Over the past ten years the eco/ethical/whatever you want to call it world of fashion has grown a million miles. I started this fair trade line in 2009, when I asked about organic cotton fabric or where to find textiles made in the USA people would look at me like I was crazy!
Now these questions are a lot more of the norm, and yet, I think a lot of these words are thrown around for marketing purposes and many of us don’t know what the differences are or what the words actually mean.
SO, here is a little help in defining what exactly fair trade, sustainable, and ethical fashion is…
Ten years ago sustainable fashion was most widely used to refer to the textiles used in a design. If the garment is made with sustainable materials it is more easily decompose in landfills. Polyester takes anywhere from 20 to 200 years to decompose where as cotton takes only 5-6 months.
Now the word sustainability is thrown around so much it is difficult to determine what it is actually referring to. Other factors are typically thrown into this term, anything from showing how much the person who sewed the garment was paid to how many gallons of water it takes to produce the cotton for the t-shirt. And if you were wondering, yes, cotton takes a whole lot of water to produce – about 700 gallons for one basic T!
When we are talking about sustainability, I think we also need to consider how possible it is for the company to maintain the way they create products. Many products marked as sustainable are up-cycled pieces and we do not consider that this form of production is rarely sustainable at the price consumers want to pay for it; however, these pieces are making strides in reducing the amount of garments thrown away every year (in 2014, over 16 MILLION tons of textile waste was generated).
At it’s premise sustainability in short is reducing waste and pollution in the industry. By the way, the fashion industry is the second most pollutant industry. It also refers to creating clothing in a way that can last rather than the fast fashion way of clothing that is not (as we have seen with Forever 21) sustainable. I think we all can agree the ways of fast fashion from the 90’s and 00’s was possibly the least sustainable way!
I am going to add a bit of a controversial point here...showing the actual breakdown of the pricing of a garment is not 'sustainability' (ahem Everlane). Is it a good idea? Yes. Are people who sew the clothing being paid more because of this? Probably. But it is not sustainability.
Which brings me to the next term – slow fashion. This is a term paired closely with the slow food movement. Producing clothing in a way that is taken back to it’s roots, where the cotton is grown on a small farm, it is spun by the same place. Woven by a small factory and sewn by a custom house. It typically denotes higher quality with an emphasis on the textiles used.
Fair trade initially meant taking out the middle man and selling products directly from the person who made them to the consumer. It got it’s origin in the 1950’s when humanitarian organizations in the US and Europe like SERRV and Oxfam Uk started selling the handicrafts from China and Central America. Today it denotes an understood meaning that the people who make the products are paid fairly and treated well. I would argue, In the clothing world there are incredibly few lines that are actually ‘fair trade’. Selling garments directly from the person who made them and celebrating traditional and indigenous skills of people from around the world. Many fair trade companies today still sell through retailers and sales reps that take a significant percentage of the sales. Fair trade does still have a hint of ethnic culture and is known for its bright prints and traditional textiles.
Upcycled production has gone from slapping some rickrack onto an old shirt to more sophisticated production of grinding down post consumer wasted t-shirts and re-weaving and re-spinning them into new fabric and ultimately new garments. At it’s roots it is taking waste, useless and unwanted products – things no one wants any more or knows what to do with and re-making them into something different. I have worked with several companies with this model as their premise. It is always amazing to me how they take raw materials that literally no one wants and transforms them into a profit. After a few years of business it is clear this ‘unwanted’ textiles or plastic or even roofs can become profitable and there is soon a demand for what used to be considered trash. Personally, It would consider this the most sustainable form of production if it is done in such a way that can generate a profit at a reasonable price.
Direct-to-Consumer is a term that is rarely used in the eco-fashion world, but it is a more sustainable and could be argued more fair way to produce clothing. Most people don’t realize that the retail company takes at least half if not quite a bit more than that of every sale. Then the distributor get’s their cut, the sales rep gets their cut, the shipping company get’s their cut and by the time you get to the beginning there is barely any money left for the person who actually sewed the garment. Typically the brand is squeezed in the middle and can not turn a profit. Direct to consumer takes out at least a few of these steps taking the price down a bit or at least more evenly distributing the money. I will never forget in one of my first business coaching sessions the person said, “You know fair trade is a great idea to go directly from the person who made something to the consumer, but you are forgetting that all these other people the retailer, the shipper, the reps, they add value to the garment.” True words – I guess it is just finding balance in all this.
Made in the USA – besides boosting our own economy, made in the USA products are a more ethical way to purchase clothing, because there are more standards and labor laws in this country than say Bangladesh. And even if there are laws in these countries, our government tends to actually enforce our laws rather than taking bribes from companies when it is not convenient to follow them. In addition producing in the USA cut down on shipping, customs and lead time costs.
So what is the most sustainable way? I guess we all can have a pet project that we think is the best. This world for me can get slightly depressing when you consider if there actually is a difference in the way clothing is made. I will say, I have sewn women in developing countries able to transform their lives because of good, fair jobs. I think there should be companies who produce clothing in the States (especially after you have dealt with the US customs office!). After seeing the tons and tons and tons and tons…of old clothes shipped overseas to be sold there, I would argue we have to find a way to recycle this waste, and yes I do think natural fabrics are important.
I am growing tired of companies using these words as marketing ploys. I am tired of huge companies using the word sustainability when their clothing is made in the same exact way as H&M’s. Are they better…not sure, but I do think companies like Reformation, Everlane, and Sezanne that are 1/2 ethical or sustainable or made in the USA are really hurting smaller brands that are more towards the 100% look into all their sourcing and are paying people ABOVE fair wage. All of this is incredibly hard to measure. I think at the end of the day, you can tell when a company is genuine and change will take small steps and large companies that are asking harder questions. If all you can do is buy from a company that produces a little better, it is better than the alternative!