It started with kale, trendy smoothies, and friends going “paleo.” In the past ten years, the entire way the American middle class thinks about and consumes food has changed. Some might say a similar revolution is right around the corner for clothing.
Though not broadly publicized, a global dilemma is at hand showcasing consumerism gone awry. The rate at which we buy cheap clothing and then quickly discard it now threatens our planet, and the people making our clothes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States went into either a landfill or an incinerator in 2012.
Environmentalist and sustainability expert Nadine Farang says, “Just like fast food is unhealthy for the body, fast fashion is unhealthy for the environment. And both are highly popular and consumed by billions of people. The challenge is educating the vast majority of the population on the negative environmental impact surrounding fast fashion and addictive consumerism.”
Meet the sustainable fashion movement, one of the solutions to this crisis offering a ray of hope in a darkened consumerist reality. A small yet growing number of companies are attempting to rock the retail, e-commerce, and supply chain world, offering garments that are ethically made and environmentally friendly. This is a story of energetic entrepreneurs and established brands looking to better the world, one sweater at a time.
“We believe that people, when given the chance, will choose good over evil. As consumers, the first step is having an understanding of what we’re buying and
how our purchases impact the environment.”
For many of us, where and how we buy our clothing is based on a fairly new concept that clothes are disposable. I too have been ensnared by the bright lights of fast fashion retail: a vibrant array of $10 floral sundresses, a $30 black “leather” jacket, and oh those glossy accessories! Zara stores are adorned by flashy gold 60% off signs, and Forever 21 boasts a $5 sale section. It all seems too good to be true. But that’s the thing with things that are too good to be true. They usually aren’t.
In our previous article we learned how fast fashion negatively affects ethics in the third world. Now, focusing on sustainability, we’ll see how the environmental ramifications of fast fashion can be particularly devastating. Ultimately, we do believe in the strength of humanity: we believe that people, when given the chance, will choose good over evil. As consumers, the first step is having an understanding of what we’re buying and how our purchases impact the environment.
“According to The Carbon Trust, clothing accounts for around 3% of global production of CO2 emissions.”
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry report summarizes that the strain of an expanding environmental footprint can be observed in a number of impact areas, specifically water use, CO2 emissions, use of chemicals, and generation and disposal of waste. Harmful chemicals used to produce fast fashion end up polluting sacred rivers in the developing world. As in the food industry, a huge amount of our most precious resource, water, is used to grow cotton and for dyeing and laundering. And finally, clothing accounts for around 3% of global production of CO2 emissions, according to The Carbon Trust.
If education is the harbinger of change, there are several organizations now providing guidelines to sustainability standards and demanding transparency from brands. The United Nations Global Compact and Copenhagen Fashion Summit are some of the trailblazers in this movement.
Lillian Liu, Manager of Partnerships at United Nations Global Compact, works with companies to encourage principle based business: they sign up to the UNGC to adhere to a set of UNGC principles and to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The UN sheds light on the realization that fashion production and consumption needs to be viewed on a global scale.
“Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world and it is something that
affects us all,” Lui said. As the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, Liu describes the UNGC’s mission: “We are really looking at sustainability from a holistic perspective, encompassing the full spectrum of human rights, labor, environment, supply chain, anti-corruption, the circular economy and product innovation.”
Rachel Bare, a former e-commerce stylist at Sandbox Studios in New York City, mentions that on photoshoots, “our amount of merchandise only kept growing bigger. It became less about quality of clothing and more about quantity, and this I something I have seen across the board in most aspects of the industry.”
“when we vote with our wallet that we will not stand for things not made ethically and sustainably, changes will happen.”
Fortunately, well-known brands have started leading the pack with sustainability initiatives. Eileen Fisher has rebranded with a renowned eco-friendly campaign called Vision 2020. Their vision includes investing in alternative energy for their supply chain, using organic fibers, and less water overall. According to the Copenhagen report, other large brands are also improving their production and manufacturing: Nike has created a novel dyeing process that is safer for the environment, Patagonia offers a repair service, and Levi’s has changed its entire product development process to become more sustainable.
Cory Sargeant runs her own PR firm in LA, and represents several sustainable brands. Sargeant is pleased with the major steps companies are taking to promote change on a global scale. For example, retailers such as H&M are promoting new ethical clothing lines like the Conscious collection and garment collecting initiatives (clothing recycling) in stores worldwide. Cory notes that there are smaller brands that are staying competitive in the sustainable space as well, and for the financial success of these brands she advises, “It’s important that sustainable fashion brands keep up with current trends to have staying power in the industry.”
Consequently, it’s consumers who can have a larger role in changing retail business models by demanding brands follow more ethical practices. “I think more than ever, consumers are looking for transparency, authenticity and to connect more deeply with brands… I love working with eco-friendly brands because you get to tell a deeper story and connect consumers with the artisans making their products giving more meaning to their purchases,” says Sargeant.
“Can you imagine a world where every brand had to meet ethical standards and no waste could be expected?”
She’s not alone in this mindset, the e-commerce stylist and sustainability devotee Rachel Bare agrees: “when we vote with our wallet that we will not stand for things not made ethically and sustainably, changes will happen.”
Millennial entrepreneurs Kris Cody and Liam Mahoney (both still pursuing undergrad degrees) have started a company based on that same ideal, after finding the perfect alpaca sweater on a visit to Peru. Their company, called PAKA apparel, employs women weavers in Peru, keeping their ancient tradition alive. Cody describes their process thus far: “We know every material that goes into our sweaters, sourcing everything from the outskirts of Cusco. Our local women knit sweaters (priced at around $130), send over the Andes Mountains to Lima, fly by plane to the States, and individually send out.”
Cody believes in the privilege and power we have as consumers to choose our clothing, commenting, “We have more access to understanding the depth of our purchase more than ever. You can click a button and tangibly impact someone’s life a thousand miles away. As globalization increases, I believe that more people will be exposed to and conscious of issues outside their immediate locations.”
Another brand that has origins in Peru, is the highly regarded M. Patmos. Famous for their sumptuous
knits and cashmeres, M. Patmos uses sustainable and eco-friendly practices in sourcing and manufacturing whenever possible. Comfortable and beautifully crafted, this clothing has been awarded the Ecco Domani Fashion Fund award, and by the CFDA/Lexus Eco Fashion Challenge for environmentally friendly design.
Rachel Bare, our e-commerce stylist who has now left the fashion industry to run a wellness collective in Manhattan concludes, “Can you imagine a world where every brand had to meet ethical standards and no waste could be expected? It is something I dream of daily… we do not need all this ‘stuff’, it is not serving us or the environment.” We are all humans and we are all consumers — we are hardwired to be discerning and empathetic when making choices. The choice to demand transparency in the purchasing process is yours. The good news is, we have faith you’ll make the right choice.