What Does “Sustainable Fashion” Really Mean?

“Sustainable fashion” is an umbrella term that can often be vague and sometimes even seem like greenwashing. But when we discuss sustainability in fashion, we’re talking about practices that are better for people and planet, compared to conventional practices typically used in the industry.

This includes secondhand clothing, slow fashion, high quality and long lasting pieces, eco-friendly or lower impact fabrics, ethical production, conscious consumption, mending and repair of garments, toxic chemical elimination, and buying or producing less. Any of these practices by themselves or in combination with each other could be considered “sustainable.”

“Sustainability” is the intersection of people, planet, and profit. “Fashion” is a form of creative expression, a way to experiment with aesthetics, and a functional tool we use in everyday life. But fashion is also a huge industry with a large environmental footprint that employs millions of people. So “sustainable fashion” lets us all (creators and consumers) reap the benefits of fashion while minimizing the negative environmental and social impacts of the industry as much as possible.

“Regenerative fashion” will be the next step, where the industry moves past a "do less harm" approach and actually positively impacts the environment. Some brands have already started regenerative farming programs!


Okay, cool, but that’s a lot to wrap my head around. Can I get an example?

As a more tangible and practical example, here's what “sustainable fashion” means at my sustainable women’s clothing boutique, Ellekin:

The material a garment is made from accounts for most of its environmental impact, so I place a lot of importance on fiber content when selecting pieces to sell at Ellekin. I have a Yes/Depends/No fiber content list, which was determined by data from the Higg MSI, weighing factors like global warming potential, fossil fuel depletion, and chemistry impact from specific raw materials.

Factory labor and wages is another big factor when selecting the brands I buy from. Factories must ensure safe working conditions and pay workers at least a fair wage, but I prefer that they guarantee a true living wage. I also give preference to brands whose factories are third-party certified by WRAP, Fair Trade, or Fair Wear and provide a public list of factories for transparency.

At the retail level, I also implement many small sustainable business practices that add up. Orders are shipped in 100% recycled poly mailers that can be recycled at thin film in-store takeback bins, and all other packaging materials are reused. My home office is powered by clean, renewable wind energy. I provide free returns, even on sale or clearance items, to encourage conscious purchases, instead of keeping something you won’t wear just to avoid return fees and hassle. And I avoid sales that encourage impulse purchasing like BOGO deals or limited time flash sales. (You can read more on our Sustainability page on ShopEllekin.com!)


That’s a helpful example! Sounds difficult though…

It is. There are always challenges with sustainable fashion! Even determining what I consider sustainable enough for fiber content, labor practices, shipping methods, etc. is difficult, because there are no clear, universal answers.

When determining Ellekin's sustainability criteria, I did a ton of research, asked potential brands in-depth questions, got the best data available, and weighed my options. But eventually I had to be decisive and get clear on my buying rules, knowing that there might be certain exceptions and the possibility to alter them if circumstances change or I learn new information. Progress over perfection is key!

Since Ellekin is a boutique, I buy and curate pieces from wholesale brands. But only approximately 1% of wholesale brands actually meet my sustainability criteria, aesthetic, and price point. So I'm very limited in the assortment I can buy from, and I have little influence on things like price, trends, or sizes offered in particular styles. I’m very selective in the pieces I choose to bring into the store, buying fewer new items in general than the typical boutique or specialty store (a slow fashion practice).

Fast fashion might have a chokehold on customers for now, but conscious consumers are helping change the game! More cute, sustainable, and affordable clothing brands and stores are popping up to give sustainable fashionistas sartorial choices that align with their ethics.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published