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The History of Sustainable Fashion


Sustainable fashion is often synonymous with great design, development, production, and use of textiles, emphasizing interconnectedness. Simply put, it creates a valuable product for not only the consumer but for the planet.

Painting the full picture of sustainable fashion requires taking a hard look at the various socioeconomic factors attributing to its rise. Up until the 1950s, clothing production largely consisted of a tailored, made-to-measure approach. Garments at the time had a comparatively higher price tag, and the status quo invariably owned less. The slower production process also informed a much longer trend cycle, therefore quelling consumer appetite for the latest and greatest. During World War II, the make-do-and-mend campaign proliferated as a means to ration clothing. Subsequently, the postwar era ushered economic prosperity. As the postwar purchasing power increased, the fashion industry responded by transitioning toward mass production.

The decades that followed juxtaposed this period of abundance, as humanity’s understanding of its planetary impacts deepened. The 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which highlighted the devastating consequences of pesticides, promulgated the environmentalist movement. Further, the social and political movements of the 1960s elicited a change in public consciousness toward egalitarianism, protecting vulnerable communities and resources.

Regardless, inasmuch as progressivism was ramping up, so too was consumerism and offshore textile production. In 1974, the United States, as well as other nations signed the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA), essentially a quota system limiting the number of apparel imports from textile-producing countries (Gonzalez, 2015). This was used as a means to protect American interests, especially in strengthening its weakening garment industry. Doing so however increased domestic manufacturing costs, further heightening the appeal of cheaper clothing. This fueled globalization, driving the status quo to lose contact with the clothing production process.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that big clothing retailers began setting precedence in sustainability initiatives. Nike, a prominent outsourcer, turned around its image after a sweatshop investigation exposed its unethical working conditions. Following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, brands like Patagonia and ESPRIT commissioned research into finding alternatives for raw materials sourcing, especially in response to their textile overproduction and overconsumption (Sustainable Fashion History, 2019).

As the 21st century unraveled, technological innovations have informed design-led strategies to enhance traceability, shorten the supply chain, and even upcycle materials. Pushing the agenda are primarily today’s Millennials and Gen Z buyers, who demonstrate an unprecedented inclination toward eco-fashion and environmental advocacy. As retailers continue mitigating their environmental footprint and movements like Slow Clothing and Made in the U.S.A. ramp up, there’s no doubt this movement will be trending upward for the foreseeable future.


Fashion, the world’s third-largest industry polluter, has been slower than other sectors to address its environmental impacts. What’s more, the impending climate crisis leaves the world looking to this behemoth of a sector to make significant changes. The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh drew widespread attention to the dangers of fast fashion, causing many to part ways with brands perpetuating this trend. And now, as the world grapples with the devastating consequences of COVID-19, retailers are forced to play a tug of war between spurring economic growth and ecological preservation.

Within the past five years, the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2019 G7 Summit of Advanced Economies highlight the global necessity to collaborate on climate crisis mitigation. The Charter for Climate Action delivered in 2018 urged that existing business models and technology are inadequate to deliver the necessary climate reductions by 2030 (Black, 2019). This spurs an urgent imperative for action, going far beyond mitigation, to be accelerated and advanced in all industrial sectors.

Ultimately, it’s up to everyone -- the retailers, governments, and buyers themselves to enforce sustainability and a more circular supply chain. Global apparel brands, the largest perpetrators, must reinvent their business models to embrace circularity. Doing so requires educating on handling clothing throughout its lifecycle, specifically during end-of-life care. Interestingly enough, these recommendations echo the consumer behaviors existing well into the last century, indicating we don’t need to look far for solutions.

Author: Kristen Tadrous

Editor: Hailey Matarese



Anon, 2019. Sustainable Fashion History. Finest Fashion Site. Available at: [Accessed July 13, 2020].

Black, S., 2019. Editorial. Fashion Practice, 11(3), pp.275–282.

Gonzalez, N., 2015. A Brief History of Sustainable Fashion. Triple Pundit. Available at: [Accessed July 13, 2020].

Leibowitz, D., 2019. Guide to Sustainable Strategies. CDFA Guide to Sustainable Strategies. Available at:

Shalev, A., 2019. Sustainable fashion. Available at: [Accessed July 13, 2020].

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