In Present Tense
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In Present Tense

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How Supply Chain Enables Sustainable Fashion

An Interview with Susanna Schick

In conducting our recent research on digital identity and the supply chain, it quickly became apparent that different industries deal with similar supply chain problems in markedly different ways. We wanted to understand these differences and similarities in such manufacturing industries as apparel, food, and pharmaceuticals, as well as in raw materials like timber, oil, and gas. We needed a lot of insider information in a limited timeframe, so I decided to engage several supply-chain subject-matter experts to assist and enhance our research. To help us understand the apparel supply chain, I brought on Susanna Schick, a sustainable fashion consultant who has worked in apparel product development for over 30 years.

“Supply chain is the most important aspect for sustainable fashion.” — Susanna Schick

Susanna supplied invaluable information on a number of topics, including critical insights into the prevalence of counterfeit materials, factory labor laws, the environmental impact of apparel production, and trash disposal as it relates to the circular supply chain, as well as a snapshot of current sustainability efforts. I interviewed Susanna in January of 2020 about how the supply chain both supports and undermines sustainable fashion.

A Race to the Bottom

Heather Vescent: How has clothing manufacturing changed?

Susanna Schick: When I started working in the apparel industry in 1993, there were four or five seasons each year, which then sat in the store for months. Compared to today where some stores have new deliveries each week — there’s basically 52 seasons a year now for a lot of brands. That’s what we consider fast fashion and even a lot of slow fashion brands have had to offer 12 seasons a year. So there’s a constant speeding up the industry and cranking out as much stuff as possible which creates a race to the bottom.

It’s this race to the bottom where in order to get clothes made faster and cheaper with higher volumes, brands have to reduce costs, so they look to countries that are willing to cut corners to get cheaper materials and have cheaper factories — they turn to countries that are willing to exploit their workers.

Unleashing Creativity

HV: One trend I see in the fashion industry is “upcycling.” What’s that?

SS: Fast fashion and upcycling are pretty much polar opposites. Where fast fashion is about cranking out as much cheap junk as possible, upcycling is about taking clothing that have already been made and using them as a raw material. You’re using old clothes to make new clothes. Suay Sew Shop is a factory in LA that exclusively does upcycling and they’re really amazing — Patagonia is currently their biggest client. (HV note: Wornwear ReCrafted is Patagonia’s recycled line.)

Upcycling is more labor intensive in the cutting and design stages. I worked at Burning Torch for many years. They buy massive quantities of vintage clothing, like a huge bag of vintage army camo, or vintage print dresses, or cashmere sweaters. They then sort it and a cutter will cut it to lay flat. This is when you cut off the sides of the garment and cut up the side seam, so it can lay flat. Then you set the pattern pieces in different parts of the cut garment so that you can make new garment from those pieces.

In this case, your cutting is very different from the normal cutting. Because instead of laying out a long sheet of paper with the pattern printed on it and many layers of fabric under it, you’re doing very piecemeal cutting on these different fabrics, to make a new garment. This means the cutter has to be more artistic and creative — a kind of artisanal cutter.

There’s also garments made from recycled materials where they’ll take plastic bottles, melt them down, and turn them into nylon fiber for clothes. They can even recycle cotton to make new cotton. There are a lot of different ways you can even create new rayon fibers from a lot of different cellulosic fibers.

Sustainable Fashion Happens in the Supply Chain

SS: The supply chain is the most important aspect of sustainable fashion. You don’t really have sustainable fashion without a sustainable supply chain. You can buy the right fabric, but if it’s being cut and sewn by people who are earning less than a living wage, it’s not really sustainable. If the fabric is being finished with toxic dyes, it’s not really sustainable. If it’s a natural fabric, you have to look at how it was extracted from the ground, how it was processed, how it was dyed, who did the cutting and sewing labor. And what was the finish? A lot of times they’ll finish clothing with chemicals. Then how was it shipped? Was it shipped from far away or was it shipped from nearby? Did they put in poly bags to ship it? (The poly bag is just a clear plastic bag to keep it perfect and the industry is looking at trying to source those in a biodegradable material or even something reusable.)

Along the way, there’s many different touch points and not just in environmental sustainability aspects. You also have to look at social responsibility. Each person who helped create that item has to be paid a living wage and has to be treated with respect and work in a safe working environment.

That’s the worst crisis in the fashion industry, especially as fast fashion took over. You’ve got countries where they are destroying their water supply for the sake of dying clothes all day. They may dump the dye effluent directly into a river that’s also a water source. And sometimes it’s also a holy river like the Ganges.

The Higg Index

HV: So how do we know which companies are sustainable?

SS: This is why the Higg Index was created. Patagonia and Walmart got together as a very unlikely pair to develop a tool so that all companies can learn which factories are the best and also incentivize factories, suppliers, trim manufactures — all these different people they work with — to be better.

Through the Higg Index, a designer can basically say, I’m going to use this fabric, this treatment, this factory, and even add this zipper and trim items, and get a Higg score instantly. The Higg score is red to green. So if it’s really bad, you’ll get a red high number score. If it’s really good, it’s a green, low number score. This shows your impact in a very easy to see way,in the design process before you’ve even manufactured the garment. This makes it easy to refine the garment in the design process. So you can see what happens if I use a different finish on this denim, which may automatically get a much greener score.

From the factory perspective, it’s basically a lifecycle assessment. The factory records everything they do, what kind of energy they use, the social environment and other environmental factors like the air quality, and what they do with their wastewater. These are self measured and confirmed by life cycle analysts, which is how they get their Higg (factory) score. So if you use a factory that has a really good Higg Index score, that’s going to be a better score for your garment.

HV: Is there a way this information is available to the end customer?

SS: The Higg Index is working on a customer-facing tag. So that will happen at some point. The Higg index has improved so much in the past decade! I remember when it was an Excel spreadsheet and there were maybe three different fabrics on there. Today it has a lot of useful data and there’s a lot of different materials, factories, suppliers, and brands. So the Higg Index has become more useful.

#lovedclotheslast

HV: Is there anything we can do today?

SS: What can people do to prevent their own textile waste is basically buy clothes that you love. There are hashtags called #lovedclotheslast, #rewear, and #slowfashion for inspiration. When you’re thinking of buying something, give yourself 24 hours before you actually buy it. Ask yourself, will I wear it 10 years from now? And if I don’t want to wear it 10 years from now, will someone else want to? Second-hand stores like Goodwill have now outpaced fast fashion thanks to Marie Kondo and the people who would rather buy second-hand. And following that trend, Nordstroms recently introduced used clothing in their stores. So buy clothes you love, that will last.

Susanna Schick has worked in product development for major fashion designers in New York and Los Angeles. Ms. Schick always remained true to her north star goal — to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number while also finding creative and intellectual fulfillment in her work.

She holds an MBA in sustainability, and created Sustainable Fashion LA to help the industry transition to circular supply chain. Her passion lies at the intersection between preserving Earth’s resources and making consumption more meaningful. She has consulted clients ranging from non-profits to Fortune 500’s. Follow her on twitter at pinkyracr.

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