If, like the rest of us, you’re paying more attention to the impact your buying habits have the on planet, you’ve probably started giving some thought to sustainable fashion. But what are the questions we should be asking about the clothes we buy to ensure we can open our wardrobes each morning and look at the contents with as clear a conscious as possible?

Don’t know where to start? We’re here to help you make sense of some of the key issues at the heart of sustainable fashion so you can make informed decisions next time you’re shopping for a new garment.

What is the problem with ‘fast fashion’?

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about the environmental problems caused by ‘fast fashion’, the market for on-trend, low quality clothes that aren’t intended to last more than a few wears or for more than one season. Fast fashion is everything that sustainable fashion isn’t!

According to a recent report from Parliament’s environmental audit committee, around 300,000 tonnes of used clothes are burned or buried in landfill each year in the UK. As polluting as single-use plastics, clothing manufacturing is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution, while polyester – a cheap fibre that is often used in the fabric that fast fashion garments are made from – pumps out microplastics when washed, which can end up in our seas and oceans.

However, research carried out by the environmental charity Hubbub shows that our habits and behaviours are shifting away from such unsustainable practices. It says that just under two thirds (65%) of UK consumers want the government to do more to reduce the negative impact of the fashion industry on the environment.

And when we asked Good Housekeeping readers back in 2020 what they were doing to be sustainable, over half said they were already avoiding ‘throwaway’ fashion.

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Are some fabrics more sustainable than others?

Yes. When it comes to sustainable fashion, choosing sustainable fabrics (particularly when buying brand new clothes rather than second hand) is one of the first things we can do to make our wardrobes more eco-friendly.

Due to the land, water and chemicals it uses, global textile production accounts for global emissions equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 every year – a bigger carbon footprint than all international flights and shipping combined.

One of the oldest and most sustainable materials is wool, which is biodegradable, renewable and recyclable. Helpfully, there are now wool traceability and animal welfare standards to track its production, which can help you make more sustainable choices when you buy knitwear, for example.

Cotton – a natural fibre which is light and breathable – is still a popular fabric that is used in garments such as jeans. And when you consider that 15 million of us bought at least one pair on new jeans in 2020 alone, according to data from Statista, it puts the scale of our love affair with cotton into perspective.

However cotton is a thirsty crop to grow, using 10,000 to 20,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of cotton clothing along with vast quantities of chemical pesticides.

Organic cotton is a more sustainable – if more expensive – alternative, which uses significantly less water. If you’re buying something made of cotton, check to see if the brand or manufacturer uses cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), or has the Soil Association logo to ensure high standards of production.

Are synthetic fabrics sustainable?

Today, however about 69% of clothes are made up of plastic-based or synthetic fibres, including elastane, nylon and acrylic. Polyester is the most common, making up 52% of all fibre production.

Synthetics have an impact long after production, however. When we wash clothes made from synthetic fabrics, huge numbers of microplastic particles in the form of microfibres are released. Not all are filtered out when the waste water from our homes passes through water treatment facilities, which means they end up entering our rivers and seas and polluting marine life.

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Are fabrics made from recycled materials more sustainable?

A growing number of brands are switching to recycled versions of synthetic fibres, often advertising clothes made from these as a ‘more sustainable‘ or ‘conscious‘ choice. Examples of these include synthetic fabrics made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, the most common type of single-use plastic bottles, which are produced in their billions each year.

Sarah Divall, fashion expert with the environmental charity Hubbub, said: “When choosing fabrics like polyester, which is synthetic, recycled materials are a more sustainable choice as it means no new plastic has had to be created to make your new outfit. Recycled polyester could reduce emissions by up to 32% compared to virgin polyester.

“However, making something out of recycled polyester still uses more energy to produce than organic cotton and wool so recycled materials might not always be the most sustainable choice. When choosing your fabrics, it’s all about working out what will last – maybe something you’ll have in your wardrobe for decades instead of months.”

Recycling synthetics does not eradicate microplastics, however, with fibres continuing to be shed from recycled plastic yarns as much as from virgin yarns.

Attracting attention is a new (trade-marked) ‘wonder’ fabric, EcoVero, a synthetic viscose made from wood pulp sourced from sustainably managed European forests, which typically conform to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC). Like all fabrics, it has pros and cons but appears to be a more sustainable option than traditional viscose.

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How can I tell if a fashion brand is sustainable?

Brands of all sizes are increasingly keen to shout out their eco-credentials, but there is not always detailed information about the stages of typically lengthy international supply chains.

So, the only way to tell if a garment has been ethically produced is by trawling through the details on manufacturers’ websites.

Support UK brands and designers such as Community Clothing which support British manufacturing by using textiles made in UK factories.

Also check out ratings on Good on You, an app which compares fashion brands on the basis of their impact on the planet, people and animals.

It is also worth scrutinising Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, which reviews and ranks 150 of the biggest brands and retailers according to their practices.

Is buying second-hand more sustainable?

Experts agree that buying – or even swapping – second-hand clothes is more sustainable than buying brand new. Ali Moore of Love Not Landfill said: “As long as the second-hand clothes we buy replace new buys, they’re definitely more sustainable. The fashion industry makes 80 billion new garments a year and this uses up energy, oil, plants, animal products and water – so keeping existing clothes going for longer by passing them on to others is a brilliant contribution to a whole range of environmental issues.

“Making a piece of clothing last an extra 9 months reduces its carbon, waste and water footprint by up to 30% – it feels like a little thing but it can make a huge difference.”

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According to the Love Your Clothes campaign nearly one-third of all clothes in the average UK household,(worth more than £1,000 per household and £30 billion in total) have not been worn at all in the last year.

Support charity shops through campaigns such as Oxfam’s Second Hand September, now in its second year, and which aims to celebrate shopping pre-loved and raise awareness of the harmful effects of fast fashion. But there’s no need to limit buying second-hand clothes to one month of the year; why not keep up the good work all year round?

Oxfam says that more than 14,000 tonnes of clothing (over 47 million items) are diverted from landfill each year through donations to its High Street outlets, boutiques and online shop. Subject to Covid restrictions, you can also have fun by organising ‘swishing’ events where hand-me-downs can be snapped up by others.

Why are the most sustainable clothes the ones we already own?

Buying less and buying better quality clothes if you can afford to, and making the most of the clothes you already own, are other important ways in which we can embrace sustainable fashion. Sarah Compson, a textiles expert with the Soil Association, said: “The ballooning growth of the textile industry is arguably the biggest overall problem. While buying organic is often the best option if you need to buy new, the most sustainable clothes are the ones already in your wardrobe (or in someone else’s!). Consider shopping on resale sites like Vinted, depop and Ebay, or visit charity and vintage shops.”

If you need a special, one-off outfit, use one of the growing number of rental platforms such as My Wardrobe HQ and Hurr Collective. Even M&S has just launched a partywear rental scheme.

Have regular wardrobe clear-outs at home and use apps to help inspire you to make the most of the clothes you already own, while buying only what you need. For example, 30 Wears encourages its users to wear garments at least thirty times before replacing them, while Save Your Wardrobe helps with practical advice on repairs and recycling. Consider going ‘seasonless‘ and developing your own timeless sense of style with a capsule wardrobe.

And always take advantage of textile recycling for the saddest old T-shirts and underwear. Nothing is wasted and those in the worst condition will be processed and turned into mattress stuffing and even car seat filling.

By Amalia