Sustainability is defined as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future’. In the case of fashion sustainability this includes using practices that affect the environment, biodiversity and people that manufacture the product, as minimally as possible. From the types of raw materials used, to how it is produced and made, each step is so important in ensuring the products overall sustainability.
Sustainable fashion practices
In terms of sustainable fashion practices there are many ways a business can operate to become more sustainable. At each stage of the supply chain, whether that be sourcing or production for example, it is important for a company to revise their methods in order to ensure as small as possible (if any) damage is being inflicted upon the people that manufacture the products and the surrounding environment.
The first way a company should consider their impact on the environment is by taking extra care from where they source their materials. Ideally a company will locally source materials, as this will reduce their air miles and thus the overall carbon footprint of the product. However this is not always possible. As in the case of cotton, farming the plant is rare in places like the UK and often it is not economically sustainable for a brand to source from a small-scale farm even if it is more local. Although there are alternatives; wool for one could be more easily locally sourced and PVC for faux leather could be sourced from local recycling centres, suggesting there are various options for a brand to act in the most eco-friendly way possible. This eco-consciousness is becoming much more of a vital factor for the everyday consumer when choosing where to shop and it shows: one study finding that first time buyers of second hand clothes jumped by 33% last year.
Locally sourcing for manufacture is also a good way to be ethically sustainable at a social and economic level. This provides jobs in the community, creating economic benefits within the area. This is good way for a company to support their local community and shows their transparency as production and manufacture can be completely traced back close to home.
Following along from this, ethical working conditions is also important in maintaining sustainable fashion practices. This is ensuring workers are paid a fair wage and their working conditions are to a high standard. For instance they should be entitled to breaks and sick pay and the environment should be in no way dangerous to them. A way to ensure this is through the SEDEX certificate, which protects workers and maintains a high standard in working conditions. Their main aim is to help businesses act in the most sustainable and ethical way possible. More specifically they assess standards of labour, health and safety and business ethics, which all tie in to creating a sustainable business.
Another way a company can be more sustainable, is by promoting the repairing and upcycling of their products at the end of its life. Upcycling is simply changing the item so that it can be reused either in a completely different way or in a similar way with a new style and aesthetic. This is a great way to make sure a product doesn’t go to waste and can be used again!
A final way is through the ability to recycle a product. This limits waste in landfill and also reduces the energy and materials that would have to be produced in order to create a whole new product. Unsurprisingly ‘by using recycled fabrics instead of brand new ones, we reduce the amount of water consumed in production by 50%’.
Sustainable fashion practices relating to bags
When thinking about sustainable bags a lot of the same general rules apply, such as evaluating the life cycle of the product so it is circular (this makes sure the footprint remains low). This could include looking at the aspects of the bag that could be biodegradable; this is important because if a bag is disposed of instead of recycled it will not cause harm to the environment. Some ways of doing this is by using corn starch. This will biodegrade in the ocean and provide food for marine life. Another is avoiding animal-based glues. However, bags being made to a high quality should mean a longer life. A timeless design can also lead to a longer life with a consumer as they will be less inclined to buy a new bag when they update their own personal style! This not only reduces the amount of waste produced but also prevents fast fashion culture, which is an ever-increasing threat to the environment.
Sourcing materials for bags can be more challenging however, particularly with an eco-conscious frame of mind; this is due to the different faux and vegan leather options available…
Different kinds of vegan leather
Faux leather can be made using a few different methods. Vegetable leather is made using vegetable waste, which is recycled and refined in order to act like real leather; it is made from materials like apple peels, cork and fruit waste.
Apple leather is made from apple cores and is just as versatile as animal leather. Similarly mushroom, pineapple and cactus leather are also used to create an eco-friendly alternative to animal leathers.
Plastics such as polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride can be made into polymer leathers; these are made from plastic bottles that have been refined, turned into pellets and melted before being woven. These plastics can be recycled again and again increasing their sustainability. However, polymer leather as well as animal leather practices take a lot of energy to produce and chemicals such as formaldehyde are used to treat the material which is not only bad for the environment but bad for the human body; the people who manufacture it can be affected the most by the harmful chemicals.
Why polyurethane is better than polyvinyl chloride
Polyurethane (PU) generally has a better quality than polyvinyl chloride (PVC); this is often because PU is thicker. This means it is much more durable, making it an obvious choice for a product that goes through a lot of wear and tear such as bags and chairs. PVC is stiffer but much less durable than PU. There are less harmful chemicals in PU making it a safer choice of vegan leather and it can also be made more environmentally friendly with the use of a vegetable oil base, increasing sustainability.
So overall, the most environmentally friendly vegan leather is vegetable and apple leather. The only drawback is the higher expense, but with increasing demand for vegan products, some manufacturers are opting for polymer-based leathers for price and convenience, despite the environmental or human impacts. It is of course important to note than not all polymer leathers are indeed harmful; PU with a vegetable oil base for instance is a good material to use as a sustainable faux leather option.
For many businesses and consumers however, it is becoming more and more important to start thinking sustainably due to the climate crisis. Even making the smallest decision towards sustainability can have a huge impact. It is all about weighing out your options; for instance, from a buyer’s point of view, if it means you have to save up for timeless clothing, then do it! Avoid fast fashion and invest in vegan options because in the long run not only will it be cheaper for you as the consumer, but also, much better for the environment by minimising waste.
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