How hard is it to be a sustainable fashion designer?

Sustainability has long been a tool to pull the consciously-sourced wool over our eyes, but what challenges do young designers face when trying to be ethical?

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Faustine Steinmetz AW16
Faustine Steinmetz AW16Photography Chloé Le Drezen

It’s Fashion Revolution Week! To mark it, we’re publishing a series of articles on ethical consumption. Head here to find out why we need a fashion revolution, and why ethical fashion is part of the feminist fight.

“Sustainability” is the most boring word in fashion. Nobody wants to talk about it. Articles written about it aren’t clicked on. When brought up in conversation, sustainability is met with a sustained eye roll. Even big labels that are making moves towards being green aren’t shouting about their efforts. For example, Gucci has recently swapped out PVC – an environmental punisher – for slightly more eco-friendly polyurethane in designs for its popular Dionysus shoulder bags. Rather than bore luxury clientele with the dreaded ‘S’ word, Gucci describes it as a “material with low environmental impact” on its website.

Not to drag the dictionary into this, but we need to begin with knowing what sustainability even means. “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level,” is what comes up in a quick search. By that definition, every business that doesn’t go under is sustainable. Everything can be maintained “at a certain rate or level”, bar conversation on a Tinder date. The word sustainability is too much of a catch-all. Taking it one step further, the dictionary says: “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” That’s at least a fraction more concrete. However, that makes “sustainable fashion” the biggest oxymoron. It’s an industry based on rampant consumerism, second only to oil as the world’s biggest polluter, way higher than the aviation industry. So when trying to make your mark, how hard is it, really, to be a sustainable fashion designer?

“I don't really think of myself as a sustainable designer,” says Faustine Steinmetz, who incorporates thrift shop denim and hand-woven materials into collections for her eponymous label. “Very few things in fashion are really sustainable; they just do less harm than others. I'm more about just doing what I think is right. This has evolved over time since I started my label. I don’t buy leather any more and I think it will continue to evolve even further as I become more informed.”

Fun fact: the alternative to leather – one of the most environmentally devastating materials due to the laborious process of tanning, dyeing and, you know, feeding the cow for the duration of its life – is pleather. Pleather is often made from PVC or polyurethane, which is a form of plastic and takes years to decompose. For real leather, the process of chrome tanning basically makes you want to give up the will to live. That is, if it doesn’t kill you first. Chromium IV, a carcinogenic waste product from leather manufacturing, has appeared in water supplies and the food chain of both developing and developed countries. However, the more responsible alternative – vegetable tanning – is more costly and time-consuming.

“I found this amazing recycled fabric and when I wrote to the makers I was told that the minimum order was 5000 metres, which just isn’t possible for a label my size” – Faustine Steinmetz

It’s not just production that’s delicate to get right. Young designers like Steinmetz also have to contend with buyers’ schedules to keep up with the delivery times of huge brands. This, she says, “can be quite difficult.”

“We’re expected to produce clothes by hand in the same time frame as someone who is buying machine-made fabrics, and it’s really not easy. That puts a lot of pressure on us to try keep up with everyone else. Even going the other way and buying fabrics can also be quite tricky. I recently found this amazing recycled fabric I really wanted to use and when I wrote to the makers I was told that the minimum order was 5000 metres, which just isn’t something that is possible for a label my size.”

John Skelton, a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins, has made it his mission to create only sustainable clothing. For his knits, he sources wool from British sheep, which is woven together by factories in northern England. “I also repurposed materials such as submariner coats and my grandma’s bed sheets,” he told us of his wares backstage at CSM’s MA fashion show. “I want it to be taken as a given that my work is sustainable, regardless of what it takes to conceive it. Also, sustainability shouldn’t be used as a marketing scheme to make more profit from the guilt-ridden consumers.” Leading by example, these younger designers are succeeding in setting a sustainable business model.

Though not everyone can repurpose their gran’s bed sheets. When you’re mass-producing 600 million new garments every year like high street giant H&M, “sustainability” takes on an entirely different meaning. The fast fashion behemoth is one of the largest buyers of organic cotton in the world. The small wrinkle is that that organic cotton may well end up in the same landfill as the rest of our rejected clothes. Another is that only 13.7 per cent of their clothes are made from said organic cotton. Yet in their latest sustainability report, released recently, they claim to be “one of the biggest users of recycled polyester in the world.”

That sounds great on recycled paper, but when you realise their shareholders expect year-on-year growth and an increasingly bigger slice of the market share, it’s less impressive. Still, unconscious shoppers will eat up the latest “conscious collection”, feeling good about spending a fiver on a t-shirt created by a Bangladeshi worker whose take-home pay each month is less than the cost of a monthly mobile plan.

Sadly, it’s not just fast fashion that’s in a bind. The entire system is unsustainable. That may be why we witnessed a mass exodus of top-level designers like Raf Simons at Dior in the past six months. Simons called out the breakneck speed of producing new garments, telling System, “The problem is when you have only one design team and six collections, there is no more thinking time. And I don’t want to do collections where I’m not thinking.”

But why bother, when consumers aren’t thinking when they browse the racks? Lift the veil on fashion production, and you’ll see that for every fashion show, designers produce two separate collections. One to put the press in a spin, which will be reproduced in countless magazine photo shoots, and one to hit the shop floors, mostly containing basics and a few key items from the catwalk. A large majority of what you see on the runway won’t be available to purchase or wear. Since it’s luxury, the turnaround times for producing that second collection is a period of several months. With an army of lowly-paid workers at the ready, the high street can reproduce the prevailing trends of fashion week in a matter of weeks. Case in point: it took online retailer Nasty Gal just four to copy dresses from emerging designer Molly Goddard’s AW16 collection.

“‘Sustainable fashion’ is the biggest oxymoron. It’s an industry based on rampant consumerism, second only to oil as the world’s biggest polluter”

You’ve no doubt heard the urban legends about luxury labels burning excess stock that doesn’t sell. So is that sustainable? It is for companies’ bottom lines. Luggage, for instance, has very high duty rates – usually 15-25 per cent. It ends up cheaper to write off the loss and burn the bags than it is to ship them to stores worldwide, paying massive amounts of duty in the hopes that they’ll sell.

Being sustainable for a designer is a challenge, but not entirely impossible. It just takes time to set up a reliable framework – something assumingly easier when you’re just starting out. “A collection which is entirely sustainable and non-compromising aesthetically requires long hours of research and is often why people give up at the first hurdle,” says Skelton. For luxury brands, it’s simply a case of rejigging the production process and communicating to consumers how their products are created. That, and they have to sell us on the idea of sustainability. Small designers can do as much as they can to lessen their impact, but until the major players embrace it, we’re left with unconscionable waste. Bigger brands need to shout about it. Make it sexy. I want to be sustainable and flaunt in #mycalvins.

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