Sustainability is hard. Near impossible. Those of us in the fashion industry already know this; still, the creating of my first “sustainable, ethical” capsule collection was a journey deep into the difficulty. A lesson in many hard truths.
For me, it comes down to some crucial things: sourcing, waste, and longevity.
With regards to sourcing:
How, where, and under what circumstances we obtain the materials we use to make our creations determines so much of what makes a garment "sustainable" or "ethical". We can’t just use “green” fabrics, or produce locally, though these are good starts—we really have to tackle the roots of all elements, right down to the seeds in cotton fields, before we can attempt to revolutionize the rest of what blossoms into the colorful albeit weed-speckled garden that is the fashion industry.
My initial plan with this project was to use fabrics from Milan and surrounding Northern Italy, where select specialized mills are developing progressively sustainable fabrics. The technology and the results are amazing: beautiful fabrics made of recycled plastic bottles, recycled pre-consumer wool and cotton, organic wools, organic dyes, etc.
Alas, if we analyze all components of a piece's production that each carry weight in the determining of a sustainability grade, ecological fabric from Milan is not fully "sustainable" or "green". First because of the energy and fuel it takes to produce the fabric. Second because of the energy and fuel required to transport the fabric from rural Italy to Manhattan, New York.
I ultimately sourced fabric from a jobber that collects and redistributes excess bulk yardage that would otherwise be disposed of from retailers such as J.Crew, Maggy London, etc. The waste generated by the fashion industry as a result of the epidemic of over-production is pressing issue we’ve not yet found a working solution for. We make so much in order to make our margins; when really our highest margin is in our damage…
Furthermore, my use of “waste” materials required a long drive to another state 180 miles away, and all of the carbon emission that came with the journey. And even if I had purchased my fabric locally, in my home-away-from-home and workplace neighborhood known as the New York City Garment District, there's the factor of where that fabric came from, how it got there, what that is made from.
Also to note: adding to the unideal, it’s hard to control fabric quality, to be picky about your taste and print and drape and color, to really be a designer, when you only have a limited selection of “waste fabrics” to choose from.
With regards to waste:
Small batch production like mine, in the New York City garment district, has all but nowhere to send its pre-consumer textile waste scraps so that they can be recycled, Italian-mill style, into new fabrics. My sample maker, Zouhir, is far too overworked to dedicate extra time and resources to making sure scraps get disposed of properly. It was on me to pay attention, but I was stuck at my day job. And so I am guilty of throwing fabric waste away—although usually I am adamant about recycling scraps at the NYC Greenmarket.
With regards to longevity:
Some of the pieces I have shown are old pieces of my own which I have kept—in true committed sustainable style—for years. The silver jeans, for example, are from high school. They’ve been around the world with me and have suffered holes, tailoring, and more holes. Getting creative with our old pieces—such as by covering them in paint—is a great way to be sustainable, to reuse, to reduce.
Still, though, there remains the issue of the fact that there is nothing eco or biodegradable or even healthy about covering our garments in metallic silver, polyurethane- (and who knows what else) based paint. Similarly, when I bleach or dye old pieces to give them new color and texture, there is nothing eco about pouring the toxic dyes and chemicals down the drain when I am done. I should also mention the water usage involved in this process...
Ultimately, an attempt to live out my ideals and hopes for the industry and be sustainable leaves me contending with the fact that good design, good quality, good fashion shows are likely going to take more from the earth than they'll give back. But awareness is a good first step in the right direction towards healing the industry and the planet.