Fashion and its sustainable concern


The global fashion industry has seen intense growth over the last decade. Though as its worldwide revenue has risen to over $1.7bn USD, so has its environmental impact. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program reports that the fashion sector alone contributes up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. That’s more carbon output annually than all international flights and the entire maritime shipping industry put together.

The continuing popularity of the fast fashion model, unsustainable manufacturing techniques and rapidly cycling fashion trends all play their part in this environmentally impactful puzzle. However, it’s a reality that a growing array of consumers, producers, designers and policymakers are beginning to tackle head-on. Is a fashion revolution about to unfold?

Read on to explore the sustainable concern of the fashion industry and its unsustainable history, and discover how the rise of slow and pre-loved fashion, a greater focus on cyclical design and recycled practices are starting to challenge a damaging status quo. Plus, dive into the Australian Good Design Award Winners leading the way.

2020 Good Design Award Gold Winner – Desserto | Cactus Vegan Leathersustainable, plant-based leather. Image: Adriano Di Marti

Quick stats

  • In the 1970s, a person would have about 25 pieces in their collection on average. Now, the average number of garments per-person has increased to around 70 pieces.
  • Contemporarily, a garment is worn approximately seven times before being discarded.
  • The equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is thrown into landfill or incinerated each second.
  • To manufacture a single pair of jeans, 3,781 litres of water is required on average. 
  • An estimated 93 billion cubic metres of water is used annually in fashion manufacturing. 
  • Polyester production for synthetic articles emits approximately 706 billion kg of greenhouse gases per year.
  • Synthetic materials in clothing are responsible for about 35% of all plastic microfibers in the ocean.
  • Less than 1% of clothing material is recycled into new garments.

Fashion – a rapidly changing industry

Just like in-vogue fashions come and go, the fashion industry is constantly in flux. However, it wasn’t always this fast. Pre-1960s fashion was commonly orchestrated on a seasonal basis, with fashion designers usually innovating in-line with the locational and climatic necessities of fall, winter, spring and summer. Now, many of the top fashion brands have adopted a “micro-seasonal” approach that can see new collections launched every other week.

This over-productive age of clothing has been dubbed the epoche of fast fashion, where a production method focused on rapidly-produced and usually low-quality garments reigns supreme. Fast fashion styles are commonly inexpensive to manufacture and purchase, inviting massive amounts of consumption at extreme urgency. 

With rapid production comes cut corners, minimal quality control and an increased likelihood of overworked and underpaid workers. It also gives rise to unsustainable and unregulated manufacturing processes that are increasingly undermining the health of global citizens, the atmosphere, earth and our ecosystems. So, while “finding your style” has become significantly easier and cheaper than ever before, the world is paying in a multitude of ways. 

For example, a swift look into the manufacturing process of a clothing item reveals great reliance on the production, extraction, transportation and processing of natural resources. From the first seed sowed to a garment on the shelf, it’s not uncommon for deforestation, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and soil degradation to be critical parts of the journey.

2019 Good Design Award Best in Class Winner – G-STAR RAW’s Most Sustainable Jean – the first ever overall Cradle to Cradle™ GOLD certified denim fabric in the world. Image: G-STAR RAW

The fast fashion model has also become increasingly rooted in the synthetic space due to the lower cost of petrochemical fibres. This non-renewable approach leans on massive amounts of energy and chemicals, with toxic pollutants not only impacting the environment, but the heath of the manufactures too. Once discarded, synthetic, non-biodegradable materials take hundreds of years to break down if dumped in landfills and are very difficult to reuse when recycled.

While it may not be immediately obvious, consumers can actively avoid tapping into the fast fashion trend by asking themselves a range of questions before purchase:

  • Is the brand releasing new collections or garments in rapid succession?
  • Is the garment at a relatively low price point?
  • Is the garment of low quality?
  • Is the garment produced in a location where unsatisfactory working conditions are common? 
  • Could the construction of the garment impact the environment? i.e. synthetic materials

Challenging the status quo with sustainable, slow fashion

The repercussions of fast fashion are now substantially reported. Through both environmental and social lenses, the unsustainable model has been directly linked to ongoing negative impact. However, there are brands, communities and consumers that are valiantly fighting against it, putting the planet, its people and quality, long-lasting fashion front-of-mind. 

  • Slow fashion

Slow fashion, as the name suggests, challenges all aspects of the fast fashion model. The movement centres around high-quality garments that are designed with forever in mind. Sustainable materials, waste-reducing production methods and ethical manufacturing are all part of the process. Commonly, vertically-integrated and in-house production are signs of a slow fashion brand. 

Plastic bottles –> everyday functionality. Image: GROUNDTRUTH Global

2021 Good Design Award Gold Winner – GROUNDTRUTH’s RIKR range – is a great example of sustainable slow fashion. Each bespoke bag is crafted using high-performance GT-RK-001 textile which is created entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. Not only are they made to last, they’re hip, modular and twist a contemporary environmental issue into an everyday piece of conscious fashion. 

Learn more

  • Upcycling 

By repurposing discarded styles, upcycling creates new fits with fabric and garments otherwise sent off to landfill or an incinerator. Upcycled fashion commonly implements a “scrapbook” approach with fabric scraps or can also see old clothes turned into fresh accessories.

Sustainable street styles. Image: HoMie

REBORN by HoMie – 2021 Good Design Award Gold Winner – REBORN by HoMie transforms garments destined for landfill into fashionable, one-off pieces. Their distinctive streetwear styles are hand-cut, sewn, altered and upcycle in the Melbourne base, with young people affected by homelessness or hardship on the tools. HoMie funnels profits to further projects that support young people in difficult situations. In this way, it’s a cyclical initiative at the intersection of charity and style. 

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  • Circular fashion

As explored in-depth by Good Design Ambassador, Trish Hansen, in a recent piece, circular design describes a responsible design approach that adopts sustainability as the starting point of design. In fashion, this looks like garments that are easily recycled or repurposed at the end of their lifecycle, and clothes that are even biodegradable!

From comfort to compost. Image: Elise Lockwood Photography

2020 Good Design Award Best in Class Winner – The Very Good Bra – embodies the circular fashion approach fashionably and sustainably. Botanical circularity is leant on to create a stylish range of bras that can be burned, composted, wormed or buried in soil at end of life, leaving no trace at all.

Learn more

  • Secondhand and vintage

Thrifting pre-loved clothing has become increasingly popular in the last decade, and rightfully so. Not only does it connect the modern fashionista with incredible styles from yesteryear, it also decreases the demand for new clothing, reduces waste and breathes new life into perfectly serviceable fits. Why not stop by your local op-shop when you’re looking to uplift your look next?

Entries for the 2023 Australian Good Design Awards have now closed

Now, we look ahead eagerly to the thoughts of the decorated Jury as they come together to evaluate, celebrate and crown the brightest designs as part of the 65th annual Award program. 

Good Design Australia would like to show gratitude to all who entered their incredible projects in this hallmark season. The calibre of this year’s designs is unwavering, with projects from all corners of the globe clearly ready to shift the status quo of the industry, our society and our world.


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