Right now, the term sustainability is buzzing about the fashion industry. In our eyes this is great as fashion has long been a contributor and even instigator of problems like pollution, unfair labor practices, and carbon emissions. It is amazing to see some brands step up to the plate and take on traditional manufacturing practices and supply chain issues in an effort to become more sustainable. We couldn’t be more behind this mission. The danger, rather, comes when brands greenwash or obscure their supply chains, so that the customer and other brands cannot see behind the curtain. If opaqueness is the old guard, then transparency is the future.
In this article, we will explore the current sustainable initiatives being implemented by brands and fashion companies—a temperature-check of sorts to explore how our industry is becoming more sustainable. First, let’s break down the word itself—sustainable. At its simplest, sustainability means “to continue to exist.” In terms of apparel, it takes on the meaning of producing and consuming clothes that last longer because they are thoughtfully designed and well-made, durable pieces. In tandem with this definition, it is also imperative to understand the sustainable economic theory of the Triple Bottom Line, in which a business equally values people, planet, and profits. All of the practices and initiatives that we will explore throughout this article, will be held against these two principles.
To further understand the current landscape of sustainability in fashion, we have broken it down into several key components that determine a business’ sustainability credentials — ethics, manufacturing & supply chain, and materials & product life cycle.
Ethics in relation to sustainability means doing right by people. In practice, this translates to working with factories that show their employees respect and admiration for their work through fair pay, safe and comfortable working conditions, and by creating a supportive community in the factory. Beyond the imperative practice of treating workers fairly, ethical fashion represents the antithesis of fast fashion — it is about being good to our planet by being good to people. This approach is more holistic and understands the supply chain as an ecosystem — what’s good for the planet is what is good for people, and vice versa.
This year alone, we have seen some fast fashion giants fall and others pledge to change their ways. Forever21 closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, while Inditex, the world’s largest textile company and parent-company to Zara, promised that by 2025 100% of the cotton, linen, and polyester used by all its brands will be organic, sustainable or recycled.
While we are encouraged to see fashion conglomerates moving the needle on sustainability by setting these goals, we have to remember that according to a study in 2015 cited in Fast Company, “The fashion industry churned out 100 billion pieces of clothing for 7 billion people.” Additionally, emerging apparel manufacturing markets such as Brazil, China, and India continue to grow at 8x the rate compared to the West. In tandem, both these studies illuminate that we are overproducing, and that our apparel is sometimes produced in places where unjust labor practices still remain. This is the exact moment where being a conscious consumer comes in — understanding that purchasing a durable and ethically made item, one that is made to stand the test of time, becomes crucial.
Take for example, the New Jersey teacher who wore the same dress 100 days in a row to teach her students (and the world) about conscious consumption and sustainable shopping. Being a shopper with an eye on sustainability also means buying less and buying better. But what exactly makes products better? First and foremost, the quality of fabric immensely contributes to ameliorating garments. Fabric selection can make or break a garment when it comes to sustainability — fabrics must have a low environmental impact, while also being durable and wearable. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “If no action is taken, emissions from textile manufacturing alone are projected to skyrocket by 60 percent by 2030.” All this means that our exponentially increasing consumption also has an exponentially increasing impact on the environment and on the people who work in the industry.
Sourcing and finding manufacturers and craftspeople to produce garments thoughtfully and with a deep understanding of best practices, rather than on a traditional production line also plays a major role in making a better product. Producing a better made piece of clothing also increases the amount of times a garment gets worn. Extending the product life cycle allows for you to wear the garment longer, so that it spends more time on you and less in a landfill.
Ultimately, we are ready to look to the future because making strides, inciting these conversations, and pushing sustainable practices is the only way for us to move the industry forward. Throughout our research, the 2017 report “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future” put out in partnership by The Ellen Macarthur Foundation and Circular Fiber’s Initiative remained a seminal report on sustainable fashion. What particularly resonates with us was their vision for how to reconstruct the apparel industry to be inherently sustainable. In our view and in theirs, fashion must be circular, with increased clothing utilization and radically improved recycling methods. This report articulates a 4-step arch for creating a new and better textile economy—phasing out harmful substances and fabrics that release microfibers, increasing clothing utilization, radically improving recycling methods, and implementing renewable sources of energy. While we’re far from achieving this in its totality, we believe that we are on the right track, a sort of phase 1 to shift the industry, in which we phase out materials that are harmful to the environment and there’s a growing consumer awareness of a need to change.
In tandem, action and awareness can be a powerful agent of change.