Editor’s Note: This article was produced by CNN Style’s editorial team in partnership with Fashion Revolution, an international non-profit campaigning for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry.
To better understand the fashion industry’s toll on the planet, as well as new proposals to reduce its environmental footprint, it’s important to get to know the jargon used everywhere from scientific studies and news reports to marketing campaigns.
Over the years, certain terminology in this space has become fashionable, and some definitions have become diluted as they have been more widely used.
If you’ve found yourself wondering, what “sustainability” or “carbon neutral” really means, you are not alone and the good news is you’re asking the right questions.
Read on to learn more.
A term used by some scientists to describe the Earth’s current geological time period, as shaped by human impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. “The Anthropocene is the first geological era to be shaped by our actions – it names humans as homewreckers of our only shared abode,” writes Professor Dilys Williams, the director of London-based Centre for Sustainable Fashion, for an issue of Fashion Revolution.
“Fashion is a vivid means for us to play out our identities in this context; what we make, buy, wear and cherish shapes and responds to our intentions in vital and substantial ways. The Anthropocene presents us with the biggest ever opportunity to make the ultimate fashion statement.”
Textiles that are created using living organisms such as algae, bacteria and fungi. These alternative fabrics are most often biodegradable, breaking down into nontoxic substances when they are returned to earth. Designer Roya Aghighi for example, has created Biogarmentry, an algae-based fabric that photosynthesizes, helping to purify the air around it; others are also exploring the marine plant’s ability to sequester carbon. In the future, garments that can capture and absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide could help brands become truly carbon-neutral, instead of using carbon-offsets to curb emissions.
Terminology that becomes fashionable. Since 2017, British and American retailers’ use of the word “sustainable” to describe various products online has increased by 125%. From 2018 to 2019, the following words also saw a jump: recycled (173%) eco (49%) and conscious (25%). Buzzwords may be eye-catching for consumers seeking to adopt ethical shopping habits, but their definitions can be nebulous and their use isn’t regulated, so they can be used to mislead buyers (see Greenwashing).
Carbon Neutral / Water Neutral
A business or operation with a net-zero footprint, in terms of greenhouse gasses emitted or water used. Companies can, theoretically, achieve this by reducing their climate impact, then mitigating the rest of their consumption through initiatives like carbon offsetting. However, some critics claim that true carbon or water neutrality simply isn’t possible (see Carbon Offset) with even greater skepticism surrounding the term “carbon negative” (or “climate positive”) – the claim that an operation produces an overall reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
A reduction in greenhouse gases designed to counterbalance an increase in emissions elsewhere. This may include planting trees, which will go on to absorb carbon dioxide, or investing in the development of renewable energy sources. In the fashion industry, companies looking to offset their carbon emissions will often support projects in developing nations to reduce global emissions. But offsetting may only outsource the problem. As the co-founder of Fashion Revolution, Orsola de Castro, notes: “Offsetting is like saying, ‘I’m going to keep a really, really messy house but pay someone to clean my next-door neighbor’s.”
A system of designing and producing clothes that eradicates waste. In a circular system, the future of a material or resource is considered from the beginning, with the goal that it circulates indefinitely or returns to the biosphere safely. A “closed loop” may consist of a wide range of technologies and innovations, from clothing rental services to materials made from food waste. As academics Rebecca Earley and Kate Goldworthy write for Fashion Revolution: “The same system could include slow garments, which are handcrafted or upcycled from pre-loved ones, at the same time as fast garments, which are made from fibres that can be chemically recycled back to virgin quality in a closed loop system.”
Possessing or demonstrating two or more conflicting beliefs or behaviors on a given subject (for instance, posting about conscious consumption on Instagram while continuing to buy fast fashion). Social psychologist Leon Festinger has suggested that humans experience psychological tension when our beliefs and actions don’t match up.
The act of one country exerting authority over other territories for economic gain, or an entity taking advantage of an emerging economy. And it’s happening right now in the fashion industry, according to Céline Semaan, founder of The Library and Slow Factory. “Our supply chains and each of the most used materials in fashion expose the obvious: Colonialism is a continuing economic reality,” she told Fashion Revolution. “Exploitation of cheap labor, modern day slavery and extreme poverty are the result of a colonial system that continues to benefit from its colonies.”
Making purchasing decisions based on a product or brand’s environmental, economic and/or social impact, including how an item was made, how workers are treated and the values that a company upholds. Conscious consumption may also mean consuming less, overall, and instead focusing on extending the life of – whether that’s reusing, renting, repairing or recycling – products already in existence.
Natural fibers that are biodegradable have a smaller carbon and water footprint, like Merino wool. However, not all eco-friendly materials are created equal – their farming and supply chains can make them unsustainable. While cotton is a natural fiber, and is – by itself – biodegradable, its production involves vast quantities of water and insecticides, and can include toxic processes, such as bleaching and dyeing. Some designers, however, are looking into innovative approaches to evolve such processes so that the use of natural fibers, like cotton and wool, can be as environmentally friendly as possible.
Fast / Slow Fashion
An approach that sees brands responding to new trends by rolling out inexpensive and often poor-quality variations. The term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times in 1989 to describe the debuting Zara and Express, both of which offered runway looks at comparatively affordable prices. By way of contrast, “slow fashion” encourages shopping mindfully (see Conscious Consumption) and maintaining a limited wardrobe of essentials rather than following fleeting trends.
Cleaning, taking care of and repairing one’s clothes to make them last, with an emphasis on non-harmful practices. According to Fashion Revolution’s zine “Loved Clothes Last,” consumers can remove stains with non-toxic chemicals, clean jeans by freezing them, wash clothes sparingly or in cooler temperatures, and learn how to stitch, patch and embroider to mend or remix old garments.
When brands, organizations or governments promote an eco-conscious image without taking meaningful action to back it up. This often sees companies misleading consumers by claiming they’re more sustainable (see Buzzwords) than their manufacturing and sourcing practices might suggest. “Sometimes a fashion brand can use a single ‘sustainable’ project or moment to manipulate customers into believing the brand’s entire value chain and ethos is ethical,” writes Tammy Gan for Fashion Revolution. “This is often evident in consumer-facing initiatives like a communication campaign, a fashion collection or brand packaging, leaving other irresponsible supply chain details and decisions hidden.”
In the 2016 documentary “River Blue,” which explores the fashion industry’s role in destroying the world’s waterways, Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain used the term “hydrocide” to describe the harm that humans cause to waterways through industrialization. “In Bangladesh, the Buriganga river is polluted daily by toxic leather tanneries, while, in Indonesia, the Citarum River is home to some 2,000 textile factories, dumping waste and effluent into the unregulated waters,” Narain says in the documentary. “Fashion industry hydrocide is driving water scarcity around the globe.”
Sourcing from and employing industries and artisans that are local to either the producer or the place where a style or garment originated. Take Sri Lankan fashion designer Amesh Wijesekera, who fuses Western design influences with the hand-looming, knitting, crocheting, printing traditions of his home country. “When creating a collection, I go to (artisans’) homes in the weaving villages and we work together,” he told CNN. “They have all the knowledge on the craft and craftmanship and I bring the new ideas with the designs.
The minimum amount a worker should earn in order to afford essentials including food, housing, health insurance, education and clothing for themselves and their family. The living wage does not necessarily coincide with a country’s minimum wage. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, garment workers are paid, on average, two to five times less than the amount needed for their family to “live with dignity.”
The legal minimum wage for garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, is 8,000 taka ($94) a month, while the living wage for a typical family has been estimated to be double that. In Ethiopia, where there is no mandated minimum wage, a recent NYU report found that the country’s garment workers are the lowest paid in the world, making just $26 a month, despite being a top exporter of clothing. Fashion brands are being pressured to ensure their factories pay a living wage, with critics suggesting that the industry’s low wages make it complicit in modern slavery.
The duration and lifespan of an item. Although “circular fashion” offers a way to responsibly produce new garments (see Circular Fashion), it requires system-wide design and thus there’s only so much an individual consumer can do to contribute. Instead, consumers can focus on longevity – re-wearing and mending clothes for as long as possible (see Garment Care). Fashion companies can help by “shifting the focus of their dominant marketing narratives from convenience and short-lived trends to the aesthetics of durability, longevity and quality,” writes design academic and educator Jonathan Chapman for Fashion Revolution.
Tiny fragments of plastic that have increasingly polluted the world’s ecosystems – primarily through oceans and rivers. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), any piece of plastic less than 5mm long, including microbeads from personal care products and microfibers from synthetic clothing, can be considered a microplastic. The textile industry produces more than 40 million tons of synthetic fabrics each year. Every load of laundry sheds millions of microfibers, and not all of them are filtered at wastewater treatment plants. The potential effects of such particles accumulating in our food chain are still worryingly unknown.
The choices that fashion brands make when selecting and doing business with suppliers and manufacturers. These decisions have a direct impact on both the environment and workers’ well-being. In 2013, for instance, a structurally unsafe garment factory building, Rana Plaza, collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 people who made clothes for brands including Benetton, Bonmarché, The Children’s Place, Walmart and Zara. The tragedy laid bare the consequences of factory negligence, while raising questions about whether labels should take greater responsibility for their supply chains.
Sustainable / Ethical Fashion
Sustainability is a way of meeting human needs without depleting Earth’s natural resources or damaging its ecological balance, thus preserving the planet and its assets for future generations. Sustainable fashion has become a buzzword in recent years, with many experts critical of how its vague and arbitrary use can mislead buyers (see Greenwashing). Likewise, ethical fashion is a larger umbrella term that implies honest, transparent business practices that prioritize sustainability as well as positive social impact, such as providing a living wage for factory workers. However, there is no clear-cut definition or internationally agreed upon criteria to call a brand “ethical,” making the label murky for consumers.
The extent to which a brand discloses credible and comprehensive information about how its products are made, including its manufacturing processes, distribution, worker welfare and environmental impact. Greater transparency facilitates third-party auditing, encourages accountability and helps shoppers make more ethical decisions (see Conscious Consumption). Fashion Revolution global policy director, Sarah Ditty, writes: “Transparency is not a silver bullet that will solve the many complex and deeply systemic problems in the global fashion industry. However, transparency provides a window into the conditions in which our clothes are being made and allows us to address them more quickly and collaboratively.”.
Transforming old and/or unwanted products and materials into new ones, thus giving them new life and increasing their actual or perceived value. In fashion, this can be done both by garment producers – using scraps and excess fabric to produce new items, for instance – and by consumers, who can repurpose clothes they no longer wear into new items. Unlike recycling, which often seeks to extract valuable materials, upcycling results in an item of higher value than its constituent parts.