At the end of last year, at a co-working space in Taipei, while my Hacker Paradise comrades wrote lines of code and brainstormed new business plans, I sat there with my headphones on and watched videos.
I was avoiding a scary list of things I wanted to try, skills I wanted to learn. Unfortunately, I have 2+ decades’ worth of experience in procrastination and making excuses. Fortunately, it turns out reflection and open-ended exploration can be as important as productivity. Because one line from one video has stuck with me ever since:
“What I think is really important is to not commit to one idea of the future that you have, but instead, commit to a problem that you want to solve.” — Derek Sivers
The main reason for my stalling was lack of meaning. Doing things and learning things could help propel me forward, but increasingly felt like a laundry list of tasks and projects, all out of sync. I was missing the main idea, the burning desire. The reason I wanted to start a company of my own. What did I want to prove, and improve?
I had to fall in love with the problem, not the solution. The purpose, not the byproducts. A new friend Ben caught me off guard with his hauntingly similar question just a few weeks later: What was I setting out to solve? I needed to define this, and I gave myself five seconds to do so.
My answer surprised me at first, then not at all. It wasn’t just about making clothing. It was about making and using clothing in a better, more efficient way. A quick mental pattern-mapping of my erratic, unfinished ideas over the years — from a cross-country vintage fashion road trip to an app for borrowing and lending goods — convinced me this had always been my problem to solve.
material was going to be the first major project to start tackling it, for real this time.
if you’re not part of the answer, you’re part of the problem.
what is the problem?
When I committed to exploring the clothing industry “for real this time,” a ten-second Google search confirmed this industry is one of the most polluting, second only to oil. Americans generate 14M tons of clothing waste each year. That averages out to 68 pounds of waste per person, for textiles alone.
← for scale, this entire art piece of disposed garments, almost an entire warehouse story high, weighs less than one ton.
Imagine 14 million of these piled high and wide. Year after year.
Where is all this stuff going?
Bad news: most of your disposed garments don’t morph into quirky art installations in Brooklyn or LA. I wrote more about that here. Good news: we can help in a slew of ways, most of which are free. And freeing!
what can we do?
My first post left you with quite the cliffhanger. You’ve probably been wondering this whole time what you can do to help fix the messed-up garment industry.
The only four words you have to remember from this post:
Don’t EVER throw out your clothing, even if torn or stained or what you would consider unwearable, unusable, undesirable. If you don’t want to sell it, swap it, or give it to a friend: by all means donate! Procedures are in place to handle textile sorting. Leave it to the specialists or you will be adding to landfills. By making this minor shift, we can collectively start changing things in a major way.
“The most responsible thing you can do with buying clothes is, number one, buy used clothes. The damage has been done in making them. That’s the most responsible thing.”
— Yvon Chouinard, quoted in Worn Wear: a Film About the Stories We Wear
- As Chouinard points out, the greenest material — greener than organic cotton, hemp, linen or grass — is that which has already been made. Try buying vintage and secondhand.
- Wear and repair your stuff as long as possible. Maintain it well by taking ten seconds to read the tags before washing. Wear it out — earn that familiar satisfaction of closure, for your clothing. Donate when it has been worn beyond repair.
- Give your clothing another life! Lend, swap or sell. There is no limit to the amount of owners a garment can have, the amount of lives it can touch (literally and figuratively), until it wears out beyond repair. Then it should still be donated.
- Buy less, but buy better. Someone is paying the costs for that $3 shirt, that $15 dress. Now, it may be the garment factory workers. In the long term, it will be your kids and grandkids. Look for clothing made from high-quality and/or reclaimed materials. Like material. (Didn’t you see that coming?)
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. — Mark Twain
what am i doing about it?
Once I realized that minimizing waste, specifically garment and textile waste, had always been my problem to solve, I became my own guinea pig to test out a kaleidoscope of solutions with fairly minimal effort and investment. Here are a few:
- #NoNewStuff: for 2016, I vowed to not buy anything new. Save consumables and one piece of luggage, I’m ~130 days in and going strong. More here.
- Making & wearing blazers, almost all the time. Getting prototypes made to test styles, fits, colors, fabrics. Wear-testing them myself. Letting my friends try them out for on-the-spot feedback.
- Virtual Closet: Remember Cher Horowitz’s closet in Clueless? I’m creating that for my own stuff now. If I know what I own, I can better track how often I wear it, when it gets worn out, and what I do with it next.
- Research, research, research. See the next section.
Now two weeks in, I will spend the next 85 days sourcing material — asking you, the 2016 Presidential candidates, and anyone I meet what they are curious about when it comes to their clothing. Answers will be researched and compiled on this nifty site:
I started with my own most irksome question: What happens to your clothing when you donate it? I knew not everything got resold at my local Goodwill. (What are the chances someone would find my old Wet Seal bandage skirts appealing? C’mon!)
I’d love to help you find answers to your clothing problems. When something comes to mind, find me here: bit.ly/sourcingmaterial.
What’s next for material’s initial bizwear line is sourcing and producing the first batch of women’s blazers. The design is ready. The materials are not. I am being picky, mostly because I don’t want to make something that isn’t needed, something that isn’t better than what’s out there. There is no use in ethically producing that which shouldn’t be produced at all. But I’m close. And I now know a whole lot more about the production of your clothing.
Heads up — it’s mostly all assembled by hand:
My goal isn’t to make a blazer; my goal is to make the most kick-@$% blazer ever worn and get even those who say “blazers aren’t for me” to wear them and transform into the confident and sharp women they already were.
After blazers, we can start again with a new clothing item. Continue this in succession until soon enough, we’ve collectively reimagined and extended the lifecycle of our entire closet. And then we can incorporate other brands and other material goods, creating a system that minimizes waste by design, instead of imposing unrealistic changes on any one link of the supply or demand chain. Or charging $400+ for a “sustainable” garment.
This first goal is about driving consumers to action — giving them a solution — instead of relying on awareness-raising and complaint alone. Love it, or fix it.
This year so far has been an exercise in patience. In breaking things down to small steps. To keep going, despite not having all of the answers.
Future me will rest easier and stand taller if I can serve any part in creating an interconnected network of all material things — one in which buying, repairing, and transferring ownership of physical items will be quick and painless, even fun and social. A system connecting people through their relationships to material goods and the experiences surrounding them, and minimizing waste all the while.
Current me is psyched to be making snazzy blazers and telling people to stop throwing out their clothing.
Here’s to being part of the answer.
Looking to find your problem to solve? These helped drive me to action: