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Is Ethical Clothing Expensive?

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Grinvalds via Getty Images

Something I hear a lot from people is that they would love to shop more ethically, but ethical clothing is just too expensive. And I do get that. When money is tight it’s only natural to want that budget to spread as far as possible.

Is ethical clothing expensive though? When you look at it on the surface, yes, ethical clothing is expensive. This $120 dress (approximately £96 at time of writing), by Everlane, whose business model is based on ‘radical transparency’, is pretty similar to this £35 dress from a company with no ethical statement. Why would you spend £60 more on a dress that’s pretty similar? It’s hard to make the maths add up.

When you sit and think about that £35 dress though, you begin to think how manufacturers can possibly make a dress for £35, and still make a profit. If you’ve ever tried to make your own clothing you’ll know it’s pretty tricky to make a dress for that amount of money. By the time you’ve bought the fabric and the pattern, and the thread and any zips or buttons, and the electricity to power your sewing machine, you may well have reached or exceeded that amount, before even accounting for the cost of your own time.

So could the rise of fast fashion retailers have caused us to lose our sense of perspective, and our benchmarks and baselines on what is expensive?

You would expect to pay more for something now than in say, 1980, wouldn’t you?

Since the 1980’s the cost of housing, rent, food, fuel and other consumables has risen, in some cases dramatically. In 1980 the average cost of a home was £23,000 (around £89,000 in today’s money), whilst by the end of 2016 the average price of home was £205,000 according to the same report. The Telegraph reports that lager has increased in price by 336%, whilst a loaf of sliced white bread has increased in price by 235% and eggs by 286%.

It goes without saying then that you would expect to go into a shop and buy an item of clothing that was considerably more expensive now than it was in 1980.

What has actually happened with clothing is that since the 1980s, instead of rising in price in line with inflation, clothes prices have fallen and fallen to the point we’re at now where you can buy a top for less than £5 in 2017.

Prior to the 1980’s the majority of clothing was made domestically. I’ve struggled to find UK based data, but The New York Times reported in 2009 that in the 1960s, the United States made 98% of its shoes. They stated that in 2009 it was a completely different picture, with the US importing more than 90% of its footwear. This is more than likely mirrored in clothing manufacture too.

The reason for this outsourcing is that in the 1980s clothing manufacturers realised they could manufacture abroad, in places where they could pay workers considerably less, and where workers could work longer hours in poorer conditions. This ultimately meant greater profits for manufacturers, and lower prices for consumers.

We’re now so used to cheap clothes that have flooded the market since the 1980’s, that this has artificially driven down the value of clothing. If you’re in your forties or younger you’ll have grown up in an age where clothing has gotten cheaper and cheaper. You won’t, or will barely remember a time when clothing wasn’t cheap. Yet going back to the £96 Everlane dress, I suspect that this is more like what the average dress should cost in 2017, if not more.

It’s also also quite clear the impact that the mass production of clothing overseas has had on household spending. I’ve again struggled to find UK statistics, but census data from the US shows that in the 1950’s households spent 12% of their annual income on clothing. Fast forward to 2015, and it’s reported that households spent just 3.5% of their annual income on clothing, even though Americans are buying more clothes than ever before. The same article reports that in 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits, whilst in 2015 that figure was 30 outfits – one for every day of the month.

More worryingly, another report suggests the average item of clothing is worn just seven times before being discarded. Cheaper prices clearly mean consumers value their clothes less.

So what’s the answer? By suddenly removing manufacture from the countries that depend on clothing manufacture for the overseas market wouldn’t be good for those countries’ economies. In 2014 the ready made garment industry represented 81.13% of Bangladesh’s total export, and of the 4 million workers employed by this industry, 85% are illiterate women from rural villages. It’s a tricky situation.

I think part of the answer lies in our relationship with clothing. Buying less; not buying into trends; and investing in quality timeless pieces are more than likely the way forward. I’ve previously written in length about these aspects of consumerism – but in a nutshell ethical fashion isn’t expensive when you factor in the cost per wear of a quality made item, versus a poorly made fast fashion item of clothing that falls to bits after just a few wears.

As consumers we also have to act more responsibly. YouTube haul videos, like this one where the vlogger boasts to impressionable young viewers about how many cheap items of clothing they’ve bought only perpetuate the cheap disposable clothing myth.

Another part of it voting with your wallet. If more and more people start shopping with more responsible retailers then this sends a clear message to retailers that they have to up their game and make their clothes more ethically.

Perhaps we have to therefore have to work on regaining our sense of perspective when it comes to the cost of clothes. Spending more on each individual item of clothing we buy and spending better, but buying much much less is the only way to re-establish sensible baselines on what constitutes as expensive and what constitutes as good quality.

*This story first appeared on Huffington Post

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6 Experts Reveal the Sustainable Fashion Projects to Watch in 2017

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There’s no doubt that the fashion industry is changing. While, for some of us, it may not be changing as quickly as we’d like, there is proof that consumer behavior is shifting, the role of the designer is growing and technology is at the forefront.

Below are six experts in the sustainable fashion industry, sharing the projects they’re most excited to watch in 2017.


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“There’s this incredible ecosystem of business resources, services and programs set up to help fashion brands incorporate more sustainable practices into what they’re doing, and it wasn’t that way even two years ago. Some to watch are Factory45, Startup Fashion, ProjectEntrepreneur and TrendSeeder.

I am also paying close attention to the necessary interconnectedness of sustainability in fashion, where you see companies like Evrnu partnering with Levi’s and The Renewal Workshop teaming up with multiple brands to present new ways of thinking about the lifecycle of the clothes we wear.”
Lorraine Sanders, Founder of PressDope by Spirit of 608 and host of the Spirit of 608 podcast


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“I’m really excited about the emergence of sustainable undergarment brands. It used to be that there were so few choices that you could feel good about. Now they’re popping up everywhere and range from the fancier styles of NAJA, which has a women-focused social mission, to the fun styles of La Vie En Orange, which recycles your t-shirts into cute cotton undies.”
Nicole Giordano, Founder of Startup Fashion


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“This year, I’m excited by brands that are blurring the traditional boundaries of fashion. New brands like Kirrin Finch are filling a void for (proper-fitting) menswear-inspired womenswear as established companies like Burberry make mixed gender shows a fixture of fashion week.

In addition, the concept of quality clothing that purposefully endures through sizes and seasons is resurfacing among sustainable lines: Sotela designs dresses that span several sizes while the made-to-order brand DeSmet rejects the fashion calendar to release just one piece per month over the course of the year.”
Elizabeth Stilwell, Creator of The Note Passer and Co-Founder of the Ethical Writers Coalition


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“From yeast-based synthetic spider silk to hybrid fabrics that convert solar power and movement into electricity, fashion innovation will continue to soar to new heights in the new year. But I think that more low-tech pursuits such as knitting, crocheting, and sewing will also see a resurgence, particularly in these uncertain political times, when getting down to brass tacks and working with our hands will bring a more visceral level of comfort.

I’d keep my eyes peeled, in particular, for organizations such as the Craftivist Collective, which uses the art of craft as a vehicle for “gentle activism,” and Knit Aid, which provides refugees with lovingly hand-knit blankets, scarves, gloves, and hats. On a personal note, I’m currently knitting my fourth Pussyhat Project hat for the upcoming Women’s March on Washington. It’s easy to surrender to feelings of hopelessness, but we can rally everything we have against the tide of tyranny and hatred. There is strength in numbers, and it can begin with a single stitch.”
Jasmin Malik Chua, Managing Editor of Ecouterre


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“I’m excited to see Increasing alternatives to leather come to the market. Right now most faux leather ‘vegan’ options are plastic-based, which of course is not compostable. But with pineapple-based and even mushroom leather alternatives becoming available, I’m hoping we’ll start to see more and more of them available on a larger scale!”

Rachel Kibbe, Founder of Helpsy


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“Because of where I stand in the fashion space, I’m lucky to see sustainable startups launching new projects on a regular basis. The ones that I get really excited about are pushing the boundaries of branding, storytelling and marketing to say something different about what it means to be an ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ apparel brand.

Some of the companies that stand out right now are Girlfriend Collective that opted out of traditional advertising and used their budget to get their product into the hands of their customers. Peche Lingerie is pushing the boundaries of the lingerie industry by making undergarments for every “body” and defying gender norms. And then there’s mompreneur brand SproutFit that is challenging traditional sizing for infants and toddlers by making garments adjust as the baby grows.

If I’ve learned anything over the past several years working with sustainable fashion startups it’s that the companies that get people excited are the ones who tell a different story. It’s those unique stories that I’ll be keeping my eye on this year.”
Shannon Lohr, Founder of Factory45


*This story first appeared on The Huffington Post

End of Life vs. End of Use: Circular Economy, Getting More From the Clothes That We Wear

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by Leslie Johnston

About 13 years ago, I was travelling in a beat-up “bakkie” (or, as we Americans call it, pick-up truck) through a dusty, northern Mozambican town. With a bucket on her head and a face lined from years of hardship, an elderly woman walked slowly down the road, quietly going about her business… while wearing a bright red Ohio State sweatshirt, complete with their mascot, Brutus Buckeye! This sweatshirt, probably discarded at one point in a Salvation Army depot in Ohio, found a new owner in the most unlikely place.

And while one can argue the merits of second-hand clothing imports and their effect on African apparel industry, the following conclusion is clear: When we discard our unwanted clothes, they do not go away.

Rather, the “lucky” ones go on to reuse, after being sorted, categorized, packaged, and shipped, often to faraway lands. This fascinating video shows what happens when these discarded duds arrive in India. “Maybe the water is too expensive to wash them,” says one of the sorters, perplexed by the state of the clothing sent by the West.

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Image: Still of the film Unravel, directed by Meghna Gupta

But what happens when a piece of clothing is too worn to be, well, worn again? Has it reached its end of life? Judging by the millions of tons of clothing ending up in landfills across the world, one would think so. But it doesn’t have to be.

Clothes that cannot be worn again can be taken apart. The “easy” way is via mechanical fibre recycling, which entails chopping the clothing into small pieces to create new fibre. But this process weakens the fibre, which still needs to be blended with a high proportion of new (or virgin, in industry speak) fibre. And only a small percentage of total clothing actually goes through this process.

But this process doesn’t work if your old t-shirt is made of blended fibres. And we absolutely love those stretchy, fitted t-shirts, which usually have a bit of elastane. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s clothing is made up of a cotton/polyester mix, which means these fibres cannot be “born again” as new fibre for clothing.

But perhaps not for long. Over the past few years, a number of research institutes and innovators (like Worn Again, Evrnu, re:newcell, Saxion University, Mistra Future Fashion, Deakin University, VTT, Aalto University and Tampere University) have been developing chemical recycling processes that can get more life out of those blended t-shirts. I have had the opportunity to speak with some of these guys to learn more about how such technologies can transform the way we use – and reuse – clothes. As Worn Again states, such technologies can create “Abundance for Everyone. Forever.”

In other words, there is no end of life. Only end of use.

But we’re not there yet. The processes for turning blended clothing into new fibre still need perfecting – and scaling – to help the industry eventually eliminate the concept of waste. So, in the meantime, there are some practical things that we – the customers who love stretchy t-shirts – can do.

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Image: Swishing Party, courtesy of swishing.com

Love our clothes! We can be inspired by the tips from the Love Your Clothes movement, helping us to think about how we buy, use, and pass on our clothing.
For every new piece of clothing we buy, we can gift or swap an old piece… give it to friend, take it to a charity shop, recycling centre, a “take back” scheme, or take it to swishing party.
Pull a Mark Zuckerberg. We should not be afraid to wear the same thing, every day, to work. Apparently, this also helps us to be more successful in our careers.
Check the labels. Until cotton recycling technologies really take off, a blended t-shirt (e.g. cotton and polyester) is harder to recycle than one that is of a single fibre – whether natural or man-made. Let’s go for that 100%.
Tell our friends…and kids. The clothing we love is taking its toll on our earth. At least 350,000 tons of clothing end up in landfills in the U.K. alone. In the US, just 15% of used clothing and textiles are diverted from landfill and incineration. We all have a role to play. Let’s spread the word and bring back our clothes.

And the more that we do that, the more we can give new life to our old clothes.

*This story first appeared on The Huffington Post

How Do I Sew Thee? Let Me Count The Ways

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Upcycling is a creative design solution to an environmental crisis – it is also the single most effective way at slowing down fashion without resorting to boycotting brands.

Because we don’t need to stop buying clothes, we need to learn how to buy better, and by buying clothes made with pre-existing materials we would save an enormous amounts of water, slow down unnecessary virgin textile production and drastically reduce landfill mass with its associated emissions burden.

What upcycling does is encourage creativity, problem solving, a sense of humour, and the understanding of efficiency and common sense.

There is a kind of poetry in taking the unwanted and giving it another life – as a design process it has its own aesthetic signature, its own set of values, its unique method. It may not be for everyone, but those who love it can become passionately addicted.

It encourages time, the single most undervalued word in fashion’s modern history.

It also encourages patience, which, along with time, is part of an ancient fashion lexicon.

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It encourages a journey of discovery whereby sources of fashion waste are located, materials are ‘saved’ and reintroduced into the system via the intelligent use of creativity and manual abilities.

Let’s put it into context. Upcycling may be a new definition (first coined by Reiner Pilz in 1994: “Recycling,” he said, “I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling – where old products are given more value, not less.” ) but we have been upcycling for millennia in all forms of art and design, from mosaic to Wabi-Sabi, quilting to Boro fabric, modern art to interior design.

We just have to look at food to understand how steeped repurposing is in our culture. Almost every country will have a much loved national dish that derives from leftovers: Paella in Spain, stale bread for Bread and Butter Pudding, Minestrone, Broth… there are way too many to mention all.

And in fashion it’s second nature: in fact, it’s so trendy right now that designers are borrowing the look without actually implementing the technique. From Galliano at Margiela to Christopher Kane, catwalks are awash with the ‘looks upcycled’ aesthetic, its vibrant, patchy, colourful, often idiosyncratic juxtapositions look great online, a breath of fresh air to contrast black minimalism.

Back then when clothes didn’t cost the same as a sandwich, people made the effort to keep them, customising them to suit the changing trends. So when we went from hippy to glamrock to punk, kids didn’t go to New Look to buy their skinnies and ripped t-shirt. They learned how to sew (or asked their mum) and ripped away purposefully. Clothes had value and weren’t thrown away, providing a creative canvas for change. It was a challenge, it was disruptive, it was iconoclastic: grannies’ tartan skirts ending up ripped and safetypinned on the Sex Pistols; Victorian underwear, such as drawers and petticoats, becoming ruffles on a New Romantic shirt.

Unfortunately, in fashion, upcycling makes little sense in today’s culture, now that we have been taught by this gigantic industry that it’s easier to throw something away if it isn’t perfect, given that it has become so easy, quick and cheap to go out and buy something else, something new.

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Despite the fact that it is estimated that the industry is producing approximately 150 billion items of clothing annually, closed loop technology is nowhere near 100% effective. Although we can recycle single fibres such as wool or cotton, we are still far from being able to recycle clothes made by blended fibres (that’s the majority of the stuff we wear) not to mention clothing implements such as zips, buttons, labels and sewing threads, or accessories, like hair clips, shoes and handbags.

So, while we wait for technology to save us, why not upscale upcycling instead?

It’s the best bet we’ve got to still make wonderful clothes whilst slowing down the industry.

Upcycling should be taught as a design technique, and as a technical method for production.

Young fashion designers interested to know more should be shown zero waste pattern cutting; how to follow a waste-stream; how to look for second hand clothing at scale; how to approach manufacturers for factory remnants. They should be taught how to disassemble garments and transform them into something else; how to sort surplus, how to store it and how to design to include surplus.

Garment workers should be taught disassembling and reassembling and trained ‘waste engineers’ inside both brands and manufacturers sourcing and production departments should be aware of where the surplus is kept, whether it is stock fabric, defected fabrics, unsold clothes or defective runs; they should know which types of waste are reusable and how to offer it to their clients to reincorporate it in their collections. There should be upcycling lines in factories, ready to produce new stuff from stuff that is deemed unusable.

It has been done before, plenty of times, the knowledge is there. It has been done as a result of poverty and need (women scouring factory floor off-cuts during the wars); it’s been done by the industry to maximise factory resource efficiency and it’s been done more recently by design pioneers who see it as a creative way to combat mass production and mass consumption. Just like the materials we reuse, its nothing new. But it’s not been upscaled, yet.

As resources will become more scarce and expensive, as the issue of fashion and textile waste drowning the planet will become more obvious following a global call for brand transparency, what we are looking at is a viable alternative, one that would be creating new skills and new jobs, and move us towards an efficient industry where surplus is addressed long before it becomes waste.

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In a fashion moment where our prêt-à-porter has become much more like a prêt-à-jeter, we need to look back to move forward: we have the answer, now all we have to do is start asking the question.

Here you can find a video of Fashion Revolution’s upcycling workshops which took place in April during Fashion Revolution week, where you can find out more about upcycling, some amazing designers, and why it’s so important to become involved in looking for solutions for fashion.

 

Credits:
Photographer Montana Lowery
Styling, Hair and Make up: Novel Beings
Models: Sienna Somers and Nancy Morris
All outfits created by students at the Upcycling Workshops.

*This story first appeared on Huffington Post

 

What It Means For A Startup To Win A Life-Changing Award?

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MASKOT VIA GETTY IMAGES Successful team of new business people in creative office

Since I met Adriana – inventor and co-founder – and we decided to build a team and develop her crazy idea of turning orange peels into a sustainable and silky textile for fashion, almost four years have passed. We have spent it following our dream and facing challenges such as R&D, patenting the innovation, fundraising, networking and creating prototypes.

Then, in February, 100 Percent Citrus – aka Orange Fiber – was announced as one of the five winners of the H&M Foundation Global Change Award 2015.

This meant that our sustainable textile – which is derived from citrus-juice by-products, that is to say everything left after the juice is made – was selected by an international expert jury from more than 2,700 innovators from 112 different countries.

As one of the five winners we were awarded a grant of €150,000 (from a total grant of €1 million) to help develop our innovation. We were also entered into a one year Innovation Accelerator program provided by the H&M Foundation in collaboration with the Stockholm based KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Accenture.

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The Global Change Award – the annual innovation challenge initiated in 2015 by the non-profit H&M Foundation – takes on one of the biggest challenges facing today’s fashion industry, which is to create fashion for a growing population while reducing its impact on the environment. By catalysing early innovations that can accelerate the shift from a linear to a circular fashion industry, it aims to ensure our living conditions by protecting the planet.

Since receiving the award from HRH Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden at the famous Golden Hall in Stockholm City Hall last April, the development of 100 Percent Citrus and the other 2015 Global Change Award winners innovations, has moved rapidly.

The first part of the program was an intense boot camp week in Stockholm at KTH Campus in February. The aim of the boot camp was to outline the stages of the development of our innovation from the initial stage through to the final goal.

During this period, all the Global Change Award winners and the technological readiness of our idea’s, were challenged by KTH Innovation through practical workshops which taught us how to pitch our product, IPR protection and innovation development.

Below you can see me, Francesco – one of our business partner, Maria Elena – our social media specialist, and Adriana – inventor and co-founder, struggling during one of these workshops!

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This was followed by a study week in Shanghai in April that offered us exclusive industry insight, opportunities to network and a deep knowledge of circularity and fashion’s value chain. In July we were then coached via virtual and classroom training sessions led by experts from Accenture Strategy to help us tweak and fine-tune our business models

In the last 7 months, we have learnt a huge amount about the impact of sustainable processes throughout the value chain and we have had the unique chance to further connect the dots in the fashion industry and start building a network with key people within fashion production, sales, materials, innovation and sustainability.

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We are currently still working through the Innovation Accelerator program and the next meeting will be in Milan in October. The goals that we want to reach by the end of the program (i.e before the end of 2016) are: to enter the market in partnership with a fashion brand and to move forward in the pilot testing of our product and find an industrial and financial partner in order to scale up our production as soon as possible.

If you are curious about our job, meet our 100 percent citrus textile in this exclusive video to present ourself!

Since we strongly believe that “the future is not a place we’re going to, but a place we create” and that reinventing the fashion Industry is a big challenge and everyone has to do his/her part, don’t miss the opportunity to contribute to reinvent fashion applying to Global Change Award 2016 – open for applications until October 31.

Read more at http://www.globalchangeaward.com or this booklet and follow our journey through sustainability on Twitter!

This September The Huffington Post UK Style is focusing on all things sustainable, for the second year running. Our thirst for fast fashion is dramatically impacting the environment and the lives of thousands of workers in a negative way. Our aim is to raise awareness of this zeitgeist issue and champion brands and people working to make the fashion industry a more ethical place.

We’ll be sharing stories and blogs with the hashtag #SustainableFashion and we’d like you to do the same. If you’d like to use our blogging platform to share your story, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

*This story first appeared on Huffington Post

The Myth of the Ethical Shopper

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There’s this video that went viral earlier this year. On Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, a vending machine is selling plain white T-shirts for €2 each. Customers approach in ones and twos, insert coins, pick a size. Then, before the shirt comes out, a photo appears—a black-and-white image of rows of sewing machines. “Meet Manisha,” the screen reads, dissolving to a close-up of a girl in a headscarf who looks about 16. She earns “as little as 13 cents an hour each day for 16 hours.” The Berliners put their hands over their mouths.

“Do you still want to buy this shirt?” the display asks. The menu comes up again. This time, the options are “buy” and “donate.” As the music swells, all the shoppers press “donate.”

For a generation now, buying better has been one of our most potent forms of protest. Who doesn’t want to believe that he can rescue Manisha from misery simply by purchasing the right T-shirt? The same idea underpins hundreds of earnest NGO advocacy campaigns urging people to take action against the Swooshtika, Badidas, Killer Coke. It prompted a much-praised John Oliver exposé in which he blasts H&M for selling “suspiciously cheap” clothes sourced in Bangladesh. The only trouble is, this narrative is bullshit.

It all started in the mid-’90s, when anti-sweatshop mania burst into the mainstream of American culture. Naked people chanted outside the opening of an Old Navy, Jennifer Love Hewitt led an anti-sweatshop protest on “Party of Five,” Kathie Lee Gifford cried in front of Congress. Nearly every major apparel brand was, at one point or another, the target of a boycott campaign. Radiohead told its millions of fans to read No Logo, Naomi Klein’s investigative polemic against multinational corporations.

And for a while there, it worked. The major apparel companies adopted codes of conduct, first banning just the most egregious stuff—workers under 16, forced overtime—then expanding to health and safety, environmental protection and social investment. Since 1998, Nike has followed U.S. clean air standards in all of its factories worldwide, while Levi’s gives financial literacy classes to some of its seamstresses. Every company from Hanes to Halliburton has a social responsibility report. An entire ecosystem of independent inspectors and corporate consultants has sprung up, applying auditing standards that are as pedantic and uncompromising as the NGOs advocating for them.

But in the past 25 years, the apparel industry, the entire global economy, has undergone a complete transformation. The way our clothes are made and distributed and thrown away is barely recognizable compared to the way it was done in the ’90s. And yet our playbook for improving it remains exactly the same.

This year, I spoke with more than 30 company reps, factory auditors and researchers and read dozens of studies describing what has happened in those sweatshops since they became a cultural fixation three decades ago. All these sources led me to the same conclusion: Boycotts have failed. Our clothes are being made in ways that advocacy campaigns can’t affect and in places they can’t reach. So how are we going to stop sweatshops now?

**Read the complete article on Huffington Post here.