History of a movement: when did sustainable fashion start?

Calendar looking at when sustainable fashion started

History of a movement: when did sustainable fashion start?

From our increased awareness of greenwashing to eco-friendly organisations hoping to change the way we shop, it’s impossible to view the modern fashion sector without the influence of the sustainable fashion industry. But, the story of sustainability and fashion hasn’t always been so intertwined. In a fashion sector that now is so shaped by its struggle with sustainability, we might wonder, when exactly did sustainable fashion start?

What is Sustainable Fashion?

Many people think of the environment when they think of sustainable fashion, but it includes the effect on people and animals too.

Environmental issues

When talking about sustainable fashion, we are referring to clothing that is made, used and disposed of in a conscious way. We are referring to production that is mindful of its environmental impact and takes actionable steps to reduce these impacts.

We are also talking of a conscious consumer that buys less, buys well, looks after their clothing and keeps it for longer. This is a “consumer” that also disposes mindfully of their clothing when it gets to the end of its life.

Social issues

More than just an environmental movement, sustainable and ethical fashion is about people and animals too. The fashion industry is shadowed by a dark history of human and animal rights abuses and exploitation. Sustainable fashion works to change this narrative.

In short, sustainable fashion is fashion that is made to be kind to people, the planet and animals. It’s fashion designed to tread lightly on the Earth and protect the rights and safety of all involved.

However, the history of sustainable fashion has been a long and twisted tale. Just as today, the industry can struggle with adopting a kinder outlook, the fashion sector has made mistakes in its quest for sustainability.

Lady working in a field the effect on people of the fashion industry
Sustainable fashion is about people too. Photo by Allan Wadsworth on Unsplash

When Did Sustainable Fashion Start?

It is fair to say that there isn’t a single date in history that can be marked on the calendar as the start of a sustainable industry. That said, it has been claimed to be anywhere between the 1960s and 1990s. The truth is that there has been an ongoing journey towards sustainability, which we are still on.

The history of sustainable fashion has involved a great deal of evolution in the fashion sector. The textile industry has had an evolving relationship with the environment and there have been decades of shifting views, values and attitudes.

Industrial Revolution

For a fashion industry that for centuries had been built on at-home makers and small fashion houses and tailors, the industrial revolution was…well, revolutionary.

Taking the world by storm in the 18th century, the industrial revolution was the first time that mass production became a viable business possibility. While this wasn’t yet the fast fashion industry of today, this period of rapid industrialisation laid the groundwork for the fast fashion model.

The 18th century ushered in the first steps away from a slow fashion sector. The industrial revolution saw machines begin to replace hand sewing, garment factories being built, and new technology improving the efficiency of clothing production. Suddenly, machinery allowed producers to quickly and cheaply make new fashion styles.

The Cost of New Production

However, this innovation came at a cost. Much like the story of the modern fashion sector, the cost was paid by the environment and by low-income workers.

Factory workers at turn of century
The Industrial Revolution changed everything. Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Health and safety policies were basically non-existent in industrial revolution fashion factories. The deafening clatter of early machinery made deafness common. Dust and fibres damaged workers’ lungs and thousands of fashion industry accidents were reported every year.

Children were commonly employed and workers were expected to work long and strenuous hours for little pay.

The industrial revolution also represented a changing relationship with the environment. The beginnings of mass production put a greater strain on natural resources including fossil fuels and water use. At the same time, new technology and the widespread adoption of factories led to increased water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The impact of this period on the future of the natural world was dramatic. So dramatic,  that some experts have claimed that modern challenges, such as biodiversity loss and climate change, can be linked back to this point in history.

1950s and 60s: Peace, Love and Fashion

1960s girl when sustainable fashion started
Peace, love and fashion. Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw another period of change for the fashion sector. While the industrial revolution laid the foundations for mass manufacturing, the mid-twentieth century helped it grow. Clever marketing campaigns and increased production saw unsustainable mass manufacturing become commonplace in the 1950s.

However, these unsustainable practices also influenced the growing sustainable movement of the 1960s. Environmental movements saw their popularity surge in the swinging sixties. Organisations such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club saw membership grow by almost 700,000 members between 1960 and 1970.

The hippie movement also led to a growing interest in natural fabrics, as well as a desire to return to simpler, more eco-friendly and slower fashion principles. This represented a distinct move away from a consumerist mindset.

While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact point as to when sustainable fashion started, the first glimmer of the modern slow fashion movement most definitely had its origins in the 1960s.

1970s and 80s: Punk Rock and Vintage Fashion

A constantly evolving industry, fashion had morphed again by the 1970s and 1980s. Polyester, although invented in 1931, was booming in popularity by the 70s.

However, leaving behind the peace-loving views of the 1960s, in the 1980s punk rock fashion dominated the market. While some of the focus had been taken off the environmental ideals of the 60s, vintage fashion began to have a new awakening.

Vintage and second-hand shopping and upcycling styles were fuelled by the rebellious attitude of the 80s. This was also the age when the fur industry took a hit. Movements against the use of fur grew in popularity and calls for fur bans became more prominent over the decade.

However, it wasn’t all good news for the environment during the punk rock era. Increases in off-shore manufacturing in poorer countries saw cheap fashion become more readily available. As a result, trend-buying in the west became more prominent. This changing market was fuelling the early beginnings of the modern fast fashion industry.

Vintage fashion began to get more popular in the 80s
The punk rock era saw the rise again of vintage fashion and anti-fur movements. Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels

Awareness and Shifting Views of the 90s

The dawn of the 2000s was a mixed bag for ethical activities in the fashion sector.

Awareness of social injustice, in particular, the rampant use of sweatshops and child labour was growing in consumer bodies. This growing awareness lead to increased demands for more ethical supply chains and The Fairtrade Foundation was founded in 1992.

This decade also saw a growing awareness of climate change, with climate change being the primary focus of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

But did this growing concern for the environment and fair trade translate into a growing desire for green fashion?

The Rapid Rise of Fast Fashion 

It was in the 90s that the term ‘fast fashion’ first emerged. Interestingly it was used to describe the rapid production process of ZARA when it expanded into New York.

While many of the best-known fast fashion brands started before the 90s and early 2000s, this was the time that they took off. The expansion of these big brands saw small scale and independent fashion stores blink out of existence as they struggled to compete with the agility, volume and prices of the fast fashion model.

It was around the turn of the century that fast fashion also became trendy. Increasingly viewed as a desirable fashion choice, these cheap, chic and disposable clothes became the go-to style for people at all levels of society and influence.  

This cheap, mass-production model led to a democratization of fashion. Suddenly, people at all income levels were able to afford excessive amounts of clothing.

1990s to Today: The Steep Price of Disposable Style 

Since fast fashion took off in the 90s to its continuing success today, fast fashion styles have come with a steep cost. The fashion sector is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It is the second largest industry consumer of water and 35% of ocean microplastics come from putting our synthetic textiles through the laundry cycle.

Synthetic fibres

The domination of fast fashion has caused the rise of cheap and easily produced synthetic fibres. By the 1990s, 39% of polyester sales were from the clothing sector. 

Synthetic materials now comprise  60% of our clothing and this number is expected to grow to 75% by 2030. Derived from the base component of oil, synthetic fabrics are non-biodegradable and a driving force of fashion’s growing carbon footprint.

Women in synthetic clothing
Synthetic materials make up 60% of our clothing. Photo by April Laugh on Unsplash

Conventional cotton

Non-organic conventionally farmed cotton, a material often toted by the fast fashion sector as more natural and environmentally friendly, doesn’t do much better than its synthetic counterparts. Creating just one cotton shirt requires 2500 litres of water.

The impacts of conventional cotton farming can be dramatically seen with the shrinking of the Aral Sea. In 2014, the Aral Sea’s Eastern basin completely dried up for the first time in 600 years. 

Toxic chemicals

Meanwhile, over the last decade, harmful chemicals and heavy metals have poisoned waterways, turning rivers in China red and rivers in Bangladesh black.

Worker rights

Garment workers don’t fare much better in the fast fashion industry. Many fast fashion brands have been accused of not paying workers a living wage. Worker exploitation and abuse are common in supply chains.

Tragedies such as those seen at Lusaka Garments factory fire in 1996 and the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 show how devastatingly quickly things can go wrong in unsafe workplaces. 

Fast Fashion Since 2010

Since its early beginnings, fast fashion has gone from strength to strength. Fuelled by the fast fashion industry, we are buying more clothes than ever before.

The 2015 documentary, The True Cost found that the world consumes 80 billion pieces of new clothing every year. This represents a  400% rise over a twenty-year period. 

Our love affair with cheap and disposable fashion has led to two tonnes of clothing being bought every minute in just the UK. Across the pond, the average American is throwing away 37kgs of clothing every year.

To learn more about the clothing waste crisis and overproduction in the fashion industry see Stats on a crisis: UK clothing waste facts & 7 ways to reduce it and Less is more: fixing overproduction in the fashion industry.

Fast fashion on a discount rail
Fast fashion is cheap and over-produced. Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

how Sustainable Fashion is Making an Impact

This may seem bleak. However, while fast fashion was booming, this is also when sustainable fashion started to make a real impact.

Beginning with ‘green’ campaigns and brands incorporating more and more recycled and sustainable materials in their collections, sustainable fashion started to become a recognised part of the clothing sector.

When Did the First Sustainable fashion Brands Emerge?

Due to fashion’s evolving state, there is no single company that was the first sustainable fashion organisation. However, some prominent sustainable fashion organisations have now become veterans of the industry. 

Patagonia – One of the pioneers of sustainable adventure clothing began in 1973. They began their social responsibility programme in the mid 90s working alongside their factories.

Komodo – Started in 1988 when founder Joe Komodo came back from backpacking and decided to start making clothes in Bali. They’ve been using and promoting natural fibres since the early 1990s.

People Tree – Started in 1991 when founder Safia Minney could find fair trade tea and coffee but not clothing. People Tree are one of the veterans of the sustainable and ethical fashion industry.

Stella McCartney – Founded in 2001 using sustainable materials and methods of production plus banning leather, fur and feathers in her collection, she’s been on a quest to be as eco-friendly as possible ever since.

Rapanui – Started in 2009 with their renewable energy factory on the Isle of White, Rapanui uses organic cotton and embraces a circular approach where old clothing can be sent back when it is worn out.

Fast fashion brands going green

Fast fashion brand H&M released its first ‘Conscious’ range in 2010 and Zara released its first green clothing collection in 2016. Unfortunately, these sustainable initiatives have not yet made it to their whole collections.

Overall, neither of these brands would be considered particularly sustainable due to their business models requiring consumers to constantly buy more. And both have had a string of ethical controversies. However, H&M do score highly on the Fashion Transparency Index and have taken steps to improve. 

One thing that the creation of these ‘green’ ranges does show, however, is an increased consumer demand for sustainability that fast fashion brands can no longer ignore. 

allef-vinicius-1980s style girl
Sustainable fashion is catching up. Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

1989 to Today: Green Campaigns and Certifications

Some of the most prominent green campaigns and certifying bodies have gained considerable traction over the last thirty years. Some of these campaigns and organisations include: 

1989: Clean Clothes Campaign

A global network of organisations that work to improve working conditions for textile workers and support human rights and working rights across the sector. The campaign now operates in over 45 countries and has over 230 organisations in its network. 

1992: Fairtrade 

As mentioned earlier. A certifying body that’s standards ensure the fair treatment and payment of workers. A Fairtrade certification also ensures equitable trade agreements and sustainable practices in both the fashion industry and wider trade industry.  It is one of the most well-known industry certifications. 

2006: Global Organic Textile Standard

An organisation that certifies organic products. GOTS certified companies and products must meet stringent social and environmental standards. The certification is recognised around the world and considers every stage of production from processing to trading and distribution. 

2009: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Focused on promoting circular economy principles, the foundation works with businesses, policymakers and institutions across the industry. Through promoting a circular economy, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation aims to reduce waste and pollution levels. The foundation inspires, educates and advocates for a more circular and sustainable sector. 

2013: Who Made My Clothes/Fashion Revolution

Started in the wake of the devastating Rana Plaza collapse that resulted in the death of over 1,000 garment workers, Fashion Revolution and the Who Made My Clothes campaign work to create a fairer industry. 

The campaign encourages consumers to ask brands who made their clothes. It advocates for better transparency and consideration of environmental and social impact in the fashion industry. 

To learn more about  Fashion Revolution and the Who Made My Clothes movement, look out for our upcoming article

Sustainability Since 2010

The growing interest in sustainability has been particularly prominent within the last decade. One report found that 85% of American consumers claimed to have ‘upgraded their environmental mindset over the past 12 years’.

Guy walking on rocks dressed in sustainable fashion
The effects of sustainability on the fashion industry can no longer be ignored. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Even on a year to year basis, a growing desire to shop more sustainably can be seen. In October 2020, 65% of Vogue readers reported sustainability as an important factor in purchase decisions making. By May 2021, this number had risen to 69%. 

This increase in consumer desire to support sustainable fashion can even be felt in the fast fashion market, as seen with Zara and H&M. 

Meanwhile, veterans of the sustainable industry, such as iconic brand Levi’s, pledged to use waterless technology for 80% of its production by 2021. We’re hoping for a 2022 update soon!

Emerging Trends in a Modern Market

Having heard the history of sustainable fashion, you may be left wondering how this all influences the modern fashion sector. It’s clear the desire to create a more sustainable wardrobe is apparent. Brands are starting to listen to this desire, but is it making a real difference in the fashion sector?

Sustainable fashion is becoming more than just an industry buzzword, or a pipe dream born in the environmental movements of the 1960s. Over 60% of consumers now consider sustainability when making a buying decision.

Furthermore, sustainable fashion revenue in the UK nearly doubled from 2014 to 2020. In just 2020, one fifth of UK consumers bought a sustainable fashion product.

While fast fashion may still be on top, the sustainable fashion movement may soon come to threaten that crown. Big brands are being forced to adapt to survive.

The Rise of a New Generation

Another influencing factor in the future of fashion is the emerging climate-conscious Generation Z consumer body. Gen Z is characterised as people born between 1997 and 2012.  Studies have found that in the Gen Z cohort, 75% of respondents claim that sustainable practices are more important than brand.

With a growing desire for sustainable products and a willingness to hold brands accountable for their practices, the dawn of a sustainable fashion sector could be just around the corner.  

To learn more about Gen Z’s sustainable attitude check out Does Gen Z care about sustainability? Stats and facts in 2022.

Gen Z girls who advocate sustainable fashion
Gen Z place high importance on sustainability. Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Second-Hand is Cool Again: Second-Hand Styles New Awakening

Also impacting the future of a sustainable industry is the pre-loved and vintage market. As thrifting has become trendy again, pre-loved fashion has seen a steady uptick.

The impressive growth of the second-hand and vintage market has been particularly rapid in recent years. From 2020 to 2021 the market saw an increase of over 27%, and 42% of UK consumers claimed that half of their wardrobe came from the preloved sector.

Rental fashion organisations have also been growing in prominence. The online rental fashion market is becoming so popular that it is expected to grow by 10% every year until 2027. 

As the world chokes on fashion waste, this rise in rental and preloved shopping is good news for sustainable fashion.

How important is the sustainable fashion sector?

Sustainable fashion is clearly growing in popularity and the journey of when sustainable fashion started can be traced back to the peace, love and fashion of the sixties. But when it comes to the future of the fashion industry, it is something that really matters?

To answer this question, all we have to do is look at the facts, and to be honest, the facts are a little scary. The impacts of climate change and global warming are already ravaging our planet.

In the first half of 2022 alone there have been floods in Australia, Brazil and Sri Lanka, and volcanic eruptions in the Philippines. There have been fires in the USA and cyclones in Mozambique, and we are only in May.

The unsustainable fashion industry is a polluting sector, it is an unfair sector and it is a sector responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our convenient fashion choices are one of the very things that are fuelling our world disasters.

The industrial revolution may have set off a domino effect that has ricocheted to the fast fashion industry of today, but we need to put an end to it. We need to embrace the sustainable attitudes that began over fifty years ago and continue to influence a modern sector that is kind to people and the planet.

While there is still a way to go, as conscious consumerism becomes a growing trend, a sustainable future for fashion is growing ever clearer.

From An Industrial Revolution to the Swinging Sixties to Today

So, to know when sustainable fashion started, we need to trace our way back through the history of fashion. While the sixties offer the clearest point for the emergence of eco-friendly fashion ideals, the truth is, that it has been a long and arduous journey. And that journey is not yet over.

Sustainability and the modern fashion industry have a complex relationship that is fraught with missteps and unfortunate greenwashing. But, some brands are working to change this to create a more sustainable tomorrow. As consumer desire for a more eco-friendly future continues to grow, the power of sustainable fashion will only increase.

If we support sustainable brands and strive to build a cleaner, greener and fairer industry, then it is safe to say that the story of sustainable fashion is far from over.

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