Sustainable Style

During the research stage, the working title of my last post was ‘Ethical Fashion’, because I planned to write about ethical and unethical aspects of the fashion industry. Due to the vast scope of the subject, I couldn’t say everything I wanted to in one post, and so I decided to break it down into two parts. The title of the previous post became ‘Unethical Fashion’ as I had uncovered so many issues (and I had only just scratched the surface). I thought there was nothing good to say about the fashion industry, until I discovered there were positive ideas and developments occurring in the field of fashion, and that information helps me to believe that we may be able to live sustainably on the Earth. As a result, this post is far more positive, and I have titled it ‘Sustainable Style’ because fashion is fleeting, but style is forever.

In the last post I talked about micro-plastic particles from synthetic materials finding their way into the ocean. I located a paper from a study by ecologist Mark Browne and his colleagues that was published in the September 2011 edition of Environmental Science and Technology. ‘Accumulations of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks’ can be read in full here.

The researchers collected sediment from eighteen shorelines on six continents. During testing, they found the presence of micro-plastic particles in varying concentrations in every sample, with the highest concentrations being found in the most densely populated countries.

When the researchers tested wastewater discharge and effluent, they discovered the source of these micro-plastic particles – tiny threads of plastic shed from synthetic clothing (including polyester and acrylic) during washing, which had escaped through filters into the environment.

According to Browne, over 65% of plastic debris in the ocean is smaller than 1mm in diameter. These micro-plastic particles penetrate the cells of marine organisms, and affect the functioning of those cells and the organism itself. When we eat seafood, we ingest these micro-plastic particles, with unknown effects on our health.

As a result of this study, Browne believes clothing should either be made entirely from natural fibres, or from more durable synthetics that won’t shed micro-plastic particles easily or quickly. I tend to agree with Browne, although would like to see a move away from synthetic materials altogether. What is a ‘safe’ or ‘acceptable’ level of micro-plastic particle contamination in the marine environment? Synthetic materials are also made from oil, a finite resource.

The future of fashion – organic, natural, sustainable eco-fibres

Organically grown versions of natural fibres (plant-based and animal-sourced) are generally better in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact. Here is an excellent summary on the sustainability of eco-fibres.

Organic cotton is a natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre. It is grown without the use of fossil-fuel-based, carcinogenic pesticides, although it requires more water and more land to produce the same amount of conventionally grown fibre. Organic methods of production build soil fertility through composting, locking carbon dioxide into soil, and there is no poisoning of wildlife and water systems that occurs with toxic, synthetic pesticides. Genetic modification is banned in organic farming, while an estimated 30% of all conventional cotton has been genetically modified. Processing organic cotton avoids the use of harmful chemicals, chlorine bleach and synthetic dyes, and the final product contains no chemical residue.

For wool to be certified as an organic fibre, animals (sheep, goats, llamas) must be raised in line with an accredited organic standard for livestock production. The Responsible Wool Standard initiated by Textile Exchange is a global standard designed to protect animal welfare, influence best practice, promote transparency, and ensure traceability, and responsible land management. Animal welfare is subject to the Five Freedoms – freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress.

Bamboo is a natural, plant-based, renewable, sustainable, biodegradable fibre requiring less pesticides and less water. It’s fast-growing, hypoallergenic, absorbent, fast-drying, and naturally anti-bacterial. The fibres can be woven into fabrics with similar properties to silk and cashmere (without the animal welfare issues). But there are problems with the harvesting process. Harsh chemicals are needed to extract the fibres, and to turn the pulp into threads that can be woven into fabric. Strong chemical solvents are used to process plant parts – sodium hydroxide (caustic soda and lye), carbon disulfide, chlorine, and sulphuric acid. This chemical residue is then disposed of in landfill or water systems.

Agricultural hemp is versatile and a highly productive, easy to cultivate, ecological crop. It requires less water, no pesticides, is pest-tolerant, binds and enriches soil due to its deep roots, and captures large quantities of carbon. It’s an efficient plant in terms of production per square metre. Hemp (and bamboo) fabric is breathable, and wicks sweat and moisture away from the skin.

A fashion r-evolution

Many fashion companies are realizing the environmental impacts of their industry and are addressing problems and building strategies and solutions into their business plans.

Reformation has developed a tool called RefScale to track the environmental impact of their garments through their entire lifecycle, including amount of water used and carbon dioxide emitted. The company gives back to the Earth through carbon offsetting. Their clothing is either made from ‘deadstock’ fabrics that are diverted from landfill, vintage clothing re-purposed into one-off pieces, or tencel, a semi-synthetic rayon fibre with similar properties to cotton. Tencel is made from eucalyptus trees grown without pesticides, and processed with non-toxic solvents in a ‘closed loop’ manufacturing process, so solvent is recycled back into the system instead of entering the environment.

Eileen Fisher has a vision for her company where sustainability is built into the business plan, and is not simply the result of an initiative, and where environmental impacts are not considered externalities that must be accepted as part of practice. The company is accountable for their actions and decisions and wants to promote sustainability as the new norm of the fashion industry.

Their vision for 100% sustainability will be translated into reality through a set of measurable strategies including use of organic, sustainable, ethical fibres, reducing waste, using less water, emitting less carbon, investing in alternative energy sources, becoming ‘carbon positive’, and mapping their supply chain. They want to design clothes that last, buy clothes back to resell or recycle into raw material for new designs, and use responsible dyes without hazardous chemicals.

Create your own style

As a dressmaker, I appreciate good tailoring. A well-made garment, constructed of high quality fabric, with impeccable cut and stitching, that will last me for years, is a thing of beauty. I would rather pay more for a high-quality garment I know was made with minimal impact and made to last. Fashion is creating a work of art with a needle and thread, and a lot of imagination. Our ability to turn a fibre into a fabric, and fabric into a piece of clothing is, for me, one of life’s man-made wonders.

The fashion industry is fickle, and what’s deemed ‘in’ this season is ‘out’ the next. We’re constantly told we can’t be seen in anything other than the latest style. The media sends us a message and sells us an image that really has nothing to do with us. They just want us to buy their clothes every season, and dispose of our old ones, but this is environmentally unsustainable.

Fashion trends cycle through the seasons, year after year, and even though trends from the past may ‘come back into fashion’ they are never the same. This is done intentionally, so we can’t wear these styles again if we want to be seen wearing the latest fashion.

But it’s not about the clothes, it’s about you. Style is a state of mind. Being a timeless beauty is about attitude, the way you carry yourself, and your integrity. A kind heart and soul is elegant and beautiful. Your inner warmth will shine through your eyes and smile even if you’re wearing a hessian sack.

Don’t be a slave to fashion trends and don’t let others dictate to you how you should dress. Find your own style and create your own personal fashion signature. This ‘Embrace Simplicity’ challenge is to discover the styles, cuts and colours that look good on you, regardless of what’s considered ‘in fashion’.

This may take time and a little experimentation, but you will get to know which styles, colours and shapes (necklines, sleeves, hemlines) look best on you, regardless of fashion trends. Once you figure this out, buy well-made clothes that will last you for years. Buy the best clothes you can afford, and take care of them. Repair your clothes – we all should know how to sew on a button, mend a hem and replace a zip, at the very least.

Know your face and body shape because this will help you work out what lines will look best on you. For example, if you have a round or an oval face, a V-neck or boat neckline will suit you. If you have a square or rectangular face, go for a round or oval neckline. A round neckline on a round face will only accentuate the roundness, while a straight line will balance it out. Always think contrasting shapes. If you are lean and angular, round and oval lines will soften your look. If you have a fuller figure, you need straight, angular lines to offset the roundness.

I prefer the classic look that will always be in style. This is a great place to start when creating a basic wardrobe. Think neutral colours – black, navy, gray and white. Jeans, a single-breasted jacket, a black dress and white shirt are classic pieces that will never date. For me, certain styles will date quickly, like an asymmetrical hemline, while an off-the-shoulder neckline will always be feminine.

I know, from many years of trial and error, the styles that look best on me:

  1. Classic
  2. Nautical (navy and white)
  3. Monochrome (black and white)
  4. Japanese kimono (or batwing) style

A clothing challenge

I don’t dress seasonally (we don’t need four sets of clothes – this is a marketing strategy to get us to buy more clothes). I dress for either warm or cool weather, and depending on how I’m feeling on any particular day. At the moment, I’m designing a compact, functional, sustainable wardrobe for myself that is simple, classic and timeless.

Our challenge is to choose 36 items of clothing – 18 items to wear in warm weather, and 18 items to wear in cool weather. The choice of the number 36 will make sense in the next post, when we tie together everything we’ve discovered about simplifying and streamlining our lives, in our final, ultimate challenge for the year.

© 2015 Environmental Warrior
Photo by Elias Carlsson on Unsplash

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