25 Sustainable Fashion Terms You Should Know

Finally, it's happening. 'Sustainable fashion' is officially becoming the phrase du jour; and for a good reason. By 2040, we may be in the midst of a planetary crisis given 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!

Women's clothing on a rail to accompany a discussion on sustainable terms on ZERRIN

We're also consuming and creating more fashion waste than ever. According to McKinsey & Company, the average person buys 60 percent more items of clothing than they did just 15 years ago, and keeps them for half as long. What's more, a huge proportion of the clothes we wear are made from synthetic fibres (it's cheaper for retailers to produce with) which don't break down and stubbornly stick around in landfill for hundreds of years. Pretty alarming, when you consider the rate of all this buying 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). Getting to know all the lingo will help you better understand this important, growing movement. We're here to help. Scroll on to be in the know!


Accountability is a corporate governance concept that involves the acknowledgment 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. Other examples include banana fibre from banana plant stems, ancient flax linen, pineapple leather and coconut husk fabric enhancer that can be turned into non-toxic waste after usage! There's also ongoing research on clothing made from living organisms such as bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells, and fungi. There's 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 — a linear economy — where the things we buy (and wear) are usually disposed of after use.  

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 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.

Downcycle is when a used product will go to waste because it has less value compared to the new product and cannot or will not be reused.

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

Fair trade 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.

Image of people bustling through a shopping mall to accompany a discussion on sustainable terms on ZERRIN
Greenwashing is a tactic of marketing in which businesses create a false image that the company is involved in environmentally friendly practices to improve public perception.

Natural fibres are fibres extracted from natural sources such as soy and hemp as opposed to 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 fashion is clothes made from organic resources without the use of 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.

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 prioritizes 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 and exploiting human resources in order to maintain an ecological balance as well as 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.

Image of air pollution to accompany a discussion on sustainable terms on ZERRIN

Traceability refers to the ability to trace the history, distribution, location, and application of products, parts, and materials to ensure that there are no human rights violations and 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 that advocate for transparency would reveal how they source their materials and whether the people who make the products are sufficiently paid.

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 because companies try to maximise value by exploiting human resources and natural resources.

Vegan fashion refers to cruelty-free fashion in which no animals are harmed in the production process. Some alternatives for fur, leather, and silk are synthetic fibres, recycled, repurposed materials, organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, and wood pulp fibres although synthetic fibres are known to be harmful to the environment.

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