Ultimate guide to sustainable terms

Confused by ethical jargon? There’s a whole new vocabulary surrounding eco-conscious  fashion, but what does it all really mean? From cruelty-free to organic cotton, we’ve decoded the most commonly used  sustainable terms once and for all. 

It’s official: sustainability is one of the biggest talking points in the world of fashion. Never has the environmental impact of our fashion choices been more important to us, and as shoppers we are seeking out ethical designs more than ever before. 

Emerging brands and established fashion designers alike are responding to new consumer demand for a new generation of ethical and sustainable products. From leggings manufactured from recycled plastic, biodegradable trainers and upcycled denim brands, all promising to deliver stylish pieces at a low environmental impact. 

However, though many of the words used to describe these eco-conscious pieces might sound impressive, in reality what do they actually amount to? Many of these new terms have an unclear meaning, and increasingly this lack of understanding is being used to mislead consumers. If you’re concerned that a brand you love is greenwashing their products – that is creating a misleading impression of how sustainable they really are – the fastest way establish their true eco-credentials is to decode the jargon they’re using. 

The only problem is, what do these words really mean? We have a general sense of what sustainable and ethical fashion constitutes, but when it comes down to the straight facts, things can start to get confusing. What is the real difference between vegan and cruelty free? What does FSC-certified actually mean? And why, exactly, is organic the environmentally sound alternative to regular cotton? 

We took a deep dive into the most commonly used words in sustainable fashion to decode what these terms really mean, once and for all. 


Under the right conditions, biodegradable products and materials will naturally break down into smaller pieces and return to the earth, rather than remaining in landfill forever. Many products, including steel products and some conventional plastics will eventually break down over a span of hundreds of years, however they can leave toxic impact on the environment by leaving chemicals in the soil. To be truly sustainable, a biodegradable product must break down into naturally occurring minerals, that will blend back into the earth without damaging the soil. 


According to Carbon Footprint, carbon-neutral is where the carbon emissions caused by a company or their manufacture process are “balanced out by funding an equivalent amount of carbon savings elsewhere in the world.”. An increasing number of brands are claiming to be carbon neutral, by implementing carbon reduction programmes and donating funds to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. 

Circular Fashion

Unlike clothes which are purchased, worn and then sent to landfill once discarded, circular fashion promotes an on-going life cycle. This means that a once a piece is no longer wanted by its original buyer, it will be rented, swapped or sold on again as second-hand. Not only does this prevent textiles going to landfill, but it also means fewer newly-created pieces will be bought, and product of new garments will decrease over all. 


Calculating cost-per-wear goes beyond the price tag to ascertain the true cost of a garment. Though a bargain price tag may entice shoppers, the cheap labour and poor quality materials that allow a brand to sell a t-shirt for £2, means that it may be ruined in the washing process and so only be wearable once or twice. However, a t-shirt with an initially higher investment that is made with organic cotton and a slower manufacturing process may least for years to come, making the cost-per-wear much lower than the initially cheaper alternative.

Closed Loop

A closed loop system is one designed to create clothes that will continue to be used for as long as possible. Designed to avoid wasteful discarding of clothes, closed-loop manufacturing ensures that the clothes created are reusable or repairable. Closed-loop processes also recycle any waste back that has been created back into production systems, for example, trainers brand Converse now use surplus waste materials from creating their iconic hi-tops to create a new range of trainers, rather than sending these materials to landfill. 

Cruelty Free 

Though often used to describe products that do not use animal products, the true meaning of cruelty-free refers to items which have not been tested on animals. A cruelty free brand is one that has not conducted or commissioned any animal tests, and pledges not to do so in the future. 


As more consumers prioritise sustainable shopping habits, some brands are attempting to entice ethical shoppers by creating misleading impression of how environmentally friendly they really are. This can include making generalclaims about being recyclable, free of chemicals or less wasteful of natural resources, without presenting any specific evidence. Truly sustainable designers will be specific about their environmentally-conscious credentials.  To combat greenwashing, many brands are now producing sustainability reports that are accessible by the public.

Fast Fashion

An approach to fashion that makes clothes available to consumers as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Producing multiple collections per year and dropping new products in store on a weekly basis, fast fashion brands use manufacture processes that are focused on speed and quantity rather than quality and sustainability.


The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global forest certification system that identifies brands using materials from well-managed forests and recycled sources. If you are shopping from a brand with FSC certification, you can be assured that they are deriving their products from sustainable forests. 

Living Wage

Companies paying their workers a living wage are providing a higher salary than the legal minimum, to provide their workers with a better standard of living. Though the exact figure of a living wage differs from country to country – and many country do not have a legally defined living wage – paying garment workers and artisans a living wage prevents them from falling into poverty. 

Organic Cotton 

Conventional cotton is also one of the most chemical-­intensive crops in the world. Certified organic is grown without use of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The use of genetically engineered (GMO) seeds is also prohibited when producing organic cotton. Unlike conventional cotton, organic cotton doesn’t use chlorine bleaching, toxic waxes or synthetic surfactants, such as formaldehyde


Recycled clothes are created by recovering fibre, yarn or fabric from one material and then recreating it as an another product. For example, plastic bottles that were previously destined for landfill can broken down into a fibres and then used to create activewear that looks and feels entirely new. 


Also known as ‘pre-loved’, second hand clothes are pieces which have been not newly created. Instead have been bought and worn numerous times before. By purchasing second hand clothes you are extending the life cycle of a piece of clothing and preventing it from going to landfill. 

Slow Fashion

Unlike fast fashion, slow fashion deliberately engaging manufacture processes that produce as little waste as possible. Instead of creating quick-turn around pieces that respond to trends, slow fashion brands design timeless clothes that will feel as stylish now as they will in ten years time. 

Social responsibility

Brands who are acting to promote the welfare of society and the environment can be described as socially responsible. This can include proving funds to educational projects or charities, investing in communities where their products are manufactured or training new generations of artisans. 


Traceability ensures that brands are aware of the materials and processes they are using at every step of their design and manufacture processes. This includes having complete knowledge of the manufacturing processes used by their suppliers and contractors, to ensure that malpractices aren’t going unnoticed and unaccounted for. 


Similarly to traceability,  transparency means being accountable for every step of the supply chain, and disclosing as much information about every aspect of the product as possible. From the farmers who grew their cotton to the factories supplying their zips, truly transparent brands will ensure that all the information on their supply chain is publicly available. 


An upcycled garment is an old piece of clothing that has been transformed into a new garment. For example, an old pair of jeans can be repaired and have new design features – such as embroidery – added so that is has the look of a new pair, and can then sold on or worn again. This both extends the life of an existing garment and reduces the need for the production of new products. 


Vegan goods do not use any animal products, including leather, suede, feathers and exotic skins. However, under current legislation garments can be described as vegan if they contain animal-derived products. For example, many solvents and glues are derived from animal bones and numerous colourants and dyes are created from crushed insects. In the UK, new guidelines are being introduced to tackle this misleading definition, and ensure that all products labelled as vegan are free from any animal and animal derived products at every stage of the manufacture process. 

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