Sustainable Fashion?

Another day, another depressing article about the fashion industry. Are you surprised to know that Forever 21 and other fast-fashion retailers have found loopholes to avoid liability while still contracting with factories that underpay their workers? I’m not. You shouldn’t be.

I came into this industry a bit reluctantly, lured by an interest in making small tedious things (jewelry), and an interest in social business. And while there is a great deal of good that can be done in the realms of sustainable design, fair wages, and ecologically friendly factories, the majority of the fashion industry is just not that. And the American consumer isn’t particularly interested in that, either.

Here is the game: somewhere, at the top of the fashion food chain, a few talented visionaries create incredible pieces of wearable art, and send them slinking down the runways. Those next in line watch the runway, and pick out the themes. (Is that coral I see? Maybe we should go more angular with our hemlines…) This is all condensed into trend reports, digested by folks like myself, buyers, and an endless onslaught of fashion bloggers. And this is how trends are made. Five years ago, dark floral prints reminded you of the nineties or your grandmother. Now they’re half of your closet.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the system itself, it’s creative expression just like any other, but the waste it creates is astounding. We purchase 400% more clothing per year than we did 20 years ago, and the average American throws away more than 82 pounds of textiles every year. A lot of this waste is actually “donated,” where it ends up in places like Owino Market in downtown Kampala and is probably the greatest contributing factor to the destruction of the local fashion industry (though it does create jobs in other areas).

Another side-effect of trends (coupled with rapid consumerism) is the demand for cheap clothing. Why spend $100 on a new high-quality sweater when you could buy 5 cheaper ones at $20 each? Here’s why. First, the $100 sweater might still be with you in 10 years, if you take care of it. Second, it does not cost $20 to make a sweater. If you are buying it at that price, likely, someone somewhere down the line is not being paid fairly, or at all.

I think we all know these truths, but tend to ignore them because their implications are inconvenient. Buy fewer things. Buy more expensive things that are well-made, sustainably made. Buy a few trend pieces per season to add to your basics, not replace them. Check the urge to make impulse purchases without first looking into the backgrounds of the brands and stores you support. But this is not impossible.

One of my favorite companies, Everlane, just introduced denim. I am (at 6’0″) skeptical of the inseam lengths, but a huge fan of their work in general. Their jeans are made in a facility that is considered the most ecologically-friendly denim factory in the world. The transparency of this company is also pretty profound. You can see where all of their products are made, how much goes into materials, labor, and shipping- as well as company overhead. They’re $68, and while that’s a bit of a jump from the $20 jeans at Wal-Mart, it’s still affordable for most people- and this denim is meant to last years so you only have to buy one pair, not seven. In general, Everlane offers modern basics that are well-put-together, reasonably affordable, and work well alongside trends without being incredibly trendy themselves. The big, overarching point of this last paragraph, though, is that ethical, sustainable, relatively affordable manufacturing is possible. Everlane seems to have figured it out, which means that others can too. But we have to demand it, and as consumers the way we make demands is with our spending habits.

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While I’m on the note of free advertising, here are some of my favorite companies to check out:

Krochet Kids: In case you associate these guys solely with crocheted beanies- they’ve grown up a bit. They now offer clothing, sustainably made in Peru as well.

Sseko: I’ve worked here for years, so perhaps I’m a bit biased, but their sandals last a very long time. I’m a big fan of the flip-flops and t-straps in particular. Flip-flops because obviously, and the interchangeable accents on the t-straps brought me through a nearly month-long backpacking trip with (what felt like) several pairs of shoes. Though there’s still a way to go in the leather industry in terms of sustainability, if you take care of leather goods they can last ages, and that might be better in the long-term.

Purpose Jewelry: More bias, as this is my current job. However- modern, simple handmade jewelry that provides employment to women and girls escaping human trafficking.

Zwervend: The most bias, as this is my baby project. And the website isn’t quite ready yet. But Agnes + Bea (Zwervend’s first clients) are making some really cool handmade jewelry, using all local (to Uganda) materials. You can buy it in Kampala, or there are currently a few select pieces available through Ubuntu Trade.

Nisolo: This company partners with Peruvian artisans to make the leather goods you’re going to have for ages- upscale classics like loafers and totes.

Vetta Capsule: I’ve watched Cara and Vanessa build this project and love the concept. Capsule wardrobes that are made ethically and mix and match to create an entire month’s worth of outfits? Okay.

Pact Apparel: Organic cotton basics including dresses and underwear.

Patagonia: The pioneers of sustainability in the USA, really. All the outdoorsy apparel you’ll ever want or need.

Tribe Alive: Cool clothes and accessories + women artisans + stable working environments.

Symbology: Working with women in India and the West Bank, symbology works to make beautiful clothing but also to preserve traditional art forms.

Raven and Lily: While Raven and Lily is definitely on the pricier end of this list, their clothing is beautiful and shows that fair trade doesn’t have to mean frumpy.

Indigenous: All the best sweaters (and other clothing too) that are also sustainable and/or organic, and ethically manufactured.

Mata Traders: If bright prints are your thing, these are your people. Also fair trade.

Apolis: Men’s clothing with a focus on using business to create social impact.

Naja: Underthings.

Slumlove: To be honest, I always cringe at this name. But they have fantastic t-shirts and sweaters, providing jobs in the Kibera slums of Nairobi.

I could go on, and perhaps I will eventually. But here are some great places to start changing your habits. So buy fewer things! But when you do buy things, get them from these people.

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ETA: Additional Recommendations-

Oliberté: How could I forget! These folks are based in Ethiopia and make leather even a bit better with vegetable tanning. Their boots and shoes are amazing, too.

Noonday Collection: Supports fair-trade business around the world be selling gorgeous jewelry, as well as providing jobs for women entrepreneurs who sell their jewelry as Noonday ambassadors.

Akola Project: Jewelry is my favorite accessory because one piece can dramatically change an outfit. And statement necklaces with character tend to be pretty timeless. Akola works with women around the globe, providing sustainable incomes, and makes some really great statement pieces.

Sudara: Pajamas! And so much more.

Elegantees: Tees, tops, tunics, dresses, and cardigans.

AmaElla: Lingerie

-Secondhand: No links needed. You know this one. Check out your local thrift shops, vintage boutiques, and garage sales to give a new life to somebody’s old stuff.