Will 2019 Be the Year Fashion Finally Cleans Up Its Act?

Sustainability has been an industry buzzword for years, but fashion still has a long way to go

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Double exposure of a woman and a forest

(Photos: iStock, Photo illustration: Joel Louzado)

Toronto twins Lindsay and Alexandra Lorusso grew up in a home obsessed with trash.

The fashion-forward siblings’ dad is Carl Lorusso, co-owner of WasteCo, one of Canada’s largest waste management companies, and they learned how harmful one-use products are for the planet at an early age. And once they graduated and started working for WasteCo themselves, they really saw how often textile garbage—the high-quality clothing scraps manufacturers don’t use—is thrown out. It inspired the now 35-year-olds to launch Nudniks, an indie fashion brand that turns leftover material into new clothes for children and, hopefully in the near future, adults.

“Our family legacy is in the waste management industry and those years [working for WasteCo] gave us an advantage about understanding waste in general,” Lindsay says. “The fashion industry is [responsible for so much pollution], and we have a way to make it a little less dirty.”

For Nudniks, being sustainable means finding a second use for cloth that would normally be dumped in landfills, but for today’s fashion sector, which a joint Business of Fashion/McKinsey & Company report found was worth jaw-dropping $2.5 trillion US in 2017, it can also mean everything from removing hazardous chemicals from manufacturing processes to using natural materials like sugarcane to create affordable clothing.

Companies are starting to shift toward sustainability

In fact, popular shoe wear brand AllBirds has found a way to do just that by using, of all things, eucalyptus tree fibre and merino wool to manufacture its socially conscious (and very coveted) running shoes. What some see as a trend right now, Tim Brown, the New Zealander company’s co-founder, sees as an inevitable shift in how clothes are being made thanks to a rise in eco-conscious consumers and higher demand for sustainable solutions.

“Our thought is, if we can put a man on the moon, you should be able to make a T-shirt and a pair of sneakers that are carbon negative or carbon neutral,” he says.

Although, more big businesses (not just, for example, the Misha Nonoos of the world) need to sign on to make ethical fashion more widespread sooner rather than later, he adds.

There’s still no official consensus on what constitutes ethical or sustainable merchandise, but from a big-picture perspective, the goal is for companies to create, sell and ship products that don’t harm the environment. And the movement, which has picked up steam in the last five years, couldn’t have come at a better time.

Going green makes ethical and business sense

The oft-repeated stat that fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world may not actually be true—comparing fashion’s impact to other industries is difficult because there’s not a lot of comparative research, and because it actually relies on so many other industries. “Fashion’s true environmental scope is astounding. It touches agriculture (cotton, flax, hemp), animal agriculture (leather, fur, wool, cashmere), petroleum (polyester and other synthetics), forestry (rayon), mining (metal and stones), construction (retail stores), shipping, and, of course, manufacturing,” writer Alden Wicker wrote in Racked in 2017. (In fact, Wicker wrote a follow-up blog post that breaks down just how hard it is to figure out where fashion stands.) But we do know that just about every part of the process has a negative impact on the environment. Think, water consumption, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the textile waste that Nudniks is trying to offset—and the clothes we consumers throw out, 85% of which ends up in landfills. And sustainability means ethical sustainability, too, which means we can’t ignore the Global Slavery Index’s 2018 report, which found fashion’s supply chains are rife with slave labour—in fact, it’s worse than any other industry besides tech.

“We don’t have much time to wait,” explains Brown. “Look around and you’ll see it has to be now.”

Of course, going green has also never been more profitable. Consumers are more knowledgable about the benefits of eco- and socially conscious clothes, at least in part due to technology that makes it easier to track the effect pollution has on our environment—and they’re way more vocal about wanting sustainability, both on and offline. A 2015 global report by Nielson found that globally, consumers (especially millennials) were willing to pay more for products that were environmentally friendly. Meanwhile a study by global research, innovation and insight centre J. Walter Thompson Company found that value-driven consumers favoured services and companies that, among other things, used sustainable business practices.

Making processes more eco-friendly isn’t easy

But turning words into actions can be hard.

In fact, most major brands struggle when it comes to sustainability. Companies have tried limiting or reversing their environmental footprint by recycling used clothes (H&M, Patagonia), introducing ethical manufacturing practices (Reformation, Everlane) and monitoring their supply chains to make sure their subcontractors adhere to ethical and sustainable guidelines (Karen Kane, Eileen Fisher). But shifting way from traditional manufacturing is not a fast process.

Anne Pringle, an advisor with Ryerson University’s fashion zone, an incubator for fashion startups, has spent years working in the eco-fashion sector and says it’s not always easy for bigger companies to flip their processes to be more sustainable, even if it’s in their interest to do so. The reason, she says, often boils down to cold, hard cash.

“The tendency is for people to want big companies to become sustainable right away, but people have to acknowledge the steps that have to happen to make it possible,” she says.  To add to that, it would likely be just as hard for fast fashion—one of the biggest polluters—to find ways to supply the rampant consumerism that shoppers expect without increasing prices and compensating for the vast amounts of water and energy they do right now with a eco-friendly option.

Basically, the process of getting clothes from sketchpad to store has more twists and turns than season three of Riverdale and is rife with regulatory headaches, which makes it hard for companies to pivot to sustainability.

There is good news, though. Pringle explains that even when big companies only make small changes—like collecting used clothes à la H&M—it can make a difference. They operate on such a huge scale that the impact of even their tiniest efforts can far exceed those of smaller labels. “Bigger brands have a really far reach that a smaller brand doesn’t, so it can add up,” she says.

Here’s who’s doing it right

Of course, some entrepreneurs are deciding to go it alone instead of pushing bigger brands to reform. One of those people doing sustainability the right way is James Bartle, the founder of an Australian company called Outland Denim. These days the company is better known as the line that provided Meghan Markle with her snappy clothes during her royal tour in Australia, but Bartle’s work behind the scenes is the real reason to know his name.

His upstart company has bypassed most logistical headaches by working directly with factories that employ formerly trafficked women and use environmentally-friendly processes to make their clothes. What started out as a company of two now employs dozens of women, who make jeans without conventional cotton or harmful dyes. The company uses organic cotton, which they say uses 91% less “blue water” (surface and groundwater), and organic dye that’s derived from a plant called indigofera.

“I have daughters and knew I wanted them to inherit a world that is better off,” he says. “When I started this company, I wanted to do things differently because there’s no other choice.”

Meanwhile, the European city of Amsterdam is taking another approach—it’s turning itself into a hub for sustainable fashion.

The city’s Fashion for Good accelerator finds European apparel startups that are already thinking about sustainability and providing them with the funding and expertise they need in order to build eco-friendly businesses. There’s also a scaling programme, which helps startups that have proven their business idea is feasible grow their businesses and remain profitable. And, it works with corporate partners, including Adidas, to change things up at existing brands.

At the end of the day, it will take both big and small firms to turn fashion’s dirty habits around, but it’s a challenge Nudnik’s Lindsay—and a bevy of fashion activists—are excited to take on.

“We are here to stay,” she explains. “This is an example that shows you can create cool products that are waste free.”

Related:

10 Sustainable Plus-Size Brands to Put on Your Radar
Five Ethical, Not-Evil Ways to Feed Your Fashion Addiction
How Cool-Girl Clothing Brand Reformation Is Leading Fashion’s Shift Toward Sustainability

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