• Climate hub
  • 5 Jul 2022
  • 5 min read

How to choose sustainable fashion in New Zealand

Consumers have power in reducing the fashion industry’s carbon emissions, and producers are responding with actions to improve sustainability. We show you what to look for next time you go shopping.

By Joanna Jefferies

With 80 million garments purchased annually across the world, the fashion industry contributes up to 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It has a significant role to play in limiting global warming.

According to the 2021 Ethical Fashion Report undertaken by Tearfund and its Australian partner Baptist World Aid in 2021 (which assessed 420 brands across the world), around 70 per cent of the industry’s emissions come from manufacturing and raw materials production, while the remaining 30 per cent stems from retail, consumer use and end-of-life phases.

The good news is that many brands are taking action to reduce their emissions, bringing them in line with the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, which requires fashion labels to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

New Zealand and Australia catching up

The Ethical Fashion Report showed companies downunder had work to do. Of the 37 companies that lacked a reduction strategy, 35 were based in New Zealand or Australia.

However, Go Well Consulting director of supply chain and textiles, Vanessa Thompson, says that many New Zealand brands are addressing emissions and there are a variety of initiatives being actioned across the industry.

“The leaders in this space have a robust sustainability strategy and are working with their suppliers to help reduce their emissions and waste, ensuring living wages are paid and improving the wellbeing of all workers, selecting regenerative and organic materials, and developing new circular business models,” says Vanessa.

But she warns that not everyone is seeking a genuine positive environmental outcome:

“There are still some fashion businesses who are just starting to make the transition now, and their actions seem to be more selective and marketing-led, rather than an overall business strategy.”

Vanessa Thompson from Go Well Consulting
Vanessa Thompson from Go Well Consulting

Circular fashion

One of the best ways for an industry to become carbon-neutral is through the adoption of circular business models. In the fashion industry this means extending the life of our garments through choosing durable, high-quality fabrics, repairing a garment when it has a fault and embracing new models such as rental and resale.

In New Zealand, there are multiple standards that fashion brands are using to demonstrate a commitment to reducing emissions through the garment’s life cycle.

One of these is BCI (Better Cotton Initiative). With the production of virgin fibres (cotton) accounting for 38 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the apparel value chain, this initiative licenses cotton farmers who comply with its environmental and labour standards. However, according to Consumer NZ, retailers only need to buy 10 per cent of their cotton from BCI-certified sources to have the tag on a garment (and commit to sourcing at least 50 per cent within five years) so the label doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’re wearing a sustainably grown product.

Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is another certification that is commonly used in New Zealand, with Glassons, Maggie Marilyn and Ruby all advertising clothing made from GRS-certified fabric. The certification means at least 50 percent of the garment is made from recycled content and garments, and the label must show the percentage and type of recycled content, as well as a license number. Consumers can check certification in the scheme’s database.

Branded fibres such as Repreve (which turns used plastic bottles into recycled polyester) and ECONYL which regenerates nylon waste, such as discarded fishing nets, are attempting to lower the environmental impact of producing clothing, by reducing a brand’s reliance on virgin materials. However, it’s crucial to ask for precise claims and the evidence that backs them up, to ensure you aren’t being exposed to ‘greenwashing’.

Greenwashing in the fashion industry – when a company purports to be taking action to reduce environmental impact but is in fact just using it as a marketing tool - isn’t uncommon, says Vanessa.

“Unfortunately, it takes a bit of reading and investigating to find out what a brand is doing in this space. I always persuade customers to ask the brand questions before you buy. They should be able to supply you with evidence and data, and not make wishy-washy claims. There are new websites such as All Things Considered and Good On You, which help review a brand's sustainability credentials and put them all in one place - they are worth checking out once you have done your own review.”

The role of consumers

There are many New Zealand brands dedicated to sustainable practices and reducing greenhouse gases across the life cycle of their garments. Vanessa names a few who are embedding sustainable practices into their businesses: “Check out Maggie Marilyn, Kowtow, RUBY, Barkers, Max, Kate Sylvester, Untouched World, and Icebreaker.”

However, she says consumers should look no further than in their own wardrobe if they are really serious about reducing their impact on the environment.

“The most sustainable wardrobe is the one you already own. Look at re-styling what you already have or working with a tailor to make repairs or alterations to your existing pieces. If you need something specific, look at rental businesses, such as Designer Wardrobe or look into buying second-hand. The less we buy, the less that needs to be made, and the fewer resources we use.”

If you are buying new, it’s important to support businesses which are committed to a sustainability strategy (look it up on their website or send them an email).

It’s also crucial to look ahead when choosing garments, says Vanessa: “Ask yourself if it will stand the 30-wear challenge. Will you like it in 30 wears? And will it last 30 wears and washes?”

If the answer is ‘no’, then it pays to keep looking for a garment that does, because sustainable fashion should stand the test of time.

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