As a stylist working in the fashion industry, I understand I am a cog in the $250 billion dollar machine that is the U.S. apparel market. I should know everything about it, right? Sadly, until just recently, I realized I knew hardly anything at all.
Wanting to expand my knowledge on my own industry, this past summer I attended an event with a friend discussing sustainability in fashion hosted by Decoded Fashion. There was a panel on supply chain transparency including team members from Eileen Fisher and Zady, and showcases from exciting fashion startups putting sustainability and ethical sourcing at the top of their mission. The talk inspired me to delve deeper into the sources of my clothing and to be more mindful about my fashion consumption. Then the realization struck, I had no idea how to get started! Thankfully, that friend I had invited to keep me company? She ended up being one of the most amazing sources of fashion sustainability knowledge.
Jessica Graves is a fashion data scientist and designer. She started looking into the practices of the companies whose clothing made up her closet in college after learning about the harmful implications of delocalized labor. The information she discovered caused her to commit to researching a brand before supporting them with her spending, to buy less items but higher quality ones, and to find online and brick & mortar markets that do the fishing for the customer, only carrying pieces from transparent, ethical labels. She became, what I like to call, a mindful consumer.
Money talks. In the new year, I want my dollars to speak up for those doing right by their factory workers, the earth, the farmers; the environment and people who touch a clothing item before it makes its way onto a hanger in my closet. To find out how to do that, I spoke with Jessica on how to become a mindful consumer, what to look for on clothing tags, and where to shop for cool, ethically sourced pieces. (You may want to keep a pen and paper handy 'cause this is one information-packed interview.)
When it comes to fashion, being a mindful consumer is...
Being a mindful consumer is complicated, because we have imperfect information about how the garments we buy are produced - some brands don't have perfect information themselves. Mindfulness in fashion is an attentive attitude toward environmental and social impact of materials, production methods, labor practices, quality, longevity, and efficiency in production and distribution.
What made you want to become one (a mindful consumer)?
Everyone on the planet has some kind of relationship with dress, which extends beyond apparel alone. Fashion is one of a few non-lingual forms of communication that is participated in on a massive scale, with very little ability to opt out. Fashion has a place for our oldest hand traditions and our newest biochemical innovations. It's my favorite industry, I'm at home in fashion, where so many fields intersect in fascinating ways - art, design, economics, chemistry, ecology, mathematics, data science, machine learning, computer vision, cultural criticism, writing, international development, software engineering... I've worked with top researchers using mathematics and data to create products or improve models within energy, agriculture, and ecology. Much of the same thinking applies to fashion, and I can't help but see the parallels and want to create a cleaner, diverse fashion ecosystem where both small and large brands can thrive.
What were the first steps you took towards being more aware of where your clothes were coming from?
I read tags! I worked on a piece for The Office for Creative Research Journal where I looked at my laundry pile and asked, where are all of these items from? What was the MSRP? What materials are associated with the low prices? What countries are associated with what materials? I wanted to know what my own closet looked like to begin with. I'd like to develop the idea of a closet data selfie even further. It's not about shaming, it's just about knowing. If we don't know what a typical closet looks like, how can we go about changing it, or measuring improvement?
Where do you look for information on clothing companies' fabric sources or factories?
I’ve been picking up bits and pieces from keeping up with publications. Celine reportedly uses locally sourced leather from ethically treated animals, according to Phoebe Philo in the latest Gentlewoman. The Business of Fashion’s Seven Issues Facing the Industry print issue did an in-depth profile on Stella McCartney and Zara, which touched on how they source and measure. Eyebeam produced a great read in the Computational Fashion Report earlier this year, where a few smaller brands discussed how they source. Events from BOF, Decoded, Pioneer Mode, all offer insight from direct professionals. Even if you don't live in a major city, there are often social media conversations you can join during live events for access to people in the field. Any media will have its biases, but you can still get some value from documentaries (The True Cost), video series, journalist coverage (Vice), news reports (Human Rights Watch).
Read the labels - notice if your favorite companies change over time. One of my favorite Made in NYC brands is suddenly producing pieces from their in-house label in China. Don’t get me wrong - I know of amazing sustainable factories in China and Hong Kong, the red flag is that this was a sudden shift from local to VERY far away production, lower quality in the seam finishing, at the same price point, without evidence that they’re simply thriving and need to meet new volumes. I’m not excited about paying the premium anymore.
A lot of knowledge is pretty closed-source and comes from working in the industry and knowing the production teams and processes.
Are there any unexpected indicators that let you know if a designer or brand has ethically sourced their product?
I'll check if a brand is carried by Indelust, Zady. Sometimes I'll check LinkedIn and see if they have anyone with "sustainability" in their title, especially on a production team. Thinking about sustainability in fashion production is definitely a full-time job. You can usually find a rating site or two if you search for specific brands, and they'll be open about why a company has a low or high grade in their opinion. I look for messaging and reporting about sustainability or production on their corporate website, or check for participation in events about ethical fashion and seek videos to get a deeper look. Family-owned factories that have been operating for a decades can be a positive indicator, especially for high end garments. I'm in the habit of making friends with small business owners, who are usually more and happy to talk seriously about where their items come from.
It's important to keep a critical eye on anything you read or watch. I find the conversation gets muddled because there is an imprecise understanding of the economic implications of blacklisting an entire country because some of its factories have a bad reputation. Refusing to buy items produced in a certain country might not be as ethical as we want, even though it reduces some of the complexity when making buying decisions.
What fabrics should consumers steer clear of and why? Additionally, what fabrics should consumers look for more and why?
Materials are great for establishing "what's the worst that can happen by contributing to large scale use of this material?" if you have no other information. But, it depends on where it comes from and how it is produced, which is harder to understand. An exception that jumps out is sandblasted denim, there does not seem to be a justifiable way to have people sandblast denim. Stella McCartney points out that sequins are simply not an option for her line, PVC is extremely damaging. Leather is difficult to decouple from the massive environmental problems of the cattle industry, and treated skins aren't really all that biodegradable. Chrome-tanned has a much more negative impact than vegetable-tanned leather.
Fur seems MUCH less likely to be sourced in a way that’s remotely ethical, and faux fur is growing in sophistication. But it's intimately linked to where skins comes from - for example Titania Inglis only uses waste fur from a small tribe in Iceland. It’s not so clear to condemn this case.
I'm excited for recycled materials from Evrnu, and about silk from Bolt Threads and leather from Modern Meadow, which bypass many of the animal-centric problems, and grow silk / leather from genetically modified cell cultures in the lab. These cells are sometimes grown on GMO sugar. So, we arrive at a paradox, the ethical consumer who wears small-scale organic cotton on the one hand, and lab-grown silk produced by industrial-scale monocropped corn on the other.
Fast fashion is so alluring because it is so cheap. What would you say to the interested consumer who is afraid slow fashion is too expensive?
Learn to sew. No one who has ever sewn a dress themselves, or seen the work of industrial seamstresses, can reasonably expect that a $5 item was ethically produced.
Measure your cost per wear and replacement costs. I've bought, from mass retailers, $50 jeans where the threads came loose within 2 wears, and a $60 sweater that literally ripped apart within a week of normal use. I was shocked. I thought fast fashion was supposed to be easier?
I've also bought a $250 sweater that's lasted 4 years so far, parties, fashion weeks, internships, corporate jobs, hand washing, machine washing, without so much as a thread coming loose. I'll probably have it for the rest of my life. Think about the story you want to tell! I take heritage pretty seriously, and want to see the industry move forward with respect to the decades of hand crafted labor that went into some of these systems.
I've heard of friends buying $20 pants, $30 blazers for work and having those items fail on them in the middle of their workday. If you need to replace new pants every month, why not buy one pair that'll last you years instead -- and perhaps actually fit you well? Did you buy the cutest $10 top ever, so cute but it just pulls a little weird, so you just have to find a cropped blazer to go over it for $25, but it doesn’t work with the jeans you have at home so you buy a new high waist pair for $40? Why not spend $75 on a top that works with everything you have?
Also: hang tight - no one actually thinks the price point of ethical fashion is accessible en masse, and very often these options don’t exist at scale just yet. When industrial-grade fashion manufacturing software catches up with the open source culture common in the tech industry, it will be possible to produce at a small scale for less money. It’s not that nobody wants to produce ethically sourced fashion at a mass market price point.
Name your three favorite places, online or brick and mortar, to reliably find stylish, ethically-made items?
I’m thinking of launching a better aggregator, there’s really not much out there. I’m super excited for Uniforme (unifor.me)! The quality is brilliant, the manufacturing is local, the textiles are extremely carefully sourced. Zady is really stringent about who they carry, so I like when I see the same brands (Won Hundred, Alice D., etc) at OAK NYC as well (who also carries The Squad). For accessories, La Portegna is my favorite, and they know all of their artisans by name.
However, you can look within your favorite brands and dig for items produced in countries with decent labor track records, buy vegetable tanned instead of chrome tanned, support collaboration pieces with smaller open brands. Consider that buying less, with higher quality is also important when we can’t evaluate supply chain - even if every company was perfect, our consumption levels are unsustainably high.
Shoes. Shoes can be tough. Where do you go for shoes?
What advice do you have for the mindful consumer just getting started?
Take a data selfie of the brands, prices, and manufacturing origins of your clothing. How often do you shop? How much do you spend? Get a sense of your own data! Read about the history of manufacturing. The fashion industry has much, much deeper impact than how we’ll look today.
- Project Just. This online platform shares detailed narratives of the practices behind big and small brands including supply chain transparency, labor conditions, environmental impact, and management summaries. It currently has backgrounds on 40 businesses with plans to add more through crowd-sourced, fact-checked submissions.
- Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.
Cline's exploration into the world of fast fashion, its development and far-reaching negative impacts, will have you taking data selfies and picking up a sewing kit in no time.
- The True Cost | A Documentary Film.
Now available on Netflix, this documentary is a must-see. If you want a good look into the many layers that must be considered to produce ethical, sustainable fashion, and how this broken fast fashion system came to be, spend an afternoon seeing what goes on at the other end of the supply chain.
- Gloria Cavallaro