What is Sustainability?
As Earth Day is upon us, I wanted to take some time to explore the idea of sustainability. The word sustainable is becoming a buzz word across the fashion industry. Like the term “ethical fashion,” sustainable fashion and sustainable living are complex ideas with many definitions depending on who you’re talking to. So, what is sustainable, really? Let’s start with the dictionary definition of sustainable:
- able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
- able to be upheld or defended.
The essence of these definitions is that for something to be considered sustainable it must not only stand the test of time, but must also maintain its quality, or value. As an ethical fashion brand owner, the concept of sustainability is something I think about often. And in the midst of a global pandemic sustainability takes on a whole new meaning as we all are examining what holds value and standing by as we see what survives.
Everyone considers sustainability in their daily lives, even if they are not referring to fashion or eco-friendly living. When we set goals, for example, we know that for the goal to be met, we must use sustainable methods to get there. If I set a goal to train for the marathon, I don’t start out running 20 miles a day. Not only would my body be unable to sustain that kind of training, but dedicating hours to running everyday doesn’t fit my lifestyle. When I was an elementary school teacher and I was setting academic and instructional goals, I would have loved to hold individual conferences with students each day and say that I would grade work the evening the work was completed, but we all know with 30+ students and multiple subjects to teach, those ideas are not sustainable…so any good they would do would be negated when I inevitably have to change my methods and practices. We can all agree that for something to have lasting value or to see lasting change, sustainability is crucial.
Growth Doesn’t Always Mean Expansion
Putting into practice sustainable processes will allow your company or your goals to have success over the longterm. And when it comes to business, something that only works in the short term will at worst put you out of business and at best create more work for you down the road.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that sustainability matters in every aspect of my business. From my daily schedule to product development to my growth strategy, having a philosophy of sustainability will help me adapt to ever-evolving circumstances. Growth does not always mean expansion, as that typically leads to more costs. If my goal is to be a sustainable business, I need to find ways to keep costs down, while increasing sales and thereby production. One of the things Covid-19 has taught us about businesses in America, is that like U.S. citizens, many companies live check to check. In some cases, this may work just fine, yet in others, we’re finding it doesn’t. Of course, no one could have predicted or planned for a global pandemic (I certainly didn’t!), but it’s important to use this as an opportunity to expand our thinking on what it means for our businesses to be sustainable.
I have heard so many people reference their fashion brand as sustainable…but what does that really mean? Is it sustainable because it uses eco-friendly materials and practices? Is it sustainable because it is small-batch production? Is it sustainable because it is handmade? Is it sustainable because of the ethical and socially responsible values it upholds?
Ethical fashion and sustainable fashion are intertwined and in some ways, they have to mean the same thing. If it is ethical, then isn’t it by definition, sustainable? And if it is sustainable, then isn’t it by definition, ethical?
I don’t have the answers and I don’t think there is just one answer. This is a conversation that continues to evolve and my thinking on the matter is also constantly evolving. My questions and thoughts below may sound critical to some, and they are. It is important we all think critically about these issues so we can form our own opinions and convictions. I want to reassure everyone that I don’t come to this on a high horse. I come to this knowing there is room for every single business out there to improve, including Abby Alley.
Fast Fashion vs Small Batch
As many of you may know, fast fashion refers to brands like H&M, Zara, Target, Gap, etc. who are not transparent about how and by whom their clothes are made and at the same time pump out new collections as quickly as every two weeks. Think of the waste this generates when their clothing is not sold, but they have to make room in their stores for new inventory. Much of this clothing ends up in landfills around the world, and because the clothing is oftentimes made from non-recyclable materials, it will be there for a very long time.
The prices at these fast fashion shops are so enticing. $20 for a pair of on trend jeans - you can’t beat that. But make no mistake about it, even though you aren’t paying the price, someone is. It takes 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to make one pair of jeans, and the toxic dyes used to color the denim creates chemical runoff that pollutes our water supplies. Not to mention, how much of that $20 do you think the person who sewed the jeans gets? More of this later. :)
Many smaller brands are employing the concept of “small batch” production. This means exactly what it sounds like. The brand only makes what they know they can sell so there aren’t leftovers. Sometimes this means that the prices will be higher for production because economies of scale aren’t quite as good, but the cost of sustainability is worth it in my opinion. Not as many clothes in landfills and less toxic emissions in our air.
Fair Trade Practices & Social Responsibility
One of the reasons I started Abby Alley is because I saw a need in the fashion industry to value people over products. If the people making our products aren’t able to meet their basic needs with the income they earn from their job, then we are doing something wrong. How can an organic cotton shirt be considered sustainable if the person who sewed it is living on less than $2 a day? That kind of a wage is not sustainable. It’s not a living wage.
In addition to celebrating Earth Day in April, it is also the anniversary of the collapse of Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1100 garment workers. This factory produced clothing for brands like Prada, Gucci, Walmart, and Mango. The collapse was due to structural problems in the building, which point to structural problems in the fashion industry itself. The fast fashion industry values products and the bottom line over people. It has to stop.
Let’s go back to those $20 jeans. The cost for the retailer is at best $10, but more than likely probably closer to $8, and that still might be generous. That $8 payment the factory receives for the jeans has to account for the cost of materials, the labor costs, the operating costs, and profit. It’s no wonder some studies have found garment workers to make as low as 12 cents per item. Here is a great article on this concept.
Companies like ours that follow fair trade principles value people, cultural heritage, and craftsmanship. At Abby Alley, we are committed to long term relationships with our partners in East Africa. Sure, we could find cheaper labor elsewhere, but our products would lose the invaluable quality of being handcrafted by women and men we know personally…who are employed by Kenyans and Tanzanians who believe in their communities and who together with us want to make a positive impact both near and far. In this time of Covid-19, it has made me realize how people are what give meaning and value to our lives. The interactions we have with each other are what give us life. Wearing our products, and those made by other fair trade brands, it’s like wearing a trans-continental interaction. There is so much beauty in that.
Many fashion brands boast about a giveback or a one-for-one giving model. Many of them should be proud of the good work they are doing, but for some, it may be well-intentioned, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable. If something is made at a factory in China where there are poor working conditions and below living wages are paid, but the company gives a shirt or pair of shoes to a community in need for every purchase, is it sustainable? Is it sustainable to exploit some people in order to help others?
Eco-Consciousness and Trends
Is our trend-driven culture the culprit of fast fashion? It’s a question worth considering. I love fashion…I love the creativity, the endless possibility, and I love good design. When fashion week rolls around, I get excited. I love to see the trends and what designers have come up with for the new season. So when I say what I’m about to say, know that I get it’s complicated.
What would it be like if we didn’t have trends? I’m thinking there would be so much less waste, so much less shopping, and so much money saved. If my low-rise jeans from 1999 never went out of style, I wonder how long I would have worn them? Rather than a couple of years, maybe more like five years? Maybe longer?
Nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of being produced, according to Forbes; every second, one garbage truck’s worth of textiles is landfilled or burned. Fast fashion has created this trend-driven utopia where one day you’re in and the next day you’re out.
Many brands, including fast fashion brand, Zara, have committed to using eco-friendly materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester, which is fantastic. However, if these fast fashion brands continue cycling in new collections every couple of weeks, will it make much of a difference in waste?
One material I am personally invested in learning about is leather and vegan leather alternatives. Although we use vegetable tanned leather, which is the more eco-friendly way of tanning leather, I am learning about the plant-based leathers that are becoming more and more accessible. (As a side note, vegan leathers that are not plant-based are typically made using plastic, which is not eco-friendly to produce nor is it biodegradable. We will not use this type of material. More on that here). Currently, as much as possible, our desire is to impact the communities where we work in East Africa. As agriculture and livestock remains the top industry, we want to both support the Maasai community as well as reduce waste from the meat industry.
Do I hope for a trend-less fashion culture? I’m not sure. I think I more wish for people to have the freedom to cultivate their own style, which would enable us all to shop vintage, keep pieces longer, and invest in quality over quantity, which would enable designers to stay true to their aesthetic.
What are your thoughts on sustainability? I’d love to hear!