Sustainable fashion jargon guide

Ethical, fair trade, sustainable, recycled, regenerative… With so many new and changing terms floating around it can sometimes seem like there’s a whole language of sustainable fashion which can be confusing for customers, brands, and suppliers alike.

I have put together this collection of sustainable fashion jargon to help you understand the different terms to help you both get the right product, and market it clearly and effectively to your customers.

Bamboo

This is one of the most popular “sustainable” materials, however in terms of textiles it’s actually not that sustainable. To convert raw bamboo into fibre, many chemicals are required, and it is also very energy-intensive.

Biodegradable:

Materials that break down naturally into the environment or soil without releasing toxic chemicals. 

Biodynamic cotton:

Similarly to standard organic cotton, biodynamic organic cotton doesn’t use any toxic pesticides or GMO seeds. However, it also goes a step beyond organic by using methods which actually restore soil health and trap carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. We need healthy soil to protect future harvests, and trapping carbon in the soil is a very effective way to help cool our planet.

It is very similar to and easily confused with regenerative agriculture, the main difference that biodynamic takes a more holistic view of agriculture, taking into account the natural rhythms of the earth to determine when to sow, plant and harvest crops. Meanwhile, regenerative organic agriculture takes a more focused, purely scientific approach.

Carbon-neutral

A carbon neutral product is one produced without any carbon emissions or outputs. Many companies achieve this by investing in carbon saving projects to offset their emissions. Some companies claim to be carbon neutral by using renewable energy in their production. While this is commendable and a good aspiration to have, it should be noted that energy is not the only carbon output of a garment: the majority of carbon emissions are from the consumer use phase.

Certified

Holding a certification to prove chosen ethical standard. My guide to fashion and textiles certifications is coming soon.

Closed-loop

A production process that does not emit any waste. This can refer to the material itself, for example a product where instead of disposal it is recycled or repurposed into a new product. It can also refer to the materials used in production, for example the chemicals in Tencel™ production are reused again and again, reducing the need to be released into the environment.

Conventional Cotton

Standard type of cotton, grown with pesticides and GMO (genetically engineered) seeds. Conventional cotton uses huge amounts of chemicals, and is very water-intensive, causing large-scale environmental destruction as well as abundant health issues for the producers. It is also very damaging to soil health, which is important because we need healthy soil to keep growing crops in the future.

Dead-stock

Dead-stock fabric is that which is surplus to a brand or supplier’s requirements. This is sometimes disposed of, or can be purchased for reuse at a discount cost. Some designers are successfully making use of this in their business model, simultaneously acquiring quality fabrics at low cost, whilst also reducing fabric waste.

Environmentally-friendly

A generic term to describe a product a process that causes less environmental damage than conventional methods. This should be used with caution so as not to confuse consumers or suppliers alike.

Ethical

A generic term to describe a product, process or behaviour that demonstrates principles such as fairness, respect, protection and equality. This can cover a whole range of areas, but generally refers to the impact on people and the plant throughout the supply chain; including issues such as workers rights and safety, environmental protection, and fair pay.

Fair trade

Fair trade refers to the conditions and treatment of workers and suppliers throughout the supply chain, to ensure fair pay, rights, safety, and respect. Note that many certifications include these standards, not just Fairtrade ®.

Fast fashion

This has become the dominant fashion system, where high street stores constantly produce new trends, which are sold at low cost to encourage consumers to buy more clothes, more often. The environmental impact is huge, not just in production but in the vast amounts of waste clothing disposed of by consumers after only a few wears. The consumer is also worse off as they spend more over time buying lower quality items that don’t last.

Fibre

The smallest element of a material that makes up thread or yarn.

GMO (genetically engineered)

GMO is a crop or animal that has been scientifically engineered with the intention of increasing productivity. However, there can be very damaging side effects in the long term, such as polluting water sources and reducing soil health that is vital for future crops. They can also cause unintended side effects such as strengthening harmful bugs and weeds.

GOTS Organic

GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the main certification for organic clothing used globally.

Green

Similar to environmentally-friendly, green is a generic term used to refer to a product or process which is not damaging to the environment.

Green-wash

Green-washing is a technique frequently used by companies to sell more product by making environmental claims, however without any real back up or proof.

Life cycle

The life cycle of a garment follows all the stages from the raw material through production and use to disposal.

Organic cotton

Organic cotton is grown without insecticides, pesticides, and GMO (genetically engineered) seeds. Compared to conventional cotton, it uses 71% less water and 62% less energy.

Pima cotton

Pima cotton is a specific high-quality type of cotton grown in Peru. The raw cotton material has extra-long fibres, which give the finished cotton an exceptional hand-feel once spun and made into cloth.

Recyclable

A recyclable product or material can be recycled after use. It can be made from both recycled and virgin materials; the focus here is on the end use.

Recycled

A recycled material is made from a previously disposed product or material. A mechanical or chemical process is usually required to transform the original material into the new material.

Regenerative

Similarly to standard organic cotton, regenerative organic cotton doesn’t use any toxic pesticides or GMO seeds. However, it also goes a step beyond organic by using methods which actually restore soil health and trap carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. We need healthy soil to protect future harvests, and trapping carbon in the soil is a very effective way to help cool our planet.

It is very similar to and easily confused with biodynamic agriculture. Regenerative organic agriculture takes a more focused, purely scientific approach. Meanwhile, biodynamic organic work in a holistic manner that takes into account the natural rhythms of the earth.

Renewable

Renewable materials come from sources that can be replenished at the same rate as they are used. For example, eucalyptus is seen as very renewable as the raw material grows at an exceptionally fast rate.

Reused/ repurposed

A product or material that is converted into something new without the need for mechanical or chemical processing. For example, some designers repurpose old garments or industrial textiles in their collections making use of innovative pattern-cutting techniques.

Socially responsible

A type of production or behaviour that treats people with respect, with a focus on human rights, safety, and fair pay.

Soil health

Although not something we often (if ever!) talk about in the fashion industry, soil health is very important to mitigate future risk, in fashion but also in our wider human society. Without healthy soil we cannot produce the food and materials we require to maintain our human society. Environmental degradation has led to a decrease in soil health, and it is now estimated that under current practices we have 60 healthy harvests left. This alarming data is why it’s more important than ever to change our industry: to protect our own future.

Sustainable

A generic term to describe a product, process or behaviour that causes minimal environmental impact. It can also encompass social sustainability; the safety and fair treatment of people in the supply chain. In 1987 the UN defined sustainability as that which that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Take-back scheme

These schemes have grown in popularity with high street stores in recent years. The concept is that consumers can deposit their unwanted clothing in store, to be recycled. Often the customer will obtain a store voucher in return. This could be seen as a form of Green-washing as the companies do not disclose where the unwanted garments actually end up, and it could encourage consumers to purchase even more clothing.

Lyocell (Tencel™ )

Lyocell is a manmade fibre generated from wood pulp. It has a particularly low-impact production process, as it is made from FSC certified Eucalyptus, and only non-toxic chemicals are used in the production process. Tencel™ is the brand name for lyocell from Lenzig made in a closed-loop process.

Vegan

With exceptional growth in the vegan food movement, many people are now seeking vegan fashion. This can be a confusing area, but there’s some key factors to bear in mind. Vegan products are made without any harm to animals. Obvious examples would be fur and leather. However, some non-animal derived products such as synthetic fur can also cause harm to animals in the supply chain. The two main certifications to look out for if you wish to purchase vegan products are the PETA-approved vegan logo, and the Vegan Society sunflower logo. Note that these are not widely-known amongst suppliers so many will be producing vegan products by default, just without a certification.

Virgin material

This is the raw material used to make a product, when it does not come from a recycled or reused source.

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