By Mark Paigen
There are many angles to sustainability in the fashion/apparel world.
- Fair trade companies seek to create good living conditions for underserved populations by providing first-world markets for developing world labor.
- Use of organic fabrics and materials lessens the impact of industrialized agriculture with its heavy dependence on petrochemical fertilizers.
- Recycled polyester from beverage containers is perhaps the most eco-friendly fiber, yielding a smaller environmental footprint than organic cotton.
- Domestic manufacturing minimizes trans-oceanic transportation costs and seeks to bolster local economies more than global ones, creating a sense of community along the way.
- Lifecycle analysis provides impact transparency of a product from cradle to grave, a much more comprehensive picture than the discrete burden of the manufacturing process.
Each of these initiatives has value, merit and positive outcomes. All of these efforts need further energy and attention as our collective footprint becomes heavier. All should be championed, celebrated and expanded.
There is however, a more fundamental issue to be addressed. I am reminded of my early days backpacking when the lure of innovative new products inspired more than a few to carry “a hundred pounds of lightweight backpacking gear.” Overconsumption of organic/recycled, fair-trade clothing is still overconsumption.
Ultimately, we must all learn to buy fewer things, repair them as we can, and recycle, upcycle or compost them when we are finished. Today, the average American purchases 64 garments each year. Between 1980 and 2005, American clothing consumption increased five times. Purchases have risen because fast fashion, with an ever-moving style target, pushes consumers to continually buy more clothing.
The shift to shopping as recreation rather than necessity and the emergence of clothing cheap enough to throw away has also made a big impact. Fashion is big business, and nobody needs as many clothes as are produced each year. Companies need to promote new styles to keep demand strong. The largest companies, Zara, H&M etc., have become experts at creating demand through style changes, churning out millions of pounds of cheap clothing — most of which is tossed out before it wears out. High-end fashion produces far fewer garments, but is often predicated on the idea that last season’s style is outdated and unsuitable for today’s wear.
The return of some classic, durable styles for men (raw denim, heavy flannel shirts, heavy leather work boots) seems like a positive direction towards durable goods, but the effort will be wasted if the lumberjack look of today is out of fashion next fall. When was the last time you mended a garment, patched a hole, resoled a shoe? It is fashionable to wear clothing that was worn out before it was sold, but unfashionable to wear clothing that you have worn a hole in. How backwards is that?
Zoom out yet again, and the picture is not just about fashion, it is about a “growing economy.” The success of any nation’s economy is measured in percent growth, with consumer spending driving the majority of this growth. The equation looks like this: More stuff sold = more stuff built = more jobs and a better standard of living.
Unfortunately a corollary equation is: More stuff sold = more stuff built = more pollution + fewer resources + more trash
I am not an economist, but there has to be a better way. We live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and growth cannot continue without environmental degradation. We must learn to produce a better life for everyone on this planet without constantly producing more “stuff.” Perhaps we need a “Quality Revolution,” a major cultural shift where quality becomes our holy grail and we all purchase half as much stuff for the same amount of money.
My first company, Chaco, produced sport sandals that were distributed through specialty outdoor and footwear retailers. We made the most durable sandals on the market and were the only American company that resoled their sandals. We paid our employees not to drive to work and to quit smoking. We shared profits and sponsored substantial philanthropy. And yet we were always cognizant of the bottom line — we made garbage. Without a material separation/recycling/composting program, everything manufactured is ultimately trash.
My second venture, Osmium, concentrates on domestic production, quality construction and a brand message to look twice and buy once. The footwear that we are working on will all be resolable and re-buildable. As a serial entrepreneur, I am stuck between that rock and a hard place – striving to build better product, trying to educate towards less consumption, yet ever aware of the impact of our products.
Image credit: Flickr/perspective
Mark Paigen is founder and CEO of Osmium, offering high quality menswear to guys who look twice and buy once.