What Do These Fashion Sustainability Buzzwords Really Mean?

Fashion trends come and go, and micro trends are even more fleeting. But one fashion movement that’s here to stay is sustainability. Propelled by the climate emergency, fashion sustainability is no longer an afterthought, but the epicentre of conversation.

The #sustainablefashion hashtag has over 1.3 billion TikTok views, and #sustainablefashionbrand has racked up almost two billion. It’s clear that there is a hunger for brands that are conscious of fashion’s destructive impact, and who care for their workers and the environment. It’s also clear that many brands are trying to cash into this do-gooder spirit.

But while looking for brands that share your values and goals, you’ll quickly find that many words and phrases surrounding sustainability don’t have strict definitions or regulations. This is why we’ve put together a glossary of common terms you might come across. This is just a launching pad — keep in mind that these terms are in constant flux, open to interpretation, and understandably broad.

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Sustainable fashion: It’s widely accepted that the definition of sustainable fashion is subjective and varies from person to person. While it’s typically linked to the depletion of natural, environmental resources, the definition of sustainability has now expanded to include the longevity of social and economic systems as well.

Ethical fashion: While often used interchangeably with sustainability, ethical fashion focuses more on what is considered ‘morally right’. This includes safe working conditions and the payment of living wages for garment workers, as well as how materials are sourced, and their environmental impact. Essentially, ethical fashion cares for people, animals, and the planet.

Slow fashion: A term that was created in direct opposition to fast fashion, slow fashion champions slower production and a reduction in consumption. Coined by research professor, author and design activist Kate Fletcher, it focuses on quality rather than quantity, with the mindset that long-lasting, timeless apparel is the sustainable way forward.

Sustainable collection/sustainable line: A limited range of garments or accessories released from a brand that hones in on one, or a few, elements of sustainability. This might include using organic materials, recycled plastic, or more environmentally-friendly packaging. The problem is that this often only represents a small percentage of a brand’s output, meaning that their business model and practices are still mostly unsustainable. Nor do these collections typically acknowledge worker rights, conditions and pay.

Eco-friendly/green/environmentally-friendly/environmentally conscious: These broad and unqualified buzzwords are vague and don’t actually provide any information around environmental practices. Yes, they might insinuate supposedly ‘greener’ practices, but don’t give you any tangible, specific, or measurable information to help your choices.

Circular fashion: Circularity is about keeping garments in circulation for as long as possible. It takes all parts of the fashion lifecycle into consideration — from design and sourcing to production, transportation, storage, marketing and sale, all the way to usage and end of life. From a consumer’s point of view, it might look like choosing clothes made from biodegradable materials, and upcycling the garment near the end of its life.

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Minimum wage: The lowest amount of pay that an employer is legally allowed to pay an employee in a particular country.

Living wage: According to Oxfam, a living wage is payment received for a standard work week that covers a decent standard of living for the worker and their family. This includes food, housing, healthcare, clothing, transportation, utilities, essentials, and emergency savings. In many cases, minimum wage is not a living wage.

Fair working conditions: This covers an employee’s working environment, including fair renumeration, safe working spaces, capped working hours, paid overtime, and legal rights.

Right to unionise/collective bargaining: Also known as freedom of association, unionising is a way that employees and employers can reach an agreement on issues affecting the workplace. This means employees should be allowed to freely join a union and bargain collectively for fair pay and fair conditions.

Modern slavery: According to The Conversation, fashion is one of five key industries implicated in modern slavery. Modern slavery comes in many forms, and for the fashion industry, it looks like forced labour, debt bondage/bonded labour, and child labour.

B Corporation: A type of certification that measures a company’s triple bottom line, looking at workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. Brands certified B Corp here in the UK include Toms, Veja, and Finisterre.

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Pre-loved/secondhand: A piece of clothing that has previously been owned or worn by someone else; not a new item. Could have been bought from an op shop, or could be a hand-me-down, or swapped from a friend.

Vintage: An item that is between 20 to 99 years old, and has the characteristics of the era it is from.

Upcycled: The modification of a garment so it is transformed into something new, typically using a preloved piece. This can be through altering hemlines, adding new elements, combining multiple items, and more. It promotes circularity as it keeps a garment in use for a longer time.

Deadstock fabric: Leftover fabric from fashion houses that either have small damages, are excess stock from overestimation of their needs, or scraps from factory floors. While there is a narrative of brands using deadstock fabrics to save them from going to landfill, others say that brands might intentionally create excess material to onsell.

Fabric made from recycled plastic bottles: The recycling of plastic typically involves turning it into recycled polyester, which is a form of plastic. While this is more sustainable than virgin plastic, it’s worth noting that these garments still release microplastics and microfibres that end up in our oceans, rivers and soil. These products can’t be recycled again, and end up in landfill at the end of their life.

Vegan: Fashion made without animals or animal-derived products, and free from materials such as leather, wool, fur, down and silk.

Biodegradable: Biodegradable clothes and dyes break down naturally and decompose after they’ve been discarded. All materials eventually break down, but for synthetic fabrics, this can take centuries. Linen, hemp, bamboo, and cotton are all examples of biodegradable fabrics.

Carbon neutrality: Carbon neutrality is when a brand counteracts its carbon emission output by balancing or ‘offsetting’ them. This generally involves donating to charities that plant new trees, or reducing emissions through energy efficiency.

Regenerative: According to Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, essentially improving land instead of purely using it for resources.

Zero waste: With its roots in circularity, zero waste fashion is a production process that creates no rubbish. This means using existing materials to their full capacity like using fabric offcuts and scraps to fashion into other items, as well as looking at the end of a garment’s life and offering repair or closed-loop services.

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