What Does it Mean to be a Sustainable Fashion Label?
WORDS BY LISA KJERULF
Before diving into who is paving the way in the ethical arena, let’s first address the varying mindsets of what 'ethical' and 'sustainable' actually mean for some designers. After chatting with a few smaller up-and-coming labels in the Australian industry, it became clear that when we speak about sustainability, there is no one way to view the topic. None of these views are wrong, but rather a confirmation that sustainable practice in fashion is a complex web.
Some of the various definitions focused on things such as 100 percent natural fibres, whole garment design, clothing tailored to last, holistic ecosystems, working from home and ensuring actual needs are being fulfilled. All considered, Jenny Layton, industry consultant and mentor, was more careful with the definition, indicating that sustainability is often used as a blanket word within the industry. Sustainability is trial and error, and it’s being aware and environmentally conscious of all that you do. What follows is an overview of a few interpretations of sustainability in the apparel industry.
100 percent natural fibres.
One element that is common for all the labels spoken to is the importance of using natural fibres as often as possible to ensure a sustainable garment is created. For some labels, this is the driver for the sustainability of their practice and for others this is only one part of a bigger picture.
“Sustainable for me means using 100% natural fibres and being ethical as well. I’ve chosen that path because its biodegradable and renewable. I chose to do this from a practical point of view. Why isn’t anyone already doing this?” – Tiffany, founder of Millicent Elizabeth
Whole garment design and clothing tailored to last.
Another common definition of sustainability was focused on the design of the clothing; ensuring that the garment will have a long life and has somewhere to go at the end of its life with the consumer. The idea is that if the garment is customised to the individual’s exact specification and exact style, there will be no reason for that garment to be thrown out. This concept has been common among suit tailors, however rare beyond that category due to the lack of profit margin involved for the maker.
“Clothing should fit properly. It’s easy to find tailors for business suits, but if you want tailored clothing that you wear 90% of the time, no one will do it. They don’t have the pattern or fabric and the margin isn’t there for them to make it worthwhile.” - Eric, co-founder of Citizen Wolf
Citizen Wolf are bringing this concept to life by optimising the process with a laser cutter; making it now worth their while. This avoids the need of someone with 20 - 30 years of experience to cut a more basic garment like a T-shirt.Others consider sustainability as not only the life of the garment, but the end-life of that garment as well. It’s about taking full responsibility for the entire process of a garment’s life and thereafter.
“It’s about not creating stuff that doesn’t have anywhere to go.” - Courtney, founder of A.BCH
In an effort to uphold this vision, A.BCH consider every detail that goes into the design of their products as well as the life by staying in touch with customers and educating with repair workshops to teach people how to mend their clothing. It’s raising awareness among consumers while ensuring that garments are properly looked after.
For other labels, sustainability is defined as more than just the garment life cycle, but the entire ecosystem around that product. This means everything from properly crediting all of the people and communities involved with the product, to considering how production impacts the natural environment, as well as the life of the garment; ensuring that all elements of the lifecycle are considered when creating a product.
“Sustainability, I believe, is a practice that considers people, living beings and the planet. It’s important that the business is viable but preferably also with sustainability and cruelty-free practices included.” - Tamara, founder of Remuse Designs
“Sustainability is ensuring that artists, screen printers and art centres feel proud of, and a valuable part of our organization. We aim to grow an inclusive business to enable this – sharing the business story with communities, inviting people to be a part of the business where their interests align.” - Maggie, founder of Magpie Goose
Working from home.
Another element defining sustainability in business that was brought up by several designers and mentors is doing all production in-house. Working in-house or from home means that the designer has full transparency and control over the production methods. There is no risk of unethical practice happening behind closed doors at a factory far away and there is less of a carbon footprint due to less travel and shipping and handling.
Fulfilling a need.
After taking into account all the previous definitions for sustainability, one very important point raised by a few industry experts was the fact that regardless of how sustainable the garments are, there is still more product being produced at the cost of resources. However, in order for the emerging labels to survive, they need customers. Mass consumerism is one of the main detriments to the apparel industry today. If these garments are not actually needed than this creates an ironic conflict of interest. But what about a garment that is actually needed and cannot be found anywhere else? For some of these brands, this is where it all begins.
“Clothing made on demand one at a time ensures we don’t produce clothing that doesn’t need to be made” – Eric, co-founder of Citizen Wolf