What Does Sustainability Mean for Apparel?


If you’ve spent any time in fashion circles this year, you know that sustainability is the hot topic of the moment. With discussions swirling about fast fashion, ethical production, and everything in between, consumers are more concerned than ever about how sustainable their fashion choices are. That concern extends to promotional apparel as well.

As with anything else, there are degrees to sustainability. Some manufacturers only produce clothing made with renewable materials or are incredibly transparent about their labor practices. Others make an effort to use recycled components where possible. Whatever they choose to do, sustainability, like other eco-conscious measures such as low-waste living and recycling, doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing game.

Meme posted on Instagram from The Sustainable Fashion Forum.

Like other earth-friendly initiatives, “sustainability” has become a bit of a greenwashing term. Greenwashing is a marketing spin used to persuade customers that a product or company is environmentally friendly through recycling imagery or eco-friendly buzz words – think oil and gas company putting out an ad touting their environmental dedication. The aim of greenwashing is to capture customers who prefer to purchase from environmentally-conscious brands.

Just because clothing is advertised as sustainable does not necessarily make it so. With that in mind, how are consumers supposed to determine if their clothing selections are genuinely sustainable or just a bunch of PR hooey?

Sustainability has two main legs: ecological responsibility and social responsibility. On the ecological side, clothing is made from renewable materials or manufactured in conditions that preserve natural resources. On the social side, sustainable clothing is manufactured under fair labor conditions, including paying workers living wages and not employing sweatshops or slavery practices.

Few brands manage to satisfy all sides of sustainability, so it’s helpful to look at sustainability as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, you have fast fashion brands that don’t concern themselves with sustainability at all. On the other, you have slow fashion brands that practice sustainability in all elements of their business, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.

Video from supplier BELLA+CANVAS (SAGE #67759) outlining their sustainability practices.

When it comes to promotional apparel, the majority of available options fall into the middle part of the sustainability spectrum. When helping your customers choose sustainable uniform or promotional clothing items, look for the following things:

  • What materials are the items made of? Synthetic fibers like polyester can take over 200 years to break down naturally. Look for fibers like linen, hemp, or Tencel. Organic cotton is another good option; however, keep in mind that cotton is very water-intensive, making it less sustainable than some other options.
  • Where are the items manufactured? Different countries have different labor laws, so locating where your items were made is a reliable way to determine how socially responsible their manufacturing processes are. Look for countries of origin that have stricter labor laws and higher wages where possible.
  • Does the company have any green certifications? Look for documentation such as Fair Trade, Global Recycled Standard, GoodWeave, or Certified B Corporation certificates that indicate a third party has reviewed the company for its sustainability practices.
  • How easy is locating the above information? Transparency is essential to sustainability. If you’re having trouble finding information about a brand’s labor or environmental practices, consider why that might be.

Determining what products are and aren’t sustainable can seem overwhelming, but know that every step in the right direction is just that – a step in the right direction. No one brand is perfectly sustainable, and it’s not realistic or reasonable to expect perfection. However, choosing items that satisfy some sustainability qualities is better than choosing products that have none, and every effort made to strive for sustainability makes a difference.

To learn more about sustainable business practices, check out our blogs on cotton and forced labor, and corporate social responsibility.

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(Marketing Coordinator)

Caitlin is a Marketing Coordinator at SAGE. When she's not writing, she enjoys baking and spending time with her beagle puppy, Piper.

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