The term “sustainability” has developed a loosely general meaning as it has come to encompass more products and initiatives. Especially when it comes to the fashion industry, labeling something as “sustainable” can be as informative as not labeling the clothes at all. That is why brands, nonprofits, and media sites have adopted more specific terms that can help consumers identify what sustainability concerns are trying to be addressed. Below we distinguish between “sustainable fashion,” “environmentally sustainable fashion,” and “socially sustainable fashion,” as well as outline the key challenges under each term. 

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Environmentally Sustainable Fashion

Definition: Fashion products that are produced and sold with consideration of their impact on the environment.

Example: Shoes made using recycled plastic that was taken from the environment.

Key Challenges:

  • Greenhouse gases out of control due to production and shipping.
  • Natural resource contamination from chemicals used during dyeing and processing.
  • Physical pollution caused by apparel, packaging, and material fibers.

Socially Sustainable Fashion

Definition: Fashion products that are produced and sold with consideration of their impact on people. 

Example: Clothes that are cut and sewn in factories where employees are paid living wages and work in safe environments.

Key Challenges:

  • Lack of transparency between suppliers and brands and brands and consumers.
  • Subcontracted and outsourced supply chain operations which can lead to hidden social and environmental problems.

Sustainable Fashion

Definition: Products, brands, organizations, and media outlets that make up the movement set out to address the fashion industries glaring social and environmental impacts. 

Examples: Products that are made with environmentally sustainable materials. Products that are made with ethical labor practices. Research facilities studying the impacts of fashion on ecosystems. Nonprofits addressing specific human rights abuses in fashion production. Media outlets questioning the integrity of a brand using “sustainability” in marketing. Start-ups creating innovative solutions to continuously improve the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry.

Key Challenges:

  • The term is too general and freely used that it has lost its meaning. 
  • An evolving movement that continues to address new concerns and encompass more companies.
  • Consumers no longer blindly trust brands that claim to be “sustainable”; instead, they demand more transparency and specific verbiage.

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While environmental sustainability and social sustainability have clear meanings, examples, and challenges, general sustainability is much more elusive. In the fashion industry, the s-word has come to be utilized by so many outlets that it really doesn’t define a specific type of product anymore. Instead, “sustainable fashion” can be used to describe a movement made up of both physical products and intangible ideas. In some ways, it is good that sustainability has become so encompassing. Nonprofit groups, activists, and research bodies are now getting the recognition they deserve for advancing the sustainable fashion movement to a mainstream idea. But, on the other hand, consumers can be left feeling confused and skeptical by the open definition of “sustainability”. To address consumers’ concerns, brands have turned to transparency and specific vocabulary to help convince consumers that their products are better. Of course, with the increasing popularity of terms like “environmental sustainability” and “social sustainability” come new problems. One is that consumers won’t know what these terms mean. But, media groups like Condé Nast and research institutions like The Centre for Sustainable Fashion are coming together to create projects such as The Sustainable Fashion Glossary to help consumers define what they are buying. And at the end of the day, that is what sustainability is: solving a list of evolving problems to have a better tomorrow.