The future of fashion has to be sustainable. It’s not a question of “if” anymore. It’s a question of, “is it too late?”
When scientists announced last year that it is too late to reverse the effects of climate change, they discussed several solutions to help mitigate and adapt to the disaster: recycling, driving more fuel-efficient cars, international policies between countries, using clean energy, upgrading public transport, sustainably planning new cities and more. There was a clear focus on transportation, agriculture, electricity, and even eating habits. Yet discussing how to improve one industry was noticeably missing: fashion.
Fashion “was responsible for some 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions in 2018, about 4 percent of the global total,” according to McKinsey research. “Despite efforts to reduce emissions, the industry is on a trajectory that will exceed the 1.5-degree pathway to mitigate climate change set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”
To avoid exceeding that 1.5-degree pathway, McKinsey calculates that the industry would have to cut down its greenhouse gas emissions to 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030, but their research shows the industry “is set to overshoot its target by almost twofold, with emissions of 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2030, unless it adopts additional abatement actions.”
With fast fashion as one of the most popular options for buyers, these companies are some of the ones most detrimentally affecting the environment. Brands like Shein and Missguided are go-to shops for people around the world, but these brands’ environmental practices are a big part of why the fashion industry contributes so greatly to global warming. Fast fashion is defined by its name: it’s clothing that’s mass produced very quickly, almost always imitating runway and high-end looks at a much lower cost. But note: the cost is low to the purchaser, but the cost is very high to the environment and the planet. While the access to high fashion at low costs seems ideal, the environmental effects are not. Because clothing is being created so quickly, they deplete non-renewable sources, emit greenhouse gases and use tremendous amounts of water and energy. Another byproduct of fast fashion is untreated toxic wastewater that contains toxins like lead, mercury and arsenic, all of which harm aquatic and human life.
So all brands, from high-end labels to fast fashion, need to commit to serious change at an industry level.
All of this is not to say that no one is doing anything. Some brands have made that commitment to the environment. From big conglomerates to luxury labels to small businesses, the conversation around sustainability in fashion is at an all-time high. But without change among the entire industry, it simply will not be enough.
Up-and-coming Australian hat brand Will & Bear, who can count Kaia Gerber as a fan, is dedicated to giving back to nature, with a mission of “From the earth, for the earth. Our goal is to reduce our impact through thoughtful design, give back to our planet and create a culture that cares about nature, to inspire all to preserve it.”
“Will & Bear is driven by innovation and sustainable production processes,” founders Alex and Loz said. “Each hat is ethically produced using sustainable methods where possible between Sri Lanka, Mongolia and China. For each hat sold, we plant 10 trees and more than 1,000,000 trees have been planted across West Africa since 2016.”
But just committing to giving back to the environment is not enough for the founders — and the research concurs, showing it will not be enough to create everlasting change. So Will & Bear is also looking to revolutionize how they make their products as well.
“We’re always experimenting with new materials from upcycled waste to minimize our carbon footprint while reducing the label’s reliance on new fibers,” Alex and Loz said. “With that being said, you can expect to see some new styles in the near future! After an unprecedented year (that really put the spotlight on supply chain fragility), we hope that new sustainability initiatives are put into place and adhered to moving forward.”
By moving away from new materials, whether it is fiber for clothing or plastic for shipping, it creates an opportunity for recycled materials to become the norm. By doing so, it creates demand for the recycled materials rather than the new ones, and it can create a circular model that is much less wasteful. But that does not mean that there will not be any waste at all.
“While creating waste is nearly inevitable, we think it’s important for every brand to minimize their carbon footprints and upcycle/recycle as much as possible,” Alex and Loz said. “The fashion industry has a detrimental impact on the environment, and it’s the second largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry. That being said, there are so many things consumers and businesses alike can do to offset this, and we feel strongly that that’s our mission as a company.”
Will & Bear is not the only brand looking into new product options for clothing. The sustainability efforts of smaller brands like this are transforming sustainability and what it means for a brand to be responsible and sustainable. They are leading the charge, and their efforts are mirrored by luxury brands like Hermès and Stella McCartney, both of which have turned to mushroom-based “leather” to create some of their products. Mycelium, which makes up the “leather,” is more sustainable and also animal-friendly. According to the Stella McCartney website, mycelium is an infinitely renewable resource that has fewer environmental impacts than even other leather alternatives because it is not petroleum-based. The brand has been a longtime advocate for the environment and this is Stella McCartney’s latest evolution.
Gucci’s Aria Fall/Winter 2021 collection was certified sustainable environmentally, socially, and economically. According to a statement by the brand, Gucci’s physical shows have been the first fashion shows internationally to be ISO 20121 certified since its Spring/Summer 2020 show in September 2019. The Aria collection used mainly rented pieces; plants and trees were rented or donated after the set was dismantled. Almost every brand now has a sustainability mission, and it’s come to the forefront of fashion discussion.
The fashion industry, while certainly impacting the environment, is also constantly innovating and adapting. Another trend in fashion right now is recycling and upcycling. By upcycling vintage and pre-loved fabric, fabric gets a second chance. Plus, it saves the environment by creating less waste and fewer emissions.
According to Marie Claire, it takes about 1,800 gallons of water to create a single pair of jeans (for context, 1,800 gallons of water is more than 100 showers). While the fashion industry has a tremendous carbon footprint, it has a big water problem too, with denim especially. So finding a way to upcycle denim to avoid making new denim needs to be the future of fashion, and that is exactly what vintage premium denim brand EB Denim is doing. Founder Elena Bonvicini started the company in high school, originally thrifting denim and upcycling the fabric to make new designs and selling them from the locker room. Today, she uses Levi’s 501s to create jeans that have been worn by influencers like Kylie Jenner, Hailey Bieber, Gigi and Bella Hadid, and Chiara Ferragni, and even has a new showroom in Downtown Los Angeles for customers to come and try on denim. As Bonvicini continues to grow the brand, sustainability is at the core of the brand’s mission. Her goal is to set the standard for sustainability across the industry. Right now, she sources her denim in Los Angeles, which allows her to be involved in the process.
“We have a few different vintage suppliers based in LA. And basically what we do is we go through all of the vintage that they have in stock, and this is thousands at a time, honestly. And they also have vintage silk scarves and vintage sweatshirts,” Bonvicini said. “We’ll take all those pieces and rework them into new garments, and we have several local manufacturers that do it so it’s all locally done. All the vintage is sourced in LA.”
When she noticed a huge surplus of oversized men’s denim but a finite supply of women’s jeans, she started redesigning the men’s denim into women’s pants and shorts.
“When we make a pair of shorts, we take the pant legs and convert it into a brand new product. So there’s absolutely minimal waste when we upcycle,” Bonvicini said.
Bonvicini is also committed to paying workers a fair, living wage. By using local and small businesses, she is able to see the ins and outs of the process and work directly with everyone working on the product. This way, she can ensure that everyone who touches the product is being paid fairly.
“I’m pretty much face-to-face with everyone who’s touched the garment,” she said. “We do everything locally and just make sure all of our contractors are paying our employees fairly as well.”
While EB Denim is currently sourcing denim and other fabrics from local vendors, the brand is also working with Simply Suzette and its founder Ani Wells, a sustainable denim specialist, to start creating its own denim.
“We’re making sure that we’re using 100% natural fibers and they’re 100% verified, so we can trace them back and we know that they’re ethically sourced and produced. And we’re using distilled indigo, which is a liquid form of dye, instead of a powder form, which saves water energy and chemicals,” Bonvicini said. “[We think about] every detail, even to how we wash it… The way that we’re doing that now is an ozone wash. They barely use any water.”
While some customers care deeply about a brand’s sustainability platform, there are still a lot of people who don’t care, or even know, about fashion’s effect on the environment. But one thing is for sure: vintage and upcycled clothing is one of fashion’s hottest trends right now. Is this because people want to shop responsibly, or do they just like the look of the clothes?
“Honestly, I can’t tell,” Bonvicini said. “I think that a lot of it has to do with just the look of it and the appreciation of something being vintage and having a history and a life. I can’t necessarily say that customers care too much about sustainability, but I do.”
But Bonvicini is willing to take on the responsibility of making sustainable clothing regardless.
“I don’t care if my customers don’t care about sustainability. It’s my responsibility to make sure that the jeans are sustainable, and then that’s just a plus to the customers. It’s always going to be about the look and the feel and the appearance of the jeans, but then sustainability is a plus to it. But as far as upcycling, I think it honestly might have to do a little bit more with the look of it,” she said.
Bonvicini believes that there will be regulations in the future to hold brands accountable to sustainability standards. And she is not the only one either. Across both fashion and beauty brands, industry leaders agree that there will be regulations that brands will be held to, whether it is a brand’s carbon footprint or eliminating single-use plastic in packaging. But the real question is when will this happen? And will it be too little, too late?
But Patagonia has long been committed to the environment. Aside from Worn Wear, its recycling program, the brand also imposes a one percent tax on itself, which is used to provide “support to environmental nonprofits working to defend our air, land and water around the globe,” according to the Patagonia website.
Patagonia has also built environmental and animal welfare responsibility programs. The programs guide how the brand makes its materials and products. With 64 percent of fabrics made with recycled materials and 100 percent of virgin down certified to the Advanced Global Traceable Down Standard, the brand is committed to transparency and the environment. But it is not just environmentally responsible; it is also socially responsible. Its Social Responsibility Programs are at the crux of the brand, and Patagonia has joined programs like Living Wage and Fair Trade to ensure the brand is committed to its workers. Like EB Denim, Patagonia uses indigo to dye denim. “We are exploring opportunities to work with partners in the supply chain to grow non-synthetic organic indigo,” Patagonia’s website read. “Eventually, our goal is for this crop to become Regenerative Organic Certified™. We also continue to investigate alternatives for indigo, both natural and synthetic, that have less of an ecological footprint.”
Not everyone is equally committed to environmentally and socially responsible fashion. While some brands are ensuring that they are giving back to the environment and producing pieces under humane working conditions, not all of fashion is ready to pay up. It is expensive to commit to this change, and Bonvicini and others hope that the future of fashion will be a world in which the sustainable option is the norm and not the more expensive route. In the meantime, the world will just have to keep relying on brands like EB Denim, Will & Bear, and Patagonia to set the standard for sustainability and hold the fashion industry accountable.
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