Now the world’s second largest polluter trailing just behind Oil, the garment industry has become synonymous with excessive waste, labor malpractice, overproduction and unsustainability, accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions. In a trend-driven market, there’s an overwhelming desire for consumers to stay relevant, and arguably, ethical fashion has yet to shake off its unconventional image to find a solid footing.
However, today’s consumers are becoming more inquisitive and eco-conscious than ever before, with an abundance of information on the planet’s demise at their fingertips. Evermore informed about the perils of fast fashion and mass-produced clothing, the demand for truly eco-friendly fashion that doesn’t compromise on style, integrity and originality is now in high demand, and a number of emerging and established designers are set on turning this into an overarching industry reality.
HANDMADE WITH LOVE
Dame Vivienne Westwood has long been an instigator for ethical and slow fashion, pursuing tactical methods that guarantee the longevity of true sustainability. Since 2009, Westwood has been involved with Artisan Fashion Group, which was launched in 2007 under the title Ethical Fashion Initiative and later rebranded in 2016. The initiative - a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation - is aimed at coordinating production for marginalised communities in Africa, where artisans are able to exchange their unique skills for fair wages and greater economic freedom. This promotes continued trade and commerce within impoverished communities. Today, the platform engages with over 1,000 African artisans producing more than 100,000 bags and accessories per year for luxury brands worldwide including Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Carmina Campus, Chan Luu, Marni, Max & Co, sass & bide, Mimco and Karen Walker.
For Westwood’s ‘Handmade with Love in Kenya’ Spring Summer ‘17 collection, she collaborated with Artisan Fashion Group to produce a unisex accessories line featuring over 1731 rucksacks, totes and drawstring duffle bags. The collection was made from east African farmed cotton canvas, recycled brass from scrap metals such as engine parts, taps and padlocks, cow horn zip pullers and full grain Kenyan cow leather. It created jobs for 86 artisans of varying skillsets from three different communities, with nearly all of the artisans receiving some form of training, and 78% using their income to fund the education of their children. Hugely considerate on social impact, the enterprise’s ongoing collaborations with multiple esteemed luxury brands sets a high precedent for healthy production processes.
Similarly to African Fashion Group, ethical label Edun was founded in 2005 by rock legend Bono and wife Ali Hewson, on the basis of bringing long-term business and infrastructure to underdeveloped areas of Africa. Transparency is fundamental to Edun’s mission, with 95% of their collections manufactured in sub-Saharan Africa, using organically sourced materials from local farmers and growers, and working solely with factories that remain rigid on ethical work practices. Landing a deal with luxury conglomerate LVMH in 2009, and becoming a firm fixture at New York fashion week, the label has proven season after season that eco-friendly fashion does not need to be drab or compromise on relevant contemporary design. Possessing a trademark of laid-back cool with touches of femininity and chic sophistication, the label successfully balances desirability with a firm grasp on its core altruistic intentions - delivering directional design grounded in contemporary minimalism, embellished tailoring and a level of artisanal detail of the highest calibre.
Vocal animal rights activist and veteran designer, Stella McCartney, has continued to uphold an all-encompassing sustainable approach to her brand, employing methods such as regenerated cashmere in her knitwear, or sourcing renewable energy to power the majority of her stores. McCartney further refuses to use leather, fur or animal skin, resulting in fully vegetarian lines and her collections being at least 53% sustainable.
Much like McCartney, Brazilian-born, London-based designer, Barbara Casasola’s collections are based on strong production values, reflected in every step of her manufacturing processes by keeping her supply chains fully traceable. Launching a sustainable core collection made in a self-sufficient factory in Brazil, where power, light and water were all made organically on site, the young designer also works with craftsmen, seamstresses and artisanal factories across Italy, allowing her to consistently deliver a signature of understated femininity, minimalist elegance and timeless relaxed fits, grounded in quality craftsmanship.
Label of the moment and ODRE designer Gabriela Hearst is another designer known for advocating multiple sustainable principles – her knitwear originates from her inherited sustainable family ranch (where her father pioneered organic farming) and other materials and production processes are sourced from multigenerational artisans and factories in Italy or France. With a focus on the environment and a less-is-more ethos, Hearst has also partnered with Uruguay-based non-profit craftswomen’s cooperative called Manos de Uruguay - an all-sustainable business and economically empowering initiative, providing women with social and personal development opportunities and the means to remain in their rural hometowns, where work opportunities are often scarce. Hearst’s most recent ethical venture saw her design a knit sweater featuring a combination of a ram’s head and ovaries, to benefit Planned Parenthood - now in jeopardy under the new Trump administration, which seems to be regressing in relation to women’s rights.
Even in the accessories sector designers are pursuing sound ethical processes. Colombian jewellery designer Paula Mendoza’s bold sculptural pieces are all created in her workshop in Bogota, Colombia, using only locally sourced precious metals and gems, and working with jewelers who have mastered their skills through inherited family techniques. Exclusively hiring single mothers and women in need to produce her accessories, Mendoza’s collections create a positive social impact on her local community, while managing to generate maximal interest on an international level, with the likes of celebrities including Beyonce donning her eccentric designs.
RESOURCEFUL MATERIALS EQUALS BESPOKE LUXURY
One of the biggest pitfalls of the garment industry lies in materials and how they are created or sourced. Polyester fibre for example - one of the most commonly used materials in clothing - requires nearly 70 million barrels of oil a year to produce, and takes more than 200 years to decompose. Cotton, the other most commonly used material, makes up two thirds of all fibers used globally in clothing production, which puts a huge strain on the environment as it requires vast amounts of water to grow and produce. Currently, apparel production consumes approximately 79 billion cubic meters of water each year, putting cotton-producing countries such as Asia and Africa under intense water stress and at huge risk of drought.
Emerging designers such as Christopher Raeburn and Faustine Steinmetz are discovering pioneering ways to tackle the industry’s major material issues, creating innovative sustainable fabrics or engaging in creative upcycling. British designer Christopher Raeburn is celebrated for using re-appropriated military fabrics in his collections, sourced throughout Europe. Redefining luxury streetwear, the ethically aware designer creates functional, meticulously crafted garments and outerwear reconstructed from things like parachute silks, duffle coats, vintage military trousers, navel jackets and even secondhand high-visibility canopies from lifeboats. Raeburn’s designs demonstrate how being resourceful with materials can result in clothing that doesn’t diminish in style integrity. With more than 150 billion garments produced annually across the world - which is enough to provide 20 new garments to every person on the planet, every year - in re-purposing, Raeburn is paving the way for reasonable methods of waste reduction, while also boosting his luxe credibility by creating completely bespoke products.
Faustine Steinmetz on the other hand is renowned for her hand-crafted denim and fabrics, personally hand spinning, weaving and dying all of her materials from scratch. As a designer and manufacturer of her own unique fabrics, she can provide transparency and control over every aspect of her garments from start to finish, while creating one-of-a-kind pieces that boast progressive originality and a signature style.
It seems for many luxury designers, there is an overwhelming emphasis on the positive ramifications of choosing quality over quantity. With many starting to adopt slow, artisanal production methods, they are fighting overconsumption and overproduction and encouraging consumers to transform their habits to invest in quality products, rather than succumbing to cheaply made fast fashion. In generating a slower, quality-based consumption ethos, perhaps the fashion industry’s negative impact can be considerably lessened.