What does sustainable fashion mean? What is the difference between compostability and biodegradability? Are organic or recycled materials better? As new products, brands and services emerge with a variety of confusing environmental and ethical claims, here we demystify and define 21 of the top sustainability terms to know.
Biodegradable products and materials are those that are able to naturally break down into microscopic levels without any external intervention. We could technically argue that any material is biodegradable (since there are no definite standards or timeline) however, there is potential for biodegraded materials to leave a negative effect on the environment. Think, plastic bottles that leave toxic traces in the soil when not recycled.
The carbon equivalent of the amount of greenhouse gases produced by an individual or organization is known as our carbon footprint. We often hear of companies going carbon neutral through carbon offsetting. Carbon neutral means achieving net zero carbon emissions whereby a company will offset (aka reduce carbon emissions) the amount of carbon they produce by investing in environmental projects (wind power, clean water, planting trees, etc.) to balance out their greenhouse gas emissions expended by operations, manufacturing, office buildings and more.
We love this definition from Dr. Anna Brismar - circular fashion is “clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use”.
Circular design looks at the entire lifecycle of a product - considering everything from design to disposal - and aims for a cycle of create-use-recycle or repurpose rather than create-use-dispose.
Compostable products break down into an organic matter (called ‘humus’) by microorganisms through a human managed process that requires carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water. This is great for the environment because once compostable materials are broken down into their natural elements, no harmful residue is left behind. What’s more, they contribute nutrients to the soil and help create new life, such as plants, food, and flowers. Unlike biodegradable products, compostable materials must meet certain guidelines to qualify as compostable.
Being conscious is a mindset where we become more aware of a company’s practices and develop a high standard towards health, wellness and the environment. A conscious consumer will read labels, invest in products produced from sustainable practices and limit consumption.
Companies that commit to being cruelty-free do not test ingredients or their products on animals at any point of the product’s lifecycle. This doesn’t necessarily mean there are no animal or animal-derived ingredients, but indicate that no animals were harmed or killed during production.
The representation and celebration of diverse peoples throughout the business - ranging from racially diverse employees, size inclusivity of models and support of LGBTQ+ communities. We love brands that not only showcase this in their photography, but also make proactive commitments to embrace and bring diversity into their team structures and those they collaborate and work with.
Eco-friendly / environmentally-friendly
A product labelled as eco-friendly tends to mean that it does not cause harm to the planet. However, there aren’t any regulations surrounding this term so be wary of its credibility. This is one of the general terms that has emerged around sustainability that unfortunately leaves too much up to interpretation and potential greenwashing.
Ethical means a fundamental of concepts that outline decent human conduct. When it comes to fashion, this means reducing the negative impact on people and the environment through protecting the health and safety of employees in the workplace, providing fair pay and abiding by legal rights.
Fair trade is a movement to empower farmers and workers around the world through supporting their rights, safe working conditions and environmental standards. Be on the lookout for certifications and labels from independent organizations to show that a brand meets certain standards.
Fast fashion is based on the mass production of items at low price points influenced by neverending, fast moving trends. The result? A take-make-waste model that leads to overproduction and quick disposal consumption habits that make the fashion industry one of the largest polluters in the world. With more than 17 millions tons of textile waste and 84% of clothing ending up in landfill, fast fashion perpetuates an environmental crisis.
Brands that greenwash give us a false impression that their products, activities or policies are good for the environment - when in reality, they’re not - in order to benefit from the growing demand for more sustainable and ethical living from consumers. Check out this guide on 7 Ways to Spot Greenwashing and How to Avoid It.
Natural fibres are derived from natural sources (plants, animals, geological processes) and not made or created by humans. Clothing made from natural fibres - like cotton and wool - are naturally breathable, feel softer and healthier for our bodies. The best part is that since they come from nature, they will return back to nature as well - creating less waste and a positive contribution to the planet. One reason why we love using 100% natural and plant-based materials for our underwear, means they are plantable (compostable!).
A product labelled as non-toxic means it doesn’t contain any toxic chemicals - ingredients that can be harmful to our health or the environment.
Organic materials or products are free from chemicals, toxins and pollutants that are harmful to the environment and workers that cultivate the materials, such as farmers . Organic farming practices avoid the use of artificial fertilizers, synthetic chemicals or genetically modified crops and focus on maintaining and improving land and water quality. Look for products made with certified organic materials, such as GOTS or USDA organic for our organic cotton underwear, to ensure third-party verification, reliability and credibility.
Recyclable materials are those that are still useful (physically or chemically) after they are finished serving their original purpose and can be reused or remanufactured to make new products. We love seeing new recyclable processes and technologies that extend the life of everyday products, from fashion to furniture.
Sustainable means to “not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (United Nations) and help to generate environmental, social and economic benefits without having a negative impact on the planet.
Synthetic materials are made from nonrenewable resources and fossil fuels through chemical processes. Common synthetic fabrics found in our clothing such as spandex, nylon, elastane, polyester and acrylic, while may be more durable than non-synthetic options, they have a hugely negative impact on our planet. How? Synthetics have a massive carbon footprint, are engineered from a blend of chemicals and require significant energy, toxic dyes and water to create. In essence, if a label reads polyester or nylon, it’s plastic. What’s worse, clothing with these materials also shed microplastics when washed. Fear not - rather than tossing out all your synthetics right away, we recommend using a GuppyFriend in the laundry to prevent micro-plastic shedding.
Transparency and Traceability
Transparency and traceability go hand in hand. Transparency is how openly a company shares information on how, where and who are involved in the production of its products or services from the extraction of the raw materials to the manufacturing of finished products. Traceability is a company knowing their supply chain from start to finish, every step of the way, and being able to trace the origin of each component in the production of the product.
We love the Good On You Directory to learn details about every step of a company’s production process.
Vegan products are made without any animal products or by-products. In fashion, non-vegan products could mean fibres like leather, wool or cashmere. Look for products that are 100% plant-based or those that carry the PETA certified stamp of approval.
A zero waste lifestyle aims to avoid and eliminate waste generation through actions like limiting consumption (renting jeans over purchase and disposal), composting (instead of throwing food scraps into the trash) and avoiding single-use items (using reusable alternatives instead).
What other sustainability terms or topics would you like us to explore? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.