Rebuilding the fashion industry stitch by stitch
Today started out much like any other. I woke up and brushed my teeth. Then I shuffled to the closet to pick out something to wear.
I chose a flowy red blouse because it makes me feel like spring is really here, despite Kentucky's unseasonably cold temperatures this week and the disorienting quarantine-hibernation we've all been living for over a month due to the coronavirus pandemic. I grabbed a pair of crumpled jeans from the floor. It took 30 seconds to select the outfit.
My decision to purchase that red top about a year before was made with similar haste: I liked the price, it fit well and I thought it was cute. The end.
I never asked where it came from -- or how it was made. I didn't know I needed to.
The fashion industry is the world's second-largest consumer of water, after fruit and vegetable farming. It produces about 20% of the wastewater in the world, and floods oceans with half a million tons of microplastics every year. Microplastics pollute the water, and fish and other marine life eat them, mistaking the tiny particles for food. In turn, we ingest microplastics when we eat seafood.
Some 8 to 10% of carbon emissions worldwide come from the fashion industry as well. Unsold inventory and unused fabrics, called "deadstock," pile up landfills, costing companies $500 billion annually. Fast-changing trends and an increased availability of cheap products mean we are buying -- and discarding -- more clothes than ever before.
"The fashion industry is incredibly harmful to the planet; it's extractive and it's exploitative," explains Aras Baskauskas, CEO of the women's clothing brand Christy Dawn. Baskauskas founded the sustainable company in 2013 with his wife, Christy Petersen.
Baskauskas and Petersen are part of a passionate subculture of individuals and brands that care deeply about the damage caused by the fashion industry, and are working to make lasting changes to everything from how we gather materials to what we do with clothes we no longer want. "We made a commitment to do things in a way that honored what we value -- honor the Earth, honor people and honor our hearts," Baskauskas says.
The fashion supply chain
At the most basic level, a supply chain refers to a series of steps required to make and sell a product. Whether informal and ill-defined or carefully mapped out, all businesses have a supply chain.
For a fashion brand, the supply chain might start with a design for a new dress, then move to the farm where the cotton is grown, then travel to a facility where the raw material turns into fabric and then into several identical new dresses. From there, the dresses move to a warehouse to be sold online, or to an actual store. Then you buy one -- and after wearing it for a while, you might decide to keep it, donate it or toss it in the garbage.
In an effort to meet customer demand and make the process as efficient as possible, the fashion industry -- which is valued at $2.4 trillion -- looks for ways to lower costs and speed up production along the supply chain.
"There is a culture of fashion that you have to wear the newest trend, and after that trend's gone, you throw it away," Baskauskas says. Clothes are often made quickly and cheaply, so they don't hold up as well over time -- and the process is bad for the planet and creates unfair, and sometimes unsafe, labor practices for employees.
There's a name for this -- "fast fashion." And it leaves out something crucial, according to Baskauskas: intimacy.
"How did you get your cotton? Where was it grown? Who farmed it? In a supply chain, none of those questions are asked or answered. It's just, 'here's a yard of cotton,'" he explains.
The supply chain, revisited
It's crucial to think about fashion as a process, rather than an "outcome," explains Brendan McCarthy, co-director for the undergraduate fashion design program at Parsons School of Design in New York. He's also a professor at Parsons, and champions sustainability in fashion.
The degree program at Parsons challenges students to consider everything that goes into creating a garment, from the complete supply chain to social justice issues -- and even where the product ends up after you're done with it.
McCarthy asks students a series of questions to spark design inspiration:
- Who do you love?
- Where are you from?
- What community do you care most about?
- What are the key issues facing those communities and those people you love?
One Parsons student, Gal Yakobovitch, developed biodegradable surfing gear after seeing the plastics used to build surfboards growing up. Two other students, Amy Yu Chen and Claudia Poh, worked with the AARP on a self-dressing garment for a woman with limited mobility in her arms due to ALS.
The products themselves are innovative, but McCarthy is even more excited that the students redefined the traditional supply chain model by taking a human-centric, sustainable approach from start to finish.
Christy Dawn takes a similarly holistic attitude to fashion by regularly examining -- and re-examining -- its own practices. "The way Christy Dawn has done business up until this point is not part of the solution; it's just not part of the problem," Baskauskas explains.
The company has so far relied on discarded deadstock fabric to make their vintage-inspired dresses; now it's experimenting with regenerative cotton farming.
"Regenerative practices with regards to agriculture are quite literally the answer to climate change," Baskauskas says. "[Regenerative farming] draws down carbon, it's the answer to droughts, it's the answer to so many global issues we're facing."
He says he also wants the company's dresses to be hand woven and vegetable-dyed so they won't leech dangerous chemicals into the ground after they're discarded.
Patagonia, a major outdoor clothing company known for environmental activism, "has had a hard time with [the term] sustainability because it can be so easily misused," Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia's vice president of public engagement, explains. "It's often used by people who think they're doing much better than they are."
There's no standard definition of "sustainability" in the fashion industry -- no mandatory certifications to attain or guidelines to follow.
"Sustainability was meant to be a state where through your human activity you're not taking any more from the Earth than the Earth can give back. That's really hard to do; it's so hard to do that it's probably impossible to do," Ridgeway adds.
That's why Patagonia pays an "Earth Tax" to try to make up for its negative impact: 1% of all its sales go to environmental groups.
Like Christy Dawn, Patagonia is looking into regenerative farming. "Maybe there is a way to create a t-shirt, that instead of 'causing no unnecessary harm' [part of the company's mission statement] it is actually doing more good," says Ridgeway.
To try and move the needle on more eco-friendly practices, Patagonia partnered with the Rodale Institute and other consumer brands to develop a certification for organic fibers and food grown with regenerative farming techniques. It's using the standard for its regenerative cotton crops, and for some of the ingredients sold by its food company, Patagonia Provisions.
Patagonia also helped develop a sustainability assessment with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition called the Higg Index for clothing and footwear. The index helps businesses measures everything from the sustainability of their raw materials and packaging -- to the energy consumed by their manufacturing facilities. Over 13,000 factories worldwide have used the Higg Index, but it's an optional tool.
The women's clothing brand Reformation publishes sustainability reports that include score cards assessed by consultancy group Eco-Age in 12 areas, ranging from supply chain traceability to human rights. Reformation scored high in climate action and packaging and poorly in employee diversity and inclusion.
We have a lot of opportunity for improvement, says Kathleen Talbot, chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations at Reformation. "We're always changing our minds and setting harder goals and pushing ourselves further."
This year, the company is especially focused on creating an in-house environmental performance assessment -- and being "more rigorous" with fabric standards, she adds.
Making an actual difference
Despite the efforts of all of these companies, Baskauskas of Christy Dawn says he has concerns about applying sustainability standards to the existing supply chain.
"If we take the extractive model and throw regenerative on top of it, the extractive model will figure out a way to find a certification and it still won't do what we need it to do," he explains. "It's about intimate relationships. How do you certify intimacy? I don't know, but that's what we need."
Regardless of the exact approach, every brand I spoke with identified four key factors in this puzzle: the fashion industry is bad for the environment, it's important to align work with personal values, whatever supply chain or model you adopt, it should be considered holistically -- and human beings and personal relationships should be at the center of the business.
Even if you don't own a clothing brand or have a part in the fashion industry supply chain, the average person can still make a difference in small ways, Baskauskas says. Plant a seed and watch it grow. If you have a yard, try composting. If you can't do those things, try to form a relationship with someone who does (but, you know, after quarantine).