We all know why sustainability is good but let’s be honest, are we really shopping with sustainability in mind? Who doesn’t love the thrill of finding a pair of jeans that fit perfectly for less than $50? But are our purchasing habits helping or hurting us in the long run? Our culture and our economy thrive on consumption. Consumer spending comprises 70% of GDP. The fashion industry still generates nearly 2 million jobs in the United States and is a $380 billion industry. However, there are dark clouds ahead for the industry if it does not make some fundamental changes. The issue is not shopping itself, but how our purchasing habits create vicious cycles of environmental and societal degradation. Consumers’ insatiable demand for low cost products reinforce utilization of cheap materials, destructive manufacturing processes, and exploitative labor practices around the world. All it takes is a bit more awareness about the environmental and the social impact of our purchases to begin making a difference.
Under the guise of innovation more and more of our clothes are made out of petroleum based synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and lycra. The problem is that 26 billion pounds of clothing wind up in landfills every year in the US alone. The increasing use of synthetic materials is compounding the problem since synthetics do not biodegrade, many tons of discarded synthetic materials accumulate in landfills or are incinerated causing toxic emissions.
The other evil byproduct of cheap goods is to reduce manufacturing costs by paying factory workers the lowest amount possible. While it is convenient to ignore the rampant worker exploitation overseas, it happens right right here at home with garment workers in cities like Los Angeles still earning less than the minimum wage. Brands often hide behind the veil of third party manufacturers and choose to ignore the processes and practices that go in outside facilities. Under federal law, brands cannot be penalized for wage theft in factories if they can credibly claim that they did not know their clothes were made by workers paid illegally low wages. The Labor Department has collected millions in back wages and penalties from Los Angeles garment businesses in recent years, but has not fined a single retailer. Even luxury brands have moved manufacturing to developing countries in an effort to increase profits. Spending more doesn’t always mean what you’re buying is produced ethically or with no damage to the environment.
We as consumers can bring about change by making a conscious decision to buy from brands that are ethical and operate transparently. The good news is that a growing number of brands are committing to environmentally sustainable manufacturing and fair labor practices. It is getting easier to know if a product is made out of natural or recycled materials, if a brand is committed to energy efficiency, and even if a contract manufacturer in a developing country pays attention to worker safety and welfare. Just as we would never cast a vote or invest in a stock just on face value, isn’t it our responsibility to ourselves, our families, and our planet to be equally careful about the products we consume?
These brands from around the world are using both innovative and time honored ways to make sustainable products. Brooklyn based brand Ajaie Alaie creates made-to-order womenswear. That means they only produce what is ordered, which cuts down on over production and waste.
Abacaxi, Amur and Flor et al, all NYC brands, have found ways to incorporate sustainability into their choice of materials. Abacaxi upcycles sari material, repurposes t-shirts and uses dead stock fabric that would otherwise be thrown out. Amur incorporates natural, biodegradable fibers like organic cotton, hemp, linen and silk.
Refash Studios designer Kelley Boster upcycles vintage clothing and makes them into unique wearable pieces. SVNR uses found, up-cycled and natural materials to create their jewelry. Volta Atelier goes beyond using scrap leather to make their bags by empowering the women who make them. They support their craft and provide income to their artisans who are refuges, victims of domestic violence, and former inmates.
Shoe brand Nomasei ensures their factories are certified for best practices in how they treat their employees, tan the leather, and dispose off waste. Everything is made and assembled in Italy in a 40 km radius of their factory, minimizing the carbon footprint of manufacturing overseas. They reduce their plastic use by using packaging made out of recycled cardboard, organic cotton and biodegradable plastic.
Other brands like Taylor + Thomas incorporate cutting edge bio materials into their shoe designs. In addition to using recycled plastic bottles, they use plant based materials like castor beans, beechwood, bio polys and water-based polyurethane and off set their carbon foot print by partnering with Native Energy and donate 1% of their sales to One Percent for the Planet.
London based Teatum Jones is cruelty free, does not use fur, and opts for only recycled and leftover leather. They recycle up to 40% of previous seasons fabric for each new collection and use dead stock and recycled yarns and even recycle their pattern making paper! They are replacing polyester with Tencel which is derived from cellulose fibre.
Aera NY vegan leather shoes are made in a solar powered factory in Italy. They offset their carbon emission 110% by contributing to organizations that work to reforest, restore water shortages, collecting plastic waste and recycling it, and are looking to create a take back program to recycle their shoes at the end of their lifecycle.
Ultimately, are we as consumers willing to forgo our addiction to fast fashion and the thoughtless purchasing of products we quickly tire and dispose off? I for one am optimistic, taking into perspective the evolution of the food industry over the past 20 years. Although we still have a long way to go with food production methods we have come a long way with our focus on organic food. It took years for American consumers to acknowledge that their chronic health issues were linked to their steady diets of processed food. This acknowledgement is being reflected by the increasing rejection of genetic and chemically altered foods by mainstream consumers, forcing producers and manufacturers to develop all natural products that are traceable back to the farm where they were grown.
Hopefully, the Covid crisis has made us realize how everything is interconnected. What happens in one part of the planet can have vast ripple effects and we are hardly immune from things we can not see . Maybe this is an opportunity to stop and reflect and, hopefully, realize that everyone’s spending decisions have important implications.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 Issue of The Metropolis Report.