Small — and big — changes you can make today.
The 2015 documentary The True Cost has largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.
But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, and that 1.715 billion tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, that even if you buy a purse that was handcrafted by a Peruvian artisan, the leather tannery might still have poisoned the local river, and the cows that provided the leather might have been abused. It’s exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or one that is purported to be fairly made.
Still, once you know all the horrible, awful, no-good things the fashion industry does to the planet (pouring carbon into the atmosphere, dumping increasingly large mounds of waste into landfills) and to (mostly female, mostly brown) workers, it feels wrong to throw up your hands and say, “Welp, everything sucks, and I’m going to do some retail therapy at Forever 21.”
As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet and, of course, not feel like a total hypocritical dirtbag. Here they are.
According to this analysis, a full 22 percent of a garment’s climate impact comes from the process of a consumer driving to the store to try something on, driving to another store to try that thing on, then bringing their final selection home in their car. If you live in a city where you can walk or take public transportation to a store, then do that!
And don’t feel guilty about ordering items online. First, because a UPS, FedEx, or USPS truck is like public transportation for your clothing: efficient at moving a lot of stuff with minimal fuel. Second, your clothing probably comes through a distribution center, skipping the process of going to the store at all and going straight to you. And according to multiple studies, online shopping has a much lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar shopping. It may feel wrong to get an item of clothing in a plastic bag in a box, but rest assured that if it goes to a store instead, it’s also showing up in a plastic bag — the bag’s just gone by the time you see it on the rack.
Another benefit of shopping online is the opportunity to be more thoughtful and discerning with what you buy. In a physical store, it might not be possible (or even occur to you) to research every brand you encounter then and there on your phone. But when you’re home and on the internet, you probably have more time, along with more access to resources, to do some deeper digging.
There are some excellent resources documenting the bad, good, and gray areas of shopping. The Good on You app lets you search for a brand’s environmental impact, labor policies, and even animal-friendly considerations, plus makes recommendations in different categories (dresses, hosiery, outerwear) of sustainable and ethical brands. Project JUST does about the same thing — carefully researches the impact and policies of various brands, plus puts out roundups of the most ethical and sustainable brands in categories like athletic wear and denim — but on a website.
There’s also the DoneGood browser extension, which pops up in the corner of your browser when you’re shopping and tells you whether or not the brand site you’re on is sustainable and/or ethical, and links you to alternatives if it’s not. If you’re visiting a conventional webstore, it also highlights which sustainable brands you should check out while you’re there.
Also, look through the About section or — even better — the sustainability or social responsibility section of a brand’s site to see if they say anything about how items are made. (If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. Skip ahead to step #7 and reach out to your favorite brands.) Google the brand’s name and look for recent news. And finally, check and see if it’s in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a trade group that requires its members to quantify their supply chains’ impact on the environment and is funding some really cool initiatives along the way. (It’s not the same as a third-party certification like the ones mentioned below, but does indicate that a company is serious about making changes.)
Of course, all of this supposed efficiency will be negated if you’re the kind of person who buys a dozen things from a dozen different stores and returns 11 of them. All of this advice really only works if you’re the type of person to use the internet to buy smarter, rather than impulsively.
Look for certifications.
There are a few gold-standard certifications that indicate that an objective deep dive into a product’s supply chain has been conducted. OEKO-TEX is an independent test and certification system for textiles, and it offers multiple levels of certification, the most basic of which indicates that the product is free of hazardous chemicals. The next level up concerns whether the textiles are made in socially and environmentally responsible conditions. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certification for textiles that contain “a minimum of 70% organic fibers.”
Forest Stewardship Council certification indicates that any trees involved (yup, some fabrics are made from trees — more on that later) were sustainably harvested. Fair Trade certification indicates that the factory workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and that the working conditions are safe.
Avoid these fabrics.
I’ll keep it short: Polyester is made from oil (it’s basically a plastic thread) and all synthetic fibers (excepting a few alternatives mentioned in this piece) shed microfibers into waterways. (You’ve probably ingested these fibers in your last seafood meal.) Acrylic is even more toxic to produce than polyester. Viscose rayon (this includes bamboo rayon) turns plants into a textile through a toxic, polluting process and is contributing to the disappearance of rainforests.
Conventional cotton relies on pesticides and herbicides which are improperly, excessively, and dangerously applied in underdeveloped countries, and might have led to the worldwide decline of insect populations. The typical leather tanning process is so toxic that 90 percent of the people who live in the leather-tanning neighborhoods in Bangladesh die before they reach 50.
Look for these fabrics.
It’s pretty hard to avoid polyester altogether, especially if you enjoy athleisure clothing, swimsuits, or anything with stretch. So look for polyester that’s made of recycled water bottles, fishing nets, carpet, and other post-consumer products. These products financially support the recycling industry and help to keep plastic waste from the landfill and ocean.
Tencel is a viscose rayon alternative by the Austrian company Lenzing made from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop process that ensures no toxins are released into waterways. Silk, hemp, linen, and wool are all natural, low-impact textiles. (Just watch out if you’re vegan — the typical silk thread process kills the silkworms, and wool-producing sheep aren’t always treated the best, especially in Australia.)
Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use heavy metals in the process (but as an FYI, that means it’ll take longer to soften up and break in). More leather alternatives are coming, but right now the best new alternative available for purchase is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf waste.
Seek out brands that pay their artisans fairly.
Understanding the environmental impact of your garment’s entire supply chain is nearly impossible — all the variables (production, dying, finishing, shipping), debates (are GMOs bad or not?), and scientific reports can lead to a mental burnout on the whole idea of conscious consumption. But picturing the positive social impact of a fairly-made garment is much more inspiring — and easy.
Many fair trade brands, like Lemlem, Voz, Siizu, Brother Vellies, Par en Par, Ace & Jig, Uniform, Manos Zapotecas, and more, have photos and information on their websites of the women and men who hand-make the garments or the factories they use. Other brands, like Reformation and Saint James, give factory tours. Still others, like Naja and Nisolo, give you a report on working conditions, pay, and benefits, plus how getting paid to use their community’s traditional skills positively impacts a worker’s community.
We could argue all day about relative merits of recycled polyester versus organic cotton, or how much you’re benefiting the environment by paying more for organic cotton, but it’s hard to argue with a mother getting paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. It feels a lot more rewarding, too, which can help keep you motivated.
There is a glut of secondhand fashion in the West. Secondhand shops can only resell about 20 to 45 percent (75 percent on a really good day) of unwanted threads — the rest is downcycled into insulation, carpeting, or rags, or (if it’s still wearable) shipped to developing countries to be resold for a few dollars.
This overabundance of orphaned clothing makes secondhand the perfect solution for fashion addicts who feel guilty about their waste and wallet. It prevents production of toxic or exploitative new clothing, and it keeps textiles out of the landfill or from being shipped overseas. Secondhand stores are almost all charitable, locally, or family-owned, so you direct your dollars away from multinational corporations and to small business. And best of all, it’s a way to get fresh threads (sometimes with the tags still on!) for fast-fashion prices.
If you have something really specific in mind and find the chaos of the thrift store intimidating, you could shop online at affordable sites like ThredUp and Tradesy, or Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for upscale and designer items.
Show your favorite brands you care.
Not ready to pass up on that so cute ruffled viscose top from J.Crew? Curious where it’s made? Email or tweet at the brand! “Consumers think their voices don’t matter, but they do,” says Jessica Radparvar, the founder of the social impact communications consultancy Reconsidered. “Tweets, emails, questions asked in retail stores — if frequent enough, these communications get laddered up. I know many Corporate Social Responsibility teams that then use these anecdotes as ‘proof points’ to show that consumers are demanding transparency,” she says. “That can in turn help them get buy-in, approvals, and funding for projects they want to push forward.”
Again, that only works if the brand has a team like that instated. If they don’t answer, and you can’t find any information anywhere about attempts to go sustainable or ethical, you might want to cross them off your shopping list.
Capsule your wardrobe.
The best thing you can do is just buy less stuff. And you can buy less stuff if you buy things that are timeless and high-quality enough to last a long time.
How you launder it, how you dispose of it, even where it’s shipped from — all these factors are a sliver of the total impact of a typical garment. But most of the impact comes from the very fact that it was produced. The longer you use a garment, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy exclusively locally-made, organic fashion that costs well in the hundreds of dollars. Whatever it is, if you think you will wear it 30 times or more, that’s definitely a sustainable choice.
One popular notion in the conscious fashion world is the idea of a capsule wardrobe: an extremely edited collection of versatile pieces that can be endlessly mixed and matched, so that you get maximum use out of minimal possessions. If you want some guidance in this area, try the app Cladwell, which helps you discern your style, whittle down your wardrobe, donate or sell what you don’t love anymore, and come up with interesting new combinations.
The goal is to stop getting tossed about on the expensive seas of new trends, and confidently stand in your own personal style, with a closet full of (and only of) pieces that make you feel like your best self. If you love your closet and can easily put together a great outfit, you’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” and run out to buy something last minute to make you feel beautiful again, nor will you be tempted by whatever fun cheap thing is in the window at Forever 21, because you already have everything you need, thank you!
If you’re keen to try out a new trend, have a special event coming up, or you’re just bored with your closet but on a budget, renting lets you feel fabulous while using fewer resources. You can try Style Lend, which lets you rent luxury fashion from real women’s closets; Le Tote, which sends you a box of everyday items to try; or the OG of renting, Rent the Runway.
Donate to NGOs and watchdogs.
Don’t stop at conscious consumption! Direct your dollars to organizations that are trying to create systemic change. You can help send a Bangladeshi garment worker to college, fund Canopy’s efforts to save the rainforest from destruction by rayon-viscose pulping mills, donate to Greenpeace or Natural Resources Defense Council, which respectively combat toxic garment factory effluent and increase the energy efficiency of factories, or become a supporter of Project JUST and their deep research on the sustainability and ethicality of large brands.
The main thing to know is that you can take or leave any of these tips and build a sustainable wardrobe that feels right for your lifestyle, your budget, and your personal style. There’s no one way to be a conscious consumer, just like there’s no one way to dress yourself. And as the sustainable fashion movement grows and evolves, dressing yourself with thought will hopefully only get easier with time.
*This story first appeared on Racked
The apparel and footwear industry is forecast to generate double-digit growth to 2020 according to business analysts McKinsey & Co. One of the challenges is reconciling this growth with sustainability initiatives. As this report states it, “Sustainability and rapid business growth are not compatible; to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.” The solution proposed is an alternative business model that is based on a closed-loop system.
A circular economy
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the circular economy as being “restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.” In striving to achieve greater environmental responsibility, the notion of a circular economy is the latest iteration in creating a blueprint for industry.
In his book, Closing the Loop, Brett Matthews asks whether this laudable aim of infinite recycling is in fact realistic. The report is divided into seven sections and concludes with actionable recommendations and further reading resources. The first section gives an overview of the issue, definitions, and the global and local challenges. The second section considers how these principles are applied largely using interviews with innovative thinkers, manufacturers and brands. The approach provides a clear introduction for readers new to the field, as well as more in-depth information and actionable strategies for those already implementing a sustainable plan.
In the U.S. there are an estimated 25 billion pounds of textile waste generated annually of which just 15 percent is donated or recycled, much of it shipped to African countries. In Uganda, 81 percent of all clothing sold is second hand, according to Dr Andrew Brooks, whose book Clothing Poverty investigates the connection between garment retailers and sub-Saharan poverty.
Recycling alone is clearly not enough. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is one of the initiatives that’s attracting much interest as a way of promoting recycling and end-of-life management. The European Union (EU) has already successfully implemented such schemes for the automotive and packaging industries. Voluntary measures are also not enough, but they do serve an important function with trial initiatives on a small scale, before larger investment is made. Ultimately, legislation is needed at an industry or global level.
Mechanical textile separation has been used with some success for quite a while, but the increase in blends and hybrid textiles, laminates and finishes make this process increasingly difficult. Chemical recycling is now receiving more attention and some funding – in Europe.
Scale is a key issue in the sustained supply of quantity and quality of material ideally achieved locally to prevent increasing the carbon footprint. Solvay’s Move4earth is a European Union funded project that seeks to recycle airbags using a technology that allows them to separate the technical textile from its coating without any significant loss to the material properties.
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have been developing a cellulose dissolution process for recycling cotton that reduces the water footprint by 70 percent and the carbon footprint by up to 50 percent.
In North America, Evrnu use a combination of chemical and mechanical processes to recycle post-consumer cotton garments. The process is designed to prevent off-gassing, reusing solvents and manage the environmental impact in a closed vat system. Importantly for the industry, it works within existing apparel business models.
“Going circular” successfully will require a varied but cohesive approach, and should include these considerations:
- Whole system solution: The issue has to involve stakeholders at every stage, as textile innovation alone is not enough.
- Collaboration: This needs to go beyond textile manufacturers and brands to include retailers.
- Mechanical versus chemical recycling: Partnerships are crucial to achieve scalability and commercial success.
- Complexity: More research is needed to determine the level of benefit measured against cost of development and implementation.
According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitive Index (GMCI) report the U.S. is set to overtake China as the most competitive manufacturing nation within five years. This brings tremendous opportunity and responsibility for North America to take the lead in developing the principles of a circular economy for the apparel and textile industry. This has to be part of the innovation agenda if it is to be made to work environmentally and economically.
*This story first appeared on Advanced Textiles Source
Even labels that don’t brand themselves as environmentally friendly are finding reasons to minimize their footprint.
As a manufacturer of denim, Siwy COO Alain LaFourcade is always looking for ways to reduce the hundreds of gallons of water needed to produce a pair of his made-in-California jeans. (The state’s unprecedented four-year drought has forced apparel companies to address their consumption rates.) For Siwy, the current answer is to use specialized laser and ozone wash machines, which require less water than the standard machines.
But while its actions could easily fall under the label of environmentally responsible, you’d be hard-pressed to find a consumer who thinks of Siwy as an eco-friendly brand. Yet it’s just one of hundreds of fashion companies currently making changes in order shrink its environmental footprint.
A decade ago, that wasn’t the case. Before buzzwords like “sustainability” and “conscious consumerism” were a thing, “eco-friendly” fashion was the talk of the town, often consisting of crunchy, hippie-ish wares made of rough organic cotton and designed with your lavender-scented yoga studio in mind. Back then, there was also a lot of talk of “greenwashing,” or the idea of marketing something as eco-friendly without evidence to back up the claims. While a few legitimate fashion labels were willing to take a stance — most notably Rogan and Loomstate — most stayed as far away from the association as possible.
Today, 45 years after the U.S. first celebrated Earth Day, fear of greenwashing has subsided, and brands — including H&M, Kering and Nike — are happy to share the work they’re doing, releasing “sustainability reports” that detail their progress. That’s partly because shoppers have begun to demand more transparency. In a 2014 Nielsen survey of more than 30,000 people across the globe, more than half said that they are willing to pay more for items made by companies “committed to positive social and environmental impact.”
“I think consumers do care and I think they are starting to care more and more,” says Yael Aflalo, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based fashion line Reformation. Just in time for Earth Day, Aflalo has launched Refscale, an environmental footprint tracking program. From today on, every product on Reformation’s website will include information about the amount of carbon emitted and water used in order to produce the garment, as well as the industry averages for comparable items. (Aflalo used an outside sustainability firm to vet the numbers.) For instance, the brand’s new $168 Nashville dress, made from deadstock fabric, required 235 gallons of water to make and emitted 3 lbs of carbon dioxide. (The “industry standards” for a similar garment is 1,839 gallons of water and 18 lbs of Co2, says Reformation.) The company has also introduced the “Low Carb” collection, which features items made with the smallest footprint possible.
New York-based conscious-commerce site Zady, which launched two years ago this August, has taken a rigorous approach to launching eco-friendly products. Its $36 USDA organic cotton t-shirt, which is now available for pre-order, was sourced and manufactured entirely in the U.S. (As was the first item in its “Essentials” collection, a $160 wool sweater that is currently sold out.)
“Many brands don’t even know where their production is taking place,” says Zady co-founder Maxine Bedat, who worked hard not only to find the right partners at every step of the supply chain, but to also help foster relationships between those suppliers. Users will be able to follow the process — from farm to dye plant — via Zady.com, which Bedat says has become as much of an information source as it is a shopping destination. For instance, the company is spearheading the U.S. efforts around April 24’s Fashion Revolution Day, which honors those killed in the Rana Plaza disaster by challenging the fashion industry to create a more transparent global supply chain. “We’re really at this educational phase,” Bedat says.
While brands like Zady and Reformation are proud to wave the eco-friendly flag, it’s not only about the goodwill initiatives like these generate. Making environmentally sound decisions can also save a company money. Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report detailing the sustainability efforts of more than 30 Chinese textile mills that make fabrics for brands including Target, Levi’s, H&M and Gap. According to the NRDC, those companies are saving $14.7 million a year by cutting water, energy and chemical use. The annual return per mill averaged $440,000, with the top five performing mills saving more than $800,000. Most of those mills are part of the NRDC’s “Clean by Design” program, which offers guidelines for reducing waste.
To be sure, those sorts of numbers are just a blip to billion-dollar businesses, but for independent brands, it offers another incentive to minimize environmental impact. “Coming up with alternative ways to wash our denim has helped us save on production costs,” LaFourcade says. All good intentions aside, a healthier bottom line might be the only reason a brand needs to embrace the “eco-friendly” moniker.
** This post first appeared here.