I recently spent the day attending the Sustainable Fashion Forum in downtown Los Angeles. I signed up for the event because I have a small children’s clothing company based in LA, and being environmentally conscientious at home I feel inclined to carry that practice into my business. I’ve always known that by producing locally and sourcing as many materials as possible here in Los Angeles I was being “sustainable,” but was I really doing all I could do?
So first off “what is sustainability” in fashion? It’s definitely a buzz word these days among smaller brands struggling to differentiate themselves from large fashion retailers. I hear the words “ethical, sustainable, organic, etc.” a lot, but do consumers really care? Plenty of people are happy buying clothes without the intention of being “sustainable” and more often than not words like “fair-trade” or “locally-made” translate to a higher price tag. So why is this important?
The fashion industry is the second largest generator of pollution world wide and it is speculated that 10% of newly manufactured clothing each year goes into landfill, never even getting worn!! In the US alone more than 15 million tons of textile waste is produced annually and around 80% of that ends up in landfill, rather than getting recycled. 80%! I mean, that’s a ton, well, over 10 million tons to be precise. The reality is that fast-fashion retailers are creating unnecessary waste and unsafe working environments to sell apparel fast and cheap. The film The True Cost is a good place to start if you want to learn more about the harmful affects of the fashion industry. After watching it I knew that it would be impossible to justify buying any fast fashion for me or my family. I grew even more committed to sustainability, not just as a business owner, but as a consumer, looking for companies with full-transparency in their production process so that I could make informed decisions about what I would and would not buy.
The biggest takeaway from the forum was that being sustainable is not measured by any one thing, nor is it so easily quantifiable. Alex Katz from Patagonia, a leader in ethical and environmentally sound practices in the fashion space, was clear about one thing — nobody is doing it perfectly. The industry is not set up for sustainability and its more or less up to conscientious industry leaders to right their ways and define their own terms of sustainable practice. Patagonia, who’s mission statement is “We’re in business to save our home planet” is definitely on the leading edge of the movement. They produce clothing all over the world and implement strict policies with regards to not only factory conditions, but the farms from which the fibers used to make their fabrics originate. But Patagonia is in the minority and a far cry from fixing the problem.
I’m a small brand, producing a limited run of styles to an even more limited segment of consumers. For me, being sustainable is a choice, but also somewhat inherent given the scale of my business. For example, I look for dead-stock fabrics (fabric leftover or unused from a production) because so many beautiful options already exist. This reduces the carbon footprint of shipping textiles from overseas as well as conserving energy and resources that would have been used to develop the fabric. It’s a win-win. But there’s always more that can be done. Fabric choices can be limited to natural and organic fibers which are generally less taxing on the environment to produce. As a small brand shopping dead-stock the option of finding organic isn’t always available, however the use of that particular textile means it doesn’t go to landfill. Is this my ideal scenario? As Katz said, nobody is doing it perfectly. Each business has to weight options, but it’s clear sustainability definitely needs to play a bigger role across the entire fashion spectrum. This is where you the consumer comes in.
Here are 6 ways that you can be sustainable starting right now:
- Support locally produced brands. The carbon footprint of producing overseas has a tremendous impact on global warming. Local brands tend to produce smaller quantities as well, resulting is a more balanced relationship between supply and demand.
- Reduce or eliminate purchases from “fast-fashion” retailers and seek out larger companies with transparency in their supply chain.Fast-fashion is a phenomenon that brings consumers the latest trends and an extremely low price-point. The problem however is that these prices are responsible for the low wages and poor working conditions of garment industry workers around the world. Fast-fashion retailers aren’t held accountable for the circumstances of the people making their products or the detrimental environmental effects of the manufacturing process. Do your research. Find brands maintaining higher standards and publishing those standards on their website. Shop smart.
- Notice fiber contents. Not all fabrics are created equal. Cotton, linen and hemp can be better choices because the processes involved in getting them from farm to fiber are less taxing on the environment. Polyester, a synthetic fiber, is made from plastic. Not only is that process damaging to the environment, but each and every time you wash a polyester garment, micro-plastics from the textiles shed into the water stream and ultimately into the food supply chain. Hard to believe, right? If you have to do Poly, look for recycled options.
- Buy less, but better. Instead of buying a bunch of cheaply made pieces every season, invest in high-quality basics interspersed with statement pieces and accessories. Don’t you only wear the same 10 things anyway???
- Shop vintage. Wearing used clothing not only looks cool, but helps reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill.
- Try purchasing “made-to-order”. While not always practical in the world of instant gratification, the made-to-order model eliminates waste from the manufacturing process by responding directly to customer demand.