By Raheen Khan
The value of apparel in its current context has been simply reduced to personal cost and appearance. Although, the cost-- that is the price that the consumers pay--and the appearance, which is a representation of personal style is crucial, the industry is much more complex.
It has recently come under immense scrutiny due to its unethical working conditions, lack of waste management, increase in pollution due to mass production and exhaustion of resources. The absence of workers safety and low environmental regulations has enabled the corporations to externalize the cost of fast fashion. Amidst this chaos, a new movement has sprung-a sustainable approach towards fashion.
For my Master’s degree capstone project, I decided to study the story of our clothes. The research focuses on identifying the key components of sustainable apparel. The emphasis is on “slow fashion” or “sustainable fashion," a portal which is distinct in practice and performance from the existing fast fashion business models. The methodology consisted of multi-method research design. The participants were selectively chosen from the industry under the categories of designers, retailers and industry experts. As a parallel component to the research, randomly selected students were sent an online survey.
The combination of the survey data and the informational interviews resulted in a comprehensive understanding of the missing pieces in the rising eco-conscious fashion movement. For instance, only 27 percent of the respondents were aware of the term 'sustainable fashion.' In the survey, respondents were asked about the most concerning aspect of the industry, and the two groups (aware and unaware of sustainable apparel) were widest on the topics of: use of water, textiles in landfills and waste reduction. This is the junction where the industry needs to up its efforts in educating the consumers and create transparency in its supply chain and production.
A key finding of the study indicated a need for producers to encourage consumers to establish a connection with their purchase by providing the origins of the product and education about disposal of post-consumer textile waste, in other terms completing the lifecycle loop.
Cotton is the most basic raw material in apparel production. Cotton production has devastating effects on the ecosystem--from irrigation to causing serious health problems to workers in the field due to toxic pesticides. If change in the apparel industry is necessary, then the root of it lies in the transformation of cotton production. Overall, the transparency of apparel production is a vital component in educating the consumers.
Awareness amongst consumers to associate organic cotton with sustainability was tested based on the survey data. The use of organic materials was rated higher at 71.4 percent by the respondents who were aware of sustainable apparel. It is assumed that the awareness of sustainability issues in the apparel sector is extended to knowledge of raw materials sourcing. The correlation between local manufacturing and the understanding the term 'sustainable apparel' is also explored. Half of the respondents who were aware of sustainable apparel consider local manufacturing as an integral definition, whereas, only 32.1 percent of unaware respondents feel that way.
The revival of local manufacturing in conjunction with the principle of recycling is at the root of sustainable apparel. Recycling in this context is not limited to the end of life: 89.3 percent of respondents who were aware of sustainable apparel considered that recycled content is the closest definition, and 80.8 percent of respondents who were not aware selected the same. (See Fig 1).
In both groups, the principle of recycling gained most priority. Testing the importance of recycled content in a garment displayed a different facet. Respondents who were aware showed a higher stand on recycled content at 57.1 percent, whereas only 32.1 percent of the unaware respondents felt it was important to have recycled content in their garments (See Fig 2).
The dynamics of consumer behavior is often hard to predict. On one hand the industry needs to cooperate with the social and environmental indicators, and on the other hand it needs to please its consumer base. In the survey, the influencing factors stated by the consumers show a sense of ethical and social standing. The aware and unaware groups stand close on the concept of “support for local business” as one of the influencing factors to buy local sustainable apparel (See Fig 3). In addition, price and selection are tied as the second most concerning factor from the consumer’s perspective. (See Fig 4).
During independent interviews with designers and fashion retailers, the inspiration to adopt a sustainable apparel business model emerged from a profound passion to eliminate the hidden costs of the industry--the social and the environmental equity.
Tara St James is the owner and head designer for the New York-based clothing label Study, an ethical contemporary brand entirely produced in New York City using sustainable materials. “There is a bit of disconnect between sourcing sustainable materials and then producing garments in a large factory in China," she said.
Modavanti is an online sustainable fashion retailer, launched in 2011 by founder and CEO David Dietz. According to Modavanti, “The main challenge is educating consumers that there is something wrong with the industry." Consumers did not associate apparel with social inequality or environmental pollution until recently. “We believe that if a customer is confronted with a choice between a similar product at a similar price, but one is sustainable and the other is not, then they will choose sustainable every time," the company wrote on its website.
An interview with another fashion designer from NYC, Daniel Silverstein, revealed some very optimistic and inspiring viewpoints. At FIT, he was introduced to the concept of zero fabric waste design. Daniel chose to challenge the industry by designing and manufacturing clothing that produces zero waste by masterful techniques of pattern-making and cutting.
Traditionally, the buyer and the seller for any product seek profits and price advantages respectively. Principles of sustainability are beginning to revolutionize the old school idea where the two parties solely look to gain from a transaction. The concept of mindful consumption is not exclusively limited to consumers, but it also extends to producers who need to be accountable of the waste created by fast fashion. “Mindful production” which is applicable to usage of resources, ethical practices and ecological liability can reorganize the industry from ground up.
Overall, the impact of one decision by one person, for one garment, for one occasion has a story behind it. A story that is hidden behind style, color and design. The fast-moving apparel industry has been spinning off its course, but the fraternity is working rigorously--combining resources and joining hands in reestablishing itself as a social and ethical enterprise. The conscious movement has begun to sprout in style and the fashion world is proclaiming: Green is the new black.
Image credit: Flickr/emilysnuffer
All interview excerpts are from the author's capstone research project.
Raheen Khan is a recent graduate with Masters in Sustainability Studies from Ramapo College of New Jersey.