For the longest time I wanted to write a blog about "Sustainability" especially what it means in general, what it means within the fashion industry and what it means to me.
As the world and life works in mysterious ways, the day I was about to write my blog I came across this article, and I seriously cannot write it any better.
CHOOSING A SUSTAINABILITY STRATEGY
“In an ideal world, designers would have their electricity-free hand-woven domestically sourced waterless fibres available at all pricepoints. But that isn’t the reality we face…”
by Tara St James
Tara St James is an ambassador for sustainable fashion who practises what she preaches. Formerly the creative director of Covet, an eco-friendly sportswear collection, Tara left in 2009 to launch her clothing label Study, an ethical contemporary brand produced in New York City using sustainable materials. But it hasn’t been easy. What is fully sustainable fashion? Can a young designer afford to be sustainable? What should a designer do when forced to choose between eco-friendly or socially responsible clothing? Tara tells us how she did it…
As an ethical designer who has been navigating the sustainable fashion landscape for almost 10 years, I have encountered a plethora of definitions for the term sustainable within the fashion realm. What I have realized is that there is not one clear definition of sustainability when discussing fashion, and the lines can become very blurred for designers and manufacturers, let alone for customers.
In conversation, I describe my personal approach to ethical design as an internal “moral compass” I use to help guide every decision I make. From fibre to fabric sourcing, factory selection, shipping and customer messaging, every business decision I make gets filtered through my personal ethical tenet. Rather than be confined to a single definition, seeing sustainability as a strategy allows me as a designer and entrepreneur to incorporate it as a core value in my business model, not just my sourcing decisions. One of the most succinct lists of sustainable design strategies that I’ve encountered in my research comes from Textiles Environment Design. I refer students, emerging designers and anyone else wanting to adopt sustainable methods to this checklist as a great point of departure. In my career I have chosen to explore them all to figure out which I relate to most.
I started making more sustainable choices in my work in 2004, just before ‘green’ and ‘eco’ became trendy catchwords in the mass-market of the fashion world. At the time I was traveling to Hong Kong four times a year to visit factories and develop new fabrics for a brand that was produced entirely overseas. I was lucky enough to have a job that allowed me to make all design and development choices so as I learned more about environmentally friendly fibres (organic cotton, hemp, tencel, soybean, etc.) I began to incorporate them into the collection, slowly converting the entire supply chain to exclusively environmentally friendly fabrics.
It was during a sourcing and production trip to India that I learned about khadi fabric from one of my suppliers. Khadi is a hand-woven textile, usually lightweight and made of cotton. It is also the name of a movement started by Ghandi, promoting the idea that Indians could be self-reliant on cotton and free from the overpriced textiles being sold to them by their rulers. The beautifully woven fine cotton appealed to my love of well-made textiles, but the story and purpose behind the fabric was what appealed to me most. My interest in sourcing socially responsible materials in addition to environmentally safe ones began then and there.
Now that I have spent a good amount of time sourcing both types of sustainable materials, and on occasion some that meet both environmental and social criteria, I find myself in a conversation about which is ‘more sustainable’. Is the hand-woven silk from India better than the US-grown organic cotton that requires a lot of water to produce, or the recycled polyester from China that does not? But why stop there? If faced with two aesthetically similar options, is it preferable to choose a less environmental but more socially responsible option? When there is no ethical calculator to help us factor the pros and cons of each, how do we, as designers and business owners, make these decisions?
And this brings me right back to that moral compass I mentioned earlier. In an ideal world, designers would have their electricity-free hand-woven domestically sourced waterless fibres available at all pricepoints. But that isn’t the reality we face, and so I often find myself having to make difficult choices between artisanal craft and new technology, or between domestic conventional fibres or imported organic ones. I could be very picky and limit myself to what I deem to be the most ethical choice, but I am not sure after a decade of research what I believe that to be. And by choosing only one strategy, using only domestic textiles, for example, I restrict myself from working with artisanal craftspeople in other parts of the world, which is something I value tremendously. That is not how I want to limit my creativity.
Conversations in Craft, a project I’ll be launching in the Spring of 2014, will attempt to relate traditional craftwork from four different countries by asking each artisan to translate the same image using their particular technique: embroidery in Afghanistan, knitting in Peru, block printing in India, weaving in Uganda, and quilting in the USA. While most will not be using environmentally sustainable materials, due to lack of availability on the local market (Afghanistan being a good example of this), the eco check-mark comes from making small quantities of product, employing artisans in developing countries and highlighting techniques that are quickly being automated and lost to big factories.
I have tremendous respect for designers who choose one strategy, one of TED’s ten for instance, and limit themselves to implementing only that one. That is not my reality, though. Instead I choose to study each of them individually and in relation to one another, and I hope to one day answer the question “which is most sustainable”, if for no one else but myself.