I received some awful news in the summer of 2010:
One of my life loves—clothing—had an awful, dirty secret.
The clothes I’d been buying, primarily from department stores and fast fashion outlets, were made with pesticide-ridden cottons and toxic synthetics, sewn together by underpaid workers in the developing world. Tack on tons of pollution, illegal dumping and a massive rate of consumption, and this wasn’t just news—it was a nightmare.
I quickly jumped into the world of sustainable fashion, searching for a better way to do things. I co-launched a Kick-starter campaign, raised $60,000, and vowed to create clothing that lived up to my values and ideals.
Consumers loved it. We provided better options for clothing at a similar price point—and were incredibly honest about the process.
But I always had—and still have—doubts about the sustainability of apparel manufacturing. It’s an energy-intensive process to take a raw material and turn it into a pair of pants or a tee.
And there is always an impact when creating something new.
Since those early days, I’ve struggled with the meaning behind the words ‘sustainable fashion.’ What does sustainability mean in this industry? Closed loop? Socially responsible? Better-than-average? Organic? Made in the USA?
I’ve used the words “sustainable fashion” more times than I can count, on my website and in my description of what I do for a living. I believe in doing better. I believe in alternative options to toxic fast fashion. But I no longer believe that the words “sustainable fashion” represent what I, or anyone in this industry, is achieving.
Sustainable is an aspirational word. (Or, at times, it’s a greenwashing term used to boost sales.) But for most indie designers and small companies, creating sustainable apparel is something we constantly strive for—but never truly achieve. There are always compromises along the way.
So, how does a consumer shop responsibly in a world where sustainable fashion doesn’t truly exist?
Here are a few things for consumers to consider when looking at labels, website or marketing materials:
Where was it made? Not just the country, but the physical place—a factory? A worker-owned co-op? A village?
What information is available about the factory and workers?
Are there any certifications? (Fair trade or organic?)
What is this item made of? Where did the fabric come from?
Is there readily-available information on the contents and origins of the fabric?
What is the packaging made from?
Does the company provide an end-of-life plan for the garment?
How do they manage waste?
More transparency doesn’t always mean better sustainability, but some information is better than no information. Most companies, who take sustainability seriously, will provide educational material on their labels or website to help customers navigate the complex world of apparel. (And believe me, it’s absurdly complex.)
Next time you see the word “sustainable” attached to your clothing, take a step back. It’s never a stamp of perfection, but from honest companies, it’s a sign of striving, compassion and thoughtfulness.
What do you think when you see the words “sustainable fashion”?
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo Credit: african_fi