by Emily Tait June 05, 2015


The concept of sustainable fashion may at first seem a little ridiculous to some. The fashion industry is dependant on consumerism and fast changing trends. This is not coherent with sustainable living concepts. Most clothing labels show little or no concern for the environmental impact caused by harvesting crops for fabric manufacture, production and transportation of materials, fabric waste and fabric or garment disposal. Because of the global scale of the fashion industry all of these aspects plus more are resulting in huge implications. While sustainable living in areas such as food and architecture have been around for some time now, the concept has only recently reached the fashion industry. A completely sustainable industry would require a complete turn-around in the mentality of fashion, however by considering certain attitudinal changes to the way fashion is produced, worn, and marketed there is a possibility for a cleaner practice and conscious change. Social concepts such as ‘slow living’ have now been considered in terms of fashion, making for a more eco-friendly industry. Organic production i.e. the production of materials using only natural processes and products, has become increasingly popular in fabric production. Already in production and readily available are organic fabrics in cotton, bamboo, soy, hemp and linen. It is becoming increasingly trendy to be environmentally aware so the possibility for a sustainable fashion industry in the future is becoming more and more feasible.



The slow fashion movement is becoming an increasingly popular theory around the world. The idea of ‘slowing down’ everyday living activities, provisions and desires started twenty years ago with slow food in Italy based on “good, clean, fair” product. The concept has spread to other aspects of life, today there is even the slow city movement; a group of towns and cities dedicated to improving the quality of life of their citizens by implementing environmental and infrastructure policies, promoting use of environmental technologies, encouraging production of organic food and other materials. Slow cities embrace traditional ways of life. The idea of slow living is defined as “a process whereby everyday life is approached with care and attention, an attempt to live in the present in a meaningful, sustainable, thoughtful and pleasurable way.” Slow living ideas are gradually making their way into various areas of design. Recently, with the work of people like Dr Hazel Clarke, the concept can be brought into the area of fashion. Dr Clarke is the Dean of Parsons School of Art and Design History and Theory. She is a design historian and theorist with a special interest in fashion. In the forum “Fast Life, Slow Fashion; a New Theory in Fashion; The New School, NY, 2008” Dr Clarke states “When we speak of slow fashion it appears an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, when fashion is predicated on change, which becomes more and more rapid.” She goes on to explain how new fashion styles are intended to have shorter life-spans and many garments are discarded long before the end of their useful life. Dr Clarke defines clothing and fashion as different entities; clothing is material production and made for functional purpose i.e. sheltering and protecting; fashion is symbolic production which deals with our emotional needs as individuals. When fashion and clothing come together consumption and waste are generated, and short-term is thinking promoted. Although the idea of slow fashion is not concurrent with the ideas behind contemporary fashion, by considering the concept, designers could make minor changes to the way they work in order to make for a more sustainable business.


The organic, natural fabric trade is a fast growing economy in Australia as awareness of the environmental impact of conventional fabric production methods broadens. Insecticides used in cotton production alone account for 25% used globally. On their website, Harmony Art Organic Design (2008) published a page in conjunction with fox rich textiles listing the benefits of organic cotton compared to non organic cotton at each stage of fabric manufacture. From seed preparation to dying techniques, production of organic fabrics is environmentally friendly, while conventional methods release harmful chemicals into the environment at almost every stage. The first stage of cotton production is seed preparation. Organic production uses untreated GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) free seeds, while other production methods typically use seeds that have been treated with fungicides or insecticides and often GMOs. Healthy soil with increased organic matter to retain moisture, makes the growing process for organic fibres environmentally friendly. This is opposed to conventional methods whereby intensive irrigation and synthetic fertilizers keep crops growing, while impacting negatively on the environment. To control weeds, organic production uses beneficial insects and trap crops; crops that attract pests away from the main crops. Growing of non-organic crops for fabric uses aerial spraying of dangerous, carcinogenic insecticides and pesticides to control weeds. This method releases harmful chemicals directly into the environment. Even the harvesting process in conventional production uses toxic chemicals to induce defoliation, while organic production employs water management schemes or freezing temperatures to encourage natural defoliation. Eco-friendly manufacturing of fabrics stabilises warped fibres using non-toxic cornstarch while the usual method uses toxic waxes. The conventional method of fabric production releases additional harmful by-products into the environment in the processes of whitening, finishing, dying and printing fabrics. These products include chlorine, formaldehyde, sulfur, heavy metals and more all of which have a destructive impact on the environment. Manufacture of organic fabric, on the other hand, undertakes each of these steps using natural products with minimal environmental impact. Most morally conscious organic fabric producers go further than just organic fabrics, with rules and policies in play regarding fair trade and working conditions. Although the final production cost of organic fabric is higher than that of non-organic fabrics, the environmental benefits are invaluable. Environmentally aware fashion designers, such as Lisa Gorman, use organic fabrics as much as possible.



Lisa Gorman founded her whimsical fashion label, Gorman, in 1999. She first launched her environmentally friendly and sustainable clothing range Gorman Organic in 2007.   All garments in this range are made from fibres and yarns that are certified organically produced or are made without using conventional farming methods. The pieces produced from the ethically sound fashion range Gorman Organic are designed to be trans-seasonal and are not trend driven. This idea is consistent with the theory of slow fashion. Gorman’s environmental consultant advises on local action as well as working with off shore factories to reduce any environmental impact. The brand strives to be earth-friendly using sustainable methods both internally, within its stores and offices as well as externally. By carefully choosing its suppliers, conditional to their environmental policies, Gorman forces other companies to consider how they do business in regards to environmental sustainability. The brand also encourages ‘green’ activity on an individual level by giving discounts to customers who ride bikes to their stores. Packaging accounts for a large percentage of Australia’s waste, however Gorman has reduced their garment packaging by 90%, and use recyclable low-density polyethylene if needed at all. In addition to these measures, the brand donates generously to ‘Friends of the earth. Looking ahead to a bright and green future, Gorman is also conducting research and studies. They have been working with The Merino Company to develop an Australian organic wool product, as well as working hard to develop other innovative organic fabrics. Organic yarns and fibres are not only beneficial in the sustainable method of production but tend to create soft, luscious fabrics. Gorman is also researching how they can use natural dyes commercially, i.e. vegetable and plant dyes, based on traditional fabric dying methods used in Asian villages. Finally, Gorman is also working with the non-profit organization ‘Engineers without Borders’ to develop sustainable community based projects. While many fashion brands dismiss eco-friendly policies and theories as un-economical, Gorman is embracing the idea of sustainable fashion design and reaping the benefits by attracting a new, fashionable crowd- the conscious shoppers.


It is the combination of new technologies, resources and attitudes that have emerged in the 21st century, that make the possibility of a cleaner, greener and sustainable future more probable. The change in awareness and knowledge of human impact on the environment in the last fifty years is phenomenal. The first major environmental concerns surfaced in the 1960s, however sustainable fashion design wouldn’t even have crossed the minds of these initial environmental activists. It is only in the last ten years that research and study has been carried out in the field of sustainable fashion design. A serious approach to sustainable living is being carried out in more businesses than ever, and it is the union of all industries, large and small that could make for a healthy sustainable future.


The fashion industry is generally not considered as a major culprit in global environmental problems. However as you look more closely at each stage of fashion production, it becomes apparent that it certainly does contribute to the environmental damage caused by human activity. Conventional production and disposal of both natural and synthetic fabrics causes much harm to the environment from harvesting crops to garment disposal. Innovative techniques are being used by designers and environmentalists alike in order to reduce this damage and make for a more sustainable way of living. By thinking green on both individual and commercial levels the environmental impact of the fashion industry could be reduced enormously. As environmental awareness becomes increasingly popular, more sustainable concepts are becoming realities. However as in all sustainable living techniques, a minority group of activists won’t make a huge difference. While it is becoming increasingly trendy to be environmentally aware, environmental activists can only hope it is not a passing trend.

Emily Tait
Emily Tait