At the moment, all everybody seems to be talking about is “sustainability” and how our actions are killing the planet for future generations. And while the facts behind this are beyond alarming and require immediate action, they don’t have to equal in despair, especially if  we’re all equipped with the right knowledge.

In terms of the fashion industry, that knowledge starts on the labels of the products we buy and on the websites of the brands we buy from.

In order to make informed decisions as consumers we must better understand the many terms housed under the word “sustainability,” which are often banded around without an explanation of what they actually mean.

Apps like Good On You are an amazing place to start when trying to better understand our favorite brands and the impact they have on the world. As for understanding the terminology? That’s where we come in. Below you’ll find the ultimate guide to all those confusing sustainability buzzwords, laid out in a graspable manner that hopefully won’t make your head spin.

Biodegradable means that a product can break down naturally without any negative effects on the environment, such as releasing harmful chemicals. In the fashion industry, biodegradable often refers to non-synthetic fabrics such as organic cotton (description below), silk, and hemp — those without dyes and finishing chemicals.

Carbon, as The Guardian explains, is shorthand for all the various greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — that absorb and emit radiant energy that increase the temperature of the earth’s surface and therefore contribute to climate change. A company striving for carbon neutrality means they are aiming to eliminate all carbon emissions from their supply chain.

Gucci is currently aiming to do this and while it acknowledges that going completely carbon-neutral is impossible given its business model, it has promised to offset its emissions with donations to wider REDD+ (a program that supports countries’ efforts to reduce emissions and tackle deforestation) efforts.

Circular fashion refers to the entire lifecycle of a product and centers on a circle of create, use, recycle, rather than create, use, dispose. It looks at products beyond their original function and timespan and focuses on how their materials can be consistently utilized and repurposed. Circular fashion takes in to consideration everything including the design, sourcing, transportation, storage, marketing, sale and disposal of the product.

Cost-per-wear considers the value of a piece in relation to how many times it’s worn. For example, you buy a pair of $200 sneakers and wear them twice, that’s $100 per wear. You wear them 100 times, its $2 per wear, and so on.

In a nutshell, the price you pay for an item should be reflective of its value to you. Think of items less as objects but more in terms of use. It’s much better to spend more on a pair of jeans you can practically live in for the next few decades than a cheap $30 pair that fall apart in under a year.

A closed loop cycle is a common term and its very similar to circular fashion but can be applied to products outside the industry, too. In fashion it means that all new clothes are made from preexisting clothes and textiles, The Guardian explains. Once an item has fulfilled its use, it can be broken down through an environmentally sound process and turned back into yarn/fabric and then recycled into another garment. This forms a “closed loop” in that an item would have an eternal life cycle and therefore eliminate waste.

Cruelty-free means that companies did not test ingredients or products on animals during the production phase. Cruelty-free, therefore, also means that no animals were killed or harmed anywhere in the world during production. Items that meet this standard normally carry a heart symbol.

In terms of materials, there are certain standards you should look for to ensure the product you’re purchasing doesn’t hurt the animal it comes from. For example, while wool (if free of synthetic blends) is technically biodegradable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the sheep it comes from was treated well. PETA has documented horrific cases of sheep mistreatment in Australia. The country produces much of the world’s merino wool but also uses a grim procedure called “mulesing” in which flesh is cut from a sheep’s buttock’s to prevent flystrike (flies laying eggs on the animal that grow into maggots and eat flesh) but does so without anesthetic.

Then of course you have leather, down, fur, and a bunch of other fabrics to wade through. Your best bet in terms of finding out how a specific brand handles animal-cruelty is checking Good on You as the app rates brands based on their treatment of animals.

Cruelty-free does not mean, however, that animal ingredients are avoided. The verdict is still out on whether using animals for human-intended products and purposes can be considered entirely cruelty-free. For products that don’t use animals at all, you want to be shopping vegan (definition below).

Eco-friendly, like sustainability, is an all encompassing term that takes many factors into account. “Eco” is short for ecology, the study of interaction between organisms and the environment. Therefore, eco-friendly is about minimizing anything that would negatively affect that balance. Things to consider include what material a product is made from, such as organic cotton or hemp, whether its dyed with organic dye (using vegetables, for example) or chemicals, and how much water is used to grow the fabric.

Like sustainability and eco-friendly, ethical fashion is an umbrella term that includes fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. The exact definition is vague but overall ethical fashion is understood to indicate an active approach to creating goods that positively impact the environment and the lives of those making them, reducing poverty through non-exploitative (fair pay, good conditions) employment.

In reality, it’s virtually impossible for a brand creating new products from new materials to ever be completely ethical as it just does not positively impact the environment. It is, however, a good reference point for brands to have in an attempt to better their production practices.

Fast fashion is the term used to describe clothing that is produced quickly and cheaply. Brands and retailers that engage in fast fashion often create products based on seasonal trends directly inspired by the runway. Fast fashion brands are generally associated with overproduction, low retail prices, mass waste, poor working conditions, and negative environmental impact.

Chances are high that you’ve come across The Fairtrade Mark, used as a signifier for products that meet internationally agreed social, environmental, and economic Fairtrade Standards in the last few years. Profits made from products that qualify for the Fairtrade Mark go towards supporting farmers and workers, and improving lives and communities. Fairtrade Cotton has its own mark as does Fairtrade Textile Production, and these symbols are good indications of how ethically sound a garment is.

If an item is FSC-certified it means that the fabric is made from tree fibers that come from sustainable sources in that they do not originate from endangered or ancient forests. Rather, the fibers here come from well-managed forests and large scale areas of conservation. TENCEL and MONOCEL products, for example, are often made from FSC certified eucalyptus and bamboo respectively.

For more info on FSC, head to the official website.

Greenwashing is what happens when a brand gives a false impression of its sustainable endeavors. With the increasing demand for sustainability in the fashion industry, some brands are launching “sustainable” capsules such as a line of organic tees. Through a line like that, the brand hopes to convince consumers that that small collection speaks for the brand’s production values as a whole, regardless of whether or not that’s actually the case. We wrote about how to spot greenwashing tactics here.

Paying someone a living wage is to pay workers from all aspects of the production process a fair salary so they are not trapped in poverty. The Asia Floor Wage, for example, takes into account how many family members a person is supporting, their nutritional needs, education, housing, and other living costs, and calculates wages based on that. Of course, a living wage varies from country to country and that is also taken into consideration.

Ocean waste or marine debris, as Ocean Service explains, is concerned with “persistent solid material (such as plastic) that is manufactured or processed and disposed of into the marine environment.” Not only does this injure and kill marine life and causes potential navigation and safety risks, but it also poses a threat to human health.

Standards differ as to what “organic” means from country to country but generally speaking organic fashion refers to the materials used and how they’re grown. Namely, this means that the materials are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, or other chemicals.

The term “monoculture” and “monocropping” are used a lot in relation to organic farming, too. According to World Atlas, monoculture refers to the agricultural practice of growing or cultivating a single species of crop or animal. It’s predominately a large-scale production technique, allowing for specialization, efficiency, and simplification. However, it comes with side-effects.

In a varied cultivation set-up, each plant contributes to that particular environment, keeping the nutrients in the soil balanced and replenished. The growth of only one crop has a negative effect on the texture of the soil due to the lack of varied bacteria and promotes contamination, which leads to the use of more pesticides, fertilizers, and ultimately more water usage. Read more about monocultures and its effects here.

As Research Gate explains, pre-consumer waste refers to manufacturing waste. Post-consumer waste is what’s collected after the owner has disposed of it.

There’s often much confusion about the difference between recycling and upcycling. Simply put, recycling refers to the industrial process in which a product is broken down into its base materials, which are then used for the production of something new. Upcycling, on the other hand, is about creatively re-imagining the purpose of an object, transforming and reinventing its function.

As you would expect, slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion. It’s about rejecting consumeristic impulses and embracing a slower, more mindful model of consumerism. While this doesn’t eradicate shopping entirely, it refers to only buying things you actually need and items of quality that will last. It’s about being conscious of what you buy and how that purchase will impact others (asking who makes the clothes and how, for example) and the environment.

Social responsibility means that a company adheres to a business framework that values people and the planet as well as profit. It’s about benefiting local communities and their environment. Unfortunately, brands claiming social responsibility can’t always be taken at face value. Recent studies have found that sound brands aren’t always straightforward about their responsible endeavors. For more information on how to spot these tactics, see Greenwashing.

Tier 1 factories are either where a product’s production process is finished or where a product is prepared for distribution. They’re described as the most important part of the supply chain as often its the Tier 1 factory that directly supplies the brand. Companies that share their factory information, names and address, help consumers understand more about where their products are coming from.

Adversely, however, companies can use Tier 1 factories to their advantage. As the New Yorker pointed out back in 2013, brands can list the location of the factory on the “Made In …” label, rather than the country in which the majority of the work was done, opting on the location that seems more premium.

The FTC has published guidelines on what constitutes a legit “Made in America” label, stating that “all or virtually all” of the product must be made in the United States. For a full breakdown, head here.

Transparency and traceability go hand-in-hand. In order to be transparent, a brand shares the names and information about every factory (and ideally every worker) involved in the manufacturing process. In turn, this gives a product traceability, meaning consumers can trace a product and its components back through each step of the supply chain, right down to its raw material.

If you want to avoid animal products entirely, you need to be shopping vegan. Vegan fashion means that no animal testing nor animal-derived fabrics such as leather, fur, or exotic skins are included in products and collections. For more information on vegan brands and fabrics, head to PETA.

Missed a term or need something clarifying further? Let us know in the comments. 

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