What is Sustainable Fashion?

and how to know if the clothing you wear is made ethically
Sustainable Fashion: Pile of Clothing
© Can Stock Photo / natashamam

In 2012, a report by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs identified 49 leading fashion companies linked with factories that polluted water with egregious abandon in China. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1100 people. There is justified concern over what the clothing industry is doing to our planet – from the ethical issues of how employees are treated to the enormous ecological footprint being stamped into the planet by the toxic practices of traditional production.

In recent years, this awareness has given rise to some creative and novel sources of fabric production – from seaweed to fermented wine and hagfish slime thread! While we’re a bit far from using these in particular as accessible sources of fabric for everyday clothing, there are quite a few textiles ostensibly being created more sustainably and with less environmental and social impact than the conventional industry has wrought. Some of these are familiar materials (wool, cotton) but are more responsibly produced and processed. Some are relatively newer in concept (hemp, bamboo) with less negative impact built-in, in some respects, but may still be fraught with concerning issues, requiring a closer look into the claims about their benefits. They are all becoming more available in mainstream retail locations and may be worth considering if you have an interest in clothing yourself more ethically.

An expert weighs in on ethical textiles 

We contacted Mary-Anne Kowala of Kowala Wear and Chartreuse Style, a leading ethical (and fashion forward!) clothing store in Toronto, to find out more about what we should be looking for in sustainable clothing.

Types of sustainable fabrics

Certified organic cotton, like organic food, is grown without traditional pesticides and chemicals.  It also uses less water and the dyeing is required to be eco-friendly. With some certifications, like the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), there are requirements regarding labour as well.

Hemp is grown sustainably without the need for chemical intervention, needs little water and works well in crop rotation. Linen is very similar in growing and processing. Both of these plants when processed can be not as eco-friendly as certified organic cotton if chemicals are used in processing and traditional dyeing is used. Having said that, they are still a better choice than synthetic fibres that are mostly derived from oil by-products.

There are some man-made fabrics that are sustainable, but like everything in the eco-friendly realm, there are trade-offs. For example, bamboo as a plant is very sustainable, needing very little to grow rapidly, but depending on how it is processed into fabric it can be just a step up from the regular rayon process. The key is in how and what solvents are used. Some are recycled and reused, but if they are mostly dumped, that’s not good for anyone.  Some other examples are lyocell (trade name - Tencel) and modal, both derived from wood pulp, sustainably harvested (no endangered forests) and use solvents that are 95% recovered and reused.

Why is ethical clothing expensive?

Sustainable fabrics are more expensive relative to fabrics that have bigger impacts on the environment, but they are not inaccessibly expensive. As more consumers are interested in eco-friendly fashion, and more large manufacturers get into using cleaner fabrics, prices should come down – “economics 101” supply and demand. The virtues of these fabrics include comfort and durability (depending on the quality).

What to look for

The first thing we should look at is the content. Look for natural and organic fibres like organic cotton, hemp, and linen, plus pure wool or, better yet, organic wools. Also look for man-made fibres, like lyocell, modal, and rayon from bamboo. Avoid anything synthetic like polyester, nylon, acetate, etc., unless it is recycled. Spandex (trade name - Lycra) is not necessarily great either, but because it is a relatively small amount that enhances the wear and fit, it tends to be acceptable.

Checking for authenticity

The red flag for me is when something is marketed as eco-friendly but only part of the content is eco-friendly (for example: mixing rayon from bamboo with regular cotton rather than organic cotton). My biggest beef with labelling materials is that it usually doesn’t address how a fibre is processed unless it is certified in some way. There needs to be more transparency, so that green-washing can be eliminated. Even though there is uncertainty because of lack of transparency, these items are better choices. Everything I choose is based on fashion, fit and different degrees of eco-friendliness depending on where it is made. Because there are environmental impacts for garments being shipped from the other side of the world, I am stricter about content and certifications.

The first, and best, solution you can embrace is to reuse and recycle all clothing that comes your way – hand it down, pass it along, donate it, repurpose it, cut it up and make something new. Shop at consignment and secondhand stores and choose retailers who upcycle existing material into new items. The obvious and primary advantage of this is that it lessens the demand for new production and all the inherent repercussions. As for novel fabrics, Mary-Anne believes the most innovative ones have already been around and established for at least 20 years, so shop for brands that aren’t shy about revealing their processes, researching and carefully selecting their sources and opting for eco-certification when available. Being fashion-forward doesn’t mean you have to be environmentally or socially backward.

Companies that upcycle

These enterprising companies reduce environmental impact simply by using what was already available!

Cate & Levi 

Canadian company that repurposes wool sweaters for toys and accessories.


Canadian manufacturer of clothing made from 100% recycled and repurposed material including recycled water bottles, recycled cotton, and scraps from cotton factory floors.

Looptworks and Project Luv Seat 

Leather from the seats from Southwest Airlines is made into stylish bags and also used to produce soccer balls and other items that are given to children in need around the world.

Certifications to look for 

In Canada, it’s not easy to find labels that bear certifications assuring us of conscientious practices. If you should be looking at labels on clothes from elsewhere, keep a lookout for these certification standards:

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) 

Global Recycled Standard (GRS)

bluesign® SYSTEM 

Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)