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How to be Sustainable

Anyone who knows me will know that I am passionate about sustainability. I have had an interesting journey with it. I haven’t arrived at any destination yet. I’m not sure I ever will. Or whether this will ever be truly possible as the more I learn about the world of sustainability the more I learn that it is constantly evolving, constantly in a state of flux.


I have worked in fashion for most of my professional life and most of this time was spent working in fast fashion. I have had the privilege of travelling the world and seeing and meeting amazing people. I have spent a lot of time meeting and working with suppliers in factories in Bangladesh, China & India. Negotiating how we can make huge volumes of clothes. Interpreting runway trends into commercial versions for fast fashion consumers. Injecting numerous SKUs into the business because this is seen as a measure of being a successful fashion retailer. But I am also aware that my exposure to these factories while working for my fast fashion employer is just one version of the reality.


This employer had an ethical code of conduct in operation. They have always had strict rules and standards governing how they onboard suppliers and the standards suppliers need to consistently adhere to. As a buyer you can’t just meet any potential new supplier, agree a price and hand over an order. There are very strict rules surrounding this relationship. They operate according to a Code of Conduct & Supply Chain Policy. A buyer needs to submit any new supplier to be reviewed and then become part of an audit process. And it’s not just one audit. And they aren’t all announced. At least one of these visits will be unannounced. The audit process takes time. And a supplier needs to pass all stages and become approved before any negotiations begin. So all of the factories I ever visited were always the ones that had been certified and had passed the audit tests. Bangladesh is the place that stays most in my mind. It is one of the world’s biggest textile manufacturers, (the third biggest after China and Germany). And the RMG sector (ready made garments) accounts for 84% of the country’s total exports. I always found it hard to reconcile how out of all the congestion, the poverty & the absolute grimness, that this city could still produce pristine garments.


However, fashion is still one of the most unsustainable industries on the planet. Did you know that it’s responsible for 4% of total global emissions? Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. And less than 1% of old clothing is actually turned back into new clothes.


Bantar Gebang, one of the world's largest landfills, located 20 miles east of Jakarta in the Indonesian city of Bekasi.

You see I feel that there is some information missing. That the fast fashion consumer is not aware of some of the basic facts when making purchasing decisions. For example:

  1. Not all fabrics are created equal and some are kinder to the planet than others. Natural fibres for example can break down much easier than synthetic (man made) fibres. A cotton tee shirt can take 6 months to breakdown and decompose. Denim can take 1 year. Wool can take 1-5 years. But polyester & spandex can take up to 200 years. That’s a very long time for a pair of leggings that you no longer want to wear to hang around.

  2. Just because you decide to declutter your wardrobe and fill a bag to take to a recycle bin does not mean that your garments will actually be recycled. Not all fabrics can be recycled. So if you feel that you are being conscious about your purchasing and using a “one in, one out rule”, it doesn’t really balance out when you factor in that your unwanted garments cannot be repurposed.

Would it make a difference to the consumer if they knew some of these facts before they made their purchase?


And what about the cost per wear argument to justify a purchase? I have bought some expensive pieces in my time and have justified these decisions by working out if I wear these boots or this dress x amount of times it only costs me x€ each wear. This principle seems sound. But really the question to ask yourself is are you going to wear this item again and again and again? Whether you spend €10 or €500. Because it should be timeless for you and become a wardrobe staple/everyday classic/icon. Good quality fabrics and craft will last and will stand the test of time. But fast fashion? Maybe not so much. If you can make that fast fashion garment work next year, and the year after, good for you. But really, how many fast fashion consumers buy garments to wear again and again and again?


So what can we do????


The Ellen Macarthur Foundation recommends the following.

  1. Keep clothes in use for longer. Rent. Repair. Reuse. Repurpose. Swap.

  2. Clothing retailers to work more with fabrics that are safe and renewable.

  3. Design and make clothes so that the materials can be used again and again and again.

Ok so the first recommendation one is an easy one. We can all do this. The next 2 are more targeted towards the clothing industry itself, but I know that one in six people worldwide work in the fashion industry today, so chances are there will be some of you reading this who already work in this industry and already are making great strides towards leading retail to become more sustainable. So I would just ask that we continue to have the conversation and push the agenda. But can I add one more recommendation to the three above?

  1. Can we please be honest and transparent about the consequences?

Can the fast fashion retailers educate their fast fashion consumers more so that they fully understand the landfill consequences for their clothing once they have decided it is of no more use to them. Tell the full story. I hear so much about “closing the loop” on the circular economy but we can only do this if we are honest about the entire process. This is hard for retailers: how do you get the board to sign off on this when their focus, bonus and jobs are based on delivering sales and profit? How do you convince them to start communicating this to their consumers with the expectation that they will deliver similar sales??? And please, don’t get me started on influencers sharing their hauls of shopping on social media. Surely at some point someone is going to realise that this really is not ok. I want to see more influencers showing what they already own in their wardrobe and how they continue to find new ways to wear outfits and be creative around what they already own!!


Vestiaire Collective, online platform re-selling luxury goods

Becoming more sustainable is not easy. It’s hard to get your head around it, and understand how you can apply it to your business and start taking steps. B Corp is a good place to begin though. I’m not saying every business needs to become B Corp certified but if you want to understand what good looks like in sustainable business, this is an excellent point of reference. We talk about best in class examples all the time in business and B Corp is exactly that in the world of corporate sustainability. Here are some key take aways: B Corp certified businesses are companies using business as a force for good. They make decisions that benefit communities, consumers, employees and the environment – not just the shareholders. They use business as a force for good. Their vision is to build an inclusive, equitable, regenerative world. There are over 6,000 businesses globally now B Corp certified. The Handmade Soap Co & Cully & Sully are examples of Irish businesses who have become B Corp certified. International examples you will be familiar with include Ben & Jerrys, Toms & Patagonia.


Here’s one more I want to share with you - Ecosia is a search engine that donates 80% of its surplus ad revenue for global reforestation projects. You can contribute to this today and start making a difference by switching your search engine browser from google to Ecosia.



So what else can the fashion industry do?

  1. Focus on delivering core and elevating this. Why can’t we change the narrative around core and start explaining that these are the must haves for everyone? I am hearing so much buzz around “quiet luxury” now – take this and use this to elevate your core assortments and make them the most desirable and in demand pieces. Why wouldn’t we want to do this? Create something that is and absolute essential and make this an icon.

  2. Reduce the number of SKUs offered. Make your business model leaner. Your customer will thank you for delivering true choice and your team will thank you too – less SKUs to mind, check production and delivery status and find space in the warehouse for.

  3. Move to more demand driven production where possible. Try to reduce the over buy, the over spend and the discounting.



I founded Fenit Without with my husband Karl in 2021. This is a community focused online project and was formed to further develop our relationships with local businesses and community groups. We also produce small quantities of sustainable souvenir merchandise. We are moving away from placing forward orders with printers to a print on demand service. But honestly, we know that even finding the right partner to do this with is hard!! We absolutely need and want to move to this model. Doesn’t it make more sense to only make what we need? It’s a much better investment and way better for cash flow. But it’s a work in progress.


Working in an industry where you are only as good as your last collection is a lot of pressure. For some retailers it’s an even shorter time frame than that. Telling someone that a way of dressing or an item of clothing is “so last year” seems like the ultimate insult. But isn’t the ultimate insult when you invest in something and just don’t wear it?


 

Resources


Meet the circular design pioneers reinventing the future of fashion



Ellen MaCarthur Foundation






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