Clothing: We’re In It Together

One of the aims of my work is decoupling the word “fashion” from “clothing”. We all wear clothes — but we care about fashion to varying degrees. From daily fashionistas, to dressing up for an occasional night out, to those whose only relationship to clothing is bits of fabric to cover their naked body, we are all involved in the apparel industry.

Each of us are consumers, and many are producers, manufacturers, shippers, retailers, and all the other aspects that make up this $3 trillion dollar industry. We all know there are many negative impacts to the apparel manufacturing industry, and at Disrupt, we are constantly working on ways to positively intervene.

So, how can we all have a positive impact on the clothing industry? When it comes to actions we can take to “make the world a better place” (a relatively ephemeral and intangible thing in relation to say, picking up groceries to make dinner), simple solutions are very attractive. If, for example, I can quickly make a choice to buy one thing over another at the store — especially when it has a tag on it that says “eco-friendly” or whatever other attribute I’m looking for, then I can feel good about making that choice, while also not having to invest a huge amount of time into research.

One of the nicest factories I’ve ever been to, in central India. The owner designed the building for maximum air flow and uses coconut husks to power the generators.

We are all very susceptible to the powerful influence of media, marketing and our peers — so it’s hard to know what is legitimately a better choice, and what is being green-washed. Synthetic, man-made, green, clean and natural are all industry applied terms that don’t always mean what we think. Man-made is a better term than synthetic, but really neither are quite accurate. Green, clean and natural are all unregulated marketing terms.

Adding to all this is the common misconception that sustainable solutions are both more expensive and — in the case of clothing — not very attractive. Now more than ever, there is a range of brands who are not only making use of these methods in fashionable and trendy ways, but also taking advantage of economies of scale to create products that can be equal or lower in price.

In reality, it is a hugely complex issue. It’s not a simple equation of hemp is better than conventional cotton and Tencel (for example) is better than either. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. What conditions was the hemp grown under, how was it processed, what is the take-back or end-of-life (or better, circular solution) plan? Is the effort you want to focus on water conservation, in which case a responsibly produced man made fibre may win out (as long as the microfibres are being collected in your home washing machine!), or is it encouraging fair trade labour, in which case, perhaps a peace silk collective shows the most positive impact.

Coconut husk power in central India.

Simple solutions feel great to accomplish (“Hurrah, I did something to save people and the environment!”) and while they do have the benefit of encouraging thoughts around these issues, they can also backfire and create more problems than they intended to solve in the first place. For example, recycled polyester sounds good, but if it’s mixed with another fibre, it’s impossible to recycle and often ends up in a landfill. Donated clothing to several African countries has swamped local sewing economies, to the point of government proposed bans.

The recently released Global Fashion Agenda report does a great job of showcasing many of the complexities within the system, and that in itself is one of the reasons why it is a fairly confusing landscape for many people. Measuring the impact comparisons of the variety of different raw materials and processes that go into each garment while taking into account the human, environmental and industrial factors is not something the average person can figure out on the back of their shopping list — and if fact, many designers can’t either. The textile manufacturing industry is notoriously secretive to protect supplier relations, labyrinthine, often unscrutinized, prone to undisclosed sub-contracting, and even in the GFC report, they mention they are unable to compare toxicity due to lack of appropriate quantitative methods (pg.42).

A result of all this is that it can result in an exhausted consumer, researcher and designer who, in an effort to just get dressed or do their job, may take the easy win of choosing, say, organic cotton and calling it a day. It can also cause some paralysis — not knowing what the right choice is, and so doing nothing. But recognizing that these are complex issues that require more research than we probably want to do is a great step forward to encourage conversation and knowledge in our communities as consumers and/or designers.

During the sustainable design workshops I teach, we break down where all the raw materials come from. Plastic -> oil -> plankton -> in the end, it all comes from the earth.

The most important concept is that everything — absolutely everything! — comes from nature. This seems obvious when seen from, for example, a space shuttle. Plastic, oil, nylon, polyester, clay, hemp, silk, monkeys, pine trees, sky-scrappers, my oven at home, bleach, me — it all comes from the big ball of rock, stone, water and gas that we live on.

We are enclosed in tight layer of atmosphere, sealing us all in on this literal spaceship we call Earth, and everything that we touch, make and create is interconnected. We are small creatures in relation to the world so it’s easy to feel disconnected from what happens on the other side of the globe. But the reality is that everything we make has to come from the bit of rock we live on, and it all goes back into it — as a gas, in a landfill, in the ocean, or decomposed into the ground.

There are a few exceptions like the Mars rover for example, but otherwise, we live with everything we make forever. And for that reason alone, it’s fairly pressing that we know what we take out, how we change it, and how it goes back in or on this place we call home.

The reality is that in order to change the problems we need to change the systems that perpetuate the issues to begin with. The good news is that the more research and highlights we focus on these issues, the more we will learn and be able to adjust accordingly.

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