Even In Fashion, Less Bad Is Not Equal To More Good!

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By Lewis Perkins | Re-posted from Lewis’s personal blog. 22711_10205598498655456_5978854866461753438_n This morning, I opened up my email and saw I was tagged by a friend on a post about the article Slow Fashion Shows Consumers What It’s Made Of”  from NPR.   The article was good and gave a high level view of the issues that exists due to the lack of transparency in the global supply chain and the low price we are paying for our clothes.  I work in this field and was familiar with the subject, so the article is not what caught my attention; it was the responses from the dozens of people commenting below the article.  The comments ranged from disdain for the pretense in the fashion industry; “I am already being forced to worry about what I am eating and now you are making me focus on what I am wearing” to the disconnected; “this does not apply to me because I don’t buy $5.99 t-shirts at Walgreen’s.”  The rest seemed to think the article was telling them to stop buying affordable clothing and focus on luxury goods because they are better made and have a more transparent supply chain.” Why fashion? Several months ago a good friend of mine chided me for taking my talents into the Fashion Industry instead of a more “worthwhile” or “substantial” industry.   She viewed fashion as frivolous and unimportant in the scheme of global issues.   The reality is folks, unless you and your children are walking around naked, don’t sleep in beds or sit on upholstered sofas, or work in buildings with carpet, have curtains in your home; you are part of the global textile supply chain, and regardless if you shop at Walmart, J-Crew or Prada, you are part of this equation for supply and demand of all levels and uses of textiles on the planet. Textiles are one of the oldest industries, carry the most cultural significance and have one of the largest footprints on human and ecological systems.  The disdain for the Fashion Industry is actually short-sighted, because we are all using materials to reflect our personal statement whether it is intentional or not.  Yes, perhaps apparel “fashion” still feels like it’s direction resides in the hands of brands, designers, stylists, celebrities and other tastemakers.  But it’s not just about our clothing, it’s in the phones we use and the bikes or cars we drive.  It does not always mean high style.  We all use clothing and other products to tell a story about ourselves, whether we realize it or not.  So let’s place judgement aside, because this is really not about fashion.  This is about the future of all species on this planet.  So we better stop judging and get interested. What I am talking about is the billions of human lives who touch this industry every day whether they work in it or not.   And also remember that hundreds of millions (if not billions) of humans, animals and acres of land that make up the supply chain that creates our textiles. It keeps world economies going and people fed and warm at night.  The solution is not less bad.  The solution is more good. Can I afford sustainable apparel? When we talk about increasing the price of apparel, we are not talking about the difference between $5.99 and $599 (or even $59 for that matter) .   It’s price increases relative to the product (perhaps the difference between $5.99 and $6.99) in order to ensure better practices along the way to the consumer’s hands.    Incremental increases in labor, sustainable materials, better (e.g. healthy and safe for people and ecological systems) chemistry for synthetic fibers and for the dyes and processing chemicals (which may include a price increase due to the cost of innovation).   Traceable packaging, tags and labels also means we apply the same standards to the auxiliary materials as we do to the main materials in the products (fibers, yarns, trims, threads, zippers, buttons, etc..). I’ll just buy second-hand clothing. Another point the comment feed folks were making is around the need to increase our use of vintage, consignment and second hand apparel.   There is no doubt that keeping a garment as a garment (or any product in it’s original design) for as long as we can will have the least possible impact spread across that product’s years of useful life.  And yes, owning things better made and being able to enjoy them longer or pass them along to a second owner is a worthy pursuit.  However, eventually everything comes to the end of life #1.   It could be 6 months, 6 years or 60 years, but one day that dress is no longer a dress.   This is why we must advocate for the creation of a circular economy of materials.   So, one day when that garment can no longer be a garment, or even used as a rag, we will know what to do with the fibers and other materials?   Have they been designed with toxic dyes and other chemicals that prevent their safe return to the biological system (think composting) or even a useful stream for upcycling?  Many dyes and other chemicals can actually serve to prevent that material from being capable of recycling ad upcycling (either chemically or mechanically). So the first step is to employ the use of clean chemistry in a way that looks at what that material can become after it’s been used in apparel. That could mean we upcycle yarns or fibers back into yarns for the apparel industry or it could mean we take them back to the fiber or polymer level (depending if natural or synthetic fibers) and sell them to another industry. This requires take-back systems and the innovation for upcycling of fibers.   Today, we are just embarking on the technology and the systems which will allow this to happen.  But just like everything in the world of economics, we need supply and demand. That means, someone (some industry) must want those materials and someone else (along the chain from consumer to retailer to brand) must be engaged in a process for textile recovery. With the demand comes the investment and the innovation.   Did you know it takes some brands more than 5 years to collect enough supply of their “Take-back” fleece pullovers, to be able to send that feed to a fiber recycler and put it back into a new product.   That’s way too slow.  We need more volume to create speed of moving materials.  If more brands advocated for material reuse in their products (and at the same time advocate for collection and distribution of material for sale to other industries) we could begin to see the amount of volume needed to make the system work.   Companies like I:CO (http://www.ico-spirit.com/en/homepage/) have been established to collect and process textiles. They already work with retailers like American Eagle, H&M, Levi’s and Puma, but they need more supply and demand than this.   They are ready to grow exponentially.  And we can help. Why less is not better! Finally another point I hear often (and read in the comment feed) is about buying less and using less.  There is no doubt that consumption is an issue in the USA (if not the entire world).  But why?   Is consumption really the issue or is it the way in which we consume or use products and packaging that have not been optimized for material reuse, so therefore everything eventually ends up in a landfill.    Making the choice to have less in your life is a personal call, but I don’t believe we should live in a world where we are forced to take shorter showers and eat less of certain types of food and feel guilty about our love for certain things.   Wanting and having your creature comforts is a personal choice, and many could argue a great gift of the experience of being human and living in the material world.  What we need is to design the materials and processes for products with new methods which ensure the use of safe materials; chosen for an intended use and end of use; powered by renewable energy with clean water stewardship and a high level of mindful uses of human, animal and land capital. If production on the planet was a positive force, we could all feel good about our individual footprint on the planet and our choices to have things.  Keep in mind that even if we all cut our product use in half, or by more, we are living on a planet with diminishing resources and a growing world population.  So we really have to go upstream and solve the problems at the origin of design and into the supply chain and not expect the solution to reside downstream with ourselves.     Yes, we are a big part of the equation.  Our greatest impact is with our purchasing power.   We can drive this change by helping to create the demand for higher quality materials and production and making sure we get them back to a system that wants and needs them.   Even with that t-shirt from Walgreens.

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