The Highsnobiety Better Earth Manual is a guide for style enthusiasts in the age of ecological crisis — a crisis caused in part by the fashion itself. Here, you’ll find a growing set of resources about conscious consumption and the pioneers who are making change in our industry.
There is no such thing as sustainable fashion. Most of us know this by now, but as brands continue to pump buzzwords into the ether in the hope that something green sticks, the real meaning behind certain terminology gets hazier and hazier.
With that in mind, we thought we'd compile a guide to the most commonly used terms associated with sustainability in fashion to help you navigate the vortex. Below, you'll find an A-Z of topics condensed and explained as clearly as possible, which you can revisit any time you want to work out what's legit and what's just hot air.
We've also worded it in a way that hopefully isn't as doom-inducing as much of the narrative around sustainability might make you feel — this is not about guilting you or your shopping choices, it's about giving you the information you need to see brands' BS for what it is. Knowledge is power, etc, etc.
Biodegradable means that a product can break down naturally (by bacteria or other living organisms) without any negative effects on the environment. In regards to clothing, biodegradable often refers to non-synthetic fabrics such as organic cotton (description below), silk, and hemp (those that have not been treated with dyes and finishing chemicals).
But: An organic T-shirt might not actually be biodegradable if certain elements like tags and threads are made from something else.
Blended materials are when two or more materials are blended or bonded together.
But: Sometimes brands will say a product is "natural" because it bonds or blends one organic element with a synthetic one. For example, apple leather bonds apple fiber with Polyurethane, which is plastic — meaning you're left with a product that's neither biodegradable nor recyclable.
Carbon is shorthand for all the various greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — which absorb and emit radiant energy that increases the temperature of the earth's surface. A company striving for carbon neutrality means they are aiming to eliminate all carbon emissions from their supply chain.
But: Lots of companies are striving for carbon neutrality but, spoiler alert, there's not really any such thing as a carbon-neutral company. Most tackle the topic of reducing carbon emissions via offsetting (like planting trees) but for the most part, this is just something companies can say to make them sound like they're doing work to reduce their emissions. To really see whether a company is playing its part, it must first account for its entire supply chain (from soil to customer, which most brands cannot), measure the emissions from stage to stage, and then prove it via independent, verified reports.
If a product is Circular, it means that it can be recycled to the same value as its original materials. In other words: The product is designed to be recycled, there is a system in place to make sure of that, and the result is one of equal value. Circularity should take into account the entire lifecycle of a product and center on a system of create, use, and recycle, rather than create, use, and dispose. It should also consider growth (of fibers, to create material objects), production, design, sourcing, transportation, storage, marketing, sale, disposal of the product, and care for those working within the cycle at all stages.
But: Resale, Rental, and Secondhand are not circular (definitions below).
Cost-per-wear considers the value of a piece in relation to how many times it's worn. For example, you buy a pair of $200 sneakers and wear them twice — that's $100 per wear. You wear them 100 times, it's $2 per wear, and so on. In a nutshell, the price you pay for an item should be reflective of its value to you. It's much better to spend more on a pair of jeans you can live in for decades than a cheap $30 pair that fall apart in a year. Try to think of every piece you buy like entering a new relationship — only buy into the things you actually really love.
A closed-loop cycle is a common term and it's very similar to circular. In fashion, it means that new clothes are made from preexisting clothes and textiles and returned to their full, original value. Once an item has fulfilled its use, it can be broken down through an environmentally sound process and turned back into yarn/fabric, and then recycled into another garment. This forms a "closed-loop," in that an item would have an eternal life cycle.
But: Don't confuse resale and rental with "closed-loop," because they're not. There is currently no way to ensure that garments are recycled into other garments once you donate them. On that note, just because a product incorporates recycled materials doesn't make it a "loop."
Cruelty-free refers to animal welfare and whether any animals were hurt or harmed during the production (such as ingredient testing). Items that meet this standard normally carry a heart symbol.
But: Cruelty-free does not mean that animal ingredients are avoided. The verdict is still out on whether using animals for human-intended products and purposes can be considered entirely cruelty-free. For products that don't use animals at all, you want to be shopping vegan (definition below).
Eco-friendly, like "sustainability," is an all-encompassing term that takes many factors into account and needs to be taken with a giant pinch of salt. Basically, "eco" is short for ecology, the study of the interaction between organisms and the environment, and thus, eco-friendly is about minimizing anything that would negatively affect that balance. Things to consider include what material a product is made from (such as organic cotton or hemp), whether it is dyed with organic dye (vegetables, for example) or chemicals, and how much water is used to grow the fabric.
Ethical fashion is an umbrella term which includes fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It is intended to indicate that the creation of a product followed ethical guidelines and positively impacts the environment and the lives of those involved in the production process (via non-exploitative contracts, equal and fair pay, and positive working conditions).
But: This is very hard to vet in practice. Again, it requires brands to offer insight into their entire supply chains that are checked and controlled by an independent auditor.
Fast fashion is the term used to describe clothing that is produced quickly and cheaply. Brands and retailers who engage in fast fashion often create products based on seasonal trends. Fast fashion brands are generally associated with overproduction, low retail prices, mass waste, poor working conditions, and terrible environmental impact. Avoid if possible.
Fair Trade Fashion
Chances are high that you've come across The Fairtrade Mark, used as a signifier for products which meet internationally agreed social, environmental, and economic Fairtrade Standards. Profits made from products that qualify for the Fairtrade Mark go towards supporting farmers and workers, and improving lives and communities. Fairtrade Cotton has its own mark, as does Fairtrade Textile Production, and these symbols are indications of how ethically sound a garment is.
If an item is FSC-certified, it means the fabric is made from tree fibers that come from sustainable sources – in that they do not originate from endangered or ancient forests. Rather, the fibers here come from well-managed forests and large-scale areas of conservation. TENCEL and MONOCEL products, for example, are often made from FSC certified eucalyptus and bamboo, respectively. For more info on FSC, head to the official website.
Greenwashing, also known as lying, is what happens when a brand gives a false impression of its sustainable endeavors. For example, greenwashing happens when a brand launches a range of organic cotton tees in the hope that it will speak for the company's values as a whole — regardless of whether or not that's actually the case. (Think of the Primark Cares "initiative," which, to be frank, is a load of shit. Here's why.)
The "Made In" Label
The "Made In [country]" label is found on most garments, but it only speaks for the final stage of production, often where a garment is assembled. However, before a product reaches that point, it has already been through various stages — raw material, spinning, weaving, and processing — before it's made into the finished item. These stages are complex, each has its own impact, and there's little in the way of visibility between each step, thanks in no small part to the fact that these stages often take place in different factories in different parts of the world.
See Carbon Neutral.
Standards differ as to what "organic" means from country to country, but generally speaking, organic fashion refers to the materials used and how they're grown. Namely, this means that the materials are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, or other chemicals.
But: Organic doesn't necessarily mean "more sustainable." As New Standard Insitute explains: “There are some important benefits to organic production over conventional cotton production, specifically with regards to soil health and reduced water pollution. However, this is far from meaning that the organic standard is without impact. Organic cotton still has negative impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and water pollution. The standard itself also has no bearing on the chemical, climate, or labor impact in other stages of textile and clothing production.”
Your best bet when shopping for organic cotton is to look for the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification. For a piece of clothing to receive the GOTS tag, it requires a far more stringent set of criteria, including fiber composition, prohibition of environmentally hazardous substances, as well as confirmation that these practices were met at every level of the (rather long and complicated) fabric supply chain.
Pre- and Post-Consumer
Pre-consumer waste is sometimes referred to as post-industrial and refers to manufacturing waste. A lot of recycled cotton, for example, is pre-consumer, as it's built from offcuts and waste from regular cotton production, then put back into the process to create more material. Post-consumer waste is what's collected after the owner has disposed of it and it's taken to recycling facilities to be processed. It's a complicated system, as waste needs to be entirely collected, purified, and processed.
Recycled and Upcycled Fashion
There's often a lot of confusion about the difference between recycling and upcycling. Simply put, recycling refers to the industrial process in which a product is broken down into its base materials and then used for the production of something new. Upcycling, on the other hand, is about creatively re-imagining the purpose of an object, transforming, and reinventing its function.
But: Brands turning recycled plastic bottles into clothing isn't necessarily a good thing — it does not solve plastic pollution. The process takes resources away from the bottling industry, where bottles could be recycled again and again into more plastic bottles (see circular and closed-loop systems). Also, recycling polyester fabric is extremely expensive, so most brands can't implement it, and thus your new plastic bottle T-shirt/sneakers/whatever is basically one-use. Plastic pollution will only be solved by improved infrastructure and regulation.
Regenerative refers to agriculture, a type of farming which follows the guidance of Indigenous knowledge (agroecology). It mimics the earth's natural rhythms, with all elements (farming and grazing practices) working together to enhance biodiversity, enrich the soil, encourage carbon drawdown, and improving water cycles. It's all about creating positive impacts, rather than doing "less bad." Read more here.
But: As Whitney Bauck pointed out recently, regenerative is fashion's new favorite buzzword. Beware of it being overused.
Rental does what it says on the tin — renting garments from a company/platform rather than purchasing. For the most part, this is a good thing, as it allows pieces to be worn loads more than they otherwise might be (say you just want a special piece for a particular event), depending on how often the garment is rented out.
But: This doesn't mean rental platforms consider what happens to a product at the end of its cycle — there's no guarantee the pieces will be recycled.
Rental, resale platforms are basically a way to sell pre-owned pieces.
But: Resale feeds into the hype market. If someone is reselling pieces every week — or buying product every week — it's not circular or responsible, it's just another way of feeding into a culture of overconsumption and hype.
Buying garments second-hand is the least impactful way of shopping (other than not shopping at all, but let's be realistic) — you're extending the life-cycle of one garment longer than it would be otherwise, and that's definitely a good thing.
But: See resale.
As you would expect, slow fashion is the opposite of fast fashion. It's about rejecting consumeristic impulses and embracing a slower, more mindful model of consumerism. While this doesn't eradicate shopping entirely, it refers to only buying things you actually need and items of quality that will last. It's about being conscious of what you buy, and how that purchase will impact others (asking who makes the clothes and how, for example) and the environment.
Means nothing. Next.
Synthetic Fibers & Materials
Synthetic fibers are the opposite of natural fibers, and there are two types: those derived from natural polymers (Rayon, lyocell, acetate, viscose, Tencel) and those derived from synthetic polymers (polyester, nylon, acrylic).
Watch out for materials like synthetic leather that bond natural elements with plastic. As Future Dust asserts: "This results in a material that is not at all 'natural' or 'bio,' and is, in fact, the worst of both worlds when it comes to end-of-life. A material that’s half natural, half synthetic, can’t truly biodegrade, and can’t be efficiently recycled, either. However, these materials can, in theory, result in significantly less impact than conventional leather. The point isn’t that synthetic leather is better or worse than genuine leather. The point is that framing synthetic leather as somehow 'natural' or a 'solution' is misleading. Again, the most effective way of reducing the impact of a garment is just wearing the hell out of it. The impact of a conventional leather jacket is huge if it’s worn a handful of times, but minimal if it’s worn for decades (as it should be)."
Tier 1 Factories
Tier 1 factories are either where a product's production process is finished or where a product is prepared for distribution. They're described as the most important part of the supply chain as often its the Tier 1 factory that directly supplies the brand. Companies that share their factory information, names, and address, help consumers understand more about where their products are coming from.
Adversely, however, companies can use Tier 1 factories to their advantage. As the New Yorker pointed out back in 2013, brands can list the location of the factory on the "Made In ..." label, rather than the country in which the majority of the work was done, opting for the location that seems more premium.
The FTC has published guidelines on what constitutes a legit "Made in America" label, stating that "all or virtually all" of the product must be made in the United States. For a full breakdown, head here.
Transparency and Traceability
Transparency and traceability go hand-in-hand. In order to be transparent, a brand shares the names and information about every factory (and ideally every worker) involved in the manufacturing process. In turn, this gives product traceability, meaning consumers can trace a product and its components back through each step of the supply chain, right down to its raw material.
But: Being transparent and traceable does not a good brand make. Take H&M, for example — much of its business is transparent, but it's still a low-quality, fast-fashion machine.
If you want to avoid animal products entirely, you need to be shopping vegan. Vegan fashion means that no animal testing nor animal-derived fabrics — such as leather, fur, or exotic skins — are included in products and collections. For more information on vegan brands and fabrics, head to PETA.
Every brand has an impact. There is no such thing as a zero impact brand. Some brands claim they are eliminating impact by offsetting, but this is not the same thing.
See also: Carbon Neutral.
In theory, you can eliminate waste from production —
But: Beware of any company saying "zero" anything. Instead, ask: Is waste eliminated at every step in the supply chain? Do they verify that?
Missed a term or need something clarifying further? Let us know in the comments.