Wednesday 13 August 2014

sustainable fashion 101

Lately my days are filled with studying and writing about sustainable living. More frequently the topic has narrowed to sustainable fashion, which is brilliant because I have a valid excuse for mulling over my two favourite subjects - fashion and the environment.  It can be easy to forget that not everyone is as engrossed in these subjects as I am, however, and 9 times out of 10 when I tell people what I do they ask me:

what is sustainable fashion? 

Lalesso - created sustainably in Kenya

You'd think I'd have a standard response, but we're dealing with murky territory here. So over my next two blog posts I will explain what sustainable fashion is, and how you can make sustainable fashion choices. I also would really love to start a dialogue about sustainable fashion. If you have any questions or would like to pose alternate definitions, please leave a comment and let's discuss!

* * * *

sustainable fashion definition

In the simplest terms, sustainable fashion is clothing created with respect for both the environment and people. I find it helpful to reflect on the widely-used definition of Sustainable Development* as a starting point:
development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
I find that sustainable fashion complements this definition neatly. I interpret "meeting the needs of the present" to mean both our fashion needs and desires, as well as the basic needs and human rights of people making the clothing. And I see "without compromising future generations" to mean we are using resources responsibly, and avoiding pollution and overconsumption in our fashion choices.

Clean Cut, Australia's sustainable fashion council (of which I am a proud co-founder) defines sustainable fashion as:
fashion that encompasses both social and environmental impacts [and is] made with sustainable fibres, sustainable social practices and/or consideration of the whole clothing life cycle.

Clean Cut Designer Showcase, April 2014

what can I buy that is sustainable?

If you're like me, the above definitions sound great, but when you go to stores you are confronted by swing tags promoting bamboo, organic cotton, and Australian Made - or, more often than not, none of the above. At times it feels like mainstream fashion is anything but sustainable, and as shoppers it can feel like there are no good options.

I will discuss details of 'sustainable fibres' in the next post, as well as some of my favourite sustainable fashion labels and shops**.  But right now I want to focus on the really good news - the aspect of sustainable fashion you have the most control over - frequency and quantity of purchases.

Look, I hate when environmentalists suggest "we just need to buy less stuff", or, my least favourite saying, "Live simply so that others may simply live." I understand these comments are filled with the best of intentions, but to me this is too simple a solution. It doesn't take into account how we live our lives today. And I for one love fashion. I don't want to apologise for it. But I do want to ensure my favourite pastime isn't causing irreparable damage to the planet or causing other people pain. So it is with mixed emotions that I suggest buying less, but I'm going to endeavour to help you make the transition as pain-free as possible.

My recommendation for getting the best of both worlds and shopping sustainably begins with two very simple steps:
  1. Choose quality over quantity
  2. Love pre-loved items

Choose quality over quantity

Today we buy more fashion, more frequently, than ever before. And it's increasingly made of poorer quality and in questionable factory conditions. I won't go into detail about the problems with fast fashion here, but if you're interested have a read of  Overdressed and To Die For - both excellent books filled with shocking fashion statistics.

Sustainable shopping tip #1 - buy less, buy better. Instead of rushing to the Zaras and Top Shops of the world - even though their styles can be oh-so-fabulous - spend a little more money on fewer items that have been made well and will last many seasons. Importantly, consider how the items will fit with the rest of your wardrobe; there is no point in buying a stunning top that you'll never wear because it doesn't go with anything in your closet.

Titania Inglis - organic cotton, natural dyes, made in NYC

I was speaking with a colleague the other day about a pair of Prada boots she's had for 7 years. Yes, 7 years. She still loves them, they are still comfortable, and they have taken her around the world many times in style - they are probably on their last winter, but after 7 years they've earned a nice retirement. While the price tag on Prada boots may give you a minor heart murmur, considering a 7 year lifespan and a classic style, the price should work out to about the same, or less, as buying a new pair every year or two.

It's been my experience (with a Max Azria silk blouse - 12 years - and this Sass and Bide dress - 6 years) that you're likely to consider a pricier purchase more than others, and end up with a finer, more considered wardrobe as a result. And there really is nothing like wearing a very finely made piece of clothing.

I don't want to imply that quality equals couture, or that high quality comes with an astronomical price tag; there are plenty of mid-range labels that make high quality pieces. But you're not likely to find a well-made, quality item for $15, either. Examine clothing before making a purchase, including feeling the fabric and examining the stitching. And place quality as high as style on your fashion checklist.

Love pre-loved items

I admit, I really had to get used to this one. I was not a born op-shopper. Where (and when) I grew up in suburban America it was not cool to wear secondhand clothing. I was once taunted by a Mean Girl in elementary school who told me she used to have the outfit that I was wearing, but she gave it to Goodwill (implying I was wearing her hand-me-downs). Mean! But now I am obsessed with the op shop hunt.

Sustainable shopping tip #2 - consider secondhand as your first option. Check out this hot biker jacket I just scored on eBay - on trend yet a classic style, a fraction of the retail price, and I am extending the useful life of a quality jacket.

With apologies to my vegan and animal-rights readers;
I did struggle with this decision, and rightly or wrongly
justified it by buying secondhand. What do you all think?

Next time you're in the mood for a particular item, ask yourself seriously if you need to purchase it new, or if pre-loved will do. Research*** has shown that the energy to collect, sort and resell secondhand items is between ten and twenty times less than creating a new item - a little effort in the hunt makes a big impact on the environment.

I have really fallen in love with secondhand shopping in a way I had not anticipated. For one thing, I save money. For another, I am more likely to find items that no one else is wearing. And I find my creative juices get flowing like mad when I am considering how I will wear these one-off items. Thanks to secondhand shopping and a good tailor, I have a few very lovely items in my wardrobe that are entirely unique. (I really must learn to sew...).

Sometimes the answer is yes, you do need or want something new, and that is okay. Just make sure to ask yourself the question and consider secondhand as your first option.

* * * *

Hopefully today's shopping tips have given you a realistic starting point for shopping sustainably. My next post will cover more specifics on sustainable fibres, certification and some great labels and shops who are making waves. In the meantime, drop me a line to add to this discussion, and keep the sustainable fashion conversation flowing!
* * * *

*Initially used in the 1987 report Our Common Future

** If you want a complete list of my favourite shops and fashion labels, as well as my go-to beauty brands, check out the shopping guide in the second edition of Sustainability with Style. You can buy your copy online, or if you're in Sydney head over to Darley Collective in Manly to pick up a copy (and check out a hot new pop up sustainable fashion store co-owned by Carlie Ballard).

*** Gibson and Stanes, 'Is Green the New Black? Exploring Ethical Fashion Consumption' in Ethical Consumption: A Critical Introduction eds Lewis, T. and Potter, E. 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment