Confused by all the chatter that surrounds “ethical,” “sustainable” and “conscious” fashion? You’re not alone. That’s mostly because really, truly, these words pretty much mean nothing. Without an industry-wide governing organization to hand out certifications — which the fashion industry just happens to lack — designers (and wary consumers) are pretty much on their own to define these words and implement those meanings.
You can think of these terms as parallel to “natural” in the food world — a marketing word with little true meaning. “‘Sustainability’ is sort of a conscious checklist for designers to go through in their minds and decide what they feel is important to them when manufacturing and developing their collection,” says Tara St James, founder of the NYC-based clothing line Study. And, because of the lack of set standards, this process is mostly out of necessity. She cites TED’s Ten, a checklist of 10 goals — think using design to minimize waste and encourage less consumption — as a good tool for sustainably minded designers. There’s also the Higg Index. Developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, it’s a tool intended to measure the “environmental and social performance” of apparel and footwear.
Sound kinda theoretical and complicated? That’s because sustainability has really moved past just sourcing feel-good materials and making sure factories aren’t abusing their workers — there are more nuances now. And, St James explains that brands mostly tend to approach sustainability by picking out a pet facet that strikes them and running with it.
For her, it’s about going beyond the basics and re-accessing the need to make so many clothes (she’s recently reorganized her production schedule, swapping the traditional seasonal calendar for a more flexible once-a-month gap-filling approach). For others, there are different main goals. At Loomstate, the brand founded by Rogan Gregory and Scott Mackinlay-Hahn, it’s using organic cotton. And at Everlane, it’s employing “radical transparency,” which founder Michael Preysman succinctly describes as “know your costs and know your factories.”
Loomstate is about sussing out the right raw materials for its wares, but it goes deeper than that. Mackinlay-Hahn — who is a co-chair of the new CFDA Sustainability Committee — explains that the impact of conventional materials on soil fertility and human health convinced the brand to pursue this path. He’s also concerned, overall, with the bigger picture, having his processes be restorative and regenerative — adding value to the market and having positive interactions with partners and the supply chain.
Everlane, which produces its luxury basics in the U.S. as well as China and Europe, cites the treatment of workers as its big thing. Preysman explains that it picks a factory based on what its speciality is and how it works for the company. He also just thinks people just ought to be given this information. “I think people have a right to know — if you go and you buy something, you should have a right to know where your things come from,” he says. “It’s your product, so you should know what the origins of it are.”
But, why is all of this important, even? “At this point, I can tell you everything is wrong,” says Carmen Artigas, professor of ethical fashion courses at FIT and originator of the study of fashion anthropology. She got into sustainable fashion after a sabbatical to India; there she was awakened to the possibilities of natural fibers and dyes and the importance of maintaining traditional artisanal craftsmanship (another off-the-beaten-path sustainability consideration). While her course is righteous, her classes aren’t exclusively about the warm fuzzies: “First of all, we do damage control,” she says. “The first class is very depressing, because we address the mess.”
Happily, it’s changing, on pretty much every level, even beyond deepened understanding and goals. While traditionally “sustainable” clothing would be prohibitively expensive and, well, ugly, that’s no longer the norm. Everlane, Loomstate, and Study are shining examples that these choices don’t have to come at great expense. Oh, and these brands prove that sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be the crunchy look of years past. “Thank god, because the people who had the kind heart and the right principles had the worst taste,” says Artigas. It’s no longer a set aesthetic. “You’re not going to be able to pick sustainable clothing out of a crowd,” says Mackinlay-Hahn.
Beyond price and look, there’s a general sense of positive change on a grander scale. Mackinlay-Hahn sees the “sustainability” conversation moving from the romantic to the realistic and technical, being buffered by a more collective shift toward these practices. St James thinks transparency is the next big industry thing, and Artigas is stoked about the way young designers are approaching traditional skills. “It’s really an exciting time for this conversation, because the rubber’s hitting the road,” says Mackinlay-Hahn.