Sustainable, ethical, eco conscious or vegan fashion - What is the difference?

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Becoming a conscious consumer is not easy. Where do you begin? How do you distinguish "good fashion" from "bad fashion"? Which garments qualify as vegan? Is your poly blend midi dress eligible to be labeled as ethical? Why should it matter whether your T-Shirt is made of organic cotton or the traditional one? "What do I choose?" And the best question of all: "Why should I care? It's just clothes for God's sake!" Overwhelming to say the least. I think the best way to move forward, to make positive changes, to choose better alternatives, it is crucial to know the facts and what is what in fashion anno 2016.

Why the buzz

Before getting into details of what sustainability is, it is important to know why this concept has taken over the fashion world and why everybody is being addressed to take part in it.

Here is the biggest fact: fashion industry is the 2nd biggest polluter in the world, after oil. It starts with the way the raw materials are being grown. Toxic chemicals, pesticides, are used to extinguish insects or any other living organism that may damage the cotton plant. Cotton, together with polyester, is the most important raw material in the fashion industry. Besides using pesticides, the seeds of the cotton plant are being genetically manipulated (GMO). These GMO seeds are filled with a toxic substance that is deadly to the insects. And to the environment.

Turning raw materials into fabrics is a polluting process. Treating and dyeing requires a lot of water. The toxins that are being used during that process are then being released back into the water stream.

Conscious or Eco-conscious

Being conscious of something, of ecology, is a state of mind. It's something that is established before ethics. Because you must first be aware, be conscious of a situation (I need to use raw materials to make a skirt). Then you become conscious of the fact that you have options (traditional cotton VS organic cotton). After you've become conscious of the choices, you become conscious of the multiple outcomes of those choices (traditional cotton is cheaper but toxic VS organic cotton is costly but healthy).

Something that is labeled as "Conscious" isn't necessarily good for the environment. Because you can make a consciously bad decision. It's like having 10 ice creams per day, you know it's not good for your health, but you simply can't resist the temptation. So you consciously screw over your health in order to satisfy your high-demanding sweet tooth.

Ethical

Ethics is a philosophy. It's about knowing what is wrong (toxins are bad) and what is right (growing organic cotton is better for people and nature). An ethical fashion brand is aware of what is wrong/unethical (traditional cotton) and what is right/ethical (organic cotton) and chooses the latter.

But then again, ethics is not 100% objective. Otherwise, why are there so many discussions going on around the topic "good fashion"? For some it's unethical to use animal skins to make leather accessories and clothing, for others it's unethical to just let it go to waste as it's a by-product (arguable!) of the meat industry, which is not going anywhere any time soon. Hence the endless discussions between the two parties.

Sustainable

Sustainable fashion keeps in mind the environment, the people and the carbon footprint throughout its total life span. Meaning that the process of turning raw materials (cotton for example) into finished goods is not damaging (or limited damage) to water resources, the air we breath, the ground we walk on or people who make it and wear it. Let's say it's a healthy way of making clothes, shoes and accessories. The principal purpose is to prevent any damage to our planet and its inhabitants, instead of investing in tools to fix it. Sustainability is a long-term vision.

And this is probably one of the biggest dilemmas in fashion today: "What is more sustainable: leather or polyurethane (PU/faux leather)?" But why is it such a debatable subject?

Durability

Naturally, items that last longer are a better choice for the environment (and your cash flow)! Many argue that real leather is a much more durable material. This might have been true in 1950 yes. But today, I would say, Stella McCartney has proved that it is perfectly possible to use synthetic fibers and still produce high quality fashion items. I'm a proud owner of this Falabella Wallet and I can say with certainty that the quality of this iconic, timeless, non-leather piece is impeccable! A worthy investment, no doubt.

Also, durability is a matter of care. My better half is a perfect example of that. Real leather, faux leather, cotton shirt or Ray-Ban sunglasses, nothing stays "as new" for longer than 6 months.

Biodegradability 

Is about how fast materials decompose (dissolve back into the nature). Again, it is being said that it takes real leather much less time to decompose than synthetics fibers like polyurethane. This is a very general, vague statement that doesn't take into consideration toxins and chemicals that are being used to remove hair from the skin, treatments and tanning processes to make leather usable for fashion. Eventually, what used to be a natural fiber becomes a toxic, harmful piece of death.

"Animal skins used for clothing and accessories are loaded with caustic, toxic chemicals that prevent them from decomposing – the very opposite of what we expect from an organic resource." - stellamccartney.com

Vegan

Vegan fashion, or vegan fashion items, are garments or accessories that don't contain any animal products or animal derived products. Instead of using traditional leather (animal skin) and fur (animal hair), vegan fashion items are made of synthetics fibers. Vegan fashion can also be called ethical fashion because it respects animal rights (also referred to as animal ethics).

Recycle VS Upcycle VS Downcycle

Another three important terms that are being used in the concept of sustainability. Sound similar, yet there is a difference!

Recycling is a process of turning something that already exists into something new. It's a sustainable initiative that eliminates the need of growing new raw materials. Hence, it slows down cultivation, production and it reduces pollution and waste. Within the concept of recycling are two exhaustive options: upcycling or downcycling. Let's see what they're all about.

Upcycling

Upcycling is a process of converting "old" materials into "new" materials, of which the quality becomes higher or remains the same. These sweatpants are made of recycled yarn, which is a is an upcycling process. Old pieces of clothes were turned back into yarn (going UP its original production cycle) and then made into this comfy, high quality, off-duty fashion piece.

Also, upcycling can be done over and over again. This form of recycling is the most sustainable one as it keeps clothes away from the landfills.

Downcycling

As opposed to upcycling, downcycling reduces the quality of the "old" material or changes it completely. Plastic bottles that are turned into doormats are an example of downcycling. Recycled paper (the brown one) is also a form of downcycling, as it's of lesser quality than the original one.

Brands that focus on sustainability very often opt for recycled paper boxes and paper. Thumbs up!

Eventually, downcycled products or materials will end up in the landfill. But, it will take much longer before they get there since downcycling can be done 4 or 5 times before it becomes truly obsolete.

Conclusion

That was a mouthful, wasn't it? Let's shake it all off for a second, take a deep breath, regain our strength and move on to a few conclusions.

The most sustainable, most eco-friendly, most ethical fashion is... a palm tree leaf, big enough to cover your vital parts. Indeed, the best alternative would be not to produce at all. But, let's be honest here, the only way that is happening is when the apocalypse will be upon us. Priorities shift a little during such moments of crisis.

Okay, moving away from the black & white scenario, here is what we can do:

  • Invest in high quality pieces, that will last you a lifetime.
  • Take good care of what you have! Don't even take your cheap flats for granted.
  • Consider vintage and second hand stores. So many high quality clothes, bags, shoes and accessories are already made and available to you for a well reduced price. Nothing screams "slow fashion" more than a designer handbag serving more than one person in its lifetime!
  • Don't be afraid to buy clothing and accessories that are made of recycled materials. The quality will astonish you!
  • Get local: Simply "Made in Italy" is not enough. Dig deeper! The more is done locally, the better. The origin of raw materials matters more than you might think. It's a matter of social, animal and environmental ethics. Let's look at it this way: a country that hosts a dog eating festival is not a country with major animal right laws.
  • Choose organic cotton above regular cotton. It's better for the environment, better for the people who've grown it and you. Plus, if it's also fair trade and certified with an SA8000 (certificate that ensures good working environment), you have yourself a winner!
  • Don't criticize others for favoring one aspect of sustainability over the other. Remember that an improvement of 25% is better than zero. Spread useful information with a positive attitude!
  • Be a little sceptical. Whenever you see statements such as "consciously made", "ethically sourced", "we try to be as sustainable as possible" don't just take their word for it. Ask questions. Twitter and Instagram are not only for daily power quotes and outfit displays, it's also a tool for communication that goes both ways.
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