Sustainable fashion has come a long way, but what’s next?

sustainable fashion tips
Sustainable fashion: What happens next?Getty Images

On 24 April 2013, there was a reckoning. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh saw 1,134 people killed when the eight-storey building came crashing down. The building had housed several garment factories, and the majority of those included in the death toll were garment workers. Despite structural cracks discovered in the days leading up to the disaster, factory owners ordered them to work. A further 2,600 workers were injured in the collapse, some suffering life-changing injuries. It was a horror show, and one that from worldwide headlines, truly brought us face-to-face with the ugly side of the fashion industry – and our parts in it.

In its aftermath, there was demand for change: change to how our clothes are produced, transparency at how they’re produced and fair treatment to the people making them, from receiving a living wage to safe working conditions.

The fight continues today, with some of the pioneers in the fashion industry continuing to shout the longest and loudest. Namely, Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global movement that was founded by Carry Somers and Orsola de Castro in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. They began campaigning for change – both at a brand and governmental level – the following year and have grown to become the world’s largest fashion activism movement, mobilising consumers, brands and policymakers alike.

In the past 10 years, they’re proud to report they’ve seen significant progress brought to light by their Fashion Transparency Index. It analyses 250 of the largest international brands and assigns them a percentage score based on their public disclosure of human rights and environmental policies, practices and impacts across their operations and supply chains. The index saw for the first time two brands, including Gucci, score 80% or higher in the 2023 index, with H&M not far behind at 71%

There’s no denying it’s progress. Still, with the average brand score at a paltry 26% (we're looking at you, Versace) there’s still a long way to go. Lauren Bravo, a sustainable fashion expert and author of How to Break Up with Fast Fashion and Preloved (her debut novel set in a charity shop), has a pretty determined view of where we’re at RN.

“I hate to be too doomy, but honestly I think the biggest change we've seen is in brands trying to appear more sustainable, rather than actually being it,” she says. Greenwashing has become rife, with companies adopting eco-friendly labels and making false environmental claims – such as switching *some* materials to organic cotton but failing to offset carbon emissions from flying products around the world while not paying workers a fair wage – all in a bid to jump on the bandwagon. It's essentially fashion gaslighting.

“As shoppers have become more aware of the impact of their clothes and brands have wised up to that demand, it's easy for them to fling around a few nice-sounding words like 'conscious', 'thoughtful' and 'eco-friendly'. But without proper regulation to make sure the claims are backed up with action, it's all a bit meaningless.”

And proper regulation comes from government intervention, with promising change being seen across Europe. France, for example, has implemented new laws banning ultra-fast fashion advertising, as well as putting an environmental surcharge on super low-cost clothing. Meanwhile, the EU’s Right to Repair Directive extends the legal warranty period, meaning brands will be obliged to repair and maintain clothing items, even after you’ve bought them.

Closer to home, however, it’s a different story – the UK is severely lagging behind. The Environmental Audit Committee proposed 18 different measures to make our fashion industry more sustainable in 2019, with every single one rejected by the government.

“It's definitely true that large-scale change needs to come from the top, with the government holding brands to account. But until that happens, we need brands to take the hit and change their ways,” Lauren says.

“It's actually quite simple – the most powerful thing the fashion industry could do to become more sustainable is make fewer clothes. One infamous online fast fashion retailer drops roughly 10,000 new products per day. The vast majority of those garments will end up in landfill, or exported overseas to countries like Ghana, where the landscape is being choked and local textile economies are being overwhelmed by unsellable cast-offs from the global north. Brands can talk about recycled polyester and organic cotton all they like, but those changes are a drop in a literal ocean of overproduction.”

Meaning the onus is on us, the consumers, to influence that brand change. Feeling a little overwhelmed? We’ve spoken to the experts and the Cosmo team to collate a helpful list of top tips on how to implement more sustainable shopping practices in your life.

Stop shopping

You’ve heard it before, but there’s no denying the most sustainable clothing is already in your wardrobe. We know it’s easier said than done, but try to set yourself a period of time – start small! – to not buy anything at all.

“It's easy to feel powerless as an individual consumer but imagine if we all stopped buying fast fashion overnight, even for a couple of weeks. The message to those brands could be game-changing.” Lauren Bravo, sustainability expert and author of How to Break Up with Fast Fashion and Preloved

Borrow from your friends

Raid your besties' wardrobes! If you’ve got completely different styles, it’s an easy way to try a new trend – or get your hands on that one item you’ve been eyeing up every time your friend wears it. What’s mine is yours, and all that…

“My friends and I always chop and change and borrow clothes. It's a fun way to switch up your looks without spending money.” Lia Mappoura, Cosmo UK Beauty Assistant

Organise a swap party

Instead of buying a new item from the high street, shop from the BFF boutique better known as your friend’s unworn clothes. We’re all guilty of impulse purchasing, only to end up *never* wearing it. Instead, trade it for something you can get wear out of.

“My friends and I will do swap parties where we bring clothes we no longer want and have wine and cheese while we basically have a rummage sale in one of our living rooms. It almost always ends up with a fashion show of our new hauls.” Lois Shearing, Cosmo UK Senior Sex and Relationships Writer

Customise your old clothes

A quick and easy way to breathe new life into old pieces is to upcycle them. From turning jeans into shorts or jazzing up a plain t-shirt with custom embroidery, you’re only limited by your creativity and ability. The latter of which is easy to fix with a crafting workshop or the internet if you're up for the challenge.

“My sentimental brain finds it hard to let go of clothes even if I don't wear them, so I'll sometimes rework something to see if I can get more life out of it – dying or bleaching old denim is a fun one to do. I also regularly take clothes from charity shops or car boot sales to a tailor (or, if I'm feeling ambitious, use my sewing machine) to create a better fit. Changing the hemline on a maxi dress or skirt always seems to give it a fresh look.” Sophie Leen, Cosmo UK Bookings Editor.

Buy secondhand

If you’re after something specific, like a new pair of Adidas trainers or branded jeans, try searching for that item on a secondhand shopping platform. Sites like Vinted, Ebay, Depop and Vestiaire Collective are full of discounted designer items and practically new high street buys that can be delivered right to your door. If you’re heading out IRL, you can never beat a rummage in a vintage or charity shop.

“Certain items you basically NEVER need to buy new because there is such an abundance of them at charity shops – killer jeans, leather jackets, wool fisherman sweaters, knitted grandpa vests, trench coats, Americana varsity sportswear tops and sweatshirts… The list goes on.” Maddy Alford, Cosmo UK Fashion Editor


As well as giving you access to a whole host of brands you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford (just us not willing to fork out four figures on a dress?) rental sites like Hurr and By Rotation allow you to borrow and return an item, a far more sustainable option than buying new.

“I had six weddings in total last year. There's no shame in outfit repeating, but with the same groups of people at multiple events and sometimes just a few weeks between occasions, recycling my wedding guest dresses wasn’t always an option. For these, rather than buying something new I’d likely wear just the once, I hired dresses. There was no risk another guest would be dressed the same as my picks tended to be from previous seasons, and I received so many compliments!” Alexandria Dale, Cosmo UK Fashion Writer

Look for sustainable materials

If you’re unsure if a brand or item is sustainable, the first step is identifying what it’s made from. Natural textiles are more likely to be biodegradable and often require fewer resources to produce, reducing the CO2 output.

“I always try and avoid polyester, cotton (unless organic and certified), nylon, acrylic and PVC faux leather which is basically just plastic. These are all highly toxic to our planet and there are much better alternatives that now exist like the vegan bio-based leathers my handbags are made from.” Ioanna Topouzoglou, Founder and Creative Director of vegan accessories brand Mashu

Shop from local makers

Another way to reduce your carbon buying footprint is to shop from brands making their products in the UK. Regardless of it the item itself is deemed sustainable, if it’s having to travel by plane to reach you, it’s definitely not benefitting the environment.

“Opting for local makers means your purchase hasn't been shipped from a factory across the world to get to you, and instead has had a lower-impact journey that is supporting local businesses and craftsmanship in tandem.” Kitty Fuller, Founder and Designer of British jewellery brand Kitty Joyas

Check out a brand’s sustainable credentials

The Good On You app aims to create a world where it’s easy for anyone, anywhere to buy better. They do this by helpfully rating brands (from a 1 out of 5 “we avoid” score to 5 out of 5 “great”) based on hundreds of sustainability issues, giving a fair and comprehensive assessment of a brand’s impact on people, the planet and animals. There are currently ratings for over 5,000 brands – talk about impressive. The best part? If your favourite brand isn’t quite up to scratch, the app suggests alternative options that are similar in style and price but have a higher ethical rating.

Keep the tags on

While exceptions apply to things like sale items and underwear, it’s your consumer right to be offered a returns period on purchased clothing items. Keep track of when you made purchases, if you find that you struggle to style it or maybe change your mind once you’re out of the bright lights of the changing room but you’re still within the store’s designated returns period, make it a priority to take it back. It will make you more aware of your current shopping practices and allow you to start consciously changing your buying habits.

“I've been keeping the tags on any new clothes I buy when I put it away in my wardrobe and if I don't wear it within a certain amount of time (i.e. two weeks) I then return it, because it means I probably don't need it.” Charlotte Bitmead, Cosmo UK Senior Beauty Writer

Campaign for brand change

Get! Organising! Protest is power. Sign up to Fashion Revolution’s newsletter and follow them on social media to find out how you can take action and get involved with campaigning for change higher up the totem pole. The organisation is currently targeting five key areas: purchasing practices, living wages and Freedom of Association rights, decarbonisation, waste Colonialism linked with overproduction and overconsumption, and implementing new legislation to protect meaningful progress.

If you *do* end up buying from a big high street retailer, just make sure you actually wear it. Again, and again, and again. Look after it, fix it if it breaks, don’t over-wash it, and keep it as a staple part of your wardrobe for seasons and years to come.

Follow Alexandria on Instagram.

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