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.
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.
Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.
We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)
“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.
“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”
Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.
The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.
“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.
Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.
Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.
“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.
Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
And it all comes down to making a timeless product that the customer will hold on to for many, many years.
How do we make the fashion industry more sustainable? For Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co, it’s not enough to simply plant a few trees to offset carbon dioxide or use less toxic dyes. To make a real impact in the world, you need to help change the way people think about clothes.
These days, Levi’s continues to focus on how it can push the envelope when it comes to being green. Dillinger believes that part of the solution is encouraging people to stop thinking about clothes as disposable. As a designer, his goal is to create durable jeans that customers love and feel good wearing because this increases the likelihood that they will care for them better and keep them longer. In this Creative Conversation, we discuss what it will take to create a real paradigm shift in people’s thinking about fashion.
You’re tasked with creating a product that is fairly timeless and less subject to trends. Are you intentionally changing the narrative about consumption?
Yes. In my wildest dreams, we’d be helping to cultivate a Levi’s consumer who values durability and demonstrates a real attachment to an object. We’d be nurturing the person who doesn’t purchase because of immediate seasonal change, but who purchases for lasting value. This would mean there are shared values between our brand and our consumer.
This seems to run counter to the fashion industry, which values new looks and trends.
Yes, most companies are focused on convincing the consumer that they are not pretty unless they radically change their look; they’re not going to be in, attractive, or cool. They create a false appetite that directly leads to a pattern of hyper-consumption. If someone is pushing boyfriend jeans on you real hard this season, they’re probably going to be pushing a super skinny jegging on you next season. This radical oscillation in silhouette preference is going to make you feel that the thing you just bought is no longer valuable.
Instead, what we’re trying to do is encourage our consumer to be conscious that when they purchase a pair of jeans, that is not an isolated event. The garment had an impact before they purchased it, in terms of people that made it and the waste that was involved in creating it. And its going to exist long after they’re done owning it.
What would happen if we could change culture in such a way that consumers imagined the end of life of the product they bought? So, what if we said that you could mulch your jeans, put them in your garden, and see how the decomposition of your Levi’s could feed the food that you were growing. That’s conceivably how we might dispose of garments in the future. That would prompt the consumer to think about little details like how the color was applied to the garment in the first place. Would the chemicals in the dye affect the garment, my food, and my body? This is the kind of holistic thinking we want to spur in our customers. Fundamentally, asking them to take into account the impact they’re responsible for in the whole system, from the supply chain to the eventual disposal of the garment.
VIDEO: HOW LEVI STRAUSS & CO. KEEPS IMPROVING JEANS
How do you cultivate that consumer?
It starts with the product. Take the 501: It is an anchor product that has endured over time. Sure, it has evolved in some ways, but we don’t offer radical changes in silhouette. We’re owning the history and the provenance of our brand that makes essential, archetypal pieces of clothing.
What we do is we try to maintain a fit portfolio where we ensure that we have the fit you feel best in, not the one you’ve been told to feel best in. Then we make that product available consistently. When you love a pair of jeans, you develop an emotional connection not just with that object, but with the brand. You know that the brand has served you well. If we can make clothes that are really worth loving, then hopefully people will love them longer and care for them better.
We’re choosing not to participate in the fashion cycle. Instead, we’re choosing to cultivate long-term relationships with the consumer and deliver against their needs. And hopefully that participates in the recalibration of consumption broadly, though that is a lofty goal.
You’re known for your forward thinking when it comes to incorporating technology into fabrics. How do you do this, but also ensure that you are making these classic garments?
Technology is a loaded word: It implies gadget. We’re engaged in scientific dialogue with a lot of different people, but not all of it lights up the way you’d expect when you think of tech. There are ideas that we’re bringing to market that you might never notice. One that comes to mind is coming out in the next six months. A lot of people expect performance from clothing now. It’s one of the reasons that yoga pants are winning the market. The solution for performance has often been a mechanical or chemical application to a garment, often in the form of a synthetic fiber blended in. Often these technologies really flatten and dull the vibe of a jean. It starts to look like franken-jean: a jean from an unhappy future.
How do you bring that performance to a garment that is, in many ways, very similar to its original archetype that is now almost 150 years old? We’ve been working on this for two and a half years. The proposition is to bring jeans to market that will be 100% cotton, but that have hollow yarn architectures. We had a polyester that was woven into the yarn, but after weaving the [yarn] together [to make the denim], we were able to dissolve it out. What happens in that process is that we have the ability to wick away moisture and hold in warm air, but the jeans look and feel the way an authentic pair of Levi’s should.
But I imagine that it is hard to create profound change as one isolated company.
Yes, absolutely. If you look at how the food industry has evolved and shifted, it’s not one chef, or one farmer, or one supermarket choosing to align itself around different values. It’s a whole evolving system of consciousness. Personally, I can only take responsibility for my own behavior and advocate for these values.
But I also think there are other likeminded people that we can seek out. We have a program called the Levi Strauss Collabatory where we bring small designers who share our values and help them integrate sustainability into their young new businesses. We give them the support they need to bring that to life. So we can help nurture the ecosystem.
As a large company, what are you doing to make your manufacturing process more sustainable?
I think it’s important to focus on making products sustainable in every place that we manufacture. It’s very important not to use offshoring as a way to hide the way that we are manufacturing. We believe in transparency. It’s incumbent on us to know that water is a precious resource everywhere in the world. And it’s important for everyone across the entire supply chain—from the farmers to the factory workers to the people disposing of the products—to be conscious of resource conservation. To do this, we have a life cycle assessment that looks at the impact at every stage of the process, all around the world.
It’s also about educating the customer, telling them that there are better ways to care for their clothes. You don’t have to wash your jeans every time you wear them; in fact, this is bad for them. If you hang them to dry, they’ll last longer. A simple message like that allows us to involve the consumer in a much bigger effort to carefully, deliberately draw down on resource consumption.
And importantly, when we unlock proprietary data about water or waste, the best thing we can do with that is share it with everybody. Last year, we hosted a conference here at Levi Strauss where we brought in our competitors and anyone in the industry who was interested, to share every bit of knowledge we had about water-saving best practices. If you figure out how to save water and you don’t tell people about it, you’re kind of a jerk.
*This story first appeared on Fast Company
Fast fashion is now the global norm. Producers make more and cheaper clothes and people buy more clothes more often.
It’s a pattern we’ve all become familiar with — department stores with endless variety, clothes that seem to wear out more quickly — but the sheer scale of the situation has reached unsustainable levels. The only way many brands are able to turn a profit is through enormous, ever-increasing volume.
To get a sense of the industry’s size, here are a few startling facts:
- Eighty billion pieces of new clothing are consumed each year around the world, a 400% increase from two decades ago.
- In the US, 14 million tons of textile waste, mostly clothes, are thrown out annually. That’s approximately 80 pounds per person.
- Eighty-four percent of this clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators, where it breaks down, emits greenhouse gases, and releases chemicals into the ground and atmosphere.
Recycling has often been pitched as a solution to the industry’s problems, specifically the problem of ever-increasing demand for natural resources such as cotton, rubber, oil, and leather.
But it turns out that recycling has a long way to go before it can make a meaningful difference in retail, which has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world after big oil for its agricultural impact, the pollution it causes, and the energy it consumes.
The goal, ultimately, is for the fashion industry to become “circular” through improved recycling methods, minimizing its environmental impact in the process.
“Circular for apparel means that when clothing reaches the end of its useful life we will return it and make new clothing out of our used garments,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told Global Citizen in an interview.
“Getting to circular will require many steps including technological innovation and retraining consumers to take back their clothing instead of sending it to the landfill,” he said.
True circularity is still a far ways off. As Alden Wicker of Newsweek recently wrote, “Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager.”
H&M is one of the pioneers of fast fashion and has invested heavily in a recycling program as a way to boost sustainability.
“We have set the vision of becoming 100% circular. In close dialogue with experts and stakeholders we will set time-bound milestones that take us closer to our goal,” said Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M in a press release. “To lead the change towards fully circular and sustainable fashion.”
Kibbey thinks that, while the model is currently insufficient, the investments are paving the way toward a good model.
“H&M’s current practices around recycling are a step toward retraining the consumers which, when combined with emerging recycling technologies, could create this circular model everyone strives for,” he said.
Why Isn’t Recycling Effective?
Currently, the vast majority of recycled clothes cannot be repurposed into quality fabric; a recycled shirt is more likely to become a windshield rag or floor mat then another shirt.
This happens for a few reasons. Modern clothing generally consists of hybrid fibers — polyester and cotton blends, for example — that are hard to separate and process. Fast fashion brands, in particular, use cheaper and often synthetic blends of materials that are hard to disentangle.
Recycling is further complicated by the chemical processes that were used to shape clothing and the chemical dyes that remain in garments. These chemicals can be difficult to remove and can degrade the quality of materials. Then there’s the erosion that occurs when wearing a piece of clothing over time.
So most clothes that are recycled don’t exist in a “closed loop.” Instead, they follow a downward trajectory, eventually ending up in landfills.
“When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” said Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
How Can This Be Changed?
As Kibbey noted, a lot of technological advances have to be made before existing clothing materials can be effectively recycled.
Machines have to be developed that can reliably sort through and separate different fabrics and then restore integrity to the fibers so that they can be reused for new clothes — something that Wicker notes is at least five to 10 years out.
There are stories of successful recycling systems being implemented and scaled by large corporations that suggest circular systems are attainable.
For example, Levi is working on jeans made from 100 percent post-consumer cotton.
And then there are big companies like Patagonia that break the pattern by controlling more aspects of production and ensuring that materials can be readily reused, while also promoting the long-term value of the products they sell.
There also seems to be a gradual awakening throughout the industry that future profits hinge on the ability to effectively recycle and for resources to remain viable.
The ideal solution would be for manufacturers to standardize materials production methods. If this happened, then recycling would become exponentially easier.
“Fashion and clothing are indeed a very high impact industry, but the industry is making considerable progress,” Kibbey said. “Nearly 40% of the industry is supporting the Higg Index to measure and improve the impacts of apparel and footwear products.
“Some companies have just released ambitious goals such as Nike’s goal to double its growth and halve its impact,” he said. In Kibbey’s view, Inditex (Zara) and H&M have made bold statements toward circularity.
“There is still a long way to go but I’m optimistic the industry that brought us into the industrial revolution will lead us into the sustainability revolution.”
What can you do in the meantime?
The best thing you can do is buy less and higher quality clothes. This approach has a few benefits. First, it allows you to hold onto clothes for longer, generating less waste and reducing your environmental impact. Second, it signals to companies that they should be developing more sustainable models. If all consumers adopted this approach, then fast fashion would rapidly change.
If you’re interested in taking a more active role, here’s some advice from Kibbey:
“Ask questions of all of the companies you buy from about their efforts to improve the social and environmental impacts of their products,” he said.
“If you aren’t satisfied with the answer you get from a sales associate or a person answering questions on their website, they probably aren’t part of the solution.
“Tell them you won’t shop with them any longer until they do better. Buy products with certifications such as Fair Trade, Blue Sign, or GOTS. They are a great start towards finding and supporting sustainable products. “
When it comes to deciding whether or not to recycle your clothing?
“At the end of the useful life of a garment people should recycle because it will mean the clothing will have the best chance of an afterlife and will likely avoid the landfill even if it doesn’t end up on another person,” Kibbey said.
“They should not recycle solely to free up their closet to buy more items–today that is totally unsustainable,” he said. “When we get to a circular future, that will be normal and sustainable.”
*This story first appeared on Global Citizen
A boom in cheap fashion is coming.
And unless we change the way we produce and sell clothes, it’s going to put massive strain on the environment and the people who make them. The conclusion comes from new research by McKinsey & Co., which looked at the way we currently consume fashion as well as the amplifying effect emerging markets could have as their growing middle classes buy more clothes.
McKinsey found that a culture of disposable fashion is proliferating in which retailers keep putting out greater volumes of inexpensive clothing. Consumers, attracted by the low cost and constant newness, are buying these clothes in greater quantities, and often wearing them only a handful of times before discarding them. This fast-fashion ecosystem uses large amounts of natural resources while producing carbon emissions that fuel climate change. It has also been linked to numerous cases of worker abuses in countries sewing the garments.
The report warns: “Without improvements in how clothing is made, these issues will grow proportionally as more clothes are produced.”
In all likelihood, more clothes will be produced. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production worldwide doubled, according to McKinsey, and the average number of collections produced by European apparel companies in a year rose from two to five between 2000 and 2011.
This clothing boom is set to continue as growing middle classes in populous developing economies spend their rising incomes on clothes. “In five large developing countries—Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia—apparel sales grew eight times faster than in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States,” the report states. These consumers still buy a “fraction” of what shoppers in countries such as the US buy, but sales would still rise “significantly” if they continue buying more.
And it’s only getting easier to do that. Clothing prices aren’t keeping pace with other goods, meaning that, relatively speaking, clothes are getting cheaper. The number of garments the average consumer purchased each year rose by 60% between 2000 and 2014, McKinsey notes, and people are keeping clothing items for about half as long compared with 15 years ago, according to the report.
To make all this clothing requires land, water, and energy, and the impact doesn’t end in producing the clothes since water and energy are used each time a garment is laundered. If 80% of emerging markets rose to Western levels of per capita consumption, the effect on the natural resources we use alone would be significant.
What’s to be done? To offset this environmental impact “will likely require action across the industry,” McKinsey states.
It suggests, for one, that the apparel industry develop standards and practices for garments to be recycled. Currently, it’s extremely difficult to separate out fibers by type in fabrics made of blends, and mechanical methods of recycling cotton degrade its quality. McKinsey suggests more investment in chemical methods. (Textile technology company Evrnu and Levi’s recently created a pair of jeans from mostly post-consumer cotton waste using Evrnu’s chemical recycling method.)
It also recommends establishing higher labor and environmental standards, encouraging consumers to use low-impact methods to care for clothes, and investing in development of new fibers.
These are known problems, however. Organizations and individual brands are working on them, but their progress isn’t always straightforward. H&M, which positions itself as a leader in sustainable fast fashion, is investing in programs to reduce its impact while cranking out huge volumes of new clothes. Like Zara’s efforts, including its new sustainable collection, these actions do little to offset growing footprints. And these brands are hardly alone.
If they told us more, would we listen?
Consider the clothing label. Not fashion label, as in Chanel or Gucci, but the itchy, annoying little tag hiding inside every single piece of clothing you’ve ever worn.
That tag is the closest thing we’ve got to a legend, a guide to whatever it is we’re wearing. In many cases, it tells us what the item is made from and how to wash it. Unfortunately, labels leave out some pretty important information about our clothes and how they’re produced. In their understated way, clothing tags keep some of the garment industry’s most troubling secrets.
You may not have a burning desire to know your turtleneck’s or your favorite jeans’ life story ― fair enough. But a number of label-obsessed clothing industry players want labels to be more informative and even empowering, to tell us more about how our clothes are made and help us discard them responsibly when we’re done with them.
“The label is a place where we already to go access information, but we don’t get what we want,” Marianne Caroline Hughes, a United Kingdom-based sustainable fashion advocate and entrepreneur, told The Huffington Post. “It’s hugely underutilized as a place to access information and act upon information as well.”
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission enforces labeling requirements. That’s why the tag on your shirt tells you its country of origin, fiber content and the name of the manufacturer or dealer.
Still, in many places, it’s optional to include the country of origin. For example, Hong Kong, home to one of the world’s largest textile industries, doesn’t require it. Same for the U.K., Sweden, Germany and several other European nations.
Wherever they’re based, clothing companies certainly aren’t in the business of oversharing (if they even know all the details of their own supply chains, which they often don’t).
Christina Dean, founder of the fashion waste reduction organization Redress, says that, ideally, every label would include information about an item’s environmental impact. And since garments aren’t necessarily made in just one place, labels should say where the garment was manufactured and where the fabric comes from.
She’s not optimistic that brands would voluntarily offer this. Her more modest wish is for some kind of global standard, requiring every garment to state its country of origin. “It’s like a 101 of transparency,” she told HuffPost.
Others believe clothing tags should acknowledge the people who toil unseen to make our clothes. The garment industry employs at least 60 million people worldwide ― from Bangladesh and Cambodia, to Europe and Los Angeles ― most of them women. In countries where poverty is rampant, companies involved in various stages of garment production have been known to employ young children and subject them to dangerous and unfair working conditions.
After more than 1,100 garment workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, Sean McHugh and his colleagues at the Canadian Fair Trade Network set out to raise awareness about garment workers’ lives, using clothing tags to tell their stories.
The group’s 2015 ad campaign, “The Label Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story,” featured sweaters and jackets with oversized tags crammed with information, based on the group’s research abroad. Each tag aimed to capture the experiences of a person who might have made the garment pictured. Here’s one of those stories:
The label reads:
100% cotton. Made in Cambodia by Behnly, 9 years old. He gets up at 5:00 am every morning to make his way to the garment factory where he works. It will be dark when he arrives and dark when he leaves. He dresses lightly because the temperature in the room he works reaches 30 degrees [86 degrees Fahrenheit]. The dust in the room fills his nose and mouth. He will make less than a dollar, for a day spent slowly suffocating. A mask would cost the company ten cents.
The label doesn’t tell the whole story.
McHugh, the Canadian Fair Trade Network’s executive director, said the labels campaign was one of the group’s most successful ever. Facebook followers doubled, website traffic tripled and the campaign was covered in 15 countries and in eight languages.
But the Network struggled to move from awareness to action. “The part that was lacking, the challenging bit, was the tangible next step for consumers to take,” McHugh told HuffPost.
The nonprofit Fashion Revolution also sees clothing labels as a gateway to more accountability. Its signature campaign, “Who Made My Clothes,” asks people to photograph labels on their clothing and post them on social media, to pressure brands into sharing the human stories behind the items they make ― stories that would otherwise never be told.
During the group’s annual awareness event in April, more than 1,200 brands, including Zara, American Apparel and Levi’s, responded to the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, according to a Fashion Revolution spokeswoman. Some replies even included photos and names of actual garment workers.
And if labels were to tell us the best way to get rid of our old clothes, what would that look like?
Levi’s has been doing this since 2009. Its “Care Tag for Our Planet” label, in partnership with Goodwill, is now sewn into every Levi’s product. This tag tells you not only how to properly wash and dry items, but also suggests you donate them at the end of their life cycle, instead of throwing them out.
“This is the first major step to begin to engage consumers in their environmental impact and what they can do reduce it,” Michael Kobori, a vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, said at the time of the Care Tag’s launch.
As HuffPost has reported, Goodwill takes in millions of pounds of used clothing a year and makes a monumental effort to keep them out of landfills, even though every donated item doesn’t necessarily make it to needy people.
By suggesting people donate their old items, Levi’s is taking a step toward encouraging customers to treat their clothes in an environmentally responsible way. It’s good advice, considering the clothes we as Americans throw out ― dozens of pounds a year, per person ― end up breaking down in landfills and polluting the atmosphere in dangerous and preventable ways.
Since ordinary people can’t just tell brands what to do, they understandably feel powerless, said Hughes, the U.K. entrepreneur. That’s why she and her label-loving counterparts see informative tags as a useful tool ― even a weapon ― in the quest for more transparency about the things we wear.
“I think the label, and making products a source of information, is the key to it all, really,” she said.
*This story first appeared on Huffington Post