What is sustainable fashion? It’s hard to quantify, ask anyone. Where it begins and where it ends is up for debate. It’s a buzzword used liberally in modern life, even where it mightn’t be the most honest application. A t-shirt might be made from organic cotton but if it’s packaged in plastic, shipped to four different continents before it lands in a warehouse, how sustainable is it?
“The main problem is fashion is a very glamorous world,” said Roni Helou, a Lebanse womenswear designer. Many of the above practices are seen as best practices because they are cost-efficient ways of completing a task. However, it’s become a Pandora’s Box of social pressure,” said Spencer Phipps, a Paris-based designer behind Phipps International, a label that is mindful of its impact on the environment. With the climate crisis an urgent matter, fashion, an industry built on pride, greed, and gluttony, has to catch up with the reality. There’s nothing glamorous about negatively impacting the climate.
Sustainable fashion contains multitudes, from fabric sourcing to local manufacturing and workers’ rights, labelling to packaging and consumption. We spoke to experts in the field to find out what sustainable fashion means for you.
Fabric sourcing - where the journey begins Phipps International is a men’s fashion label tasking itself with a responsible agenda. ‘Sustainability is difficult to quantify so for us it’s about doing the right thing, using sustainable textiles, keeping our carbon footprint low,’ said Phipps. His clothes, often inspired by outdoor activities like mountaineering, range from workwear to loungewear, everyday casual pieces to made-to-measure tailoring.
For his business, sourcing environmentally friendly fabrics can be tricky: interesting fabrics can be prohibitively expensive with a high minimum quantity of metres a brand has to buy, making it difficult to experiment with. However, there are often breakthroughs, like with a fully circular cotton polyester made in Portugal that can be recycled infinitely.
Phipps encourages consumers to buy products that value sustainable sourcing:
It can be compared to the food industry: if you buy organic vegetables, your carrots might not taste differently to a cheaper, supermarket alternative, but you have the satisfaction of knowing your money is supporting a better process and environmentally friendly practices, and you’re buying beyond your immediate environment.
Traceability - from raw material to shop floor Arnaud Vaillant and Sebastien Meyer, two French men behind the emerging label Coperni, boosted their sustainability profile in the area of traceability, in their spring/summer 2020 womenswear collection. In association with Dormeuil, a French textile company, the label offers a product they say is “100% traceable” based on a QR Code label stitched inside the garment. The code can be scanned, enabling the wearer to trace its origins, through Blockchain, from the mill in Patagonia, Colombia to the weaving facility.
Local manufacturing Where local manufacturing is concerned, some countries are better positioned than others. For example, in Lebanon, the country was ravaged by a civil war in the 1980s which critically impaired a once prosperous textile industry.
Designer Roni Helou is trying to rebuild this infrastructure. upskill local craftswomen and help foster a creative environment which uses leftover fabric, or deadstock, to produce beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces. But deadstock fabrics, purchased in limited quantities and produced in small runs, are 3 to 4 times more expensive than fur, leather, and silk - but they are worth it, says Helou, who adds local manufacturing requires structural support.
“Designers like Roni Helou are very clever to use repurposing as the solution: he creates job opportunities by using local suppliers, promotes local manufacturing which is in strong need of support, and significantly reduces waste and environmental impact by using deadstock materials," said Tania Fares, philanthropist and founder of Fashion Trust Arabia, which awards emerging talent from the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.
"People are starting to ask for locally made products, they want to know where stuff comes from and they want to foster local community support," said Helou. This is an uphill battle but one many countries can learn from; it allows one to wear their national identity on their backs, but it’s only possible as a joint effort between government officials, Worker’s rights In recent years, there have been illuminating articles published on the atrocities ravaging the garment industry in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar. Our clothing choices aren’t always on the right side of history.
Richard Malone, from Co. Wexford, is a womenswear designer breaking ground in terms of transparency about the conditions of his workers. His tailors and pattern cutters in London receive ?25 per hour, minimum. Dyers and weavers are paid over four times the fair trade average. At Harit Kala in India, a regenerative farm that can sustain the land that became barren from mass production, he works with farmers who have worked the land for generations. For designers like Malone, consumers benefit from this as much as the makers, even with higher prices.
Packaging - how online retailers are tackling their waste problem With online shopping comes a deluge of wasteful packaging. In April 2020, Farfetch announced the launch of ‘Climate Conscious Delivery’, an initiative where they are entirely offsetting the effects of their carbon footprint at a cost fully to them, through certified projects in Brazil, India, China, and the United States.
Thomas Berry, Director of Sustainable Business, Farfetch, said, "we feel it is our responsibility to minimise our impact as much, and as soon, as possible. Our focus is on carbon reductions but, alongside that, offsetting is the most economically efficient way for us to reduce our environmental impact immediately. We believe that we are the first luxury multi-brand marketplace to offset in this way.” The online luxury fashion multi-brand marketplace, which sells products from over 700 boutiques around the world, will reduce its emissions by encouraging retailers to ship products using less packaging and incentivising shipping orders in bulk, offsetting the impacts from deliveries and returns.
Labelling - the ins and outs of your garment Another luxury juggernaut strengthening its sustainability efforts is Burberry. They have incorporated sustainability into their five-year Responsibility Agenda, a set of ambitious goals encompassing its approach to product, operations and communities within the luxury sector. Their latest stand includes a global roll out of dedicated sustainability labelling across all key-product categories, a leap forward for a luxury brand With this in mind, the brand launched the ‘ReBurberry Edit’, a re-edition of 26 pieces from the spring/summer 2020 collection including trademark trench coats made from ECONYL®, a recycled nylon made from regenerated fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic found in our oceans, at facilities with energy and water reduction, textile recycling and chemical management programmes.
“We strongly believe that driving positive change through all of our products at every stage of the value chain is crucial to building a more sustainable future for our whole industry,” said Pam Batty, Vice President Corporate Responsibility, Burberry. Two thirds of Burberry products currently bear more than one positive attribute, with a goal for all products by 2022.
Consumption - how to buy With the pandemic came the inevitable downfall of many retail outlets. Consumer demand is low. Stores cannot afford to keep their doors open much longer. But the double-edged sword of reduced consumer demand has allowed for respite from hyperconsumption. “It’s a much needed break - it’s not to say people have stopped, they’re just buying different things, but it’s a needed respite from clothing, to break old habits,” said Wilson Oryema, a multidisciplinary artist and writer based in London.
“The pandemic is an opportunity for brands to provide better solutions for consumers and for consumers to move away from plastic, disposable things,” said Oryema.
“I’ve always been of the mindset that the best – and the most sustainable – way to shop is to choose wisely and buy investment pieces that will last for many years,” said Clodagh Shorten, Director of Samui Fashions, a luxury fashion destination in Cork City which stocks brands like Dries van Noten, Sacai, and Acne Studios.
“At Samui, we prefer to focus on well-crafted items, made using quality fabrics, that will stand the test of time, meaning that you will never need to replace them.” She cites labels like Rick Owens, Moncler and Jerome Dreyfuss as having longevity. It was this elevated approach to retail that saw Samui through the financial crash and out the other side.
As for the future, Shorten said, “a more measured approach to fashion – buying less but buying better – is the only way forward.”