The case for sustainable fashion
Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg has been making big headlines with her environmental activism, even making the cover ofTime Magazine. Thunberg looks stunning on the cover, a green and ruffled dress falling perfectly over her small frame, making her look more mature than her usual hoodie and jeans ensemble — somebody to be taken seriously.
I was shocked to see where Time got this beautiful garment. The photographer, Hellen van Meene, simply said she found it in an outlet store in Copenhagen, Denmark. While I was not expecting Thunberg to make an appearance in a piece from thelatest Versace Spring/ Summer 2020 collection— although the blue-green foliage accents would have probably had a similar earthy vibe — I had thought that if she were to participate in any sort of fashion statement, it would be a plea for a more sustainable fashion industry.
Fashion is one of the largest majorpollutingindustries in theworld. So why don’t we include fashion in the conversation on climate change? Perhaps because there does not seem to be enough research or data to beconvincingto some? Or perhaps because fashion is so personal — we literally carry it on our backs every single day.
But with the rise of designers like Stella McCartney, the posterwoman for sustainable fashion, and Gabriela Hearst, the first designer to put on a carbon neutral fashion show, the new and upcoming trend in fashion is sustainability.
Furthermore, MUD Jeans, a Netherlands denim brand and certified B-corporation (a professional certification for sustainable for-profits), is one of many fashion companies that dedicate their business model to environmental consciousness. MUD’s vision is impactful in consideration of how denim is a large part of the fashion industry. The production of denim is also a major polluter — from the growing of cotton to the dying of the fabric and shipping of clothing.
“We’ve lost the true cost of a pair of jeans or a jacket. We don’t calculate the real cost of the price of a clothing item into the shops,” CEO of MUD jeans Bert van Son said in an interview with The Daily. “We want to make money, but at no volatile cost to humanity or to the planet.”
The well-known documentary “The True Cost” highlights this major shift from making clothing on sewing machines in your own home to fast fashion. Fast fashion, made popular by stores like Zara and Forever 21, seemed like an intoxicating fantasy to fashion companies. In this increasingly connected world, where the speed of producing and buying products is becoming more important, how do we quickly produce clothing that is readily accessible to the public?
The answer from companies like Zara was to exploit laborers in developing countries and produce clothes using unsustainable practices. This included using cheaper, toxic dye, throwing out instead of recycling water and buying fabric crops, such as cotton, that are full of pesticides. The subsequent expansion of the fashion industries — producing clothes in China, sourcing cotton from India, shipping finished products to the United States — has increased our individual carbon footprints.
“We’ve seen all the beautiful sides of the fashion industry and we’ve made it into throwaway, one-wear, low-quality things. What a shame,” van Son said.
Companies like van Son’s came up with solutions to the environmental and humanitarian crises made by fast fashion. His solution was to look at every step of making a pair of jeans and to improve it by finding ways to lower its environmental impact.
“24 billion kilos of cotton are grown every year. If we would all use 40 percent recycled cotton, it’s fantastic for the planet,” van Son explained. MUD Jeans does everything from using post-consumer cotton in their products to localizing the sourcing and shipping of their products to Europe to decrease their carbon footprint.
“For every step of making jeans, we try to do something else. But that’s not good enough,” van Son explained. MUD Jeans has its customers actively participate in making the company sustainable. You can either ship an old pair of jeans to MUD when you buy a new pair from them, or lease a new pair of jeans for a year or so. When the latest and newest jean trend comes onto the scene, customers can ship MUD their leased pair of jeans to exchange for the newest style.
However, the choice to be a more sustainable fashion company comes with a major trade-off.
“The margin we make is lower than all of my competitors,” van Son said. For every step, from recycling water used in the process of making fabric to using post-consumer cotton, the company needs to invest more money. This means that their clothing becomes more expensive and the business has to be careful to make sure they have enough money to pay their workers, rent out their office spaces and keep making a profit.
For companies that want to become more sustainable, this can be even more difficult. Convincing shareholders to make changes in order to become more environmentally friendly at a financial loss is no simple task.
So where does the final responsibility to sustainable fashion lie?
“You need three parties. You need companies doing this, the consumer starting to get more conscious, and you also need the government to install rules to help companies like ours to be more interesting,” van Son explained. “We can only do this with a team of high motivated people that are going for the same cause”
There are many solutions I can offer to those who feel helpless in this major issues. Try apps such asGood on Youthat evaluate and lay out the environmental impact of clothing companies.
Do research. Research what your favorite clothing brands are doing to minimize their environmental impact.
Money speaks. Put money toward companies whose values align with yours. Your individual dollar makes a difference because others will see and also want to make a difference.
Lastly, vote. Vote for representatives, senators, mayors, governors and presidents who care about changing climate change. Call up your local government office and ask them if they’ve ever considered creating policies to support sustainable fashion practices in major companies. If they haven’t, make them think about it and act accordingly. If it matters to you, it should matter to our government officials.