What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

Eco buzzwords aside, what does sustainable fashion really mean?

Credit: iStock

Truly sustainable fashion—hard to find and harder to define?

What, exactly, is sustainable fashion? This may seem obvious at first glance, as words like “organic,” “recycled,” and “local” rush to mind. But as we delve into the myriad aspects encompassed by the industry, from material sourcing all the way to storefront sales, a unified definition seems less and less attainable.

And clear standards are important to define, as these will help chart a clear direction for the community, determine industry and labour standards, and facilitate consumer education.

Fortunately, dialogue on the subject is ongoing—for example, check out the thoughtful discussions at The Uniform Project and the Bouclé Blog. While the current consensus appears to be that there isn’t one, five common criteria are emerging as the cornerstones of sustainable fashion.

Five main criteria of sustainable fashion


1. Is it locally made?

Products that are manufactured locally cut down on transportation costs and fuel consumption. They also help sustain the local economy by increasing employment in the community.

2. Is it ethically produced?

The manufacturing process must be sustainable in terms of human capital. The labour force must be provided with safe and stable working conditions; compensation should be fair.

3. Does it incorporate recycled materials?

From fibres (e.g., recycled polyester or soy, which is made from bean dregs left over from tofu production) to preloved pieces (like the trenchcoats bags from local Ouno Design), a surefire way to minimize environmental impact and reduce waste is to make use of materials already at our disposal.

4. Does it use organic and naturally processed materials?

Are the fabrics made from plants that have been grown without the use of harmful pesticides, which release toxic chemicals into the environment and persist for years even after ceasing use? Does the fibre processing use zero to minimal chemical treatments? Are natural, PVC-free dyes used?

5. Is it made to last?

Is the item well-crafted? Is the fabric durable? Will the style and fit last through more than one generation?

The challenge to ecofashion purism

From my experience curating Granville magazine’s ecofashion blog CitizenSTYLE so far, I find the challenge to be determining how exclusive we should be.

Often, I’d get excited about a locally designed collection that is manufactured in Vancouver, only to find that conventional cotton is used. Or a designer would use eco-friendly fabric in a line that is manufactured outside of Canada. Must a garment meet every single criteria in order to be considered eco-friendly? Or should there be a ranking system instead of a be-all-end-all definition? And if so, which qualities should be prioritized?

Part of me believes that any effort at incorporating eco-friendly practices at any level should be applauded, while part of me also feels the need to enforce a stricter policy—after all, how else can we push for more progress?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are yet other factors to throw into the mix.

Other points to consider


1. Is it sold through a local boutique?

If an otherwise sustainably produced collection is only available online, thereby incurring extra transportation (read: fossil fuel consumption and emissions) and packaging (read: garbage), does it still count? Should a designer be “penalized,” so to speak, because he or she has yet to secure a vendor?

2. What about affordability?

The Uniform Project mentions that one of the arguments used by large corporations is that low price points make the goods available to a wider public and are therefore economically sustainable. Of course, what we can’t forget is that the way such bulk fare is produced incurs a much greater cost to the environment.

Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s an entirely dismissable point, perhaps because this is a challenge that I experience quite regularly. Even though I really wish to shop local fashion and understand why the price points seem high, often I simply can’t afford to do so.

And when I encourage friends to check out artisan markets such as Portobello West, I can wax poetic on the benefits of supporting independent artists; I can get them excited about all the beautiful craftsmanship and one-of-a-kind creativity, but I am simply stumped at the very last hurdle, when they balk at the price and my small attempt at ambassadorship screeches to a fruitless halt.

Can you really call something sustainable if people can’t afford and therefore can’t use it?

And, to go one step further—

3. Is fashion itself inherently anti-green?

In other words, when your primary reason for purchasing a piece of clothing is not to meet a physical survival demand (to keep warm, dry, fed, etc.), have you automatically crossed over to the realm of superfluous consumption?

Every time I blog about a fabulous sale by a local boutique, designer or artisan community, I can’t help but wonder if by promoting local fashion I am also encouraging consumerism (and possibly excess) by default.

But it can’t be cut and dry like this, can it? On the Bouclé Blog, Schauleh Vivian Sahba included “beautiful” as an integral part of sustainable fashion. I found this a little surprising at first, but it makes sense: if it is something you want to cherish and maybe even pass on to the next generation, it becomes sustainable by avoiding waste.

I also find this an inspired notion because it positions sustainable fashion squarely within the greater social/cultural fabric. It is the sustainable part of fashion—to take seriously the consequences of our actions on the environment, to be respectful and supportive of others, to treasure and savour rather than to consume and replace mindlessly—that seeks to nurture individual creative expression, encourage resourceful thinking, foster community spirit and find a meaningful place in shared history.

Of course, this is only if we choose to make it so, and I sincerely hope that even as we at times struggle to navigate the path, we keep our eye on the prize.

Where do you stand on sustainable fashion?


Davinia Yip


Davinia Yip enjoys discovering new things, especially ones that she can eat or wear. She feels lucky to be living in Vancouver, and even luckier to be able to write about it from time to time. Twitter