Truly sustainable fashion: what would it look like, and how do we get there?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for durable, small-scale, community-based economies–because that’s the only way we’re going to survive in this age of climate change. And I’ve been wondering, what does that mean for fashion? What would a sustainable system of clothing production look like?

Clothing swaps and bargain shopping events are a major step in the right direction. But new clothing still has to come from somewhere.

I really like The Social Skin’s vision of a sustainable textile industry. In it, fibers are grown locally whenever possible, including from animals like sheep and rabbits; local fabric shops create various types of cloth while paying their workers a living wage; people sew simple items at home, and take fabric to tailors for more complicated garments; and people care for their clothing carefully, using it until it wears out or selling it at consignment stores. Also, hats come back in style, providing work for local milliners–an idea which I can get behind 100%!

A sustainable system involving hats? Sign me up!

The way clothing would get made sounds wonderful:

You collaborate with the dressmaker on your garment design and in choosing your trimming and notions. She contributes expertise in fabric drapery and cut, suggestions on styles she has seen work before, and information on current fashion trends or historic styles as appropriate. You contribute your preferences on the style, cut, colors and fabrics that work for you. You might bring in pictures of clothes you’ve seen to be copied, with whatever adjustments you want, or your favorite old dress to be recreated in fresh fabric. All of your clothes fit you perfectly, are exactly the right length, height, and width in every place. The colors are always flattering to your complexion, the cuts always flattering to your figure, the style always exactly what you feel most comfortable and lovely wearing. What a dream!

There would be so much more room for creativity, and people of all sizes could get clothing they love, rather than being left out by corporations that don’t want their clothing seen on fat people.

All of these beautiful, natural fibers, fabrics, clothes and soft furnishings are more expensive than the old industrial, synthetic, polluting, sweatshop-produced textiles, because they are produced sustainably by people living near us. Therefore most of us cannot afford the large amounts of clothing and household textiles people were accustomed to in the dirty times. However, the quality is so much better, and everything is custom made exactly as we prefer, so the fewer items we do have are so much more satisfying than the piles of never-quite-exactly-right things we used to make do with.

How do we get to this kind of future from our current fast fashion system, in which both workers and natural resources are treated as disposable?

There are many people currently developing alternative types of clothing and ways of making clothing. Some of them are really promising, and I’ll be writing about a few of my favorites soon!

But in addition to such innovation, we also need structural social change on multiple levels:

1.) The price of clothings need to reflect the true costs of both the labor and fossil fuels that go into them. Then it would no longer be profitable for companies to constantly produce large amounts of low-quality clothing, made by poorly-treated workers and shipped around the world.

How do we do this? By supporting textile workers’ rights campaigns, supporting the development of clean energy sources such as solar power, and fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

2.) We need a living wage for all, so that people can afford the upfront cost of buying more expensive, longer-lasting clothing. Right now, most people can’t afford to buy high-quality, ethically-produced clothes, let alone have clothing custom-made. Until we end the staggering inequality inherent to our economic system, sustainable fashion will only be something that makes well-off progressives feel good about themselves, rather than an option that’s accessible to everyone.

This is complicated, and it’s definitely easier said than done. But there are many ways to work against poverty and inequality, and they’re all important.

3.) Here in the US, we also need a shorter work week and more vacation time–that is, the European model (which could also help slow climate change). This way, people would have the time and energy to sew some of them own clothes. And if sewing isn’t their thing, they could trade something else (baked goods? computer help? car repair?) with their friends in exchange for sewing.

4.) Another thing that Europe does better than the US: universal health insurance. If we had it–or some other way of making healthcare affordable and accessible for everyone–then people wouldn’t have to worry about finding jobs with benefits. And that would make it a lot easier for people to become tailors, dressmakers, milliners, weavers, alpaca/sheep/rabbit-raisers, or other professions that contribute to a local, sustainable textile economy.


18 thoughts on “Truly sustainable fashion: what would it look like, and how do we get there?

  1. Oh man, lady, at some point I feel like we need to just meet up and jam about sustainable clothing while eating cake and spinning wool on our drop spindles. Is that okay? surely that’s okay…

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for the links!

      Alta Gracia looks really cool. I look forward to reading your interview with them! Manufacture New York also sounds like a great idea.

      I have heard about Fashioning Change before, and I like what they’re doing, but I’m frustrated that they only serve sizes 0-16. I tweeted to them and asked them to consider expanding the size range of clothing they work with, but I never heard back.

      • Wow, didn’t know that about Fashioning Change! Sorry lady (though I will say that sometimes sustainable clothing brands, due to their lack of demand, just lack a diversity of options in general).

        • That’s ok! Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed the lack of diversity of options in sustainable clothing brands. I’ve actually been thinking about writing a post about it–how it sucks that it’s so hard to find ethical/sustainable clothing in plus sizes. We have fewer clothing options to begin with, and even fewer if we want to avoid causing harm with the clothing we buy!

  2. I like a lot of these ideas, I would also add investment into developing materials that can be used like the sheep and rabbit fur that was mentioned, so sheep and rabbits won’t be exploited for clothing.

  3. That would be neat!

    I wonder about dyes, too, though. How many colors would you have to choose from at such a small scale of production, where the kinds of dyes produced in labs or factories in huge amounts using a series of steps involving exotic reagents and catalysts, with maybe petroleum or something as starting material, would not be available? I know you can get blue from indigo, which is a bush that can theoretically grow where I live (theoretically … I am finding that a lot of ostensibly hardy plants that I’ve planted are failing to grow here because of extreme drought), and I know you can get a deep, rich brown from black walnut (I have one in my backyard), but I do not know if you can get red or yellow or green or deep, dark black from any natural, easy-to-get source. (Black is an important color for me!)

    I have a dress that is hand-dyed, and it is a dark mauve, very intense color. So hopefully we could continue to get the kind of intensity of color that I like in fast fashion.

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  5. Hmm. I’m wondering if it would be possible to have sustainable fashion also work the same way fast fashion does, having stores that sell clothing in different sizes and styles, so not everyone *has* to get their clothes custom-designed if they don’t want to? Because putting that kind of effort and decision-making into clothes sounds really stressful to me! It’s hard enough just pairing together a top with a bottom, never mind playing such a large part in designing the items of clothing themselves… I guess I don’t have much of an eye for fashion, and moving forward with a sustainable future in fashion, people shouldn’t have to put a lot of thought/creativity into fashion if it’s just not really their thing, but while still producing clothes ethically of course. Perhaps in addition to consulting with people to make custom designs, the dressmakers could reproduce designs they’ve made previously for other people and sell them in little shops?

    • I think sustainable fashion should definitely include ready-to-wear clothing for people who don’t want to customize their own clothing! I don’t think the amount of clothing produced by the fast fashion industry is sustainable, but a smaller amount of better quality clothing could definitely be made. I like the idea of dressmakers reproducing ideas and selling them in little shops as well.

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