drain resources in order to produce them as well as materials that don’t cause environmental damage (plastic pollution) if they end up in landfill.

  • Think about what materials you use are made of. Are the compostible? Remember that man made fibres like polyester, nylon and acrylic are all plastic and will leach synthetic fibres into water systems when they are washed as well as when they are disposed of.
  • What is the environmental impact of your chosen material? If you’re using cotton I would always recommend organic cotton from an accredited source. Organic cotton uses far less water than regular and it is grown without the same chemical pesticides. The chemicals used in regular cotton growing get into water systems are are very damaging to local ecosystems as well as human health
  • This area will require some further research for your business, I would recommend reading this article by Common Objective How To Choose The Most Eco-Friendly Fabric For Your Garment.  You can also view a list of suppliers that they vouch for on their website 

Transparency

Push for a transparent supply chain, not just the factory where the clothes are made but right back to the raw material. This is probably the most important thing you can do for your business and a lack of transparency is one of the major problems with the fashion industry today. The complexity and scale of the industry often means that businesses can’t tell you the where/when/who’s about their whole supply chains. This means that issue like forced labour or child labour could well be happening in a brands supply chains without their knowledge. Without transparency there can be no accountability. 

  • Where do your materials come from?
  • Where is the factory/factories you work with?
  • Do the factories you use subcontract any to other factories? 
  • Do you know who made your clothes? Can you find out? 
  • What mill did the fabric come from?
  • Where is the fabric produced (eg where is the cotton grown)?
  • Where are the trims made (buttons, zips, etc)?

Without knowing these things you can never be sure of the working conditions your business is supporting.  

 

Country (and factory) of Manufacture

Deciding which country your products are manufactured in will be a big decision. It is often one driven by price but try to also think about the social and environmental impact of that decision. If production is outsourced to developing counties that sadly often comes hand in hand with unfair and unsafe working conditions. It can also come with risk of child labour and forced labour.

  • Do research into the country your factory, or factories are based in. A quick google search will tell you the wage of an average garment worker compared to the living wage.
  • Many sustainable fashion brands have their production done in the EU, as workers have the same rights across the EU as we do here.
  • Can you produce all/any of it here in the UK? The UK used to have a thriving textile industry and there are still a handful of highly skilled factories and mills, especially in the north of England. Manufacture in the UK is having a resurgance but it needs all the support it can get. Could yo business be “made in the UK?
  • The closer to home a product is made the easier it is to have transparency and be able to see for yourself the working conditions and environmental impact of this factory. It also means that the environmental impact of shipping the product to you is kept at a minimum.
  • Be aware that in countries with the cheapest labour many workers are denied the right to form unions. In fact there are many stories of workers being punished for attempting to form unions. This makes it difficult for workers to stand up against mistreatment. Ensure your factory allows workers to be represented and have a voice. 

Audits

If you can go out and visit the factories you will be working with that is fantastic. Though whether you can or not, it is very important to work with factories that are regularly audited.

  • Independent audits are best – if brands do their own audits it’s a lot like marking your own homework
  • Audits are an important tool to make sure that living wages are being made, working conditions are safe, working hours are fair etc. There is a major problem within factories that supply fast fashion. Millions of garment workers around the world work in unsafe conditions, working 70+  hours a week and still not earning close to a living wage. Audits can help to combat this.

 

Think Circular

A big problem with the fashion industry is that it is based on a linear system of make-use-dispose. Millions of clothes are bought worn and then throw away and discarded fashion is filling up landfill. One way to combat this is to use a circular economy.

As oppose to a linear model, a circular economy  aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life. This model could solve some of the issues within the current fashion system by making the most of natural resources and reducing waste. Here are some suggestions for a circular fashion system, keeping resources out of landfill: 

  • Use recycled materials to make products, keeping materials out of waste and reducing the about of new resources you take from the Earth
  •  Clothing rental – instead of buying an item to wear it one why can’t consumers rent the time for s period of time?
  • Clothing repairs service – can your products be repaired or ever revamped? These services provide an extra income for retailers and extend the life span of clothes for consumers.
  • Think about using a reward scheme for customers who return clothes to you at the end of their lifespan? This provides free material for you to recycle and use again and also keeps a customer returning

Your Products

The fast fashion model, where brands produce huge volumes of stock and have new products available every week, drives over consumption on a level that can never be sustainable. If you want your brand to be sustainable you need to help combat this. This means taking a much slower approach to production and a focus on quality over quantity. Here are things to think about:

  • How often do you have new products available? Weekly,  monthly, seasonally or maybe even less?
  • Do your products change every year or can you focus on timelesss pieces that will last? These can always been updates or tweaked over time.
  • Think about the using highest quality materials you can, the better quality a product is the longer it will last, the longer until it becomes ‘waste’.
  • How many products will you make? Will they be mass produced or could they be made in small batches? Prehaps even made to order? Keeping production runs lower ensures you don’t over produce. 

Packaging

The packaging used to in fashion can be very wasteful, contributing to global plastic pollution. Here are things to consider when choosing your packaging:

  • Think about postage packaging but also things like swing tags
  • Thino about which packaging you really need, try to keep it to a minimum.
  • What mertial is it made from?
  • Can the chosen material(s) be easily recycled or are they decompostable?
  • Can you use recycled materials?
  • Thinking circular, could you introduce a system where your packaging can be sent back and reused? Asket have introduced a system called Repack which is a great example of this. Click the link to read more about it.

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