What Is Sustainability in the Fashion Industry?

Explore fashion from an ethical lens. Sustainability in the fashion industry means promoting the well-being of people, communities, and the environment.
Clothing workers using sewing machines in a factory.

The fashion industry — in company with other big energy consumers like agriculture and fuel — is in dire need of a thoughtful redesign. As global polluters and extensions of an exploitative manufacturing system that underpays women and girls, the fashion industry has a long list of environmental and social injustices to address. 

However, fashion also shows us who we are, and who we might become, as more individuals and organizations take steps to embody sustainability. “The reality is that fashion is a window to our culture, beliefs, and attitudes,” says Anupama Pasricha, department chair and professor of fashion design and merchandising at St. Catherine University. While the fashion industry is culpable for injustice (and should be held accountable), it’s also helped popularize sustainability movements — spotlighting greener products and sounding the alarm on climate change, worker’s rights, and social inequities.

Explore some of the many dimensions of sustainability in the fashion industry, and learn how people use fashion to inspire and affect positive social change.


Sustainability Definitions in Fashion

The term “sustainability” has many definitions, even within the fields of fashion design and manufacturing. One prominent definition within fashion comes from scholars Janet Hethorn and Connie Ulasewicz, who define sustainability as a thing or process that:

  • Avoids harm to people
  • Avoids harm to the planet
  • Enhances the well-being of people who interact with it
  • Enhances the well-being of the environment in which it is developed and used

“I would expand [that] definition by calling out all sides of sustainability,” Pasricha adds. In her expert view, sustainable things and processes in fashion should also be “environmentally sound, socially just and equitable, culturally respectful, humane, and economically viable.”



Environmental and Social Injustice in the Fashion Industry

Fast fashion has made garments cheap and widely available, skyrocketing clothing production and consumption. As a result, the life cycle of most garments — from raw resource extraction to dyeing and manufacturing, shipping, selling, and disposal — is laden with environmental and social costs, from water pollution caused by untreated dyes and microplastics to poor working conditions and low wages.

Production Pollutants 

The fashion industry generates 20% of all wastewater and over 8% of all greenhouse gasses annually — higher than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to the United Nations. 

Then there are the products themselves: to make lightweight, durable, affordable fabrics, around 60% of material made into clothing is actually plastic, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Acrylic, nylon, and polyester textiles, among others, shed tiny microplastic waste with each wash and pollute the water supply for downstream animals and fish.

Industrial Waste 

Add to this the environmental impact of wasteful consumption patterns. “Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of textiles is landfilled or burned,” the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion reports. In effect, 85% of textiles end up wasted rather than reused or upcycled (made into new clothing or products) in ways that could support sustainability in the fashion industry.

Underpaid Workers and Unsafe Working Conditions

One in six individuals work in a fashion-related occupation, and over 80% of garment workers are underpaid women or girls, according to Fair Trade Certified. Garment workers face a range of health hazards, such as lung disease from poor ventilation (for example, when synthetic particulates or cotton dust clouds the air supply) and musculoskeletal injuries from tasks that require repetitive motions.

Immediate Interventions to Foster Sustainability in Fashion

The fashion industry can take immediate steps to improve environmental and social conditions for its workers and the world at large.

Industry leaders should “evaluate and reduce the waste and carbon footprint as climate change is approaching faster than many of us can imagine and understand,” Pasricha advises. Moreover, leaders must take “responsibility and [be] transparent in paying the workers. Being fair to them involves adjusting the profit margins and pricing structures, and educating the consumer about the actual cost.”

The good news? Sustainable leaders in fashion are already taking steps to set such targets; reduce unsustainable practices throughout the supply chain; and invest in regeneration, culture, and diversity in fashion.

Careers in Sustainable Fashion

As consumers collectively call for clothing companies to operate from sustainable values, retail companies are expecting designers and product managers to have the knowledge and skills to design and produce sustainable products. 

Job titles associated with sustainable fashion, according to the Canadian fashion job website Style Nine to Five, include the following:

Ethical Trade Manager

An ethical trade manager is responsible for sourcing goods (in fashion: raw materials, garments, accessories, etc.) for a company’s manufacturers and retailers. Professionals in this role must collaborate with buyers, farmers, manufacturers, and members of external and internal business teams to source ethical products.

Environmental Consultant

An environmental consultant who works in the fashion industry may evaluate or help design environmental policies, rules, and standards that a clothing company implements or hopes to implement. While this type of professional typically needs a degree or certification in business management, environmental studies, bioengineering, or a related field, the role also requires a deep understanding of sustainable practices in the fashion industry.

Sustainability Specialist

Some companies take sustainability seriously and hire a specific professional to oversee sustainable operations for production and manufacturing. A sustainability specialist may liaise between suppliers, factories, and other research and development team members to reduce a company’s negative environmental and social impact.

Steps Toward Sustainability in Fashion

While the challenges of achieving sustainability goals may appear daunting at first, individuals can do so much to encourage sustainability in the fashion industry.

Repair, Reuse, and Repurpose Garments When Possible

One way that consumers can make an impact in the fashion industry is by changing their own consumption habits around constantly buying and discarding clothing. 

Fast fashion is relatively new in human history. Before mass-produced clothing, the textile crafts of handmade artisan products required specialized skills, such as fabric dyeing and handloom weaving, that reflected the fine arts and identity of makers and their cultures. The traditional arts of handmade and hand-dyed clothing reflect the beauty and storytelling power of “slow fashion.” By taking care of garments — repairing them when they need support, reusing them rather than buying the latest trends — consumers can get more use out of their clothes, reducing the demand for fast fashion. Additionally, taking care of clothes can offer opportunities to reflect on the cultural heritage of the products they own and the identity of the clothing makers and their communities.

Demand Transparency

“Greenwashing” is a marketing tactic that brands use to deceive the public into thinking that products or policies are environmentally conscious. For example, a business could open a store called the Green Fashion Shop that sells only unsustainable clothing.

“The companies claiming to be sustainable or [that] use other terms such as green, eco-friendly, or other social initiatives, unless transparent with their goals and progress, are just doing lip service,” Pasricha warns.

Consumers should ask questions about the brands and companies they buy from: 

  • “What makes this company green, ethical, or sustainable?” 
  • “What evidence does this company have to support its claims?”
  • “How open and honest is this company about its production processes, workers’ pay and work conditions, and its organizational structure?”

Hold Companies Accountable

The public should hold garment manufacturing companies, suppliers, and retailers accountable for improving their practices. “Each stakeholder has to play a role in real action,” says Pasricha. Today, many nonprofit organizations shine light on unethical company practices. Oxfam, for example, ranks brands according to “good” and “bad” sustainability habits and provides links to company Instagram pages and websites where consumers can voice their concerns. 

Apps like Good On You also investigate and score brands based on sustainability practices, which can empower ordinary people to make informed choices about the companies they support.

Learn Sustainable Fashion Design

When asked what she loves to teach, Pasricha recalls the hands-on classes she teaches at St. Kate’s. “My favorite project is from my course Sustainable Product Development (SPD), as it looks at a holistic approach using circular design and the economic framework of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.” 

In a real-world, client-driven project, students work collaboratively in teams to design a sustainable product. They must consider every aspect of the supply chain (design, materials, labels, packaging, labor, shipping, energy, community engagement, end-of-life strategies, and so on), keeping the price point and company price levels in perspective. In Spring 2021, students developed cost-effective face coverings for the apparel company No Ordinary Journey. 

Students were asked to explain how their product contributed to sustainability factors, including equity and inclusion, zero waste/reduced waste, carbon neutrality, and the well-being of people and the planet. “I am excited that SPD is required for the new Sustainability Studies minor,” says Pasricha.

Sustainability in the fashion industry is a multifaceted issue that no single person can solve.Each person may be uniquely equipped, though, to contribute in some large or small way toward making fashion more sustainable as a global enterprise. 

Taking responsibility for the fashion industry can look different for different people at different times in their lives. For a student who comes from a low-income background, for example, buying fast-fashion garments that tend to degrade quickly (and thus can’t be reused as easily as an expensive but higher-quality garment) may be a necessity. But that same student may still be able to send a message to a company’s social media manager with a concern about unsustainable business practices. Another option is shopping at second-hand shops for lower-priced, higher quality products that were made to last many years. Taking just one of these small steps toward sustainability makes a difference. 

Interested in discovering more ways to make fashion sustainable? Explore the fashion design degree program and the fashion merchandising degree program at St. Kate’s. Learn about what it’s like to study with experts including Pasricha, and gain real-world experience designing sustainable garments while taking classes in a cutting-edge curriculum. 


Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Redesigning the Future of Fashion

Fair Trade Certified, “Fashion Is a Women’s Issue”

Good On You, “The Impact of Fast Fashion on Garment Workers”

Google Books, Connie Ulasewicz and Janet Hethorn, Sustainable Fashion

Oxfam Australia, Shopping for a Bargain

United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion 

United Nations, Facts and Figures

United Nations Environment Program, “Fashion’s Tiny Hidden Secret”