“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN Brundtlandt report, p. 37). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. A recent ICCP report claims that the climate change is real and dangerous (2022). In the report they write: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss the brief, rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future”. For generations we have grown up with the warnings of an unsustainable future for planet Earth. 

Sustainability and sustainable development are by now largely accepted notions. The fear of the atomic bomb during the Cold War and the repeated oil crises of the 1970s as well as the emerging awareness of pollution resulted in a general disenchantment with science and technology. Rachel Carson had published her book Silent Spring about the dangers of pollution in 1962. A decade later the Club of Rome published its first report, Limits to Growth in 1972, which made consumers aware of world-wide poverty, environmental pollution, and depletion of sources. People became conscious of the dependence on fossil fuel in a globalized world. In the same year Peter Singer published a seminal article on poverty and famine. The first oil or energy crisis happened in 1973 and in the same year Ernst Schumacher published his critique of capitalism: Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. All of these publications show the rising awareness of the limits of ruthless capitalism and the exploitation of both people and the Earth.  

In Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome understands sustainability as both ecological and economic. It argues that a new balance is needed to safeguard the future. The goal for this diverse group of thinkers, scientists, business people, politicians and activists is: “the transition from growth to global equilibrium” (p. 24). A definition of sustainability as such is not yet given.  

The next big moment in thinking about and acting on sustainability was the so-called Brundtland report, written by the UN Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, in 1987. They give the definition that is also mentioned above: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 37). It is interesting to see here that sustainability is already linked to development. 

Sustainability is usually understood in three interconnected dimensions, the three so-called ‘pillars’: economic, social, and ecological. Purvis et al. (2018) give an extensive overview of the history of those three terms, of which the origins are not clear. The idea of the three pillars is often presented in the form of three intersecting circles of society, environment, and economy, with sustainability being placed at the intersection: 

Recently, a fourth dimension or ‘pillar’ has been added: cultural sustainability (see that entry).  

Originally, thinking about sustainability pertained to both the environment and people. Ecological sustainability refers to the general idea of saving the planet Earth and caring for the environment. Social sustainability refers to the need of care for a minimum income and well-being for people all over the world. In these early views, there was a sustained critique of capitalism and the idea of continuing economic growth. However, the ecological and social critiques of economic development gradually gave way to the idea that economic growth may be compatible with ecological and social sustainability (Purvis et al, 2018: 684). The Brundlandt (UN) report implicitly reconciled economic development with was now called ‘sustainable development’. They called for “a new era of economic growth—growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable” (UN, 1987: n.p.). As Purvis et al. write: “The debate had come full circle: economic growth was no longer the problem, but it was the solution” (2018, 684). Adding a third pillar (economy) stimulated a new idea of economic growth that could be socially and ecologically sustainable, like in a win-win scenario. Purvis et al. claim that today the narrative of integrating economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development is the dominant paradigm (687). 

It is important to note here that the term ‘sustainability’ had become synonymous with sustainable development in first the Brundtlandt (UN) report of 1987 and again in the Agenda 21 of 1992. This slippage is now very common, although the terms are never explicitly explained in those reports. Purvis et al. write that the two terms have become “so intertwined in the literature that they are difficult to tease apart” (2018, 691). 

The sustainable development goals are also known as the Global Goals, which were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a “universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” ( There are now 17 Global Goals.  

Related to fashion, we can turn to one of the first articles on sustainability. As Hazel Clarke wrote, “Speaking of fashion in the context of sustainable practices is a challenge.” (2008: 428). And: “Sustainable fashion? An oxymoron if ever there was one…”, writes Hilary Alexander in her introduction to Sandy Black’s large The Sustainable Fashion Handbook (2012). 

It has been clear for quite some years that the system of fast fashion is cracking at the seams, because the fashion industry excels in pollution and waste due to over-production and over-consumption (Fletcher 2008). The depletion of natural recourses, chemicals used in the bleaching and dyeing, and the pollution of earth and water are well documented by now (Fletcher 2016; Fletcher and Tham 2014). Moreover, it is well-known that the exploitation of workers in the fashion industry is a persistent problem in a perpetual race to the bottom of cheap production of clothes in low-wage countries (Cline 2012). As the filmmakers of the documentary The True Cost say: ‘The price of clothing has been decreasing for decades, while the human and environmental costs have grown dramatically’ (Morgan, 2015).  

Generally, sustainability is considered a slippery term in fashion studies, for example Maynard writes that “in the case of fashion refers primarily to the ability to maintain economic growth (constant production of new types of attire) without depletion of resources or damage to the environment.” (2013: 542). A few years later, Henninger et al. (2016) write that although sustainability is a megatrend, it is a vague concept that can mean many different things. In a book a year later, Henninger et al. (2017) explore the possibilities for sustainable fashion from cradle-to-cradle principles to upcycling. Mora, Rocamora, and Volonté (2014) believe that technological innovation can help sustainability and that design can function as a factor of social change. They put – quite rightly – the emphasis on the cultural dimension of a sustainable future and of the imaginary as a vehicle for change.  

Where Kate Fletcher (2016) explores the notion of post-growth, Kirsi Niinimäiki (2018) works with the concept of circular economy, and lists the steps that are needed to be included to work towards a circular rather than linear economy in the (hopefully near) future. When constructing such a new economy in a globalised, fast and individualist world all levels of production and consumption need to be taken into consideration. This means that consumption, design, business, industry and waste management each play a part in working towards minimal waste, pollution and a long lifecycle of clothing. Niinimäki stresses the importance of collaboration between different stakeholders. Moorhouse & Moorhouse (2018) bring together the issue of the environment with social equality and wish “to unite industry, education and organisations worldwide to raise awareness of the issues and create positive change” (p. 5). 

Aronowsky Cronberg, A. ed. (2014) Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters, Issue 5: On Fashion and Slowness.  

Black, S. ed. (2012) The Sustainable Fashion Handbook. London: Thames and Hudson. 

Blackburn, R.S. (ed.) (2005) Biodegradable and Sustainable Fibres. Woodhead Publ. 

Blackburn, R.S. (ed.) (2009) Sustainable Textiles: Life Cycle and Environmental Impact. Woodhead Publ. 

Bruce, Margaret, et al. “Lean or Agile: A Solution for Supply Chain Management in the Textiles and Clothing Industry?” International Journal of Operations & Production Management, vol. 24, no. 2, 2004, pp. 151–170.,  

Clark, Hazel. “SLOW + FASHION—an Oxymoron—or a Promise for the Future …?” Fashion Theory, vol. 12, no. 4, 2008, pp. 427–446.,    

Cline, E.L. (2012) Over-Dressed: The Shocking High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Penguin.  

Farley Gordon, J. & C. Hill (2015) Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present, and Future. Bloomsbury. 

Fletcher, Kate. 2008. Sustainable Fashion & Textiles: Design Journeys. Oxford: Earthscan. 

Fletcher, K. (2016) Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion. Routledge. 

Fletcher, Kate. 2016. Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion. London and New York: Routledge. 

Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2012) Fashion and Sustainability: Design for Change. Laurence King. 

Fletcher, Kate, and Mathilda Tham, eds. 2014. Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion. London and New York: Routledge. 

Greenpeace (2017) Fashion at the Crossroads: A review of initiatives to slow and close the loop in the fashion industry:  

Henninger, Claudia E., et al., “What Is Sustainable Fashion?” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, vol. 20, no. 4, 2016, pp. 400–416.  

Henninger, C., P. Alevizou, H. Goworek, D. Ryding (eds.) 2017. Sustainability in Fashion. A Cradle to Upcycle Approach. London: Palgrave/Macmillan. 

Hethorn, J. & Ulasewicz, C. (eds.) (2008) Sustainable Fashion: Why Now? A Conversation about Issues, Practices, and Possibilities. Fairchild Books 

Hethorn, J. & Ulasewicz, C. (eds.) (2015). Sustainable Fashion: What’s Next? A Conversation about Issues, Practices, and Possibilities. Fairchild Books. 

International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, United Nations Environment Programme, World Wildlife Fund, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, & Unesco. (1980). World conservation strategy: Living resource conservation for sustainable development. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN:  

Maynard, Margaret. “Fast Fashion and Sustainability.” The Handbook of Fashion Studies, edited by Sandy Black et al., Londo:  Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 542–556.  

Morgan, A. et al (2015) The True Cost of Fashion, documentary film, USA. 

Moorhouse, Debbie, and Danielle Moorhouse. “Sustainability in the Fashion Industry.” Clothing Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 3–5.,   

Mora, E., Rocamora, A. and Volonté, P. (2014), ‘On the issue of sustainability in fashion studies’, International Journal of Fashion Studies 1: 2, pp. 139–147.   

Niinimäki, Kirsi. “Eco– Clothing, Consumer Identity and Ideology.” Sustainable Development, vol. 18, no. 3, 2010, pp. 150–162.,   

Niinimäki, Kirsi (2018) Sustainable Fashion in a Circular Economy. Aalto ARTS Books. 

Niinimäki, Kirsi, Peters, G., Dahlbo, H. et al. “The Environmental Price of Fast Fashion.” Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, vol. 1, 2020, pp. 189–200.,  

Purvis, B., Mao, Y., & Robinson, D. (2018). Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustainability Science, 14(3), 681–695.  

Rinaldi, F.R. & S. Testa (2014) The Responsible Fashion Company. Integrating Ethics and Aesthetics in the Value Chain. Routledge 

Rivoli, P. (2015, 2nd ed.) The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. Wiley. 

UN (Brundtlandt, chair). 1987, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future,  

UN (1992) Agenda 21m