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These Designers Want to Fight Climate Change. Just Don't Call Them 'Sustainable'

Indie labels like Collina Strada and VIN + OMI are among a growing breed of eco-conscious fashion brands fed up with the way the conversation around sustainability has been co-opted and diluted by billion-dollar retailers.
A mother and her child walking the Collina Strada Spring/Summer 2020 runway show | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Sarah Kent,
  • Cathaleen Chen
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States and LONDON, United Kingdom — This fall, Swedish fashion brand Asket daubed a wall on a busy Stockholm street with the message "Fuck Fast Fashion."

The company, which has pitched its business around the pursuit of an ethical and transparently-produced minimalist wardrobe, was lashing out at an industry that its founders say operates with little regard for people or planet.

Asket is among a growing breed of eco-conscious fashion labels that argue the conversation around sustainability has been co-opted and diluted by multi-billion-dollar brands. They say the industry is using the label as a marketing ploy to shift more product without enacting real change.

In other words: the fashion industry needs to produce less, and encourage people to consume less. Anything else — including most of the mainstream discussion around sustainability — is greenwashing.

“There is no such thing as sustainable fashion,” said Asket co-founder August Bard Bringéus. “I cannot back up the claim that we are a sustainable brand because clothing has an impact … we preach a moderate consumption, and that’s as far as we can go.”

Though small, brands like Asket, VIN + OMI and Collina Strada represent a potentially powerful and disruptive force in an industry where trends are often set by independent brands that know how to capture the zeitgeist.

Many of these designers say they are not policy advocates, instead leading by example: repurposing unused fabric or vintage clothes rather than buying new textiles, developing eco-friendly materials, foregoing seasonal releases to discourage consumerism, and more. Their vocal and innovative ways of operating challenge fashion's status quo and help spotlight areas where the industry needs to do more work.

VIN + OMI | Source: @vinandomi Instagram

“Sustainability as a word is so dirty,” said Omi, one half of the design duo VIN + OMI, whose fantastical designs using pioneering eco-textiles are intended to showcase their work on eco-innovation and social-impact initiatives. “We hate the word.”

Plenty of brands, big and small, are on board with the idea that the fashion industry needs to clean up its act. Fashion produces 10 percent of global emissions — more than international flights and maritime shipping, UN data show. Millions of workers toil in poorly-paid and dangerous jobs. Producing fabric and finished clothing requires massive amounts of water and can involve toxic chemicals.

Many big companies have responded to growing scrutiny of these issues with commitments to improve how they operate, promising to shift toward recycled materials, better sourcing practises and carbon neutrality. Kering SA said in September it was going carbon neutral, and earlier this year Zara committed to exclusively using sustainable cotton and recycled polyester by 2025.

The use of organic cotton is easier to understand than having to look at an entire supply chain.

“We want to use our size and scale for good and, with the help of technology and innovation, lead the change towards circular and climate-positive fashion,” an H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB spokesperson said in an email. “One example of that is our commitment to become climate positive throughout our entire value chain by 2040 at the latest – all the way from the cotton farms to the customers’ washing machines and the recycling baskets.”

Luxury brands make the case that their goods aren’t as wasteful as fast fashion because they are purchased less frequently and used longer.

"When you have a Dior dress, you're not going to put it in the garbage can," said Sylvie Bénard, head of environment at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which owns Louis Vuitton and Dior, among other brands. "You're going to give it to someone you love or you'll resell … As long as you are producing the right quantity of products at the right time in the right way, it's okay."

The initiatives taken by these billion-dollar companies can represent valuable steps toward establishing more environmentally-responsible practises.

Sydney Brown sneakers | Source: @sydneybrownshoes Instagram

Less clear is whether the collective efforts underway will reduce fashion's impact on the planet and workers in a meaningful way, particularly if they are expected to take decades. The Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainable fashion forum and advocacy group, has also warned that the industry's efforts to clean up its act are stalling. Kering, widely seen as one of the most progressive large fashion companies on these issues, saw its environmental footprint increase 12 percent in 2018 as a result of the company's rapid growth.

Many brands use the same language to describe large-scale sustainability initiatives and less-impactful capsule collections and pilot programmes, creating a misleading impression of progress.

“No one is fact-checking,” said Hillary Taymour, the designer behind Collina Strada, a New York-based contemporary brand known for its tie-dye garments. “There needs to be regulation in place where you need documents to prove that something is actually cleaner — maybe a certified stamp.”

Then there’s the flood of new products and marketing copy under the sustainability banner. The research firm Edited found a 173 percent increase in the use of the term “recycled” in brand emails between summer 2018 and 2019, and a 49 percent growth in products labeled “eco.”

“Brands are tapping into using sustainable materials because it’s easy to communicate to customers: the use of organic cotton is easier to understand than having to look at an entire supply chain,” said Edited analyst Kayla Marci.

Raffaella Hanley of Lou Dallas | Source: @loudallas Instagram

As the fashion world doubles down on big-picture sustainability initiatives, a host of smaller brands are looking for new ways to talk about their efforts. To many of them, true sustainable fashion means changing the nature of consumption itself.

“Any brand that is saying ‘here is a sustainable product,’ and is trying to make people buy things that they don’t need is disingenuous,” said Liz Ricketts, a sustainability advocate and professor at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s all nonsense unless you’re tackling overproduction, unless you’re going to say, ‘We’re not going to have a show this season.’”

Sydney Brown, a New York-based shoe designer who uses recycled and biodegradable materials, dropped her seasonal release calendar and exited wholesale to encourage customers to break the habit of buying new wardrobes every spring and fall. Instead, she’s releasing a new style every two weeks.

In her commitment to using as little petroleum as possible, Brown has sourced alternative materials, such as cork, pineapple leaves, rice husks and reclaimed wood. A vegan glue took four years to perfect.

“It’s a process of constant refinement and development,” she said. “I’ve been working on this shoestring budget from the beginning. If I've been able to do what I’ve done, then these billion-dollar companies should have been able to take us to the moon by now.”

For designers like Raffaella Hanley of the Brooklyn-based label Lou Dallas, one alternative to overproduction is to use deadstock or sell repurposed vintage rather than adding to demand for new textiles.

“We have to create a culture where secondhand is luxury,” she said. Like VIN + OMI and Collina Strada’s Taymour, Hanley doesn’t like to use the word “sustainable” to describe her work.

Anti-consumption designers can be limited in their ability to scale. It’s virtually impossible to grow a brand that relies on unusual, often expensive or hard to find materials into a global business. Often that isn’t their goal.

Hanley said she rarely makes more than 40 of any individual item; fabric supplies are by definition limited, and factories can struggle to manufacture garments made from combining two different deadstock fabrics, one of Hanley’s preferred methods.

Taymour, too, doesn’t envision Collina Strada growing into a megabrand.

“Our brand is so small right now that it isn’t a problem, but if we were to grow, I don’t want to be making hundreds of thousands of T-shirts that get thrown away,” she said.

The limited access to these labels is a challenge nonetheless. While they’re influential among their cohort of fashion-savvy consumers, they don’t wield the same marketing prowess as Nike or H&M, which can spend millions of dollars on campaigns and drive many shoppers’ perception of sustainable fashion.

Ultimately, designers like Hanley say they know they cannot change the world alone. Reversing a global culture of spending and consumption, after all, requires patience. Many in fact implicate themselves in perpetuating fashion’s endless cycle of waste.

“I’m not going to brag about something I’m not doing 150 percent,” said Taymour. “How can I preach how great I am when I have a cotton T-shirt in my collection? That’s never going to be sustainable.”

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