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Sustainable fashion has become a buzz word in recent years like vegan fashion, slow fashion – all in contrast to fast fashion. This post explores the most common  definitions of what is sustainable fashion. It elucidates contradictions within the definitions, and the need to develop a certified standard for what is sustainable fashion.



Definition of What Is Sustainable Fashion

When you google for the definition of Sustainability in Fashion you find not a straight, consistent answer. On the contrary, depending on the source the lists of  requirements differ in notable details. However, in most definitions, sustainability in fashion requires that the clothes


  • Are biodegradable,
  • Consist of fibers from natural or recycled sources,
  • Are from raw materials grown without pesticides or fertilizers,
  • Production consumed less energy and water (than what?),
  • Received no chemical treatment.


Some definitions definitions explicitly mention eco-friendliness. Whilst others include ethical and/or environmentally responsible sourcing of raw material and production. However, societal and health issues regarding the workforce are rarely included.


Which Fabrics Are Biodegradable?

Fabrics made of yarns from animal hair, secrets of spiders and silkworms, and plant fibers including regenerated fibers are biodegradable. While regenerated fibers like Lyocell, Tencel, Modal, bamboo-viscose are made from wood/bamboo-pulp,  they are technically semi-synthetics. In their production, chemicals  serve to generate the fibers from the pulp.

This means that biodegradable clothes are not necessarily environmentally friendly.


cotton bales in the field in Texas
Cotton field with cotton bales after the harvest. “H. Texas – Briscoe – Silverton – 2014” by chuck4x5 | The Dry-Plate Studio is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.



What Are Fibers from Natural or Recycled Sources?

Natural sources for fibers are goats (cashmere, mohair), camels, sheep (wool), musk oxen (qiviut), rabbits (angora),  silkworms and spiders (silk), and various plants.  Gaining the silk fiber involves killing the pupated caterpillars.


soaking silk worms as a sustainable source for fashion
“Turkey September 2013. Carpet factory. Silk worm cocoons being soaked to remove the silk strand.” by Anne & David (Use Albums) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.


The  fibers of banana, jute, hemp, bamboo and flax  can be extracted by mechanical or chemical retting processes or a combination thereof.

Natural sources for rayon are cotton, bamboo, and wood  from eucalyptus-, spruce-, and/or pine trees. Incase of viscose, natural sources are beech, eucalyptus, pine, bamboo, soy, and sugar cane. Both rayon and viscose are semi-synthetics.

Speaking of synthetics, things become even more complex. Fossil oil stems from natural sources. Furthermore, polyester can be made from natural polymers like included, for instance, in milk or soy.

Fibers from recycled sources can be synthetics like for instance recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (rPET).


This means 1) sourcing the fibers may involve chemicals; 2) clothes from recycled fibers may be semi-synthetics or synthetics, 3) polyester can stem from natural sources.



What Is the Normal Practice Regarding Pesticides or Fertilizers?

Growing without pesticides or fertilizers is beneficial for the groundwater and rivers. Typically, neither pesticides nor fertilizers are applied in forests. Hemp and flax grow even on soils that are unsuitable for other agricultural use. Consequently, growing hemp or flax doesn’t require application of fertilizers.


flax as a renewable source for what is sold as sustainable fashion
Close-up on the blossoms of flax that belongs to the so-called renewable sources for fibers in the textile industry.


In general, plants can be genetically-modified for resistance against pests. This means wildlife may munch on genetically-modified plants. Incase of game, it may enter the human food chain indirectly even when the consumer follows a GMO-free diet.



Use of Water and Energy

Here are several problems. First, less water and energy consumption as compared to what? Second, where and/or when starts the counting, and what to include? Here some thoughts to illustrate why the answers to these questions make a difference.

Location and the market place (local vs. global) influence energy and water consumption in various ways. In many regions, irrigation serves to grow the plants. What about the energy for transport from the source (oil field, forest, field) to the facility? Incase of counting from the sourcing to the closet, the number of middlemen strongly affects the energy consumption.

Incase of counting only the water consumed in the facilities, not dyeing the natural fibers, yarns, or fabrics saves a lot of water. However, incase of polyester, incorporation of the dye at the fiber-creation level makes dyeing and rinsing obsolete. When humans spin the yarns and weave the fabrics (aka traditional production or artisan made), they consume energy and water in form of food and drinks. Does that count?

What about the energy needed for the commute of the textile workers from home to work and vice versa? It is independent of the source of the raw material.



What Is Considered a Chemical Treatment of Clothes?

Ok, impregnation, application of foils or UV-reflective minerals qualify as chemical treatment because they modify the physical properties of the fabric. The benefits of these treatments are water-proof fabric,  or improved sun-protection. But what about washing the raw material or dyeing?

Whether or not one uses natural or synthetic dyes, technically dyes are chemicals. Consequently, is dyeing a chemical treatment. Or not? To obtain an even color after dyeing, the removal of the natural fibers’ uneven coloring  requires bleaching. However, bleach – no matter whether acidic or basic – is a chemical.

This means only untreated/undyed fabric received (potentially) no chemical treatment.


women shearing sheep in Mongolia
“2017. Sheep shearing. Bulgan Province, Mongolia.” by USDA Forest Service is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0. As is obvious from the photo, natural sheep wool has uneven color at harvest.



How Eco-Friendly Is Sustainable Fashion?

First, eco-friendly can mean friendly for the fashion economy or friendly for the ecosystems like in environmental-friendly fashion.

Sand-blasting, for instance, is a physical treatment that releases dust. This dust may include other small particles than silicates that where adhered to the sand grains. Some of these particles may cause health issues for the occupants of the facility and people living in the plant’s vicinity. Hydrophile airborne particles may affect the weather and air quality in the downwind of the plant as well.

Viscose and rayon rely on wood-pulp. While the source is “renewable”, harvesting of wood means deforestation. Deforestation – even with immediate afforestation – significantly alters the water, energy and trace-gas cycles of the system soil-vegetation-atmosphere.


Sustainable Fashion and Societal Impacts

Some dyes – natural or not – are toxic. While viscose and rayon have natural, so-called “renewable” sources, creating the fibers typically involves health-adverse chemicals. What about sustainability of  the health of workers?

Textile workers belong to one of the most underpaid societal groups. Their wages often are at the edge to sustain making a living. Add long, exhausting commutes on public transportation to the mix. In other words, there are societal (and ethical) issues.


Steps Towards More Transparency in Sustainable Fashion

Recently, some brands provide some (limited) information about their sourcing of raw material and packaging, their efforts of minimizing waste in the production, their concepts to save energy, and/or their (waste) water management/treatment on their webpages. See, for instance, my reviews of

Just to mention a few.


outfit with garments from sustainable sources
All natural sources garments: Linen pants (flax), viscose hoodie (bamboo), cotton sweater, belt (cow leather), but is it really sustainable fashion? Without further information on the labels or standardized requirements, consumers remain in the dark.


Conclusion on What Is Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainability in fashion has come a long way, but there is an even longer way to go. Otherwise sustainable fashion remains/becomes just a marketing concept.

Next steps have to include more clarity regarding the definition of Sustainability in Fashion. Development of a certified standard could increase consumer trust and by-in. Such a standard would provide more transparency of the production processes with respect to all resources including human resources. What is done to keep them safe and healthy? More information on fabric properties would help customers to choose clothing with treatments they want (e.g., impregnation, UV-protective minerals).

Unambiguous labeling, clear wording and disclosure of sources and material used, production method, and treatment could simplify the distinction between fabrics from natural and regenerated fibers. Offering a garment as bamboo from renewable sources, for instance, blind-sides the customer with respect to the actual way of obtaining the fibers. While virgin bamboo and viscose bamboo marginally differ in thermo-physiological properties and wear comfort, the consumer might prefer the former over the latter. Some consumers may be willing to pay the higher price for the more labor-intensive mechanically-gained (virgin) fibers.

Sustainable fashion should strive to balance the economic interests of the producer with those of their employees and customers, while minimizing adverse impacts for the health of their employees, customers and society at-large, and on the systems soil-water-atmosphere-biosphere.



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Karthikeyan, G., G. Nalankilli, O. Shanmugasundaram, C. Prakash, 2016. Thermal Comfort Properties of Bamboo Tencel Knitted Fabrics. International Journal of Clothing Science and Technology. 10.1108/IJCST-08-2015-0086.

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Mölders, N., 2023. Inventory of the Thermo-Physiological Behavior of Fabrics – A Review. Journal of Textile Science and Technology, 9, 127-150.

Mölders, N., 2023. Discover the Relation between Fashion, Fabrics, Weather, and Comfort. In press.

Potter, G.L., H.W. Ellsaesser, M.C. Maccracken, F.M. Luther, 1975. Possible Climatic Impact of Tropical Deforestation. Nature, 258, 697-698.

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© 2013-2023 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. You are right that some brands abuse the “sustainability” or “green” trend as a marketing concept. It’s unfair to their customers and their competition who really make the efforts.

  2. It’s a difficult one because everything has an impact. We need more transparency from brands about the environmental impact of production and an end to greenwashing.

    Emma xxx

  3. So what you are saying is that the definitions of sustainability and eco-friendly are in a state of flux, different parameters depending on whom you ask. Which generally don’t include labor costs or risks taken. What industry has ever self-regulated itself?