By Juni Moltubak, Arianna Pearlstein, and Helena Reinders
Second hand, thrifted, ethical, vegan, organic, local, recycled, minimalistic, fair. What does it really mean to be a sustainable brand?
In fashion, sustainable brands usually emphasise two things: the environmental impact of production (fabrics, shipping, chemicals) and ethical production (fair wages, a healthy working environment, improving workers’ quality of life). These are overlapping concepts, so brands that focus on one often include the other. Sustainable fashion has become a hot topic over the last couple of years, as the fight against climate change has gained momentum. It can be a daunting and confusing field to delve into, which is why we would like to provide an overview of how you can become a smart, sustainable, and good-looking shopper!
The choice of fabric is key in ensuring sustainability in fashion. The first rule of thumb to remember if you wish to shop sustainably is to look for the 100% mark. That is, look for fabrics that are exclusively made from one material. Because mixed materials can’t be separated, pieces consisting of only one material are more easily recyclable and usually more sustainable.
In general, recycled materials are a good alternative to new materials. Take nylon, for example, it is made from plastic, and therefore not a good option for anyone seeking to reduce their carbon footprint. However, nylon is a key material in anything from swimwear to winter jackets, so it is difficult to avoid. If you have to use nylon, the recycled variant is the way to go.
Organic cotton is a label often used to make a brand or a piece of clothing sound ethical and sustainable. However, producing cotton (be it organic or not) requires massive amounts of water. According to research by the WWF, one pair of jeans and one plain cotton t-shirt requires up to 20.000 litres of water to produce. That is almost 28 years of drinking water for one person! However, cotton, like nylon, is hard to avoid. If you want to make sure your cotton is as sustainable as possible, look for organic cotton, as it is produced without pesticides. Other indicators to look for are the so-called ‘better cotton-initiative mark’, or whether or not a producer uses ‘closed-loop water systems’ to reduce their water usage.
Thankfully, far less water-demanding materials do exist. For example, bamboo is extremely fast-growing and self-generates its roots, meaning farmers don’t have to re-plant them every year. Hemp and linen are other sustainable alternatives, with many environmental benefits including being able to grow in a wide variety of climates and not requiring pesticides. Wool and cashmere are naturally grown, biodegradable, and, of course, possible to produce almost anywhere. If one makes sure that the production sites are as sustainably operated as possible, these make for good sustainable fabric materials.
But it is not only the choice of fabric that impacts clothing brands’ environmental footprint. The emissions caused by shipping and transport is one of the most central issues in the battle against global warming, and one highly connected to the fashion industry. Some companies have started ‘sustainable shipping’ initiatives to limit their carbon footprints, an interesting development to pay attention to.
Regardless of the impact of shipping, however, it is always more sustainable to buy from a sustainable brand overseas than from a fast fashion brand in your immediate surroundings.
The most ideal option is to buy locally, from a sustainable brand. But be mindful: “Made in Germany” can mean a variety of things. The clothes could have travelled all over the world before going through their final production stage in your local area, and you would be none the wiser. Get to know the history of your clothes.
This brings me to another important aspect of sustainable fashion: greenwashing. Greenwashing is a term used to explain the process of giving a false impression of sustainability to customers seeking environmentally friendly options. (For more detailed examples of greenwashing, see: https://greenandthistle.com/what-is-greenwashing/ ).
Our capitalist society is built on consumption, and it is only natural that brands want to profit off of the current sustainable wave in fashion. Unfortunately, certain brands spend more time giving an impression of sustainability than actually improving their footprint. One example of this is Starbucks’ attempt to create a greener image by replacing plastic straws with ‘strawless lids’. These ‘strawless lids’ contain more plastic than the old lids and straws combined. Another example is H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ which has been accused of greenwashing since its launch last year.
Therefore, as a consumer, it is crucial that you are not fooled by greenwashing and take time to investigate the company and their claims. Are their green labels legitimate? What are their practices? Is this really the most sustainable option? Before you buy anything new at all, reflect on whether you actually need the product. Do you really need a new bamboo shirt, a recycled nylon bikini, and a hemp bag, or do you want them because you like shopping and these products claim to be sustainable?
If you want to do your part to shop more sustainably, here are some great, sustainable brands you can shop from:
- https://royalbamboo.com/ (Dutch brand).
- https://www.sustainablefashionmatterz.com/brands-women-men-unisex-europe (overview of sustainable European brands).
- https://goodonyou.eco/international-shipping/ (scroll down to “How to reduce your carbon footprint”).
But even if you are on a student’s budget and can’t always afford those high-end sustainable brands, you can still make more sustainable choices with thrifting. Simply put, thrifting is shopping from thrift stores, flea markets, or other discounted/secondhand stores. Thrifting is not only a great way to get clothes on a student’s budget but also allows you to find affordable, unique, genuinely vintage pieces. Since thrift stores are always updating their shelves, it’s also a great way to get inspiration, like a treasure hunt. There are three main types of thrift stores: high-end boutiques, vintage stores, and charity shops.
In the Netherlands, high-end thrift stores like Bobby Pin Vintage in Rotterdam, Penny Lane in Amsterdam, or ZUSJES Vintage Boetiek in The Hague, provide a curated experience, and generally only select high-end brands or trendy secondhand clothing to sell in their shops. Essentially, this is like shopping in your typical designer boutique, but the products sold are vintage. Compared to other thrift stores, expect a higher price tag more in line with regular high-end brands.
There are also vintage stores such as Vintage Island with stores in Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague, Vintage Factory in The Hague, and Ilka Vintage and Secondhand also in The Hague. These stores also curate their selections, and generally select pieces tailored to the “hip” atmospheres they want to create, but are not as high-end oriented as thrift boutiques. These stores are more affordable, more in line with prices you would regularly pay at a fast-fashion store, but you still get unique pieces with a story and they generally have higher quality than fast-fashion stores.
Finally, there are charity shops in the Netherlands usually called ‘Kringloops’. If you type ‘Kringloop’, or even “charity shops” into Google Maps, you will find several in The Hague. These are probably what you think of when someone says secondhand store. Unlike the aforementioned stores, these stores are, first and foremost, about upcycling and recycling clothing, rather than catering to a certain high-end or aesthetic image. The clothes are of good quality, and you can often find new pieces with the price tag still on. But, compared to other kinds of thrift stores, they are the most student-budget friendly. Plus, these stores can be a two-in-one if you’re also looking for furniture or household items, as charity shops often carry not only clothing but a hodgepodge of donated items.
However, it is important to emphasize that choosing to go thrifting is a privilege, hence it is important to be mindful of your shopping, especially in charity shops. Some rely largely on charity shops as a source of clothing, and, as thrifting has become increasingly popular, some charity shops have noticed that there are no longer enough high-quality essential items (think winter boots, jackets, sweaters, etc.) for customers that actually need them and can’t afford to buy them anywhere else. Plus, think about how good you feel when you’re wearing clothes that make you feel confident or how important it is to make a good first impression with your outfit in a job interview; these sorts of items are generally the first things thrifters gravitate towards. People who rely primarily on thrift stores want to feel confident and look put-together too, the only difference is they aren’t choosing to thrift for fun. So when you do thrift, be sure that you are mindful not only of the types of items you are buying, whether you are buying the last pair, and how much you are buying. Thrifting is an undeniably fun and creative way to practice sustainable fashion, but mindfulness and compassion is also necessary.
Upcycling and clothing swaps:
With the rise of thrifting, other sustainable clothing trends have also trickled into the mainstream. Starting in 2014, with the rise of DIY Youtube channels, upcycling has gone from a trend to a fashion business. While the trend began with influencers transforming their old, used clothing into new pieces, high-end fashion designers have coopted this trend and started upcycling their clothes, too. Apart from the appeal of sustainability and price-reduction, the uniqueness of upcycled clothes is what interested high-end fashion designers. From upcycled wedding dresses made by Reformation to a collaboration between Netherlands-based designer Weiyu Hung and The R Collective, upcycling has become the hottest thing in high-end fashion these days. These pieces can sell for anywhere between 100 euros to over 2.500 euros. This goes to show how sustainable ideas can be used and adopted by mainstream markets for reasons other than sustainability alone. Although perhaps not initially done for sustainability reasons, upcycling has inspired many around the world to think about how they use their clothes and how sustainable their usage really is.
On the other hand, students are also a big community where sustainable clothing has become a trend. Ending the negative stigma of ‘hand-me-downs’, students have started swapping (un)used clothes with their peers. With the overall consensus amongst students being that the environment ought to be one of the highest political priorities, the idea of someone else enjoying one of their (un)used pieces of clothing, and the sense of community-building that comes with clothing swapping, this has become the new normal for many students around the globe. It is no longer looked down upon to receive and wear a piece of clothing a friend doesn’t use anymore. Rather, it has become something to be proud of. Apart from friends swapping clothes, colleges and universities have also started organising so-called ‘swap events’ where students can swap clothes, donate clothes, and in an almost market-like event one can buy clothes for very little money, with the profits going to sustainable charities and initiatives. A clear example of this can be seen at Boston University in the USA, where they hosted their first swap in 2019. Another example can be found at Erasmus University in The Netherlands, where the ‘EUR Wardrobe’ has been set up. Here students can come to swap one of their own clothing items for another, and are also able to buy clothing they like for a small donation to charity. If you are looking for an accessible way into sustainable fashion, we highly recommend swapping clothes with friends or visiting the EUR Wardrobe (https://www.eshub.nl/eur-wardrobe/). Not to forget, that CIROS in The Hague has also organised a swap last year, as well as Lush in The Hague. Make sure to keep an eye on their websites and social media to be aware of future sustainable activities.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of different ways you can help build a more sustainable fashion industry from sustainable brands to thrifting to upcycling. What are you waiting for?
Edited by Yasmina Al Ammari
Artwork by Emma van den Nouweland