I spent the summer of 2012 interviewing some of the most influential people in sustainable fashion.
At the time, I was co-founder of a fledging apparel startup, learning all I could about eco-fashion and the state of the industry.
Among the interviewees were Sustainable Fashion Writer Kate Fletcher, CEO of SlaveryFootprint.org; Justin Dillon, co-founder of PACT; Jeff Denby, Textile Specialist Stacy Flynn and California College of the Arts Professor Lynda Grose.
During dozens of interviews, we discussed the future of fashion amidst growing human and environmental concerns.
Here is what I’ve concluded about our future, from those conversations, plus immersive research paired with my own real-life experience.
1. It’s all about waste reduction.
Eighty billion garments are produced in the world each year—enough for a new wardrobe for everyone on the planet, every single year. The chemical and solid waste that result are astronomical, considering the the long and complicated manufacturing process for these garments.
Let’s take a look at a t-shirt.
To make sure that shirt stays bright and colorful, heavy metals are used in the dye process. The wastewater from that process is often dumped into local waterways—especially in the developing world, where environmental regulations can be lax.
There is also an astonishing amount of textile waste that happens during production. Fabrics are often dyed the wrong color, knitted at the wrong weight or otherwise deemed imperfect and, in some cases, obsolete. Overproduction, too, is a concern.
Excess fabrics, called deadstock or surplus, are a huge opportunity for waste reduction. Textile specialists are already working on closed-loop solutions to textile manufacturing, including processes that require less energy and water.
Until these options become available to designers, the best thing consumers can do is look for apparel made with recycled or surplus fabrics, or shop for thrifted and consignment clothing.
2. Versatility is more important than you think.
Let’s take a look at those zip-off khaki shorts in your closet. Imagine if your entire wardrobe was as versatile? What would the impact be?
Your wardrobe’s environmental footprint would be nearly halved. All of the resources that went into growing cotton, then picking, spinning, knitting, dyeing, finishing and finally, cutting, sewing and packaging—they would all be cut in half.
What about your yoga wear? Most of that is made of polyester, a synthetic fiber derived from coal, air, water and petroleum. So we can cut that in half, too.
Versatility in our apparel inherently reduces waste. Using my modular clothing came up often in our interviews, as an important step in the design process that can curb waste throughout the entire lifecycle of a garment.
3. Trends will lose importance.
The industry is already seeing a decline in responsiveness to trends, as society’s definition of “cool” becomes more eclectic.
The current process for releasing trends is fairly bizarre.
Much of the designer workforce in the United States is employed by large companies focused wholly on quick trends at a low price.
Where fashion once had two seasons (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter), designers are now creating as many as 52 “micro-seasons” per year. This allows stores to introduce new trends on a weekly basis—and that is why it is called “fast fashion” or “throwaway fashion.”
Our young talent, equipped with degrees and imagination are designing for the one-week-wardrobe.
But that’s not the future of fashion.
The market is showing movement towards “slow fashion,” thrift shopping and a broader definition of style in the younger generation. This, paired with the slow reshoring of American manufacturing, may make it easier for young designers to offer independent “slow fashion” to consumers.
I have little doubt that pressing human rights and environmental issues in the fashion industry will force these important changes.
But what about those of us who want to advance the movement today?
Consider shopping only recycled or surplus brands. Thrift more. Support local, indie apparel companies.
Ask your favorite retailer how their clothes are made. Encourage the brands you love to be transparent. Tell them that the environment and human rights is important to you. Vote with your dollars. Host a clothing swap. Take unwanted goods to the thrift store or local donation center.
Wash your clothes on cold and hang to dry. Share your knowledge with people you love.
Fashion has always been a real-time representation of the world we are living in, and right now, the world is asking for change. It’s time to to turn inwards, and ask ourselves: How do we want our fashion to represent our values?
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