Nov 29, 2023
A friend’s teenage daughter asked to interview me for a school project about sustainability in fashion. Obviously, I said yes. She sent me questions and I typed responses, some of which are below.
Sometimes when I try to articulate what I do and why anyone should care, I end up in a rabbit warren of ideas. I'm not sure I totally avoided that here, but I appreciated having specific questions to bang on!
Her questions, as given to me, are in bold.
Based on your experience with sustainability in fashion, why do you think it’s important that we shift what we think about when it comes to purchasing clothing?
Purchase mindset is this push-and-pull: The industry influences us, and we influence it right back. (When I say “the industry,” I mostly mean the system of relationships and practices and conventions that brands rely on to make and sell their goods.) Brands sort of exist in the middle as go-betweens: what brands show us is usually how we experience the fashion industry (and to a lesser extent, manufacturing).
There are a lot of stakeholders in these industries, which means a lot of interest in influencing what we, as consumers, "think about when we purchase clothing." And obviously those stakeholders' priorities are about a lot of things besides clothes, like: making a return on their investments, whether in infrastructure, in machinery, and in some cases, in political negotiations.
Because of all this investment, their efforts—the industry’s and the brands’—are to “shift what we think” in favor of buying a LOT.
The more we buy, the higher the return on a piece of clothing. A $1million factory that produces one shirt would result in an unsellable $1million shirt (plus production and shipping costs). But a $1million dollar factory used to produce 5 billion shirts starts to yield a more reasonable $2/shirt (plus production and shipping costs). Now they can make a profit!…and billions of shirts no one really needs.
Supporting it means we need to buy A LOT, and OFTEN. So we’re invited and conditioned to think we want—or should want—constant newness. Soaking up this industry-dominated messaging, we come to think it’s somehow in our best interest to have access to rapidly and cheaply made clothes that go in and out of style quickly.
The enormous human and environmental costs of this model are well documented: everything from state sanctioned slave-labor to polluted and barren landscapes to micro-plastics filling waterways and our bodies.
The highly intentional, if ill-considered, messaging coming from the industry is designed to convince us that we should go along with it. (I say ill-considered because eventually, it will self-destruct.) And it works!
Many of us are so busy with our lives that we may not stop to wonder about these things. They became status quo when we weren’t looking.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! “Do I WANT to support this industrial model?” is a good place to start, and for a lot of people, when they learn all the terrible things associated with it, the answer is no. Next, it's important to realize—and maybe TRUST (because the evidence is not mainstream)—that we don’t have to. That change is hard, sure, but we can change. And the industry can't keep operating like this without our tacit approval.
If the global concerns weren’t enough—and they are—fast fashion isn't even a positive development from a consumer experience standpoint! Honestly, I don’t think the short-term pleasure for us as end-users is even there. Have you ever had polyester clinging to your skin? Melted poly threads on tags and seams making you itchy? The frustration of your new jeans getting all weird and ripply when the elastane fibers (that are mixed in with the cotton, now standard) snap? And the frustration of wondering what to do with all the stuff you don’t want to wear anymore?
To me, it's exciting to reconsider assumptions about how we consume clothes. It's a puzzle that includes economics, psychology, material science, design, and more.
But I can see how having to reconsider it might also feel a little unfair. The industry went this direction for all kinds of reasons, and we the clothes-wearing public weren't always consulted. We certainly didn’t give "informed consent:" Sellers cut costs by institutionalizing exploitation, then interpreted our willingness to spend money on these low-priced products as acceptance of exploitation.
Of course, it isn’t.
But changing our expectations of what we'll find in the store waiting for us is genuinely hard. And that's a big part of why it continues.
What motivated or inspired you to want to create this business?
I'm a clothes-wearer first. I started the business because I wanted to wear better clothes. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find what I wanted. And that even when I found something close, there would be design and manufacturing choices I didn’t want in my clothes: serged seams, polyester care labels, small or non-existent pockets, etc.
I wanted my clothes to have durable style and sustainability. (And, to be honest, I didn’t want to have to work for anyone else.)
I’ve benefited from a decent amount of generational economic and social stability in my life. That meant I could say, “I want to start making and selling clothes that are EXACTLY in line with my values,” and then try it, without fear of losing the roof over my head.
On one hand, this could be a much riskier step for someone with less stability. On the other hand, many people do have some flexibility in their work and spending choices; maybe more than they think.
Which brings us back to the “shift in thinking” thing. How can you carve your life into the shape of your values? That’s a question anyone can ask themselves, and there are answers big and small. It takes awareness, though. And usually some experimentation. I think it’s worth doing.
What are you doing to make your clothing more sustainable? Why is this significant?
There are so many considerations, and they’re all important.
I tend to prioritize quality–in design, construction, and material; stylistic durability, so that wearers can enjoy them for a long time; using fully biodegradable (i.e. plastic-free) and low or lower-impact fibers; and ethical treatment of workers. Right now I’m my only employee, but I hope to hire help in the next few years, and the hourly wage I have priced in for production is meaningfully higher than the minimum wage.
There are many areas in which I could improve: I use electricity, much derived from coal. I don’t know the growing or weaving conditions of my linen, and even if it’s excellent, the material is has to be shipped overseas to get to me. I try to design and cut garments to use the fabric efficiently, but there’s still some fabric waste. I don’t throw it away; I save it, hoping I’ll think of a use for it. It’s a work in progress.
My scale is so small that what I’m doing—good or bad—is NOT significant, in terms of direct impact. I think my significance is mainly in the promotion of these concepts. I’m very stubborn about it, and I’ll talk about it with whoever will listen. Also, I think my clothes are pretty nice and hope they win some people over.
How does creating long-lasting pieces affect the environment?
Long-lasting pieces make it possible, even enjoyable, to buy and have less. Without the mindset piece from the first question, though, it won’t have as much impact.
If someone buys my clothes and decides to replace everything in their closet a month later ANYWAY, at least a good-quality piece can have a long afterlife on the second-hand market, rewarding those who buy “used.”
But you can’t count on rewearing and reselling, which is a good reason to prioritize biodegradability, as well.
What is something important you have learned about how the way clothing is made has an impact on society/the environment?
Fast fashion math doesn’t “math”. It’s been critical for me to learn this—I didn’t know it when I started—because it takes the pressure off to compete with them. Their model doesn’t add up. Mine has to. I’m not playing the same game as them. My end goal, if I could wave a magic wand, would not be to reform the industry. It would be to diminish it.
What should consumers try to think about when they buy clothing in order to be more sustainable?
Don’t feel guilty about what you wear, or what you can afford. Just do the best you can, and try to stay aware of opportunities to do better when you can. Like EC? says, buy less, buy better, make it last.
In practice, don’t take it on faith that a brand is doing responsible things for the environment. Keep in mind that NO new construction and NO new purchases are a net positive from an environmental standpoint. It is at BEST net neutral, and almost always negative—even with the most conscientious brands. But sometimes we need to make and buy new things. That’s fine. Just don’t overdo it.
Different brands and different people will prioritize different aspects of sustainability, and that’s necessary because it isn’t just one thing. Sustainability, or the lack of it, can exist in every aspect of what we do. So you have to pick your priorities based on what’s feasible for you, and/or what you understand to be the most important. My number one stipulation, at any price point, is to try to avoid synthetics. Acrylic, nylon, polyester, elastane, acetate, even rayon. Whenever you have a choice, stay away. They ALWAYS mean toxicity, from beginning to end.
How has the fast fashion industry affected the way you run your business?
I look to them to see what NOT to do.
Is there ever a fear that fast fashion will take the spotlight of your company and others like it?
Not really. It already has the spotlight. Fast fashion is already the water we swim in. As Amanda Lee McCarty of Clotheshorse says, all fashion is fast fashion now. (Excluding the industry outsiders, like me and other small brands). She also relates, having worked in FF, that big brands are always watching small brands. FF is very reactive.
They don’t want to lose market share to us, and they’re desperate for newness. So I worry a little that they will copy something I’m doing. That definitely happens. But they’re targeting a different audience. And they won’t do it as well—they can’t do it the way I do it. LIke I said, we’re playing a different game.
Their motivation is to constantly increase margins to appease shareholders and continue paying for the massive “machine” that they’ve built. Their goal is ever increasing scale.
Consumers have a lot of power when it comes to influencing what brands (and by extension industries) do. Our awareness and mindset—and the things we’re willing to buy and the things we aren’t—matters. I’m not really in favor of salvaging the fashion industry, but that’s another topic. As long as it’s here, making it more sustainable is an urgent priority. Pressuring brands to do better is definitely the way to do that. They want us to like them!
I'm open to suggestions from customers, but I don't need pressure. My motivation was already to do the right thing. My goal is satisfaction and a sense of self-determination: for clothes wearers everywhere, for workers in the supply chain, for myself.
There’s no comparison.