“Call it ‘eco-fashion’ if you like, but I think it’s just common sense.” –-Livia Firth, Founder of Eco Age and the Green Carpet Challenge on Chopard’s blog
Spring is here which means it is time to change over your closet, pack up your winter coats, and break out those sandals. Most of us even add a couple of pieces to keep up with the dizzying trends flying down the runways. So now that you have decided to add a couple of eco pieces where do you begin to look? Admittedly, shopping eco fashion can be a bit daunting. Most of the information isn’t readily available. The advertisements on T.V., and social media are from big budget retailers who don’t specialize in sustainable, and navigating your way through makes you want to throw your hands up and buy the most accessible piece available. But hold on, there is hope!
I’m going to break it down so no matter what store you are shopping at you can get some insight into whether or not the piece you’re considering is eco.
Defined by the Ethical Fashion Forum as “represent(ing) an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimizing impact on the environment” ethical fashion is playing a bigger and bigger role for companies worldwide. But ummm… what exactly does this mean to the consumer?
Sustainable fashion can be broken down into five key aspects all of which will help determine whether or not a garment or accessory is eco-friendly or sustainable. It is up to you to decide which of these aspects is the most important. While there are a few brands out there that adhere to all five points, more often you will find a combination of one or more. While the industry is making strides to hit all five, your role, as a consumer is to help dictate which ones mean the most right now. As a consumer the future of fashion is in your hands as it will be on your body.
The thought of any animal being unnecessarily harmed, tortured, or killed for my clothing is abhorrent. We aren’t cavemen anymore (thankfully) and have come up with all sorts of synthetic options to give the look and feel of real fur and leather. Animal activists, such at PETA, have for years been providing alternatives and keeping tabs on fashion companies that use animal products. But you’re at the store, what do you do instead of scrolling through web pages to find out if it is real or faux? Thanks to the 2010 Truth in Fur Labeling Act products now made wholly or partly from Fur must be labeled with the animal name, name of the manufacturer, importer, marketer or distributor of the fur, and the country or origin. Sometimes looking at the label just isn’t enough. Companies have been known, unintentionally or otherwise, to have misrepresented their products, so here are some pointers to do a self-evaluation.
- Faux fur generally comes on a threaded back or mesh. If it is connected to leather (skin) well then you know it is real.
- Real fur will generally taper at the end unless sheared. If it is tapered it is safer to put it back on the rack then to accidentally make the wrong purchase.
- The burn test (for items you have already in your closet) will help determine via smell and texture if it is real or faux. Real fur will smell like burned hair while faux will crinkle like a plastic.
The fashion industry is one of the most disastrous contributors to environmental degradation. From toxic dyes, pesticides ruining soil composition, non-biodegradable fabrics piling up in landfills and filling the oceans, to the pollution from shipping all these goods: the fashion world is a dirty one. As companies are beginning to jump on the sustainability train, green washing has become a short-term quick solution to entice buyers. Some retailers are now marketing their clothing as environmentally responsible, using less water (read the Denim Dilemma for more info on water consumption) or made from recycled components – don’t trust these labels. Right now there is no oversight to ensure companies are being honest. A few companies have actually purchased plastic bottles straight from the manufacturer in order to say the clothing came from recycled plastic. Uh? So what do you do instead?
- Research ahead of time
Companies like Levi’s are making strides and are proud of it (as they should be) their website is a treasure trove of procedural information.
- Ask the staff
You would be surprised to know how informed some retail staffers can be. Stick with companies and stores that train their staff to know the products inside and out.
- Check the label
I know I said don’t do this, but there are some very valuable insights you can pick up. The companies that are making big strides in the eco world are proud of their efforts. Many labels will say exactly what the garment is made from. Look for key words such as “made from recyclables” or “organic.” Also look for percentages. For example most labels will read 38% or 100% made from recyclable. The lower the number the quicker you should put it back on the rack.
- Contact the company
Doing your shopping online? Most retailers will have a chat box you can use to ask questions. Don’t limit yourself to fit or shipping time questions. Ask where it was made, are there any eco aspects such as saving water, using non-toxic dyes, or is it organic? Don’t be afraid to ask.
Workers Rights and Wellbeing
You have a right to know who made your clothing. Better yet, you have a right to know you are not contributing to the trafficking of persons, slave labor, or keeping a family in poverty. That’s a lot of burden to take on. Now I’m not against buying clothing that has been manufactured in other countries. In fact there are a lot of great companies out there that create jobs and co-ops to empower the local community and provide them a skill set which can earn them living. However, the problem here lies in the low cost of clothing. I know this probably is something you don’t want to hear but if the price is too good to be true, it’s because it is.
Low prices = low wages, long work hours, job insecurity, and often times slave labor. Think about all that has to go into producing an item of clothing. The cotton has to be grown or a synthetic manufactured, it has to be harvested, sorted, spun into threads, dyed, shipped to a factory where employees stitch the item, press it, and package it. It is then sent, in most cases, half way around the world via plane or ship which uses fuel, it arrives at a loading dock where it is then unpacked and repackaged to arrive at its final destination where it is unpackaged, hung on the shelves in where retail employees organize and sell. Does $5 a T-shirt really sound like it would cover all these costs? When in doubt check the label for place of origin and balance it against the price. Countries like Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam while making strides in their efforts to provide fair wages and workers rights, haven’t hit the mark just yet. If in doubt buy locally made products.
While arguably this can be part of the environmental impact, I think it deserves a category unto itself. The makeup of a garment is just as important as the other four aspects. Believe it or not most of the clothing we have hanging in our closets are made from oil. Fabrics such as acrylic, polyester, nylon and spandex are made from a process using petrochemicals which aside from being a drain on natural resources is also hazardous to the workers making the clothes. What is worse is that some of the petrochemicals used in cloth manufacturing are known to be cancer causing including formaldehyde, benzene and acrylonitrile. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are another concern when it comes to synthetic clothing. Used to manufacture synthetic fabrics, when VOCs evaporate at room temperature the fumes can cause skin irritation, headaches, liver damage, and cancer. So do you really want to be putting that on your body?
The alternatives to synthetics are natural fibers such as cotton, bamboo, cashmere, hemp, linen, wool and silk but even these are often treated with harsh chemicals in the dyeing, washing, bleaching, and printing phases of the garment construction. Not a great alternative, I know. At the store make sure to look for the word organic. This will ensure the fabric has not been treated with harmful chemicals and also means it is biodegradable once you’re done with it. Way to cover two concerns at once! To read more about the chemical process check out Organic Instead: Discover Organic Clothing: A Safe Alternative to Mainstream Attire.
“The job is unique, containing elements of law, human resources, ethics, manufacturing, compliance and supply chain…” In short Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR is the initiative of a company to assess their global economic and social wellbeing impact while making sure their shareholders are happy. Providing general oversight to the entire process required to create a single garment for one retailer, has in the past been daunting. With manufactures, designers, shipping ports, and corporate offices located all over the globe and dispersed through a supply chain; central oversight has been ignored all to often. It has become a game of passing the buck. The Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh brought to the forefront the need for CSR and a call for corporations to understand and affect change throughout the entire chain.
As consumers (you) are becoming more aware of the impact the fashion industry has on the environment, animals, human rights, and your wallets, and companies are listening. They are now dedicating entire departments to addressing these concerns. Unfortunately, for you it is often impossible to tell which companies have implemented successful CSR and those that have not, when you are out shopping. One good indicator that can be used are signs that point to the story behind the item. Many companies are starting to attach the story of the garment indicating who made it, what charity they are involved in, and/or what it is made from. If you are shopping online don’t just take their word for it. Do your research and read “About The Company”, find out if they are accredited by any international environmental, labor, or animal rights companies. The more information about the item: the better for you.
An ideal piece of sustainable fashion would cover all five of these points. It would be made from organic cotton, which is biodegradable, or from a synthetic material which has been uprecycled (honestly), it would use less water to produce and be dyed using non toxic chemicals. It would be produced in a factory which employs fair wages and safe working conditions. There would be no fur or animal parts and it would all come from a company that uses recycled packaging, low transportation emissions, and cuts their corporate energy costs by using green building initiatives. In the absence of all these factors, choose a garment that hits on a couple and speaks to you. I personally look for environmental sustainability, fabric components, and workers rights: first and foremost.
To do some research on individual companies and find out more about their eco initiatives or lack of check out Rank A Brand