The term “sustainability” has come to mean many different things to many different people. Start a sustainable search in Google and you’ll quickly find links for sustainable farming, sustainable shopping, sustainable energy, sustainable packaging, sustainable secondhand rings, even sustainable cat food. No matter what sustainability means to each individual though, there is no doubt that it remains a more crucial topic than ever, particularly in the fashion industry. While sustainable fashion may include a variety of facets within the industry, the ultimate goal for everyone involved remains the same. As sustainable fashion industry veteran, Almarina Bianchi, puts it, “We are all in the same boat. We don’t have a reset button, we’re already in the middle of climate change. We need to understand how we can address things now, upstream, and for the future, downstream.”
Sustainable Fashion: A Designers Perspective
With over 30 years in the apparel industry, Almarina currently focuses on rethinking material production and usage based on her experience in product development, global sourcing, and product integrity. She also works to guide organizations into incorporating sustainable initiatives into the day-to-day business operations. One of the major aspects of her current role is educating companies and designers on just how much they contribute to unsustainable practices. “One of the big challenges is teaching designers how to use materials that contribute to the sustainable circularity of the industry,” said Almarina. “There has also been a large learning curve with some of the companies I work with, because they don’t always understand how much excess material and product they are producing and the impact that has.”
For many fashion professionals though, the statistics regarding fashion and climate change have become hauntingly familiar. According to an article by Megan Cerullo of CBS News, the fashion industry contributes to nearly 10% of global carbon emissions, and is responsible for a significant amount of water usage and water pollution. This has led to a major focus on the industry’s most notorious F-word: Fast Fashion. The harsh realities of mass-produced, inexpensive clothing have become clear, with Cerullo reporting that most fast fashion purchases are discarded within a year. However, this harmful fast fashion trend has inspired many designers and manufacturers to embrace a more sustainable manner of producing collections: upcycling.
One such designer to embrace upcycling is Anthony Lilore, who has devoted his 30 plus year fashion career to design, production, and building networks that help the fashion industry clean up its supply chains and design mindful solutions to resource consumption. Anthony is also co-founder of New York City based eco-active apparel line, RESTORE Clothing. He is also the founder and chief “re-designer” of THROW, which produces a variety of products, all upcycled from different materials.
Fortunately for Anthony and his team, consumer response to upcycling has been largely positive. “You have to tell the consumer a story and give them a reason to pay attention,” said Anthony. “The customer doesn’t necessarily pay attention or know what goes into their products. So, if you give a reason to participate and a way to participate and you tell a good story, you have a really good shot at engaging the customer.” Most recently THROW has been producing upcycled facemasks, which of course, everyone needs these days.
While upcycling may be a new concept of sustainable fashion for many of us, Anthony has been doing it for a number of years. After a fashion trade show, Anthony was informed that all of the massive vinyl banners from the show were going to be trashed, so he asked if he could take them and turn them into something else. Thus, began his upcycling endeavor. “It’s all about being open to the opportunities, not obstacles, and being open to the possibilities, not problems,” said Anthony of upcycling. “This type of living is very apparent in impoverished countries. People don’t have stuff but they need stuff, so they creatively make something out of something else. That’s the kind of thing that should be happening everywhere.”
Fellow sustainable fashion veteran Runa Ray has a similar mentality. After working in large corporate fashion companies, Runa was able to see first hand just how much material was going to waste. “After seeing the excess in production, I couldn’t help but ask, ‘why can’t we use what we already have?’” This led to Runa’s career as a fashion environmentalist, which has included the creation of her own brand, writing and directing opportunities, and work with the United Nations regarding the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals into the fashion industry.
In addition to upcycling, Runa has adopted a multitude of sustainable practices into her work, including zero-stitch clothing, the use of plant-based dyes, and creating biodegradable garments. Yes, you read the right. Runa’s garments can be buried in your garden and disintegrate into your tomato plant. A lot of Runa’s methods, including using the chlorophyll in plants to create dyes, are ancient indigenous practices that work just as well now as they did hundreds of years ago. And Runa is hopeful for the future of sustainable fashion. “I think sustainable fashion is something that is going to continue to grow. It is just going to get better with time,” she said. One of the first steps: teaching the consumer. “Educating people on the choices that they make is important for designers and other fashion industry professionals. We are responsible for the transparency we give consumers at the end of the day.”
In Brazil, Fernanda Daudt, creator of Volta Atelier, is also doing her part for the environment and for fellow women. For 20 years, Fernanda worked for the Brazilian leather goods industry as a fashion consultant, product designer, sourcing developer, and trend forecaster. Fernanda’s experience in the fashion industry made her aware of the environmental impact of fashion’s mass production, and motivated her to create Volta Atelier. The brand produces accessories with leather leftovers from the industry that are hand-stitched by women in vulnerable situations, including Haitian refugees, survivors of domestic violence, and former inmates.
According to Fernanda, her desire to start her company began specifically when she saw how damaging leather manufacturing in particular could be. With all of the dyeing, tanning, and treatments that go into creating leather products, she knew that reducing production and upcycling leftover leather could help her achieve her sustainable fashion goals. And why not enlist the help of women in need of a job and creative outlet? “I thought, ‘how can I give back to my community at home and the environment?” Well, she certainly found a way.
Angelique Terrelonge, another fellow upcycling designer, is known for upcycling a material that many may not think of when considering sustainable fashion: feathers. Angelique, who is also a lead instructor at Custom Collaborative and a graduate of FIT, creates stylish designs with feathers from food production or natural molting (shedding). In a similar fashion to Fernanda, Angelique previously taught fashion design at Broward Correctional Institution in Florida, instructing incarcerated women on fashion sketching, patternmaking, draping, and sewing. She has continued this work through Custom Collaborative, which teaches low income and immigrant women the skills of fashion design.
For Angelique, the idea of living sustainably comes quite naturally. During her childhood growing up in Jamaica, Angelique became accustomed to the importance of utilizing all resources available in a responsible manner. When one of her family members created a piece of clothing, it was made well and meant to be passed down for as many generations as it would last. That ingrained resourcefulness is why Angelique has embraced a somewhat controversial conversation in the sustainable fashion industry: materials produced from animals. Angelique brings up the fact that if consumers eat beef or lamb, wouldn’t it be wasteful to just throw away their hide? And if consumers eat turkey or duck, what’s the point of disregarding their feathers? Of course, Angelique (and myself) are adamantly opposed to any type of illegal poaching, hunting, or trapping. But as a fellow omnivore, I have to agree with Angelique’s idea that if we are going to eat meat, “We have a responsibility to use everything the animal gives us, and use it well.”
Across the Atlantic in western Africa, designer Heather MacKenzie-Chaplet is using a more familiar method in her sustainable fashion endeavors: organic materials. Specifically, organic cotton. After starting her career in theater design and creation, Heather decided to take her talents to the fashion industry, with the intent of finding a way to make fashion harmless. Her work brought her to the Burkina region in Africa, and in 2010, Heather and her weavers produced the first prototypes for her organic cotton material. Thus, her brand Xoomba was created. The collections for Xoomba are created entirely in Burkina Faso, from the organic cotton crop to the final product. In addition, Heather and her team supply organic cotton to other designers.
Because of where she is, cotton is a major focus of Heather’s. West African produces a massive amount of cotton every year, yet only about 1% of it is organic. However, Heather believes the transition to organic cotton would not only be beneficial, but also not incredibly difficult. “It would be good for a lot of the world to eventually transition to other products like hemp or linen,” said Heather. “But when I talk to farmers who have transitioned to organic cotton here in Burkina Faso, they say it is worth it financially, but they also notice a big change in their environment. Birds and lizards they haven’t seen in years suddenly return to the land.”
Sustainable Fashion for Other Industry Professionals
According to government affairs consultant Hilary Jochmans, sustainable fashion still has a ways to go before receiving any significant recognition in Washington D.C. Founder of PoliticallyInFashion, Hilary works to educate the public and industry professionals on legislative issues affecting the fashion industry. And Hilary will be the first to admit that the U.S. lags behind the European Union significantly in terms of sustainable fashion laws.
However, Hilary suggests that the first step in combating this will be to educate the public. “People should know what is in their clothing,” said Hilary. “I think we should consider what goes onto each garment tag. I think the Federal Trade Commission should update what is required to be put on there so that people will know what is actually in the materials.” And why should knowing what your clothes are made of really matter? Hilary believes that understanding what your clothes are made of can help you take better care of them, thus making them last longer. This again goes back to turning away from fast fashion, and investing in clothing that consumers interested in really making last.
Referring back to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development goals, former model Catherine Schuller has dedicated the most recent years of her career to educating the industry on sustainable fashion and working to implement the SDG goals into the industry. Catherine was one of the first plus-sized models to join the fashion industry, and the value of inclusivity has stuck with her throughout her career. “It became clear to me that I need to do for mother nature what I did for the plus-sized woman,” said Catherine. Currently, she is working on a subcommittee of the U.N. organizing the Sustainable Development Goals Impact Awards.
Fashion and business attorney Shirin Movahed has also dedicated much of her career to sustainable fashion. “My way of supporting sustainability missions is by helping businesses legally create a solid foundation and explore ways to receive funding and support for their mission,” said Shirin. This largely includes working with benefit corporations, or b-corps, and working with companies to become b-corps. By being certified as a b-corp, a business is declaring the public that they are not only there to make a profit, but also to do good in terms of social and environmental issues, and overall accountability.
So, from upcycling to organic materials, and from the U.N. Sustainable Development goals to benefit corporations, sustainable fashion wears a lot of hats (made from organic cotton, of course) for a lot of people. No matter what though, the end goal remains the same: creating a better industry and better world for our future.
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