By: Angela Luna
The UN’s work and reports often feed into our business practices, and actually were the guiding force for our latest impact strategy and supply chain pivot.
When I learned that the deadline of climate change’s effects on our world wasn’t some far off date, and that we would actually start to see detrimental impacts by 2030, it woke me up. Since I first heard about global warming and climate change, I was one of the many people who naively thought the consequences wouldn’t be visible during my lifetime — that it was something my great-grandchildren would be forced to address. Learning about this report caused me to call many areas of my life into question: I went from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet, cutting back my meat consumption by 80%. I started shopping for groceries locally, frequenting the farmers market in Union Square that promote ethical and organic production. I [already] completely cut out supporting many fashion brands, and opted for vintage and consignment shopping. And this last point very much stuck with me, as the owner of a fashion brand.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
It’s no secret that clothing production is environmentally detrimental. I’m often sharing that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, just behind oil. So many reporters and brands are making the obvious connection between fashion and climate change, but oftentimes leave out the rest of the chain. They leave out the connection climate change has to global displacement.
From flooding in Bangladesh, to drought in West Africa, to hurricanes in Puerto Rico: we are seeing climate refugees worldwide with every natural disaster. In some circumstances these people are not forced to leave the country, but they are internally displaced from their homes nonetheless. Climate displacement has not had much recognition in the grand scheme of the refugee crisis to date, but since 2008 we have seen the start of this wave.
As a fashion brand making clothing, it seemed illogical for us as to produce clothing to sell and donate as a way to benefit displaced persons, when the production of said clothing was further contributing to the exact crisis that we were trying to address. In a capitalistic way, the continuation of production the way it is means there will always be a need for our pieces, but we didn’t set out on this journey to hurt the world. From day one, it has always been our mission to make the world better.
So yes, it would be irresponsible for ADIFF to continue producing garments from virgin material (even though we have always used post-consumer recycled polyester and nylon), especially when there are already so many clothes in the world taking up landfills. Making garments for donation, while they may provide some temporary relief and shelter, is not a sustainable solution in either the environmental or ethical sense.
I decided that we needed to start upcycling “waste” materials if we were going to continue making new pieces. The obvious source was discarded/donated clothing or fabric scraps, however there is a lack of product consistency there, making scalability difficult. We looked to the refugee crisis to see what discarded materials existed that there were abundant quantities of, and came across two major sources: UNHCR tents and life vests from Lesvos. We settled on using these tents and life vests as the raw material to produce our new collection, with the goal of locating a consistent supply of “waste” material that we can use for future collections to come.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Since we no longer wanted to continue with the B1G1 product-based donation model, it was time to evolve our impact strategy to what I’ve wanted it to be since day one: employing refugees to produce our pieces.
When I visited Greece for the first time in 2016, I was amazed by the amount of professional sewing and tailoring talent there was in the camps. It has been my dream to open up a sewing/design studio inside a local camp, employing those skilled tailors, providing our workers with excess material to produce their own pieces, leading the way to the establishment of a sustainable micro-economy within the camp itself. From our impact research over the years, it’s been apparent for a while that the best long-term impact is job creation and empowerment.
We saw our new collection and time at the CFDA as an opportunity to embark on this mission. After winning grant funding from the CFDA and Accessories Council, we were able to open our own sewing center in Athens, Greece that employs resettled refugees from Afghanistan. Albeit, it wasn’t quite in a camp — otherwise we would have needed certification and approval from IOM, which isn’t well-liked locally because of its lack of organization and transparency — but it was a start.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Collected “waste” materials are deconstructed, cleaned, and re-cut at our facility in Greece. They are fashioned into flat sheets of fabric, from which we can cut pattern pieces specific to our new designs. We’re cutting back on our use of new materials — only trying to source zippers, trims, and details from mills and suppliers.
Our new collection includes some basics that incorporate upcycled life vest materials and are made from organic cotton. With these new pieces, we automatically enroll our customers into our own recycling program. For example, with our t-shirts: when a customer no longer wants their shirt — either it got a stain, or ripped, or they no longer have a use for it — they can send it back to us in exchange for a ‘new’ one at a discounted price, and we will upcycle their old shirt into a new piece. This acts as a way for us to close our consumption loop, ensuring none of our pieces end up in a landfill, and intentionally extending the end-of-life cycle of the garment. (See my previous op-ed on where your donated clothes are actually ending up, and how the fashion industry should consciously consider the end-of-life of all it’s products.)
So far we only have this planned with our “lifeline basics,” but it’s my goal to have all of our collection pieces not be subscription based, but eligible for exchange.
This is truly just the beginning of our commitment to address the SDGs — and to be honest, it’s not that difficult for the fashion industry to respond to these three goals within its production practices. I see opportunities in our future to address goals: 1) no poverty, 5) gender equality, 10) reduced inequalities. I encourage other emerging designers to take a look at which goals they feel competent to address, and challenge the established fashion houses to consider their potential positive impact by allowing these goals to guide their practices.