The following piece is part of Earth to Fashion, a series of stories dedicated to sustainability in the fashion industry and beyond.
Fashion is the antithesis to the concept of sustainability. From gallons upon gallons of water used in industrial fabric dye baths, to pesticides sprayed in the cultivation of cotton, to the micro-plastics shed by synthetic garments that subsequently leech into the ocean, to the deplorable working conditions of fast-fashion factory workers—much is needlessly sacrificed in the name of fashion. But consumerism is a symptom of the 21st century, and while it won't stop anytime soon, it needs to be better. Corporate greenwashing in the fashion industry is prevalent; a sick and sinister game.
For Earth to Fashion, we’re lifting the veil by reaching out to 20 designers to learn more about what they’re doing to be greener, rather than just dressing the part.
“I’d say an important way designers can bring sustainability into their practice is to really think about the local ecosystem and manufacturing capabilities that are in their immediate environment. Sustainability doesn’t just mean looking at biodegradable fabrics or vegetable dyes, it’s also about supporting local communities.” —Samuel Ross
“No more greenwashing,” says Veilance creative director Taka Kasuga. The anti-trend, technical-wear label has been focusing on an entire series of projects and initiatives to better reduce its carbon footprint: dope dyeing, recycled content, cruelty-free animal welfare, bluesign (lower chemical impact, reduced emissions and water consumption), low-shedding (micro plastic reduction), biodegradability, LWG (leather working group, lower chemical impact and worker health), preferred cotton (organic and Better Cotton Initiative, lower chemical impact, responsible land use and worker health), and bio inputs (reducing petroleum inputs). “Our approach is based on actual data, not focused on a marketing story. We use Higg Index, developed by Sustainable Apparel Coalition to measure how sustainable it is from raw materials, production to shipping. Shakedry is a new material in our SS19 collection that is an ultra lightweight, waterproof, breathable fabric from Gore-Tex. By exposing the membrane, we don’t need to apply chemical treatment to repel water permanently. We are building the longevity of product itself, reducing seasonal short term waste and coming up with concepts that support a more minimalistic lifestyle. The goal is to create items for more than one use.”
In February, LVMH prize finalist Bethany Williams was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design for her dedication to environmentally ethical fashion. The menswear designer takes sustainability to a whole new level, not by leveraging buzzwords and empty claims towards a greater commitment, but by fully integrating it into her personal life and design practices. Williams has worked in homeless shelters and food-banks, and partnered with a lengthy list of charities and initiatives including: Greenfibres, an organic textile manufacturer; Chris Carey’s Collections, who provides her recycled denim; Wool and the Gang, which donates 30% of each sale of their recycled yarn; and There is Hope Models, an agency that exclusively represents youth affected by homelessness. On top of that, every material used in Williams’ collections is recycled—book waste and strands of discarded plastic are woven into fabric, and collected denim scraps are patched together into jackets and pants. Williams asks only that you don’t call her brand “sustainable.” In an interview with Vogue, she said she finds the word overused and unspecific: “The word sustainable is such a broad term. If someone has income to spend on a luxury product, it’s about being more conscious about the product you’re buying.”
“In the fashion industry, we have been using the same few materials for hundreds of years, and it’s really old-fashioned,” says English designer Stella McCartney, who received a BoF Global VOICES award for her sustainability efforts. Backed by environmentally-driven industry activists like Wilson Oryema and Lucy Siegle, McCartney’s brand has been at the forefront of technological innovation in favor of protecting the biosphere since its inception. “From the sourcing of materials to the supply chain and manufacturing, fashion needs to modernize,” McCartney says. “I never have worked with leather, feathers, or fur. Now I am looking into lab-grown alternatives for certain fabrics, sustainably sourced viscose, regenerated cashmere, and regenerated nylon. Looking at the future of fashion is what I really like. It drives me, challenges me, and defines the modernity of the brand.”
Prior to launching his career at Marc Jacobs and Dries Van Noten respectively, San Francisco-born Spencer Phipps was raising the bar of industry standards with his environmentally-ethical approach to design and dedication to creating clothing that honors the natural world. Working with eco-friendly fabrics and fair-trade practicing manufacturers, his eponymous label, with collections featuring animal graphics and names like "NATURE LOVES COURAGE," is definitely one to watch. "Our current goal within the company is to try and address our carbon footprint and see about the possibility of becoming fully carbon neutral,” the designer says. “I have a 5 page checklist of stuff to ask when I meet with potential factories. Packaging, shipping, labels, post-consumer issues. That’s not even getting started on the day-to-day issues like the actual office management, office supplies, etc. There’s an amazing book by Yvon Chouinard called The Responsible Company that I think can be very helpful for any business interested in improving their practices.”
“We look at every aspect of GmbH to reduce our harm on the environment, from chemical and water use in fabric production, to carefully studying the environmental policies of our suppliers and manufacturers. Reducing transport and travelling by aiming to produce fabrics close the factories, and by phasing out plastics, both in our garments and how we ship. Since day one we have shipped in biodegradable bags. We make a communal vegetarian lunch in the studio every day, made from biodynamic vegetables delivered from a local farm. Our care label instructions are written to encourage customers to wash clothing as little and gently as possible. Not only do you save energy, but the clothes last longer. Another important topic is designing clothes meant to last, beyond seasonal trends. However, it’s important to stress that it’s still a work in progress—implementing less harmful practices is incredibly complex, and this is why we don’t brand ourselves as sustainable, because the more you learn, the more you see what needs to be improved.” What are the biggest barriers in terms of establishing a sustainable design practice in 2019? The brand says that it’s “the relatively high initial costs of developing eco-friendly materials, which usually have to be custom made, and have high minimums.” In the meantime, though, GmbH wants to be more transparent, and “help customers develop a better understanding for how their shopping habits affect the environment, and make it easier to make better choices.” —Serhat Isik & Benjamin Alexander Huseby
Opting to train a lense on herself rather than merely point fingers, Hillary Taymour, the designer at the helm of Collina Strada, is changing her ways. For her FW19 presentation, she elaborated on all of the personal choices she makes that are not sustainable, and pledged to adjust her habits of consumption—and encouraged the audience to do the same by sharing a list of ways to reduce individual carbon footprints. The show was prefaced by a presentation from activist, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, and models were accessorized with reusable water bottles and tupperwares. 75% of the materials used in garments were created with deadstock materials, and Taymour sought the assistance of 4ocean, who provided beads made from ocean waste, to emblazon several pieces in the collection. Taymour’s personal accountability to the environment fosters a brand ethos that is inspiring and refreshing—two qualities to consider when we try to grapple with what it means to be “fashion forward.”
“Sustainability is a complex topic that everybody has different opinions on. We’re launching a really cool blockchain project with a packaging supplier that takes an item from Alyx and makes it fully traceable, but there are a lot of different things to focus on. For example, local production. What’s really cool about [being based in] Italy is it’s a place where everything is made, from the raw material to the finished product. It’s the size of California, so everything can be driven and we can focus on things like water reduction. For our upcycled jersey items, we use textile remnants and plastic bottles to make new yarn that gets knit into new jersey, so you don’t use any water to grow cotton, and you don’t use any pesticides that destroy the earth. Cotton is a material that isn’t natural everywhere, you have to put chemicals in the ground to grow it, so after 3-4 yields it completely kills the soil and you have to spend years putting nutrients back in. It was never meant to be a fiber that is grown everywhere on earth like it is today. On the technical nylon side, we’re working with a yarn called ECONYL that’s recycling used fishing line from Scandinavia. Lastly, we’re working on a waterless dye process with a company that has developed a new leather dyeing system with CO2 gas. The leather goes into this box and they spin CO2 gas super fast to the point that it becomes liquid and then it pushes pigment into the skin and dyes the hide with the moisture that’s already in the raw material, and once they stop spinning, the CO2 becomes gas again. It saves tons of water and is an amazing innovation. I think it’s about incremental steps, we really believe that these are things that all modern brands should be exploring and doing, while still leading by design. We don’t want to preach to anybody that they need to live their life a certain way, everybody should be free to choose to live their life how they want, but I think for a company, there’s a responsibility to do these things regardless, and not necessarily use it as a marketing tool to sell things to people. It’s about doing it for the right intentions, and I hope that over time people will just discover that we do this stuff, because at the same time I don’t want to say “we’re a green brand”—there are so many things about our process that aren’t green, or that there isn’t a good solution for yet. But we’re doing our best, and I think we’re showing that small-medium sized brands can do something. You don’t have to be an H&M or a Nike to create a sustainability program within your company, whatever size you are.” —Matthew Williams
London-based Canadian newcomer, Paolina Russo, is one to watch. Her training in leatherwork, knitwear, and interning at Maison Margiela have equipped her with the skills necessary to repurpose and reuse preexisting materials in garments in fashion. Her items of choice? Expired soccer gear. “For my first collection, my aunt is the head of the Markham Soccer Club so she put a call out for people to donate their sports equipment, old sneakers, footballs, it was amazing. So it really was a community effort and I used what was donated to me to create the first collection.”
“We not only want to be the most sustainable jeans brand there is, we want to motivate the entire industry to follow through our transparency program and we want to show the business that’s it’s possible to combine sustainability and profit. In our mind, it’s the only way to move forward if you want to be a modern company making any difference. Aside from the projects we are always working with—transparency, living wages, repair, reuse and recycling—we have set new, ambitious goals to tackle our climate impact. This will be in focus in the coming years, our way of working with a tight supply chain and close collaborations has paved the way for us to take the next steps forward to becoming carbon neutral by 2025. The biggest barrier in the industry is still fast fashion consumption and production. The lifetime of products needs to be longer. People need to value their garments more, considering all the efforts taken to produce the garment in the first place, both socially and environmentally. Transparency within the industry is also crucial, especially when it comes to the climate work. There are still brands out there that do not know their supply chain, or where their garments are produced, or by whom, or where the raw materials come from. It all comes back to knowing your product, which starts at the design stage.”
One man’s trash is Richard Malone’s treasure. The London-based designer is known to repurpose the most unlikely materials in building his collections—tarps, fuzzy dog-beds, and recycled cotton all find their way into his fun, fashion-forward designs. On the state of the industry, and the mass waste produced by inexpensive, fast-fashion giants, Malone believes, “we need to educate and change personal behaviour towards consumption. It is vital that people understand the actual cost of textile production.” Consider the cost of what you buy, and let nothing go to waste.
“Since we started, we have always said we are not a sustainable business. People have put that on us. We do call ourselves a responsible business though, and one that cares about people and issues. Fundamentally our focus is on making a better product and encouraging people to buy smarter and with thought and care. We need to change our ideas about success and shift our priorities. I am not condoning an end to capitalism or anything. But I do believe we need to become human again and not let business and ridiculous wealth accumulation drive how we do business. When we prioritize money over people things get really bad really fast. What we need to do is change our lifestyles. We need to need less. We need to share more. The burden should be shouldered by brands but the buying public needs to change as well. We as consumers need to change our behavior and support the companies and brands putting forth the effort to operate responsibly.” —Brendon Babenzien
Fondly regarded as a family brand, (casting friends and regulars from season to season in their runway presentations) Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta have a DIY approach that’s wearable and fun. Having worked with deadstock fabrics (some collections have been comprised of up to 90% of such materials) the brand has garnered a reputation for erring on the side of sustainability. But Mike points out that it isn’t really that simple. “Working in a sustainably-minded way has always been important to Eckhaus Latta,” he told us. “There is no singular approach to this as the factors that go into the world of making garments is so vast.”
A huge part of what makes the fashion industry so environmentally unfriendly is exactly what you’d think—it produces an enormous amount of waste. Collections are produced far too often, and in large numbers, leading to a glut of waste when product goes unsold and “out of style” at the end of a season. The simple solution? Produce only as much as is necessary. This isn’t something you have to tell Alicia Robinson, the designer behind the London-based label AGR. Where she acknowledges the financial strain pursuing sustainable practices can have on an emerging designer, her particular craft bypasses much of the obstacles: “Knitting in itself as a craft is extremely sustainable, as it takes no electricity when hand-knitting or on a domestic or dubied machine. Knitting also doesn't produce huge amounts of material wastage as you knit to exact measurements.” There is a lesson to be learned here, about how we might work to make made-to-order practices and modes of production that are already sustainable more in vogue.
“For me, the concept of ‘sustainable balance’ is key. We all have to exist in the world, so we can never be 100% perfect. Especially in the fashion industry—we depend on consumerism, on people needing to buy clothes, in order to exist. But we can find ways to be more thoughtful, more pragmatic; take achievable, measurable steps to lighten our footprint. Fashion’s impact is enormously high, it is one of the most polluting industries. So going back and changing practices that are established, convincing brands that it is critically important to do so, even if it affects the top line at first, is a major challenge. I hope that my small contribution to this conversation, can be that I have an established brand, one that has been doing things one way for years, and I’m now working backwards and taking steps to change things. It is hard. It’s a slow process, but it is so worth it. You don’t have to be starting your business today or tomorrow to do things differently in this industry. You can be a global, established brand that takes a hard look at fabrics, packaging, production, company culture, and start to implement a few changes gradually, piece by piece. Lean on others to educate yourself as much as possible, have a lot of conversations, listen and ask questions. Dream big of course, but start realistically, start where you are.” —Phillip Lim
Something of a fashion-world rabble-rouser, LVMH-shortlisted Dutch designer Duran Lantink is known for provocative practices and designs that make fashion-industry traditionalists uncomfortable. Taking other brand’s deadstock and sale items, and Frankenstein-ing them into new works of art, Lantink creates something of value out of something discarded–occasionally to the dismay of people like LVMH’s Bernard Arnault. In Duran’s view, to move forward we will have to reprogram our consumerist tendencies and covetous desires, rethinking our approach to buying into fashion: “We are going to have to change our whole outlook on life, and learn not to want the things we think we want.”
“RE/DONE sources its vintage Levi’s from rag houses across the US. The rag houses are stocked floor to ceiling with pallets of discarded jeans. We personally sort through thousands of jeans, one-by-one, to find the most beautiful and interesting pairs to redo. The production of a RE/DONE jean consumes the same amount of water as if you were washing your jeans at home, or roughly 50 gallons. This stands in stark contrast to the average 2,500 gallons of water it takes to produce a brand new pair of jeans.”
“At 032c, we now have a GOTS certificate, which can take years to get. It’s a globally recognized standard in textiles that maintains the organic quality of materials from the moment they are harvested, right up to labeling. We’re not interested in using textiles that are simply grown organically—we’re concerned with the working conditions in each facility we work with, the packaging systems, etc. We are interested in talking about what sustainability really means. It’s not about just a certificate, it’s something we are thinking about in every aspect of production—even how we work and collaborate as a team and a company. I feel that working sustainably is the only smart way to work today. If you’re good at what you do, you will want to do that sustainably. There’s just no other conclusion you can come to. It’s about real, holistic responsibility. Basically, working sustainably means you take the world seriously. It’s complicated. Everyone is happy to drive a Tesla, but no one wants to pay for it with the real work. Until everyone is working sustainably, we have to learn to be uncomfortable. It means you have to work harder, and often profit less. People aren’t willing to do that in big fashion, because sustainability isn’t cheap enough or convenient enough. Greenwashing is a real problem, in terms of how things are marketed and produced and also in terms of people’s personal ethics. Beyond all the moralizing though, it’s just a matter of fact: the materials and methods we use right now are finite. We’re going to run out. There’s a limit to how long we can keep working in this way.” —Maria Koch
“The foundation of the brand is making clothing from antique textiles, so each season a percentage of our collections are made from these textiles. In addition to preserving and reusing antique fabrics, we try to practice zero waste, by using excess material to make scarves and children's shirts. As you upscale, it’s difficult, but of utmost importance to keep sustainability on the forefront of your practice.” —Emily Bode
“I really think that everyone is responsible. Within high street fashion, or budget online stores, they make such huge profits from selling fashionable garments that will look great on Instagram, for next to nothing. For as long as profit is more important than people and the environment, [overconsumption] will continue. I think there would have to be social changes for this to change any time soon. Manufacturers could look at their supply chain in a number ways, from getting raw materials from responsible and organic sources, to looking into renewable energy sources, to simply just not over-producing.
When I was in the car on the way to Panipat, there were lorries travelling towards the city with huge bundles of clothing spilling over the sides. I was instantly aware that this was a huge issue. When I entered the factory, I was taken aback at how the beautiful colour-coded piles of clothing actually looked but I was also really, really saddened to see how our lack of commitment to what we buy is affecting the planet. If it wasn't for the great work of the recyclers at Panipat, I can't imagine where all those clothes would go.” —Priya Ahluwalia
- Text: SSENSE Editors
- Video: Nathan Levasseur
- Date: July 22, 2019