Understanding Sustainability in Fashion

Yeah, so I decided to write about this topic and found out (not really to my surprise) that it was going to take several blog posts to really do the topic justice. I guess I’ll add that to the list of things that I want to write about.

Anyway, today I wanted to take a second to write about some of the initiatives and changes that have happened in the fashion world since the pandemic ground it (the world) to a halt in March of 2020. Most of what I’m going to go over isn’t necessarily *new* to the fashion world, but the prominence of these standards and technologies in manufacturing and distribution have become even more important in a post-pandemic world. People are more aware than ever of the impact that their buying habits have on the world (especially Gen-Z buyers) and the trends in the market reflect that.

The information below is a cobbled-together look at several interviews and descriptions from various websites. None of the information is new or collected by me, and I’ll link the websites and various other sources where I reference them in the writing.

With that being said, the first thing I want to talk about is what I’ve noticed personally. As someone who likes to think they know a thing or several about fashion, I want to talk to people constantly about what they buy, where they buy and why they buy it. Usually it’s to complete a look. Other times it’s for a specific event (i.e. interview), other times it’s just something fun to do after a bit of a boozy brunch. Shopping is, at it’s very core, a chance for us to spend time with one another while encouraging purchases which we may or may not need.

Recently however there’s been a gigantic surge in buying with intentionality. It’s become vogue to shop with a purpose, with a goal in mind, rather than just strolling through the isles of a local department store with a loaded credit card and zero self control. I can’t say that I’m opposed to this new “conscious shopper” though. In all honesty, I adore it. It’s been a welcome change, and one that I think the companies that we frequent are starting to recognize as valid.

But there’s one customer that I think very few companies are prepared for. It’s the customer that dives a little deeper than whatever’s “trendy” at the moment. There’s a new wave of customers who care more about the ethos and the purpose behind the brand than the popularity of the label. Customers who ask questions and demand transparency from the stores in which they shop. For now, let’s take a bit of a deeper dive into what makes a brand “ethical” and spend some time figuring out what some of the standards, certifications and technologies are that we should become familiar with.

Patagonia’s classic logo, a stylized Fitz Roy Traverse

For me, I’ve had the idea of sustainable fashion sort of spoon-fed to me through my work at REI. I’ve worked in a couple of different places that have sold clothing (The North Face being the other major retailer), but REI was the first place where I was exposed to phrases like “RDS Certification” and “Bluesign Certified” and expected to know what they mean. I didn’t know what a B-Corp was when I started, and I certainly didn’t know there was a Global Organic Textile Standard system (GOTS for short). There’s a whole world of lingo, acronyms and standards so thick that it seems like it will take years to sort out, but I’ll start off with what a B-Corp is.

“Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.”


It seems fairly standard, right? Certified B Corporations are businesses which have had the whole of their operations reviewed, tested and evaluated to determine that the companies (whomever they may be) have had a positive impact and play an active role in making the communities they serve better. For example, Patagonia was one of the first major corporations to achieve this B Corp certification, and they played an active role in shaping the way that other companies are tested and evaluated (if you’re a sustainability nerd, Patagonia’s impact report for 2019 is available here). Being a B Corp is nothing to laugh at either. The amount of time, effort and expense it takes is immense, and shows that the company is confidant in the role that they play in their communities and the greater world around them.

Front counter at Aldea Coffee in Grand Haven, MI

In fact, one of my favorite coffee shops on the West side of Michigan is called Aldea Coffee and they’ve been a certified B Corporation for quite some time now, and since walking through their door last summer (peep the reference in this post) on my way to discovering Tenden, I’ve been a fan. I don’t make it out to Grand Haven often, but when I do Aldea is one of the first places I’ll stop, if not for coffee, then some small snacks and good conversation with the baristas. Their blog is also a good stopping point if you can’t make it into the shop. They’ve got everything from updates on their apparel line (thrifted, upcycled clothing) to their 2020 Impact Report, which is such a good and unusual thing for a business to do.

Long story short; I’m a gigantic fan of theirs. Well, all B Corporations in general. In fact, here’s a list of some of my favorites!

Alejandra Slip On by Nisolo, a certified B Corporation

Now that we’ve established what a certified B corporation is, now we can talk about some of the standards and certifications are for specific products within the fashion world. Now, what I’m going to talk about here is by no means a comprehensive list. There’s other sources that are much more in-depth and offer better explanations than this one (check this link for a wonderful reference which I’ve used for this post). I just want to go over why these are important and offer a brief explanation of some of the most common.

Important to note that these are also certifications for businesses which produce clothing or textiles. Being a B Corporation is available for most businesses, whereas these are more specialized.

Firstly, these certifications are important because of the industry standards that they uphold through the review, analysis and testing of various brands. For example, being certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (G.O.T.S.) mandates that the textiles/clothing you’re buying are covered and certified as being produced humanely and safely. Really, these standards are a wonderful way to give customers – who might not understand all the nuances that go on behind the scenes of the clothing/textile world – a fighting chance in making informed decisions about their purchases.

It should also be noted (and I should have done this earlier) that just because a company doesn’t feature these certifications that doesn’t mean that these companies aren’t ethically sourced or trustable. It costs quite a bit to get these certifications every year and some companies aren’t in the position to afford that (think small mom and pop shops or a local store without a nationwide distribution). That being said, let’s take a super quick look at some certifications and what they cover.

  • Bluesign – helps review processes of production of textiles across all stages, ensuring a safe and healthy environment for all involved in the production, manufacture and transport of textiles.
  • Responsible Down Standard – I talked about this in a previous post, but this certification proves the elimination of harmful practices like live plucking and force feeding in the production of down insulation.
  • Better Cotton Initiative – Having this symbol shows that the owner of the corporation is dedicated to continuing the trend of producing organic cotton, and contributing to a program which will encourage and enable other farms to do the same.
  • Leather Working Group – They take into account things like waste management, energy consumption, water usage, traceability, restricted substances, and more to establish a rating for companies who work with leather based on their environmental impact.

As I’ve said before, this is far from an exhaustive list. The link for the comprehensive list I’ve used is here, and I encourage you to look through and do some digging of your own. Responsible consumption starts with intentional research.

There’s one last point I want to make and then I promise I’m done. It’s a quote too, so you know it won’t take up a whole lot of space.

“This industry is about emotional attachment, loyalty, and excitement for brands. And we are very convinced that, in the future, brand love and brand loyalty will very much be dependent on the sustainability attributes that a brand enables or builds with its consumers.”

The Next Normal

In fact, the quote above comes from one of the most engaging and interesting interview compilations I’ve seen in recent months. It’s a treasure trove of interesting developments in fashion and marketing, and I spent far too many hours reading through it cover to cover (multiple times) before I felt like I really understood it.

The major theme of these interviews is building a circular consumption model for fashion in order to improve environmental impact. This (along with the adaptation of new production practices) will improve brand loyalty and will ensure a longer lasting and more sustainable industry. It doesn’t matter if the clothes are more expensive because the consumer knows that when they stop wearing it (take, for example, my Patagonia t-shirt I’m wearing right now), it can be donated or sold to someone else who might not be able to buy it new. It’s still a quality piece of clothing, but it gets a new lease on life through the act of passing it along rather than throwing it away.

If I say the phrase “Thrift Shop”, chances as you have this song stuck in your head

One of the major takeaways that I had from that article is the idea that companies may use product ID’s to offer suggestions for resale based on a customer’s wearing habits. For example, if I don’t wear a jacket for a couple years (for whatever reason) the system would connect me with another customer who’s searching for a coat with the same size, but who doesn’t want to pay full resale price. This model would cut down on the amount of returns that the company needs to make, the gas it takes to drive out to the location (especially if the customer lives some distance away) and would facilitate a better understanding and utilization of secondhand markets.

I know the title of the blog is “understanding” sustainability in fashion, but it’s a topic that I would have to write about for decades before I really felt as though I’ve communicated it properly. At the end of the day, “understanding” comes from research. It comes from paying attention, investigation and demanding accountability. It comes from exploring new ideas and taking risks.

Hopefully some of the subjects that I’ve talked about have at least sparked an interest in the subject. We’re not perfect, and I’m not saying that should be the goal, but a better awareness and understanding of the behind-the-scenes will only lead to better, more well-informed decisions being made in the future.

As always, thank you so much for reading! I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything but with college ending and searching for jobs it’s been really hard to stick to a consistent schedule. That will change soon, and I can’t wait to hear what you think about this subject! If you have any thoughts, questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to contact me from any of the links down below! I’d love to hear from you and have a chance to discuss what ideas or new information in this article stood out to you.

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