Sustainable fashion: The simple guide to making the right choices

I love shopping and have had more than my fair share of impulse buys that never saw the light of the day. But as I got older (and wiser), knowing that no one was harmed by the clothes I wear became a lot more important to me.

When I first started looking into buying more sustainably, I got myself so confused that I almost gave up. There is so much information out there! Now that I am a ‘veteran’ in making the right fashion choices, I want to simplify things for the beginner so you don’t get scared away.

Let’s dive in.

What is sustainable fashion?

Sustainable fashion is a movement to meet our current style needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

In the fashion industry, the 3 big players who can contribute the most to sustainable fashion are us (as the consumer), fashion brands and the governments of the world.

To measure how sustainable a fashion brand is, we mainly look at its effect on social welfare, the environment and the economy (people, planet and profits).

Why is sustainable fashion important?

Because the fashion industry is one of the largest sources of pollution on the planet.

Every year the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water – enough to meet the consumption needs of five million people, and is responsible for 8-10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

When clothes are made from synthetic material, they contain plastic microfibers. Half a million tons of microfibers are dumped into the ocean each year. This is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. Microfibers cannot ever be extracted from the water. What does this mean? It eventually ends up in your tummy.

These are only a few of the scary fashion industry statistics out there. If  you want to read more, go to the United Nations News and UN Fashion Alliance websites.

Most people have never thought about how their clothes are made, by who and under what conditions. It’s a bit like how we don’t want to know how the roast chicken got onto our plate.

But the clothes you wear and the choices you make matter.

Ethical fashion, eco-fashion and slow fashion: Similar but different

Ethical fashion primarily focuses on clothes (and other wearables) that are made in ways that value human rights, animal rights, inclusivity and supply chain transparency.

Eco-fashion focuses on having a positive impact on the environment.

Slow fashion is a concept that advocates for not buying mindlessly, sustainable production and the minimizing of waste (as opposed to fast fashion which is the opposite of slow fashion).

Sustainable fashion encompasses ethical, eco and slow fashion with one overarching goal: to reduce the negative impact of fashion.

How can you support sustainable fashion?

By not buying more clothes. Ironic isn’t it?

Do the 3Rs instead:


Refuse to give in to the temptation of buying something new unless you really need it. If you are dieting, you wouldn’t have ice-cream in the fridge. So if you want to avoid impulse buys, cancel your fashion newsletter subscriptions and avoid window shopping. Only look when you really need to buy something.


Mend what you already own and if you’re really good with the needle and thread, make new clothes from old ones.


Take care of the clothes you have so that you can wear them again and again.

Pair new and old clothes together to make new outfits.

Borrow or swap clothing with similar-minded friends.

Rent your clothes instead of buying them new each time.

Buy used or vintage clothing.

What to do if you really need to buy a new item of clothing

  1. Sleep on it. Don’t rush out to buy something the moment you feel you need it. Often, once you have given it more thought, the urgent need for that new pink mini skirt miraculously disappears.
  2. Choose fashion brands that take sustainable and ethical fashion seriously (more on that below).
  3. Choose clothes made of sustainable fabric like organic cotton, hemp and linen.
  4. Know your style and buy something that you will love for a long time. Never buy according to trend if you know deep down that you would never wear it.
  5. Buy only good quality pieces that will last.

How to choose fashion brands that are sustainable?

The fashion industry is far from perfect but there are some good changes happening. We can do our part by using our buying power to make a difference.

Every time we make a purchase, we are casting our vote for the types of clothes we want to see more of. So choose wisely:

Look at how a brand produces its clothes

The process to produce 1 piece of clothing is long and complex with many hand changes along the way. Look for brands that produce locally (reduced carbon foot print for long-distance transportation) or if the products are made in developing countries, that these factories are externally-audited to comply with work safety and health codes.

What fabrics does the brand use?

Sustainable fabrics fall into 3 categories:

  1. Natural fabrics – organic cotton, organic hemp, linen,  leather, wool, down, silk, cashmere etc.
  2. Processed natural – Tencel lyocell, modal, bamboo lyocell etc.
  3. Recycled synthetics – these comprise of recycled synthetic fibers. The most common type of recycled synthetics is made of PET (plastic single-use bottles)

Unsustainable fabrics include:

*Any piece of clothing that is not 100% of a natural fabric (e.g 80% wool, 20% spandex) is not sustainable since we don’t have the tech to separate blended fibers yet)

What fabric dyes are used for your clothes?

There are now a few non-toxic, more eco-friendly fabric dyes around but many companies are still using traditional toxic dyes that use up lots of water and pollutes into the environment.

How do you know what dye a fashion brand uses? Check their website or buy from companies that are Bluesign certified or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified.

Further reading: 5 most toxic fabrics to avoid (choose these healthier options instead)

Is the fashion brand transparent with their manufacturing processes and supply chain?

Full transparency across a long and complicated supply chain is almost impossible. The shorter the supply chain and the smaller the product line, the easier it is for brands to be more accountable and transparent.

What else is the brand doing?

Some brands have initiatives like selling vintage clothing, recycling and encouraging clothes rental instead of buying.

Beware greenwashing. This is when a brand spends more time and money on marketing themselves as sustainable and ethical than on taking any real action.

Why is sustainable fashion more expensive?

Sustainable fashion is more expensive because of the processes your piece of clothing went through in order to get to you.

Unlike fast fashion brands, sustainable clothing brands spend more on eco-friendly material, fair workers’ wages, external audits and certifications and a whole host of other things that fast fashion brands don’t care about.

In order for this business model to be sustainable for the company itself, their clothes need to be more expensive to cover the cost of its production.

If you are buying sustainably, this wouldn’t be a problem because you would only buy high-quality pieces that will last multiple wears and years in the closet.

Beware: the price of a product is not indicative of the ethical way it was produced. There are lots of designer and high-end brands who would charge more for their clothing just for its name. These same companies sometimes destroy their unsold stock to avoid poor plebs like us from getting our dirty mitts on any discounted items.

Can I buy sustainable fashion on a budget?

Of course you can. Remember you are not rushing out to buy a new piece of clothing every weekend so you’ll have more to spend on what you do buy.

Buying good quality second-hand and vintage can also be your way of supporting sustainable fashion but not breaking the bank.

To wrap up

I have only skimmed the surface of the murky waters of the fashion world. But I hope this simple guide to sustainable fashion starts you on your journey to making better choices. Remember, small steps make a big difference.

I try to be as truthful as possible but I am only human. Sometimes things change and I haven’t caught up so if you’ve read something that you don’t think is true, please let me know and I will look into it.

Sharon James
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