“Clothing production is the third biggest manufacturing industry after the automotive and technology industries. Textile production contributes more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined” (House of Common Environmental Audit Committee, 2019)
First off, I don’t love the word “sustainable”, or even “eco-friendly,” because both are so subjective and overused. They’re buzzwords.
Also before I start...I’m not necessarily a “professional” in this field. I did go to school for apparel design with a focus on the tech/production side though. And it is something I am passionate about, hence this boutique.
What does “sustainable” actually mean?
“Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In addition to natural resources, we also need social and economic resources,” according to an article by McGill University.
So when you think of this in terms of fashion, and fast vs. slow fashion, what does it make us think about?
Fast fashion is clothing produced cheaply, very trend-focused (short term trends and long term trends are different; this is referring to short term trends that go out of style within a matter of weeks), and rapidly by mass market retailers.
So, think about H&M, Forever 21, Zara, and even Target. Think about how much product they have in one store alone, specifically clothing. Now, think of the sales and clearance sections in those stores. Here, I’ll help with some visuals.
While these are great alternatives for those with a lower income, still so much of this product goes to waste. It’s just SO much, and then they get boxes and boxes of new inventory and mark down inventory they got as soon as two to three weeks later. The product itself isn't made to last. It’s made poorly with the intent of having to constantly buy more and more. It’s how these retailers get you coming in again, and again, and again...spending more and more money.
When I graduated university, I was working about four different retail jobs—three of them were at large corporations, and one was a small local boutique. Ann Taylor Loft was one of the places I worked, and was easily the worst offender of this. I was in the stock room, about 3-4 days a week I think (blocked it out because I hated it so much), and the amount of product coming in every day was horrendous, not to mention about 70% of the store was on sale at all times. My job was to unbox and unwrap each item from plastic—literally every individual item is wrapped in plastic—and then hang it on the plastic hanger and plug into the system. This was about 10-15 boxes a day typically, slower days were about three maybe. Needless to say, I quit when I was financially able to do so.
“More than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017)
This figure alone is such a staggering amount. And what do these fast fashion brands do with the clothing when it doesn’t sell, you may be wondering? Some do donate it, but far and few between. Most of them throw the product away, or even burn it. Even big brands have gotten in trouble for this—a few years back it came out that Burberry burns their product at the end of every season so that the brand doesn't end up in second hand stores and “lose value”, it isn’t just your assumed fast fashion brands, it’s also those big brands.
Now let’s talk about what happens to all of that clothing when it gets thrown away.
Say the item is cotton, doesn't matter because it won’t biodegrade if there is plastic around it, when I say plastic I mean polyester. And if it is polyester? It will take up to 200 years, maybe more, for it to start breaking down. If you didn’t know, polyester is a form of plastic. The name is shortened from a synthetic, manmade polymer, which is most commonly referred to as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It is made by mixing ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. So simply said, it is a type of plastic. It’s extremely cheap to produce, but it also takes dye really well and is easily modified to make lots of different types of garments. That is why it became so popular in the 70’s.
“Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester fiber, which is now the most commonly used fiber in our clothing. But it takes more than 200 years to decompose.” (Forbes, 2015)
This isn't just an issue for once it is thrown away, when you wash clothing with fibers derived from this, it shed’s microplastics into our water systems, which then end up in our lakes and oceans.
Fashion accounts for 20 to 35 percent of microplastic flows into the ocean. The State of Fashion, McKinsey 2020
Here is an article about what you can do about this.
So taking this in, what are we doing about it and could we be better about it? 100%. I feel like there are always things to improve on and always things we can tweak to be better. First of all, we really really try to buy from brands who have a strong transparency model, and that are actively working to be better in this regard. That said, a lot of these sustainable brands are at a higher price point. Why, you may ask? A lot of elements go into this, here are a key few that stick out to me (I know I am missing so many though).
- These companies are inherently much smaller, and produce on a more purposeful scale. I would say at least 70% of the brands we order from are cut to order. We have to put down a deposit on them when we order to ensure we take them, and it doesn't end up sitting in a warehouse as excess.
- Fair wages for employees who make the product, this is a BIG one. For instance, I was working at Winsome Goods for a while. I loved it first of all, Kathryn is such a good woman to work for and learn from. I was just out of college, and when she told me what I would be paid hourly, I was pleasantly surprised. Just because of the knowledge I had of the industry, I was expecting to not get paid much and I was okay with that. So this is a huge part of why these slow fashion brands are more expensive. They pay their employees a living wage. So, props to Winsome!
- Smaller sustainable companies especially have to be super mindful of their bottom line. So much goes into owning a small business, things from website design, monthly website domain costs, postage/shipping, tags, shipping supplies, and social media advertising just to name a few.
- Here is a big one: Fabrics. Again natural, and organic fabrics cost more. They last longer, and are often more durable i.e. silk. People don’t think about this often but pesticide use is rampant in cotton production. And, of course, it costs more to use organic, pesticide free products.
Winsome Goods, based in Minneapolis is actually the perfect model for me to chat about based on a true sustainable approach to fashion. They are cut to order, use deadstock material (surplus from a fabric mill's production run, that is unwanted or needed by the designer or brand that originally commissioned the fabric) or other natural fibers such as silk, cottons, and wool. It is a small team made up entirely of women who work there, they encourage people to bring in damaged items for fixing (something we do too, but need to be more vocal about!)...and even have sewing classes, and sell their patterns for you to make at home which is a really cost efficient way to serve a wider range of people. So while their clothing is expensive, you aren’t meant to leave the shop with a ton of items. It's a buy more purposefully model that is what we strive for as well.
Instead of purchasing bags full of items (which don’t get me wrong, we love when you do from us! It’s just not possible for most people), investing in one to two items that will last forever and is a piece you truly love means more. Often, our capitalist society pushes the love of a “deal” on us. We are conditioned to search for mega sales. Have you ever said “thanks! I got them for xxx amount!”? Of course, we all have, but this mentality is damaging on many levels. When we buy things on mega sale from anywhere, especially small makers, we are losing so much of our personal investment in this item. Plus, it makes it harder to pay employees a livable wage, strive for healthy and safe manufacturing practices and so much more. We have to stop glamorizing cheap, and deals and buy less and buy more intentionally so the pieces last longer, or approach shopping in the most sustainable way—buy second hand!
Okay this is really getting long and I haven’t even delved into how sustainable fashion, and sustainable lifestyles are inherently more feminist, and intersectional issues (ultimately environmentalism is a race issue and must be talked about as one). But, this is truly a whole other topic that deserves more research from me, since I didn’t even know what this was until this past summer. So, I will take the next week or so to delve into that and post another blog post on the topic in the coming weeks!
P.S. I really dive into the topic in this article, but it is not meant to make you feel bad or shame anyone. We are all guilty of these ideals and behaviors, as they are ingrained into our society. I believe we can each do our part to make small steps towards betterment; I certainly need to as well. Also as a white woman, I know there may be some things I am missing, or out of touch on. If you have any corrections or thoughts I would love to be educated further on this, so shoot us an email:) at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a hugely important topic and we, as a business, are committed to being more mindful of and conscious about.
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