To better understand the fashion industry’s toll on the planet, as well as new proposals to reduce its environmental footprint, it’s important to get to know the jargon used everywhere from scientific studies and news reports to marketing campaigns.
Over the years, certain terminology in this space has become fashionable, and some definitions have become diluted as they have been more widely used.
If you’ve found yourself wondering, what “sustainability” or “carbon neutral” really means, you are not alone and the good news is you’re asking the right questions.
Read on to learn more.
A term used by some scientists to describe the Earth’s current geological time period, as shaped by human impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. “The Anthropocene is the first geological era to be shaped by our actions — it names humans as homewreckers of our only shared abode,” writes Professor Dilys Williams, the director of London-based Centre for Sustinable Fashion, for an issue of Fashion Revolution.
“Fashion is a vivid means for us to play out our identities in this context; what we make, buy, wear and cherish shapes and responds to our intentions in vital and substantial ways. The Anthropocene presents us with the biggest ever opportunity to make the ultimate fashion statement.”
Terminology that becomes fashionable. Since 2017, British and American retailers’ use of the word “sustainable” to describe various products online has increased by 125%. From 2018 to 2019, the following words also saw a jump: recycled (173%) eco (49%) and conscious (25%). Buzzwords may be eye-catching for consumers seeking to adopt ethical shopping habits, but their definitions can be nebulous and their use isn’t regulated, so they can be used to mislead buyers (see Greenwashing).
Carbon Neutral / Water Neutral
A business or operation with a net-zero footprint, in terms of greenhouse gasses emitted or water used. Companies can, theoretically, achieve this by reducing their climate impact, then mitigating the rest of their consumption through initiatives like carbon offsetting. However, some critics claim that true carbon or water neutrality simply isn’t possible (see Carbon Offset) with even greater skepticism surrounding the term “carbon negative” (or “climate positive”) — the claim that an operation produces an overall reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
A system of designing and producing clothes that eradicates waste. In a circular system, the future of a material or resource is considered from the beginning, with the goal that it circulates indefinitely or returns to the biosphere safely. A “closed loop” may consist of a wide range of technologies and innovations, from clothing rental services to materials made from food waste. As academics Rebecca Earley and Kate Goldworthy write for Fashion Revolution: “The same system could include slow garments, which are handcrafted or upcycled from pre-loved ones, at the same time as fast garments, which are made from fibres that can be chemically recycled back to virgin quality in a closed loop system.”
Possessing or demonstrating two or more conflicting beliefs or behaviors on a given subject (for instance, posting about conscious consumption on Instagram while continuing to buy fast fashion). Social psychologist Leon Festinger has suggested that humans experience psychological tension when our beliefs and actions don’t match up.
Making purchasing decisions based on a product or brand’s environmental, economic and/or social impact, including how an item was made, how workers are treated and the values that a company upholds. Conscious consumption may also mean consuming less, overall, and instead focusing on extending the life of — whether that’s reusing, renting, repairing or recycling — products already in existence.
Fast / Slow Fashion
An approach that sees brands responding to new trends by rolling out inexpensive and often poor-quality variations. The term “fast fashion” was coined by the New York Times in 1989 to describe the debuting Zara and Express, both of which offered runway looks at comparatively affordable prices. By way of contrast, “slow fashion” encourages shopping mindfully (see Conscious Consumption) and maintaining a limited wardrobe of essentials rather than following fleeting trends.
Cleaning, taking care of and repairing one’s clothes to make them last, with an emphasis on non-harmful practices. According to Fashion Revolution’s zine “Loved Clothes Last,” consumers can remove stains with non-toxic chemicals, clean jeans by freezing them, wash clothes sparingly or in cooler temperatures, and learn how to stitch, patch and embroider to mend or remix old garments.
Sourcing from and employing industries and artisans that are local to either the producer or the place where a style or garment originated. Take Sri Lankan fashion designer Amesh Wijesekera, who fuses Western design influences with the hand-looming, knitting, crocheting, printing traditions of his home country. “When creating a collection, I go to (artisans’) homes in the weaving villages and we work together,” he told CNN. “They have all the knowledge on the craft and craftmanship and I bring the new ideas with the designs.
The minimum amount a worker should earn in order to afford essentials including food, housing, health insurance, education and clothing for themselves and their family. The living wage does not necessarily coincide with a country’s minimum wage. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, garment workers are paid, on average, two to five times less than the amount needed for their family to “live with dignity.”
The duration and lifespan of an item. Although “circular fashion” offers a way to responsibly produce new garments (see Circular Fashion), it requires system-wide design and thus there’s only so much an individual consumer can do to contribute. Instead, consumers can focus on longevity — re-wearing and mending clothes for as long as possible (see Garment Care). Fashion companies can help by “shifting the focus of their dominant marketing narratives from convenience and short-lived trends to the aesthetics of durability, longevity and quality,” writes design academic and educator Jonathan Chapman for Fashion Revolution.
Doing your laundry spills plastics into the ocean
The choices that fashion brands make when selecting and doing business with suppliers and manufacturers. These decisions have a direct impact on both the environment and workers’ well-being. In 2013, for instance, a structurally unsafe garment factory building, Rana Plaza, collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 people who made clothes for brands including Benetton, Bonmarché, The Children’s Place, Walmart and Zara. The tragedy laid bare the consequences of factory negligence, while raising questions about whether labels should take greater responsibility for their supply chains.
Sustainable / Ethical Fashion
Transforming old and/or unwanted products and materials into new ones, thus giving them new life and increasing their actual or perceived value. In fashion, this can be done both by garment producers — using scraps and excess fabric to produce new items, for instance — and by consumers, who can repurpose clothes they no longer wear into new items. Unlike recycling, which often seeks to extract valuable materials, upcycling results in an item of higher value than its constituent parts.