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The Words and Their Definitions to Know When Talking Sustainability in Fashion

Do you know the difference between climate change and global heating, organic and BCI cotton? In this year of Vogue Values, we need to revolutionize the way in which we think about fashion, and to do so it’s important to understand exactly what we’re talking about. What we choose to do in the next 10 years will decide the future of the planet


Illustrated by Dianelle Moore


Climate change refers to persistent changes (longer than a decade) in climate caused by either natural occurrences or human activities. With the term “climate change” no longer reflecting the gravity of the current situation and the adverse effects of the changing climate on people and planet, terms like climate crisis, climate emergency, and climate breakdown are now adopted to communicate the dire consequences.


An ecosystem is a unit of all living organisms within an area and refers to the way in which they interact with their environment and with each other. Most current ecosystems are now affected by human actions.


Global warming is the long-term increase in global temperatures in comparison to pre-industrial levels (currently defined as 1850-1900). Global mean surface temperatures (GMST) are averaged over a period of 30 years and have been rising at the fastest rate in recorded history since the mid-20th century, primarily owing to human actions such as burning of fossil fuels. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have until 2030 to avert the increase of global temperatures to a level that would significantly worsen prospects for future generations.


Fossil fuels are generated from fossilized hydrocarbon deposits such as remains of plants and other organisms. They include coal, crude oil, and natural gas. All of these, because of their origins, have a high carbon content. Extraction, transport, and burning of fossil fuels generate harmful levels of greenhouse gas emissions.


The key greenhouse gases include water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and ozone (O3). These gases in the Earth’s atmosphere absorb heat from the sun and ensure our climate is habitable if their concentrations are well balanced. However, human interference, especially through the burning of fossil fuels, has led to high concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This causes the greenhouse effect: heat is trapped close to the Earth surface, leading to global heating.


Illustrated by Danielle Moore


Often those least responsible for the climate crisis are the most vulnerable and unequipped to deal with the threats posed by extreme weather, natural disasters, rising sea levels, or tropical and vector-borne diseases. Small island states, low-lying coastal areas, mountain regions facing glacial melting, and dryland and desert regions are already severely affected and at risk of climate-related displacement (forced migration due to the effects of climate change). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2008, an average of 21.5 million people have been displaced.


The point when the recovery of a disturbed system to its original state is significantly longer than the time it took for it to get into its disturbed state. At the 2019 UN General Assembly high-level meeting, leaders were warned “just over a decade is all that remains to stop irreversible damage from climate change” and “avert a catastrophe.”


Production of textiles for the fashion industry is responsible for a high proportion of global water use. This is especially alarming considering that textile production largely takes place in regions often already suffering from scarce water resources. Research estimates that four billion people (half of the world’s population) face severe water scarcity for at least one month a year, and almost half of them live in India and China.


Ethical trade refers to the actions companies and advocacy groups take to ensure workers’ rights are met, including working hours, health and safety, freedom of association, and wages.


Illustrated by Danielle Moore


Diverting waste from landfills and incineration by converting discarded materials or products into new items. While recycling is widely used for some materials such as PET or glass, it is estimated that only 1% of all virgin materials used for production of clothing are recycled into new clothes. The rest is mainly incinerated or landfilled, and a small fraction is downcycled. Recycling of textiles to textiles is still technologically challenging.


Blend/composite materials include more than one type of fiber. They are popular in the fashion industry due to their enhanced performance properties. Examples include denim with elastane content for increased flexibility or cotton and polyester blends used to reduce shrinkage. Recycling of blended materials is technologically challenging as it requires separation of their different components.


Econyl is recycled nylon made from waste such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpet flooring, and industrial waste from landfills and oceans. The intensive purification process of all input material creates a yarn of equal quality to virgin nylon. The technology used to create it enables repeated recovery without losing the yarn quality.


Bleaching is a process used to remove color from a textile or yarn, for the purposes of whitening it before a new color is fixed. Common bleaching agents include sodium hypochlorite and hydrogen peroxide, which can be toxic to aquatic life and cause severe skin, respiratory, and eye irritation or burns.


Distressing refers to techniques and processes that create a worn look, such as rips, holes, laddering, fading, and fraying. Distressing often has a negative effect on the durability of the garment. Techniques used to create these effects including sandpapering, shredding, bleach or acid washing, burning or heat distressing, enzyme washing, sandblasting, and stonewashing. Laser etching and printing, a recent development in distressing, create similar effects with lower water, energy, waste, and effluent consumption and reduced risks to worker safety.


Efficiency refers to the ability to minimize the use of resources such as energy, water, time, and costs. While the fashion industry reported a 30% increase in resource efficiency per unit between 1980 and 2010, by 2007 the number of new garments sold had almost doubled. This means that technological solutions to resource efficiency have little significance if they are met by the continuous growth of the industry, increasing market demand, and consumer expectations.


Illustrated by Danielle Moore


Microfibers are fibers less than 5mm in size, shed from clothing during all stages of its life from production through to wear and disposal. While microfibers are shed from both natural materials and synthetic materials, synthetics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are also linked to shedding a specific subset of microfibers called microplastics. It is estimated that as much as 20% to 35% of all primary source microplastics in the oceans are from synthetic clothing.


Extinction Rebellion is a citizen action movement aiming to use non-violent civil disobedience to place pressure on governments to take greater action to mitigate against climate change, biodiversity loss, and related social impacts. It was established in the UK in October 2018 and has swiftly become an international movement, with 636 recognised branches in 56 countries including the US, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, and Argentina.


The International Labor Organization conventions require all states to specify the minimum age for employment. As a general rule, this should be no younger than 15 years, with exceptions for some types of lighter work up to the age of 12 in some regions. However, with no exceptions, children under 18 should be excluded from hazardous work, forced labor, commercial sexual exploitation, or illicit activities.


Illustrated by Danielle Moore


The primary difference between Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) cotton and organic cotton is that the former is cultivated with minimized use of water and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, while farming of the latter excludes any use of them.


The rental economy is based on sharing goods instead of owning them individually. With the increase in the awareness of the environmental impact of clothing production, co-ownership initiatives have garnered wide attention. The rental economy is aligned with one of the main principles of the circular economy: keeping products and materials in use.


It is estimated that the textile industry is responsible for 20% of industrial water pollution. Further pollution is caused by chemical and microfiber release during the use phase of clothing, especially through washing. Large volumes of unsold and used clothing deposited in landfills cause further water damage through leakages into waterways.


For many years, activists have been calling public attention to the unlawful killing and common mistreatment of animals across the fur, leather, exotic leather, down feather, mohair, angora, silk, and wool industries. The treatment of animals involved in the fashion supply chain is one

Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

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