25 Sustainable Fashion Terms You Should Know

Finally, it’s happening. ‘Sustainable fashion’ is officially becoming the phrase du jour, and for good reason. By 2040, we may be in the midst of a planetary crisis. Especially as we observe the rate of climate change: from rising sea levels to environmental pollution.

Sadly, what we wear has a lot to do with this. As it stands, textile and garment production produces around 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 per year — that’s more than shipping and international flights combined. And that doesn’t even include all the packaging, marketing, and shipping to get your latest order to you!

We're deciphering 25 most common sustainable fashion terms

We’re also consuming and creating more fashion waste than ever. According to McKinsey & Company, the average person buys 60 per cent more items of clothing than they did just 15 years ago and keeps them for half as long. What’s more, we wear a huge proportion of synthetic clothes. Synthetics are cheaper for retailers to produce, and they don’t break down – meaning they stick around in a landfill for hundreds of years. It is especially alarming when you consider the rate of consumption is projected to rise by 63% by 2030!

And it’s not just the planet that’s affected by the fashion industry, it’s our fellow human beings too. The industry employs thousands of garment workers — largely women aged 18 to 35 — in developing countries like India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam, many of whom are still not earning a living wage and working in terrible conditions.

It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? If it wasn’t clear by now, as daily wearers of clothes, sustainability in fashion is an issue that affects us all, but it can get confusing. Are ‘vegan’ and ‘sustainable’ fashion sort of the same thing? How on earth can clothing be biodegradable? What in god’s name is greenwashing?!

We promise you, it’s not as complicated as you think (especially the last one). In short, we’re here to help you learn all the lingo to better understand this important, growing movement. Scroll on to be in the know!


Accountability is a corporate governance concept that involves the acknowledgement of responsibility by organisations for their actions. Some examples would be ‘social and environmental’ accountability, which refer to organisations stepping up and acknowledging the impact of their business practices on people and the planet.


Biodegradable clothing is made out of natural fibres such as hemp and cotton. For example, even banana fibre can be made from banana plant stems. Ancient flax linen, pineapple leather and coconut husk fabric are other such fibres. They can even be turned into non-toxic waste after usage! Moreover, there’s also ongoing research on clothing made from living organisms such as bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells, and fungi. There are so many exciting material innovations to look out for this year.


Circular economy is one in which products and materials are given a second life through reuse and recycling. This is the direct opposite of how our world’s been working so far. Currently, we operate in a linear economy, where we usually dispose of the things we buy (and wear) after single or few uses.

Cradle-to-cradle refers to the framework of using the end product for a new product to contain the environmental impact of the product; an important factor within a circular economy!

Cradle-to-grave is the assessment of the environmental impact of a product from the production process (aka “birth” of the product) to the disposal of the product (aka “death” of the product).


Dematerialisation is the reduction of products sold to consumers; a countermovement of materialism.

Downcycling is the opposite of upcycling. This is when a used product goes to waste because it has less value compared to the new product. It is also not reusable.


Ethical fashion is a term to describe ethical fashion design, production, retail, and purchasing. It involves a range of issues from the improvement of working conditions to the implementation of cruelty-free production.


Fairtrade is an arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading conditions.

Fast fashion is a business model that mass-produce clothing in response to the latest trends. Many retailers release new designs on a weekly to monthly basis and exploit both human resources and natural resources to prioritise quantity over quality.

We're deciphering 25 most common sustainable fashion terms

Greenwashing is a false marketing tactic to boost a business’ social facade. In other words, businesses attempt to improve public perception by providing false or somewhat untrue information. The companies try to show they practise environmentally friendly methods when they don’t in actuality.


Natural fibres are extracted from natural sources such as soy and hemp. Unlike synthetic fibres made from chemicals and plastic that negatively impact our environment.


On-demand fashion, also known as custom-made clothing, is an environmentally friendly form of fashion because it prevents overproduction of clothes.

Organic is a term to denote clothes made from organic resources. Therefore, organic fashion does not use pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.


Product carbon footprint is a measure of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to goods, from the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing to its use and to the final re-use, recycling or disposal.

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Rental clothing is a business model in which clothes, especially clothes for special occasions, can be rented. This is a form of sustainable fashion because it prevents consumers from purchasing clothes that they would not wear on an everyday basis.


Slow fashion is a countermovement against fast fashion and refers to increased consideration of the processes and resources required to make clothing, particularly focusing on sustainability; it is a movement that prioritises quality over quantity.

Social responsibility is the theory that corporations and individuals should contribute to society and that their actions should be ethically validated.

Sustainability is an umbrella term for any activity that encourages the avoidance of depleting natural resources. It also ensures no exploitation of human resources to maintain an ecological balance within an ethical framework.

Synthetic dyes are chemical dyes that are harmful to the environment because they come from non-renewable resources; they are often harmful to our bodies as well since they can cause eye, skin and lung irritation.

We're deciphering 25 most common sustainable fashion terms


Traceability refers to the ability to trace the history, distribution, location, and application of products, parts, and materials. This is to consequently ensure companies don’t violate any human rights and actively minimise negative effects on the environment.

Transparency in terms of sustainability refers to how much companies are disclosing information on their supply chain. For example, companies advocating transparency reveal how they source their materials and whether they pay living wage to their workers.


Upcycling refers to the reuse of objects by adding value to it, as opposed to downcycling, which diminishes the value of it.


Value chain is the process by which a company adds value to a product including production, marketing, and the provision of after-sales service. Many problems of fast fashion lie in the value chain. This is because companies try to maximise value by exploiting human resources and natural resources.

Vegan fashion refers to cruelty-free fashion. This means producing it did not harm any animals. Some alternatives for fur, leather, and silk are synthetic fibres, recycled, repurposed materials, organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and wood pulp fibres. Using synthetic in place of animal-derived fashion is controversial, knowing synthetic fibre’s impact on the environment.

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