By Raine St. Claire


Why is it important to care about buying sustainably sourced items?

Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are the root causes of unsustainable patterns. Now, more than ever, the concept of sustainable fashion in the clothing industry has gone beyond a trend. To ensure sustainable consumption and production, a drastic shift in how we produce and consume has to happen. It is imperative for the industry and the planet.

Gen Z consumers have elevated the conversation to sustainable shopping across the generational landscape and worldwide active participation to reduce the environmental impact of fashion trends has skyrocketed. 

A desire to save the environment is the primary reason behind the shift in consumer buying patterns, with almost 30% saying they want to improve the environment, while 23% wish to reduce production waste.

What is the big deal, what are the goals and who are the culprits?

The emphasis is on creating a world where the products we use do not harm us, our communities or our planet. This ethos has to embrace the entire product lifecycle process; manufactured, consumed, and disposed of.

Reduced waste generation

Consumer shopping patterns, urbanisation, and population growth are the top contributing factors.

Ten percent of the world’s carbon emissions come from the fashion industry, which uses 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources each year. Blindly continuing along this unsustainable path will see municipal solid waste rise to a staggering 3.4 billion metric tonnes in 2050.

An equivalent of three planets will be needed to sustain our current lifestyles. 

Fashion throwaway culture is exhausting natural resources and significantly contributes to the climate and ecological crisis, showing a high degree of reliance on fossil fuels, substantial environmental impact across its value chain, and excessive wastefulness. Moreover, it uses the foundations of overproduction and consumption, while concurrently supporting an underpaid workforce that faces issues of discrimination, unsafe working conditions, and harassment.

At the heart of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

This is an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership to end poverty and other deprivations with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

One of the most important fashion industry goals is SDG 12, which calls for the decoupling of economic growth from increasing resource consumption. 

We simply have to consume consciously, reuse more and reduce fashion waste. 

How can we reduce our fashion environmental impact?

  • Buy less
  • Only buy from sustainable brands
  • Don’t support ultra-cheap, disposable fashion from brands that support human misery
  • Choose quality
  • Sell or donate clothes
  • Buy second-hand, swap, & rent clothing

Slow fashion, circular economy and brands walking the sustainable talk

For the industry to make this change, brands and consumers have to work together. In order to keep pace with this changing landscape, it has become crucial to enhance the understanding of sustainability in fashion. This knowledge upgrade will enable brands to effectively navigate this transformative transition in their business operations.

Slow fashion is all the buzz

Companies that have an ethical and sustainable approach to producing garments that use minimised environmental resources are significantly becoming consumer favourites.

Wholesome Culture and Christy Dawn are synonymous with brands that adhere to practices that are more than just addressing textiles or products.

Nike diverts 99% of all footwear manufacturing from landfills by using one billion discarded plastic bottles annually to create yarns for new jerseys and uppers for Flyknit shoes. The Reuse-A-Shoe and Nike Grind programmes convert waste into new products, playgrounds, running tracks and courts.

The Adidas Group has a long history of incorporating sustainability into operations and is living up to their slogan to make the planet more sustainable.

Adidas is actively reducing energy consumption, transitioning to clean energy sources, and exploring closed-loop solutions for energy harvesting. They also aim to increase the use of sustainable materials such as Better Cotton, Recycled Polyester, and Ocean Plastic. As part of their environmental initiatives, Adidas has introduced the Made to be Remade shoe, the company’s first fully recyclable footwear. This shoe, featured in the recent Ultraboost collection during Earth Week, embodies the concept of a circular economy. At the end of its life, the shoe can be returned to Adidas for remanufacturing into a new pair of shoes or other products, emphasising its recyclability.

The spotlight now is on a circular economy rapidly moving away from a fast fashion culture

The top of the most circular fashion brands list includes industry heavyweights Patagonia, The North Face and Levi Strauss & Co.

Local is lekker
In South Africa, there is a remarkable display of talent taking up the challenge, exemplified by the Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards launched in 2019. 

These awards commend designers who actively promote sustainable practices in order to engage consumers. Notable brands such as Float Apparel, Loskop, Hemplove, Nette Rose, and Eat Your Greens have successfully cultivated a devoted following. It is particularly commendable to see how emerging South African designers remain connected to their cultural roots, drawing inspiration from their heritage. 

Noteworthy examples include Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa Africa, Thebe Magugu, and Sindiso Khumalo. What’s genuinely exciting is witnessing these designers seamlessly blend environmental consciousness with the preservation of cultural traditions. 

A ready-to-wear brand named SELFI derives its name from the concept of self-empowerment, embracing this ethos as a core principle.

Faithful to Nature, created by Robyn Smith, symbolises a brand that gave ordinary people access to honest, affordable, and ethical sustainably sourced options since 2006.

Understanding the concept of sustainable fashion involves recognising the significance of both new and pre-loved clothing. 

Yaga serves as an online platform for buying and selling fashion items, catering to this need. Aune Aunapuu, co-founder and CEO of Yaga, highlights the promising future of pre-loved fashion, particularly in emerging markets like Africa and Asia. The global second-hand market is projected to grow by 127% by 2026, and three out of four retail executives express openness to offering second-hand options to their customers. Remarkably, Africa’s fashion industry has experienced a growth rate four times higher than the global average. Yaga and Foschini have collaborated to promote circular fashion, whereby sellers on Yaga receive unique vouchers from Foschini as a token of appreciation for extending the lifespan of their garments.

The retailer conundrum 

To Gen Z, sustainability means sustainable manufacturing.

According to a 2022 survey conducted by Statista, 35% of customers in the U.S. expressed willingness to pay more for eco-friendly or sustainably produced products and brands. 

However, two-thirds of retailers still believe that consumers will not pay more for sustainable products and almost 100% believe that consumers would choose brand name over product sustainability. In reality, only 56% of consumers rank brand names as important but this highlights the expectation for retailers to act sustainably accountable.

There appears to be a significant disconnect among retail executives around the importance of sustainability in consumer purchasing.

With Gen Z projected to represent 27% of the world’s income and their priorities gaining increasing importance as they enter the workforce; it is imperative for brands and retailers to align with these consumers and their demands before it becomes too late.

Global commitment

To reach a sustainable future it is crucial to address the issue of clothing waste. 

Half of the population still discards their pre-loved clothes, leading to a staggering 64% of the more than 30 billion produced items annually ending up in landfills.

Commitment to the long-term mission of sustainability is paramount. While consumers are increasingly making informed choices, achieving sustainable manufacturing requires substantial investments and enduring dedication. The prevalence of greenwashing has seen retailers and designers resorting to deceptive marketing tactics, using ambiguous imagery and fuzzy jargon to focus on isolated green practices. 

However, with heightened brand accountability on social media and the rise of millennial and Gen Z consumerism, plus watchdog accounts like Diet Prada, brands are challenged for greenwashing and performative activism.

The challenge of creating a sustainable and clean environment is immense, and no single industry can solve it alone. 

It will require a global collective effort to save our environment. 

Read about how organisation’s are working towards reaching sustainability targets in the 6th edition of ESG: The Future of Sustainability