By Miranda Zsigmond
If you haven’t noticed, health and wellness are having a major moment.The sporty-chic fashion trend athleisure has taken off and the vegan lifestyle seems to grow larger each day, thanks to some top celebrities (hello, Beyonce and Liam Hemsworth). Today it seems as if everything from food to makeup and skin care is organic.
Modern consumers now pride themselves on knowing where their food comes from and are willing to shell out extra cash to make this claim. Millennials post Instgrams of their pricey cold-pressed, raw and organic juices with reckless abandon. What was the point of that $10 juice if you can’t get a good Insta out of it?
Even buildings now can be designed under the U.S. Green Building Council standards, which are both innovative and environmentally friendly and call for the use of numerous sustainable resources during construction.
With all this time spent on developing environmental awareness and incorporating renewable goods into everyday life, the question is: Do you know where your clothes come from? Not from your favorite store in NorthPark, but where the fabric was made and dyed? Who sewed your clothes and how much time was spent putting together your new favorite sweater?
Fashion For Fashions Sake?
Fashion isn’t known for being practical. There is a sort of beauty in the excess that can be read through haute couture and avant-garde fashion, but at what price? Under the extravagant façade of designer clothes, runway shows and celebrity endorsement, the fashion industry is devastating on the environment and often on laborers as well.
The garment industry has long been known for overworking and underpaying workers while subjecting them to some of the worst unregulated working conditions. Sadly that remains true today.
“It’s unfortunate that we see this kind of human suffering due to the industrial revolution,” said SMU alumna and human rights enthusiast Chantelle Conely. “Although the industrial revolution brought about great changes in the economy and it was the start of becoming more civilized, it also brought the issue of child labor, pollution and awful working conditions.”
The fast-paced industry thrives on the quick and accessible crutch of fast fashion. This manufacturing trend provides the marketplace with inexpensive apparel directed mostly at young women. Fashion magazines and the media aid these manufactures by pushing new “must-haves” each month. However, while fast fashion is inexpensive, it comes at a price. Fast fashion doesn’t hurt just the factory workers but everyone in the business, including designers.
“While everyone loves a good (clothing) steal, the clothes that are sold in major chain retailers like H&M, Zara and Forever 21 aren’t meant to last,” said El Centro College fashion design major Mardece Edwards. “People don’t realize that fashion has turned into a year-round calendar instead of a biannual calendar, making creativity and staying relevant a constant challenge.”
An Alternative Approach
This relatively new style of retail leaves a pollution footprint in each step of production. The demand for man-made fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. The manufacturing of these synthetic fabrics is an energy intensive, water gobbling process that requires large amounts of crude oil and releases toxic emissions, which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.
This mindless garment turnover is fueled by the harsh realities of real people endangering their health and lives for poorly made and cheaply sold clothes. It is not only synthetic fibers that pose environmental health and safety concerns, however. Cotton, one of the most popular and versatile natural fibers used in clothing manufacture, still leaves a significant environmental footprint to produce a finished and dyed product, leaving water sources completely toxic.
“There are so many alternative and eco-friendly fabrics designers can work withthat shouldn’t be considered alternatives,” said SMU senior and fashion media major Madeleine Kalb. “Linen, hemp and silk are all natural fibers that don’t jeopardize the garments’ integrity and are eco-friendly. Another underrated, sustainable fabric is bamboo, which carries many of the same properties of cotton. Bamboo creates softer-to-the touch fabric and doesn’t require the same chemical farming that conventional cotton does.”
Kalb is right. Many synthetic manmade fabrics don’t hold up well for the designers or the consumer. Rayon (viscose), a manmade fiber and what most of the cute flimsy pieces you find at H&M are made of, is less durable than natural fibers and more likely to wrinkle. It also requires more water during production than other fabrics.
Courtesy of Fashion Revolution
Making The Switch
While making the switch to better-quality materials seems like common sense, the issue is overshadowed by profit. Though the clothing is cheap, fashion giants make up for it in volume and sales have been on the rise. For instance, Forever 21 had $4.4 billion in sales as of October 2015, and H&M experienced a 25 percent profit increase in 2014.
H&M has made an attempt to separate itself from other fast-fashion companies. For instance, in 2014, the company launched a new line, Conscious, created with more sustainable and renewable materials. The aim of H&M’s Conscious label is to provide affordable, chic clothing to the conscious consumer– a novel concept that quickly showed a positive and, more importantly, profitable response.
More and more companies are following the lead, breaking out of the environmentally and ethically shaky practices of the fashion industry by re-writing the rules for affordable and stylish clothes.
H&M’s Conscious collection. Courtesy of H&M
StyleSaint is a business that is doing just that. The self-proclaimed “next generation designer label” is a company that values its consumers as well as its workers. StyleSaint’s factory employees get paid a livable working wage that is 2000 percent more than the average 18 cent per day of a traditional overseas factory worker. And the brand produces quality pieces that are meant to last. The Los Angeles-based company sells in-house-designed garments to consumers without retail mark-ups. Think American Apparel before it got weird.
The company’s tasteful and timeless pieces are made of only natural fabrics such as flax (linen), bamboo, silk and wool, durable fabrics that are meant to last but are also safe on your skin. The company is also conscious of its water use. Unlike most labels, StyleSaint’s website has an easy-to-understand info-graphic comparing all of its eco-friendly practices to that of standard fashion companies.
Another radical clothing company making a name for itself is Naja This alternative lingerie company based in San Francisco is making waves by providing adequate pay for its factory employees. The quirky and distinctive lingerie line boasts whimsical and funky designs in bright, fun colors.
Created by women for women, the company is set on changing the way women shop for lingerie. The goal: to make their product a tool for empowerment, not objectification. Instead of high-end models, Naja chooses smart, confident “real” woman to represent the brand. Digital and sublimation printing is used when creating the vibrant designs on the company’s fabrics, which are made from recycled water bottles.
But this is where the company takes it to the next level: Naja’s garment factory workforce is primarily made up of women from the slums of Columbia, typically single mothers or female heads of the household. These women are paid above market wages as well as given health care benefits. In addition, Naja also provides the children of their employees with books, school supplies, uniforms and all meals. If that doesn’t make you want to buy a lacey black bra, I don’t know what will.
However, better standards and quality materials typically come at a higher price. With the public evolving into more a conscious consumer base, many people are willing to pay for the difference.
“You get what you pay for, and most clothing from big (fashion) stores reflects that,” said SMU junior and former fashion model Savannah Moody. “If the more ethical option is presented to me and is still trendy, I am usually always willing to spend the extra money. It’s basically a win-win for everyone.”
Even with brands moving in a more environmentally responsible direction and customers willing to spend on eco-friendly products, not everyone in the industry is jumping on the bandwagon just yet.
Michael Crigger, co-owner of Petite Atelier, a custom couture-sewing studio in Deep Ellum, wonders if this trend will ever represent the norm in an industry whose very ethos — seeking out what is new, rare, elite — seems antithetical to the notion of sustainability. “Fashion simply isn’t ethical,” Crigger said. “As innovative as all of the ethical businesses sound, the fact is that that isn’t the norm just yet, and I don’t know if it ever will be.”