Sustainability in Apparel
There is a lot of focus these days on Sustainability in the Apparel Industry. We are a large contributor to the global carbon footprint due to many of the practices that are involved in making, dyeing and finishing fabrics alone. Many mills and factories all over the globe are making strides to improve their practices, implement clean water recycling systems and some practices have even been banned. Regulating groups like Oeko Tex and BlueSign have also come into play in the last few decades, helping to steer manufacturers at all levels of the industry in the right direction. But it can be expensive to meet their standards, and it has prevented wide-spread adoption of their certifications, especially for smaller companies who can’t afford to pay the annual fees to these organizations.
One question I get asked a lot by family and friends is, “How can we help contribute to making the apparel industry more sustainable?” And my answer is usually very simple: Wear what you already have in your closet.
As an apparel developer, this should probably be blasphemy. Advising people to stop buying new clothes kind of flies in the face of what I do. But it is true that the most sustainable outfit you can wear is already sitting in your drawer. It already exists, so whatever footprint it made on the planet is already there. Continue to wear it until the end of its product life, and you can help to prevent further footprints from being made.
So this opens up a can of worms about how we as an apparel industry can do better about making our products sustainable. For the most part, we won’t stop making new garments. Some companies might choose to close their doors as the ultimate sacrifice in the name of going green, but it’s not likely to be a widely adopted method. Here are a few things that Unmarked Street is standing for, as we help brands of all sizes create and grow their apparel businesses:
Create QUALITY Clothes:
When garments last for decades without getting holes in them, having buttons fall off, zippers fail or any other quality issue, you can and should keep them in your closet for the full length of their life. When we create apparel that meets these expectations, we can provide wardrobes that last a lifetime or more. If you do decide that you’re sick of something before it has shown any signs of damage, please donate it. There are so many others who could benefit from receiving your outdated clothes or buying them at a discount in a second-hand store.
Create PURPOSE-DRIVEN Clothes:
Most of my clients aren’t subscribing to trendy fast-fashion apparel. They are building garments that fill a gap in the market or serve a very specific purpose. Especially focusing on brands within the outdoor industry, most of the apparel I work on now is meant to help people get outside on their bikes, on the trails or on the slopes. They promote being in nature by providing items that protect you, support you and encourage you to get outside.
When it makes sense, use RECYCLED Materials:
There can be a lot of pressure put on apparel industry employees to use recycled materials in their garments because it can be an “easy win” with their consumers. By now, everyone understands what recycling is, so adding a “recycled fabrics” hangtag to their garments can promote confidence and brand loyalty with current customers. But it’s not always super simple to understand what’s going on in the supply chain with recycled goods. For example, a few years ago, we heard that a couple of mills were not using plastic bottles from the landfill to melt down and create their polyester. Instead, they were making brand new plastic bottles, melting them down and then calling them recycled! It’s no help to contribute more plastics to the world when there is plenty to get rid of in every single recycling plant across the globe. So we have to be smart. We have to do a LOT of research to make sure we’re using truly sustainable fabrics and not making the situation worse. Sometimes it makes sense to use them. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Use NATURAL Materials:
Materials made from plant fibers that can be harvested, replanted and replenished naturally and quickly are a great solution to sustainability issues. Instead of using Rayon, which is a man-made fiber meant to feel soft and silky, consider using Modal. Modal is spun from beech trees, which can grow quickly and repopulate easily. Natural Cotton is another sustainable yarn that does well year after year in crops throughout the world. Linen, Wool, Bamboo and Hemp are other great examples that can be used in place of man-made Polyester fibers in our clothes.
Use BIODEGRADABLE Materials:
The science around biodegradable materials is still fairly new. We’re seeing a few great reports of mushroom leather being used in high-end bags now. These leathers will someday return to the earth easily, but the question we haven’t quite answered yet is: will they also return to the earth when they’re in your closet for a couple of decades? I am in touch with two mills who are using food enzymes in their fiber compounds, to eat away at the fibers when they’re deprived of oxygen in a landfill someday. This could be an amazing way to help fabrics biodegrade, but so many of them have to be paired with non-natural fibers to make them soft or stretchy. So it feels like there is still much to learn here. It is exciting to see where people are starting to go though!
Use up DEAD STOCK Materials:
In factories all over the world, there are rolls of fabric sitting dormant with no intention of ever being used. Brands might have purchased them at one time, thinking they needed it all or intending to use it but their plans changed. Some (if not most) of these fabrics could be purchased from these factories for pennies on the dollar, not only helping to keep them out of our landfills, but also helping brands save money by using them up! Colors and specific content would need to be accepted “as-is” in this scenario, but it is one of the best ways to eliminate apparel industry waste today.
Our beautiful planet is going to need everyone’s help. What we leave to our nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren is up to us now. I’m a lover of fashion more than most people, so an amazing new garment is appreciated by me more than I’d care to admit. But I’ve started to hone in on my purchases, focusing on buying items that will last me for the rest of my life. Classic, quality pieces that will always be in style or fully functional garments that serve a wide array of needs are starting to be my go-to. Gone are the days when I would come home from shopping with bags full of items that would fall apart or get holes in them after a single season of wear. Those pieces need to go the way of the Dodo. Let’s all do our part to end Fast Fashion in the way that it’s been defined for so many years. Instead, let’s redefine what Fast Fashion can mean by reinventing long business processes and calendars. Let’s find a way to make quality apparel creation accessible to those who have their heart in the right place.
After all, it could change the world…