13 Questions about Eco-Friendly Fashion Answered
A few days ago, in advance of Earth Day, I was asked a few questions about what makes fashion "eco-friendly". As a fashion designer who stresses ethical, earth-friendly apparel, I wanted to share my thoughts with you.
For the ten years that I've had collections that featured "eco-friendly" elements, I have also been employed in the environmental engineering industry and been an activist on environmental issues. So these answers may seem more cynical than the typical designer.
Eco-friendly is such a broad term. In speaking about fashion, what do people usually mean by "eco-friendly"?
Eco-friendly is not a standardized term, but normally encompasses some standard of sustainability commonly used across industries. Elements of eco-friendly or green can include sustainable sourcing (e.g. reused or organic fiber selection, fair trade producers), waste minimization (e.g., reusing waste fabric or wastewater from dyes), social health (e.g. sweatshop free production, industrial hygiene in factories), process improvement (e.g., natural dyes and washes), energy efficiency (e.g. local , low emissions (e.g., less shipping along the supply chain, offgassing from dry cleaning), One of the first two (sustainable sourcing, waste minimization) are normally the elements that are meant by "eco-friendly" brands.
All clothing has a negative ecological impact. If you want to be as eco-friendly as possible, shop second-hand first, buy local and skip the bag / excess packaging, care for your clothes using mild soaps and line drying when possible, and keep your clothes in good enough condition to hand them down some day. I'm a fashion designer, and I'm saying this - you probably don't need to buy so much clothing!
How does the term apply to the actual fabrics and materials in the clothes as well as the practices in making them?
Clothing is a refined product, meaning that you take raw materials and reconfigure them into something else. The most basic raw material is the fiber itself. There are two types of fibers - synthetic (made generally in a laboratory or refinery from another raw material like petroleum or wood) and natural (harvested directly that come from living creatures, like silk or wool). Often, synthetics like rayons (modal, curpo, lyocell, etc.) or recycled materials (like fleece) are considered more eco-friendly because they are made in a controlled environment. However, many people regard natural fibers as being more eco-friendly because they are made from nature and not in a lab. In some regards, both are right. Natural fibers have but can At the end of the day, all fiber is eventually processed further, so every material you choose has some ecological impact.
How does non-eco-friendly affect us and the environment?
Making clothing is very impactful on the environment. There are obvious ways like leather and fur. There are less obvious but increasingly well-known ways like pesticides in cotton and sweatshop conditions. Then there are even more subtle but still impactful factors like wastewater produced from dyes or the energy and chemicals used to produce "eco-friendly" materials like pleather or rayon. This is just in production.
Once you get to consumption, think about dry cleaning pollutants that have impacted many groundwater tables used for drinking water in places like California, or things like glitter, sequins, or plastic getting into the environment from regular wear.
What does "fair labor practices" mean?
In general, this means that employees are paid a minimum or living wage for their area, have the ability to take breaks, and have a safe working environment. Rules vary from country to country, and enforcement varies even more. Often, clothing production is bid out by piece instead of by hour, so if a dress takes four hours to make, but the factory is only getting paid $10 for the dress, the worker is not making a fair wage.
What about distribution - how does that factor in/affect the environment?
Thank you for bringing this up! It is a big issue that is not talked about enough. When you buy a product made in another part of the world, the fabric can often also be presumed to be from elsewhere, too. Even if I use organic American cotton as an American designer, it still is shipped 2,000 miles from where it was grown (and possibly shipped again to be milled and dyed) before I get it in my Los Angeles work/shop. If I'm shipping to an online buyer, it could go anywhere else in the world. If you're buying jeans made in Bangladesh from American or West African or Central Asian cotton that is then put on a ship to Port of Los Angeles, it still needs to go by truck to a distribution center, then another truck to the store. In all of that transit is plastic, paper, fuel, and labor.
What does it mean to be a "sustainable" clothing brand?
Sustainability is defined as the ability to survive for as long as possible, with a closed loop consumption cycle being ideal. In that regard, the most sustainable clothing are indigenous methods. Sustainability normally puts more focus on the whole list of eco-friendly elements, not just sustainable sourcing. For me, it means that I want a business that makes my customers, my community, my world, and my employees better for it being here. As a fashion designer, I think about things like materials and fibers not just from how they are produced but also how they will react to my customers' skin, and whether they biodegrade or not. It also means paying employees a living wage, reusing scrap material, buying post-consumer content recycled paper for the office and break room, and contributing to my community.
How does the term apply to mass market vs. indie brands?
Major brands generally have corporate ideals that can streamline goals and put pressure on suppliers to be more sustainable. However, major brands tend to offshore much of the work while purchasing enough to impact how sourcing and production goes. As a result, a big brand can quickly change the culture of the clothing industry to be more eco-friendly, but the pressure they put on suppliers to make more cheaper and faster means that responsibility flows downhill. Often, items are listed as eco-friendly or fair-trade because someone along the supply chain has bought certification or been unscrupulous. Indie brands face the same challenge with less manpower to find out the truth. But while indie brands generally don't interact with cotton growers or button makers, they generally work with fewer suppliers and may (like my brand) do most of the cut-and-sew production in-house. That allows indie brands like mine the ability to quickly change suppliers if we find a more eco-friendly material and truly uphold our standards for fair working conditions. The fewer middlemen, the fewer opportunities to have non eco-friendly practices be overlooked.
How can shoppers check to see if a brand is really eco-friendly?
To be honest, there aren't any official ways. Some larger brands have ISO 14001 certification for environmental standards, but that really means that they've just written their policies down and had them audited. This doesn't mean that they take responsibility to be truly eco-friendly. It really comes down to the shopper defining what they care about (worker rights, natural materials, non-animal materials, pesticides/water pollution, etc.) and researching more about the brands they like in order to see if the brand upholds the shopper's individual values. The industry, just like other industries, has a lot of green-washing, and we are still in the early days of clothing consumer consciousness.
What key materials/language should shoppers look for on labels and in descriptions?
In general, follow these five rules, and then think critically:
Look for certifications or references like GOTS organic cotton or ahimsa / peace silk. Sometimes claims about worker conditions or fair-trade sourcing is also listed on the tag.
Check the materials - was it made from a material that you consider to be acceptable? Research fabric processes if you care about animal rights, water pollution, air pollution, etc. For example, if you're against oil and gas production, that includes polyester and a lot of dyes. If you don't like that silkworms are killed to make silk or that shellfish are killed to make buttons, avoid those items. If you care about animal welfare, you may want to learn more about wool and cashmere production to see if you're comfortable with it and avoid all new leather, fur, and angora items.
Check the manufacturing location - was it made in a country that has acceptable labor laws? Did it have to be shipped halfway around the world to get to you? Remember that even if it was manufactured locally, the raw material probably came from elsewhere.
Check the trims and finishes - does it have a finish that could rub off and impact the environment? Does the dye smell a little or rub off in your hands? Think about treatments to the items - acid washed jeans actually are washed in an acid. Metallic finishes are actually made from metal. These are pollutants in air and water.
Finally, look at the price - is it too good to be true? Organic materials normally cost more, and if workers are paid fairly, that will cost more. If a piece of clothing is sold new for, say, $20, it probably isn't as eco-triendly as you think. That doesn't mean that more expensive items actually are more eco-friendly. It just means that you should expect to pay more for a fair product. Remember - the most eco-friendly thing you can do is not overshop, so if you have to save up longer to get the more expensive item, it's probably slightly better for the environment.
What about jewelry? What are the key things we should be looking for when looking for an eco-friendly jewelry brand or products?
Most jewelry is mined in extremely unfavorable conditions or is made from petroleum-basic plastics and acrylics. For example, it takes 400 TONS of waste to produce one OUNCE of gold. Materials are normally mined by locals with little or no safety equipment to be sold to suppliers before it goes to the company who designs the jewelry.
What else should we know about jewelry/accessories and sustainability?
In general, my same five (or six) rules apply:
Look for certifications like fair-trade
Check the materials and think about what matters to you
Check the manufacturing location and presume the raw materials came from somewhere else
Think about what happens if metallic finishes or components come off and get into the environment
Look at the price - does it seem fair?
When in doubt, shop second-hand first
Being eco-friendly doesn't stop when you buy your clothes. What should readers know about reusing and recycling clothes?
The best thing that you can do for your clothing is take care of it. Hand wash with mild soaps, use natural detergents, line dry when possible, and mend clothes to extend their life. Reuse torn clothes for crafts, cleaning, or learning how to sew. When you're done wearing something, donate it to an actual charity location or call for pick up (don't put it in the bins as those go moldy and are often sold for profit to poor people rather than really helping like Goodwill or Salvation Army). You can also donate your clothes to groups like theatres, resell them online, or give them friends and family. Remember that sustainability means closing the loop, so keep clothes going even if you don't wear them yourself. Consider composting natural fibers (silk, wool, cotton, linen, primarily) if you are an active gardener. Even highly biodegradable fabric like wool and silk is kept from biodegrading as quickly when it's in a landfill because modern landfill design has plastic liners that keep things from seeping into groundwater supply. As a result, trash doesn't biodegrade as quickly. Polyester takes a million years to breakdown, while silk takes a few months. But the landfill liner slows everything down. So don't through your clothes away if you can help it.
What kind of progress have you seen in recent years that you find inspiring and important?
The biggest progress that I have seen is in awareness, both from the shoppers and the industry. Mills and textile makers have been working for over 60 years on different materials that reuse waste from plastic bottles, wood pulp, and more, but now there is much more consumer demand. The result is more options on the marketplace for sustainability-in-design and sustainable aftermarket care. I think we will get to a more closed loop system in the next few decades where people can buy fashion that won't end up being a wide ranging negative impact.
#organic #ecofriendly #ecofriendly #fashion #fairtrade #laborpractices #sweatshopfree #ecologicalfootprint #carbonfootprint #sustainability #sustainablefashion #water #fabric #consciousconsumerism #shopping