Let's pretend for a moment that we can re-make the fashion industry overnight, and wake up in a world where all our clothing is sustainable.
What would it look like? In my ideal world, clothing manufacturing would be localized. Organic, natural fibers would be harvested and woven, according to the cultural and climatic needs of that region, into fabrics that are colored with non-toxic dyes. This fabric would then be made into garments that are beautiful, multifunctional and durable. This clothing would be designed and sewn by people who are paid a living wage, who are part of the community that purchases their goods, who have a connection to how their garments are used. We wouldn't need or want many items. Although this clothing would last a long time, it wouldn't last forever. They would eventually become shabby, too well-loved to look professional, too full of holes to keep us modest or warm. Perhaps these clothes could find a second life as rags or patches or quilts, but when even these small fragments are no longer useful, it wouldn't matter, because the fibers would be biodegradable like our own bodies.
We're a long way away from that ideal.Fast fashion rules the day, style and commerce have pushed us to treat clothing like disposable candy wrappers. It is often said that the global fashion industry is the second dirtiest in the world, polluting more than any other industry except fossil fuels. To be honest, I have no idea who did this analysis or where to find that kind of data, but it's clear that industrial pollution generated by clothing makers is a huge problem, as are the social ramifications of outsourcing the labor to nations with little protection for workers' rights. Recently, I have been getting a lot of criticism for writing about brands that are trying to be green, eco-conscience and sustainable. Some commenters feel that it's "un-TreeHugger" to write about the new lines and collections offered by brands like Nau, Alternative or Amour Vert. Some of these commenters have gone to far as to call me "saboteur" to the green cause. So I want to explain why we need these companies to build a more sustainable clothing culture.
I'm sure many TreeHugger readers feel the answer to dressing sustainably is thrift-store shopping and hand-me-downs. I agree, for the most part. A solid majority of the items in my wardrobe are second hand, some of them very high-end designer garments that used to belong to my mother and are wonderful testaments to the idea that you get what you pay for.
However, the sad truth is that thrift stores thrive on the back of a fast-fashion mentality, and are often full of poorly-made items that are likely to have a short lifespan. If we don't start re-imagining how clothing could be made from the beginning of the production chain, we're doomed to follow the insatiable downward spiral of fast fashion and its misplaced values. Thrift stores are a good bridge, but they're not the destination.
We need to buy fewer items of clothing.We need to wear them for longer, we need to pay more for each item. You don't need much. Maybe you don't need to buy another single item for several years. I don't always drive this point home when I write about a new season's line or pretty capsule collections. Maybe I should stop assuming that TreeHugger readers understand that I share their less-is-more values.
Sometimes, you may want to buy something new.Finding the perfect item to fill a specific need at a thrift or second hand store can be challenging and time-consuming. There's no guarantee you'll find the right size or style. When this is the case, I hope people will know there are better options than the big, fast fashion moguls. You can support a brand that shares your values.
The photo at the top of this post shows myself wearing a Nau jacket. I haven't owned a puffy winter coat for many years. I had two such coats stolen. After that, I wore a long, wool peacoat until the lining was so shredded that I lost my drivers license and keys both in the same day when they fell out of holes in the pockets. A seamstress flat-out declined to repair it. Last winter, I tried to get away with wearing a shorter fall-weight jacket with lots of layers, but shivered everywhere I went. By purchasing this jacket from Nau, I not only saved myself the time of looking for a used coat, but I also feel like I supported a better way of making clothing.
In the course of interviewing designers like Markus Freitag, Linda Balti and Kristen Glenn, I've learned that there are many challenges to making sustainable clothing. There's no one that fits the ideals that I described at the beginning of this post—yet. But they're getting close and it's clear that they're all committed to greener clothes, to giving buyers a better choice. I write about eco-fashion brands because they're showing the way to a better world.