Have you ever purchased an item of clothing in the hopes it would change your life?
Spoiler: It never does. :)
BUT… if you ask the right questions about its sustainability, the purchase of that item of clothing can start to change the world.
First things first
Since one of the main topics we want to cover in this blog is sustainability, we should really start with the reasons why, and a couple of definitions. Then, in future posts, we can dive into some of the details, and apply the concepts to our business and to the apparel industry at large.
Are you excited? I am!
Why do we want to talk about this?
Because information is power.
Because it’s an important issue that spans so many aspects of our lives:
- It’s an environmental issue.
- It’s a social justice issue.
- It’s an economic issue.
- It’s a women’s issue.
Because we need a shared vocabulary so that we are unafraid to start asking questions.
Because we want to be engaged, connected and supportive of each other.
Starting small - with curiosity and good intentions - is a great place to start!
The overall concept is pretty straightforward. I’m all for keeping it straightforward, so here’s what I think makes an item of apparel  sustainable:
A product is sustainable if it’s made in a way that minimizes impact on the environment AND impact on the health and wellbeing of the makers and end consumers. Bonus points if the products provide environmental and societal benefits!
Sounds simple – right?
It is, but it’s kind of like a flowering plant, with a complex root system – a lot beneath the surface. But by asking a few basic questions, about each part of the life
cycle of the product, we can trace the complex paths, and get enough info to make an informed choice!
How did we get here?
In 2014, we were buying 400% more clothing than we did in 1994 . Yes, this is six-year-old information, but clothing production has more than doubled since 2000 , and global pandemic aside, the industry isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
But what’s the deal? Haven’t we always worn clothes and bags and hats and accessories? How has the industry changed? Why has it changed?
Have WE changed?
In a nutshell –
Fast Fashion became a thing :
- We buy more and use it less
- The global economy makes it easier to buy cheaper and faster
- The things that we buy are often made using unsustainable materials and methods and not so ethical workplace practices.
- We don’t have systems in place to effectively reuse or recycle what we no longer need.
Fast Fashion is not just a blip - we are going to have to WORK to turn this massive ship around. Some of this work needs to happen at the “collective we” level, but let’s not worry about that for now - at the “you-and-me we” level, we can make small changes with BIG impact.
What makes me qualified to talk about this? Well, I’m a recovering Environmental Engineer, and a concerned human, who will try to make it a balanced and simple analysis of a complex concept. Here we go!
The you-and-me we
What can the you-and-me we do to shop in a more sustainable…well…fashion?
Great question! It can feel overwhelming to us as consumers today. We are conditioned to worry and agonize over every purchase:
Suppose I want an X.
We worry about QUALITY –
- Is this the best X available?
- What makes it the best X?
- Who says it’s the best X?
- Are the reviews reliable?
We worry about PRICE –
- Is this the best deal on an X?
- Can I get an X cheaper on Amazon?
We worry about CONVENIENCE –
- Do I need to put a mask on and leave my house to get X?
- What if my X doesn’t fit?
- How soon can I get my X?
Do we really need more to worry about?
We need to tweak WHAT we’re worrying about.
We need to change the questions we ask, and ask a few more.
If we arm ourselves with a few questions and basic concepts, we can easily make a difference and put our purchasing power to work to help the planet, and help ourselves to make better choices with our dollar.
So, how do we define sustainability? What aspects of sustainability are the most critical to look at? AND how can we as consumers make the best choice for us? Because here’s the thing...There is no perfect choice.
I need to say it again (for me as much as for you).
THERE. IS. NO. PERFECT. CHOICE.
But there is a BETTER choice, if we ask a lot of questions.
All the questions
Remember the 5 Ws from your childhood career as an investigative journalist?
Well, these questions are the only ones we need to ask. We just need to ask them at all stages of the life cycle of the product. (Though, we’ll modify it slightly to: Who? What? When? Where? How? and sometimes Why?)
I’ve used the term life cycle twice now, and should probably take a minute to say what I mean by that.
The life cycle of a product is, in a nutshell -
- Where it came from (raw materials, textiles, final products, shipping to the consumer)
- How it is used (and what is the useful life of the product)
- Where it goes in the end, after its useful life is over (and if it can/will be recycled or reused)
We will dive deeper into each of these three phases of a product’s life (in future blog posts) asking the 5Ws 1H, and learning to recognize the more sustainable apparel choices!
That’s it! We’re going to ask questions.
A lot of questions.
If we ask the questions through the lens of our sustainability definition, about each stage of the product’s life cycle, it will pretty quickly become second nature when we’re considering buying a handbag…or a coat…or a sweatshirt…or a hat (or literally anything!) and we’ll make a more informed decision!
 bag, hat, shoes, shirt….any article of clothing or accessory.
 Fashion Revolution White Paper, 2020
 oversimplification alert. For now, we’re going to look at recent history. We can go back to the industrial revolution and look at materials development and process
“improvements”, but I want to keep this manageable for all of us.
 Unless you’ve got a home-based closed-loop clothing production system. If you do, I wanna come visit!