Can fashion ever be ethical and sustainable?

Fighting the rise of resource-heavy 'fast fashion', some companies are finding ways to make environmentally friendly clothes, while keeping covetable designs

A dress from the spring/summer 2016 collection of Irish label We Are Islanders, which "works to cause as little damage as possible to both environment and people within our supply chain"

Phrases such as “ sustainable” and “ethical” are thrown around a lot in the world of fashion these days – unsurprising considering that the last decade has revealed the real impact of the fashion industry on the environment, as well as on the lives of the workers that support it.

The 2015 film The True Cost says that we buy nearly 400 per cent more clothes now than we did only two decades ago, that's 80 billion new clothes produced every year. And, seeing as it takes more than 2,700 litres of water to make just one T-shirt, all these clothes are having an impact.

On April 23rd 2013, the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh killed 1,137 people; most of them garment workers. It's not just the people who suffer. The clothes industry is damaging the environment. It has been referred to as the second most damaging industry on earth, behind the oil industry. While this is difficult to verify, clothing production is a tremendous source of carbon emissions and pollutants. Cotton, which makes up a large percentage of the clothes we wear, uses huge quantities of pesticides and water during manufacture. The industry also uses toxic dyes, most of which ends up in our water systems.

A Tiga bikini by OceanPositive is made with recycled fabric found in the sea, such as old fishing nets

So what does a company need to do to be considered sustainable and/or ethical? To reach this goal, garments should be made from environmentally friendly materials and produced in a socially responsible way.


Unfortunately, employing sustainable methods and materials often means a rise in price. “Fast fashion” makes it hard to reach sustainable goals. In the current climate, trends come and go in less than a season and shoppers want inexpensive, fashionable items. This drives down the cost of production and up the amount of waste.

However it’s not all bad news. As consumers become aware of how their choices affect people and the planet, there is a growing desire for transparency from fashion companies. And some labels are responding. H&M recently launched its Conscious Collection, which uses organic and recycled fabric. It also runs an initiative where customers can drop in their unwanted garments for recycling in any H&M store in return for a €5 voucher.

Catarina Midby, sustainability manager for H&M UK and Ireland says: "The recycling initiative has been very successful, not least because it offers an accessible and easy solution. For H&M it has also enabled us to recycle into new fabrics and make new clothes from the old and unwanted – closing the loop in fashion."

While this may be a step in the right direction, a question remains as to whether fast fashion and sustainability can ever really mix. Midby says: “Fashion production, for luxury or high-street brands, will always have an impact on people and the planet. Our responsibility is to find better and smarter solutions to lower the impact and make production, transport, packaging, sales and consumption more sustainable.”

Luxury brands may find this somewhat easier. Labels such as Stella McCartney, Marni, Vivienne Westwood and Sass & Bide partner with the Ethical Fashion Initiative to "manufacture coveted responsible fashion goods". Westwood's Handmade with Love collection, produced in Nairobi's biggest slum, was made from recycled canvas, brass and roadside banners and unused leather off-cuts.

The Green Carpet Challenge, another sustainable project, asks people in the public sphere to wear sustainable fashion on the red carpet. At the 2016 Met Gala, Emma Watson wore an environmentally friendly and ethically produced outfit by Calvin Klein. The dress was lined with organic silk and made from used plastic bottles that were spun into yarn. Even the zippers were made from recycled plastic.

In Ireland labels such as We Are Islanders, White & Green and Sophie Rieu are sustainably creating covetable garments (see panel). Rieu, who uses both Fairtrade and organic materials, says, "There is absolutely no point in making organic or Fairtrade clothes just for the sake of it. It is essential that the clothes are attractive, very well made and from exquisite fabrics. It is brilliant to see so many funky labels now boasting the same ethics and showing that it is possible to be both ethical and really hip and uniquely beautiful."

Rebecca Winckworth, development, labour rights and Fairtrade expert in the family run business of White & Green agrees: "You don't have to compromise on quality. It used to be that sustainable companies were considered unfashionable. It's just not like that anymore."

White & Green produces organic and Fairtrade cotton bedding, addressing the concern about the harmful effects of pesticides and toxic dyes on skin. "I worked in India a few years ago," says Winckworth, "and one of the worst experiences of my life was going to visit a community of garment factory workers in Delhi. These people lived in dire conditions; they worked 18 hours a day, beaten if they wanted to take a toilet break, earning not even enough money to send their children to school and all to create clothing that I buy in Ireland."

Kate Nolan, productions and operations director of We Are Islanders, and co-founder of the Re-Dress Better Fashion Initiative and Clean Clothes Campaign says: "Choosing organic cotton has significant benefits for the environment as well as the millions of families from Uganda to Pakistan who are involved in cotton farming. Choosing Fairtrade, producing locally, deciding to pay a living wage – these are all small, singular choices that have enormous impact on the environmental, economic and social sustainability of the industry."

“It takes significant determination to produce for a brand like We Are Islanders,” says Nolan, “as we work to cause as little damage as possible to both environment and people within our supply chain.”

So how will Irish people be persuaded? Deirdre Hynds, director of Sound PR, has spent the past five years focusing on sustainable/ethical PR and believes Irish people will change their attitude to sustainable fashion, but may need a little push. She says: "Irish people are driven to do the 'right thing', they want to make the right decision, but it needs to be made easy.

"We need to glamourise sustainability in fashion, in a similar way to what has happened in the food and drink industry, so Instagram shots of organic cotton and innovative fabrics [like salmon suede or bamboo silk] instead of shots of quinoa, buckwheat and avocado smash."

Other brands are driven towards sustainability by their close relationship with the environment. OceanPositive swimwear is made from ocean litter, such as fishing nets. Jim Standing, scuba diver and company director, says: "When we found out about divers recovering ghost nets from the ocean to be recycled, we saw an opportunity to use this to create a product that genuinely reflected our desire to do something that was good for the ocean and the environment.

“It is extremely difficult to keep pace with fast fashion,” he adds, but says his company focuses instead on “aiming for sustainable long-term sales”.