Sustainability in fashion

In the fashion industry, innovation and increased production is a double edged sword. While it should objectively be a good thing, if production is handled irresponsibly, it can be devastating to the environment.

On one hand, it is exciting and refreshing to see so many creatives immerse themselves in the world of fashion design and the business of fashion. On the other however, there is an age old problem of unsustainable production and generation of waste. The fashion industry generates an astounding amount of waste a year and it wasn’t until recently that it showed signs of slowing down.

In recent years, sustainability has ceased to be a trend and has reached far beyond what used to be a niche. It has almost entirely been adapted into mainstream culture. It started as a way for brands to portray themselves and attract the attention of a market they were previously missing out on, the conscious consumer market. The conscious consumer is one that pays attention to their purchases and expects a brand’s values to align with their own. This is the reason why brands such as TenTree, which plants 10 trees for every item it sells, and CHNGE, which is rooted in ethical manufacturing and has strong societal messages, have become very successful, very quickly.

There are a few ways to be ‘sustainable’ in fashion. Ideally, a brand will cover all the bases and excel at sustainable manufacturing, ethical buying, and social responsibility. In other words, a brand will care about their people, their product, and everyone else.

1. Their people

A fashion brand will manufacture their products in one of two ways: overseas or in-house. Overseas manufacturing of course, means outsourcing to other countries which usually have very loosely worded, poorly regulated labour laws that allow wealthy western companies to exploit their population. To most, this wasn’t such a big problem since the argument was that in any case, individuals from developing countries were in need of jobs and this solved that problem. This of course, leaves out the entirety of the context in which both parties in this agreement operate. Developing countries are trying to do just that, develop and grow. It’s hard to do so when your job opportunities and salary are capped at minimum wage. Especially when for most developing countries, minimum wage is just a few dollars a day. To put this in perspective, in Canada, minimum wage is just below 14 dollars an hour and the average minimum wage job such as customer service representative is quite easy compared to the work that these individuals endure. Imagine working 10 hours in a factory with no air conditioning, little access to water, and absolutely no growth opportunities, for 3 dollars a day. 

A sustainable fashion brand, unlike every brand that falls under any of the manufacturing conditions mentioned above, cares about their people. Manufacturing can be sustainable in many ways but for the purpose of this blog post, i’ll refer to the social sustainability aspect of it. Sustainable manufacturing means, providing good working conditions, growth opportunities, and a reasonable salary to manufacturing workers. This is sustainable in the long run because in this case, everybody wins. The brand gets dedicated workers that are loyal to the business on the one end, and on the other, workers can enjoy a solid workplace. 

2. Their product

Most clothing companies will manufacture clothing with Polyester fabrics. The reason why this fabric is an all time favorite is that it is stretchy, comfortable, and durable. However, what doesn’t get mentioned very often is that Polyester is manufactured from crude oil and every time a piece of polyester fabric is washed, it releases plastic microfibres that contaminate our oceans. If you head to your favourite clothing store its pretty likely that you will see a percentage of Polyester on just about every item in store. So, what exactly can be done about this and how can we transition out of the excessive consumption of unsustainable fabrics?

From a companies stand point, they would need to transition to highly sustainable fabrics such as Linen which is made from fibres of the flax plant. Another option is to replace cotton with its organic alternative. Organic cotton eliminates the use of harmful chemicals and requires significantly smaller amounts of water to grow. A company can also invest time and money on garment technology but what has always proven to be a safe bet is recycling!

Brands like Ellen Fisher are innovative in their use of fabrics like cotton, wool, and cashmere that have been re-spun from old garments or cutting room scraps. Another example is Thought a UK brand that specializes in creating staples from fabrics like Ramie and Hemp.

BIRDS EYE VIEW OF THE OCEAN

BIRDS EYE VIEW OF THE OCEAN

3. Everyone else

Second only to oil, the fashion industry is the largest polluter in the world which shouldn’t be too surprising. What might be however, is that nowadays, companies are hiding behind words like ‘sustainability’ or ‘recycling’ to appeal to a consumer market that would have previously considered them too wasteful or harmful to the environment. Ultimately, they end up ‘green washing’ their own brands. Similar to ‘social washing’, ‘green washing’ refers to when brands spend more time and money telling consumers they’re green, than actually implementing new policy. While actual tangible proof that a company is sustainable is necessary, one of the most important elements of sustainability is transparency. The conscious consumer appreciates honesty over everything else. This is why, when H&M introduced it #Reworkit campaign asking consumers to return their used clothing for it to be recycled, the brand was under heat when it was revealed that less than 0.1% of the clothing returned is actually #reworked. While it is understandable that not all fabric can be pulled apart and re-spun, it doesn’t follow their promise of creating a closed loop system.

The issue with these campaigns is that they overpromise and underdeliver. Especially if they are created by an industry giant like H&M. Since they produce such staggering amounts of clothing every day, a recycling initiative is not what the conscious consumer expects to see.

We live in a time when thankfully, sustainability hasn’t been seen as a choice for a long time. Consumers now expect a brand to care about their impact on the world and companies are listening. Smaller, up and coming brands almost have no choice but to make their view on the environment very clear from the start.

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OVERCOMING HARDNESS WITH SOFTNESS

Interview with NYC based designer Qiongxin Kou.

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Qiongxin Kou

 

The New Year is a new start, a place for renewal. It gives us time to reflect and give ourselves a little boost of self-care, to approach life a little differently, to look after ourselves with a more ‘softly softly’ mindset. We talk to Chinese knitwear designer Qiongxin Kou about the concept of overcoming hardness with softness...

MM: As a designer in New York, the city that never sleeps, is there a strong feeling of being under pressure? Do you feel the push and pull?

Qiongxin: Yes, I do, but I feel a positive push to let myself grow faster and be more efficient to achieve my goals. I like being put under a bit of pressure when I need to be in a work mood.

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MM: How are you influenced by your Chinese heritage? Can you explain the Chinese school of thought which you apply in your life?

Qiongxin: Mentally, Chinese culture and thoughts tend toward being gentle and being humble. There is one philosophy in China called ‘Overcoming hardness with softness’, which means you don’t have to use a hard attitude to conquer a hard thing; a soft method could work out with a better result. I love and believe in this philosophy so much, and growing under this gentle heritage I do everything with a peaceful and calm heart. I feel comfortable, powerful, and more efficient in achieving the best outcome by working in this way, especially in design. My design work is always in a fresh style, the colour palette is not aggressive but bright to give an eye-catching visual effect. The construction, cut, and materials of my design pieces are not angled and hard, but simple and soft, which give wearers a more comfortable and cozy experience, and this ‘cozy wearing experience’ means everything to me in producing designs.

MM: This philosophy is reflected in the soft knitted pieces of your work. Does your mood/feelings influence your design process?

Qiongxin: Yes, this is why I love haute couture techniques and try to incorporate hand-making skills in every collection. I love how delicate and original those hand stitches look on garments. Only a person who is in a peaceful and calm mood could bring that delicate beauty and quality look to life, it doesn’t matter with how simple or complicated the techniques. I love to deliver a very comfortable and wholesome wearing experience to my customers, so not only do I work in a soft mood but also choose soft fabrics and materials to complete my designs.

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"I love and believe in this philosophy so much, and growing under this gentle heritage I do everything with a peaceful and calm heart..."

MM: Can you describe the 'Bamboo Culture' collection that we see here?

Qiongxin: Bamboo Culture is inspired by the physiques of bamboo which embody the values appreciated by the underlying philosophies of Chinese culture - Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Of the three, Confucianism teaches humanism, virtue, and self-behaviour; Taoism conveys harmony in nature and its ability to restore balance; Buddhism preaches karma and self-control. The three different schools share many common values, one of which is the fundamental belief of bamboo culture: self-actualisation through adequate reflection upon oneself and one’s relation to society and nature. 

Inspired by Bamboo Culture, I want to create a slow design system that balances the industry and the environment around it. Beginning with using a zero-waste design process and sustainable materials, I increased the longevity of a garment while decreasing its eco-footprint. Every piece was finished by hand; I work closely with craftsmen to develop innovative methods of construction, fabrication, and treatment. 

MM: As a creative practitioner, does being part of the slow fashion movement help you to be more mindful? How have you embraced sustainability into your design process?

Qiongxin: Yes, it helps, because if I choose to be part of slow fashion, I will be responsible not only for a more sustainable design process, but also in promoting cultural traditions that offer a social function. For example, in China, we have 56 ethnic groups, and in each group, they have their special traditional handcraft, such as natural dyeing, hand embroidery, weaving and so on. So, if I use one hand-making technique in my design, my work not only delivers the aesthetic but showcases my beautiful culture to the world.

Also through careful selection of methods in how I approach the production of my designs, I exclude many factors that have been harmful, superficial and wasteful, so the wearer can be free from these negativities, resulting in real responsible designs that will last.

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MM: Is self-awareness important to you? To feel well- grounded and strong in both yourself and your role as creator? Does designing deepen your knowledge about yourself?

Qiongxin: Yes, of course. Self–awareness is very important to me. This lets me know who I really am; why I make every decision; how I communicate with myself and others ; and my living value in the world. Having clear self-awareness could help everyone see what is right, like if a person deeply knows themselves they would know how to act appropriately, and automatically care for the living environment, and would not need to be told by anyone else to protect the earth because it is a very good thing.  

MM: What feeds your soul?

Qiongxin: My lovely growing environment and childhood built by my parents, this is the key reason to why I am 'me' right now, and why I think, talk, and communicate with the world this way. I feel so grateful for being their child, because my sincere, brave, and positive attitude along with my values were fostered from them.

Thank you Qiongxin for giving us an insight into your world and your softness philosophy. MM readers, what do you think? What feeds your soul?