By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Fashion is a notoriously dirty industry.
Its labour practices are abominable. And its environmental footprint is atrocious – especially its use of carbon, pesticides, plastics, and water.
As Grist reported in August in A scrappy solution to the fashion industry’s giant waste problem:
Considering the climate when it comes to our clothes is important since more than 60 percent of textile fibers are derived from fossil fuels (petrochemicals). On top of that, The United Nations estimated that the business of what we wear, including its long supply chains, is responsible for 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions heating our planet. As an industry, fashion uses up even more energy than aviation and shipping combined.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that individual Americans generated 16 million tons of textile waste. New Yorkers alone throw away 200,000 tons of clothes, linens, shoes, and accessories each year. Only about 15 percent of unwanted apparel ends up being recycled. The remaining 85 percent is burned or added to municipal landfills.
In recent years, the rise of “fast fashion”- cheap, on-trend clothing, generally of poor quality, intended to be worn a couple of times and then discarded – has exacerbated the industry’s environmental impact. Yet consumers have started to worry more about sustainability, and several fashion heavy hitters – luxury brands – have launched the Fashion Pact to address these concerns. Alas, as I wrote in Waste Watch: Big Fashion Embraces Sustainability? Ha! and Waste Watch: Fashion Stumbles on Sustainability, thus far this effort seems to be little-more than corporate greenwashing, fashion-style.
But there’s another trend I wash to discuss, partly driven by millennials. They tend to travel light, and are less interested in acquiring possessions. That includes clothing. They are aware of both of fast fashion’s environmental impact its quality concerns. But they don’t disdain fashion.
Solution: clothing rental. Now, this has long been an option for men, who can- and do – rent formal wear. Not so much in the UK, where black tie events are more common, so that many men acquire at least a dinner jacket. But certainly in the US. Renting rather than buying allows for some fashion abominations that wouldn’t exist if a chap had to lay out to buy that baby blue tux.
I will confess here that there were at one time pictures of my date for the Newton High School Class of ’79 junior prom, held in the spring of 1978, outfitted in a baby blue tux, alongside moi, wearing one of those floaty Gunne Sax “long dresses” that were à la mode in the 1970s. But I believe I managed to destroy all photo evidence – or at least I intercepted the pix. And I can’t resist sharing a factoid I just stumbled upon in this article in the wonderfully-named website Man Repeller, A Surprising Spring Dress Trend I Wholly Endorse:
Gunne Sax is a now-defunct clothing label founded in 1967 that specialized in Victorian and Edwardian-style designs. It’s no coincidence the brand began the same year as the Summer of Love; in an article for Vogue.com, writer Laird Borrelli-Persson quotes Gunne Sax partner-turned-owner Jessica McClintock, who said that these dresses were “a stamp” among hippies of the era. And! Hillary Rodham Clinton even wore one when she married Bill in 1975.
Back to my main point.
Options for women’s rentals? Much less so. But if you think about it, it does make sense for women to rent rather than buy formal wear – as the convention for women is certainly not to wear the same gown, year after year, season after season. Women are expected to vary what they wear, and stay aware of current styles. Whereas a standard men’s dinner jacket can last and look au courant for many years. (There are exceptions, e.g., wide ’70’s lapels)
Enter Rent the Runway, a service that allows women to rent formal wear and designer duds, touts its green credentials, and is now valued at more than $1 billion. Other retailers: Banana Republic, Bloomingdale’s, H & M, Urban Outfitters have joined the party (see this Refinery29 account,H&M For Rent? The Company Is Testing A Service To Tackle Environmental Concerns).
But as Eugene Rabkin wrote in a recent Business of Fashion piece, Op-Ed | Buy, Don’t Rent: The Virtues of Owning Clothes:
First, rental’s sustainability credentials are suspect. No one knows the real footprint that rental companies leave when they dry-clean, package and ship mountains of clothes, a cycle that has to be repeated after each and every garment has been rented, even if it hasn’t been worn.
“There is no thorough research to support the notion that subscription rental platforms are inherently sustainable. We need more data on their shipping and dry cleaning impacts,” says Elizabeth Cline, the author of two books on clothing consumption, Overdressed and The Conscious Closet, and who in a recent article for Elle questioned whether the clothing rental business was, in fact, sustainable.
The problem as Rabkin sees it is that the sharing economy promotes mindless overconsumption (just as the standard, neoliberal everyone out for her or himself economy does). He instead recommends buying less, paying more, and holding garments longer.
Just another way of saying Reduce and Reuse really.
NYC Tackles Commercial Fashion Waste
Notice that Rabkin doesn’t doesn’t rest much on the third element of the three-R mantra: recycle. Readers know I’m no fan of the recycling fairy, who’s a key player in the fashion fantasyworld. One sad and not widely known consequences of the rise of fast fashion and the desire of some consumers to do something about waste is to dump it in the third world. Even if, as indicated above, Americans only recycle 15% of their textile waste, that’s still a massive amount of waste. Not to mention that other countries – the UK – do the very same thing.
Which has overwhelmed the textile markets in the places waste is dumped. And destroyed local textile production. So much so that some countries don’t want any more of our textile rubbish (see The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion, for my discussion on a proposed ban on secondhand clothing imports to East African states).
The August grist piece does address one positive recycling development: the FABSCRAP nonprofit textile recycling program. I crossposted another article in August, this from the Independent Media Institute, FabScrap Tackles Fashion Waste, about the same initiative.
Now, this isn’t your typical consumer recycling initiative, all well-meant and feel good, but with unfortunate consequences. According to the IMI crosspost:
Under New York City law, if your commercial waste is more than 10 percent textile, it must be recycled. Globally, nearly 75 percent of materials used to produce clothing are sentto to a landfill or destroyed. Less than 1 percent of old clothing is actually used to make new clothing
Despite the city law, for many years there was no convenient or easy way to recycle textiles, and reams of fabric scrap and trim didn’t really fit with the second-hand store model.
The industry churns through swatches, samples, reams, trims, patches, yarns, and more, and a lot of waste is produced. Another unfortunate byproduct is guilt: The industry has stories of people hoarding scraps out of guilt of not wanting to throw them away.
The solution? Again, over to IMI:
So, Jessica Schreiber founded FabScrap, the world’s first and so far only fashion industry recycling warehouse.
Sixty percent of what FabScrap takes in is reused— much of it un-recyclable. For example, spandex and elastane aren’t fibers. They’re additives to the fiber. In the recycling shredding process, these additives melt and destroy the shredding machine. “It’s really problematic,” says Schreiber.
Many textiles that have petroleum-derived products in them, including spandex, acrylic, and polyester, are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. (Ninety-eight million tons of oil wereused in the textile industry in 2015. By 2050, that number is expected to be 300 million.)
FabScrap takes those textiles in, and some of it is then sold online, in scrap packs, and in one-pound packs sorted by color—all has 1 percent or more of spandex. “Those scraps are popular,” says Schreiber. “The smaller pieces tend to be the pieces with spandex. It draws attention that there needs to be more solutions.”
Of the fabric they receive, says Schreiber, 40 percent is recycled. “So far this year, we’ve shredded 46,000 pounds” of textiles.
While they separate out 100 percent cotton scrap that gets reused, the smaller pieces will get shredded.
For fashion students, home sewers, quilters, and artists, FabScrap is a gold mine of high-quality fabric at dollar store prices. For the designers who are starting out, it’s a huge resource.
“Our goal is to give away as much fabric as we sell,” says Schreiber. “If there is a non-profit needing fabric, we’ll give them what they need.”
Schreiber’s background is in waste management, previously working with New York’s Re-FashioNYC program where she learned about the fashion industry and realized the thrift store model really didn’t work for it.
The sheer value of really beautiful material that would go to landfills for slight blemishes, including full cowhides, interesting patches, and fabric with interesting patterns and designs, shocked her.
One piece FabScrap received as waste has 24k gold thread woven in, a piece now framed and on display on Schreiber’s desk.
What Is to Be Done?
I do a fair amount of textile recycling and repurposing. Through my work on my textile book, I have acquired far more items than I need. But I don’t generally give things to charities or impersonal textile drives. Instead, I give apparel away to people I know can use it when I tire of things – or when I see someone has a greater need for something than I do.
I buy lots of high quality fabric – again, as a consequence of my textile research. Most of this I have made into apparel by a trusted tailor (Gurdeep Singh, with a shop on Free School Street in Calcutta). He cuts carefully and tosses none of the “waste” away. I have a friend – an English solicitor – who is an avid quilter and visits India occasionally. I save my small scraps for her, and when I know she’s in India – or I or someone I know is headed to the UK – I see that my textile scraps get transferred.
Now, I understand not everyone is as well-supplied with textiles as I am. Nor, for that matter, as compulsive about trying to minimize textile waste.
There are, however, steps to reduce one’s textile waste that everyone can take. So let me close by repeating some suggestions from the IMI article:
Here are tips for reducing your own fashion waste:
- Stop buying plastic and other synthetic or petroleum-based clothing.
- Invest in pieces that last longer.
- Learn to tailor and mend, or find someone in your community who can and work with them so your clothing can be part of your wardrobe for a longer period of time.
- Read the labels on the clothing you want to buy. Often a product marketed as “Made with 100 percent organic cotton” is really an organic cotton-spandex-acrylic-polyester blend.
- Learn how to properly care for your clothing (and blankets and sheets and curtains, etc.) so it lasts and is meaningful to you. Proper cleaning, spot removal, and drying techniques can keep your textiles looking good for longer.
- Learn about the regenerative fiber movement of local producers of natural fibers, including wool and hemp, and support a co-op or local business making and selling clothing, textiles, winter wear, and more using natural, locally made fibers.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Repair. (see my previous post, Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair.)
Stop buying plastic and other synthetic or petroleum-based clothing…..
Pushing the solution onto the customer is a failed solution.
Not producing the products is the better solution, or taxing the raw materials.
Absolutely it would be preferable to not produce the stuff in the first place. Absent any means to make that happen in any meaningfully helpful timeframe (short of widespread major felonies against property), boycotting types and classes of products can limit their production, by however slight a degree. I assume we can take that to be a good thing, even if trivial in a maximalist context.
It depends on how powerful one feels, if one thinks such a movement to ban or tax environmental harms might be powerful then of course it goes without saying it’s preferable, obviously legislation is preferable if we can get it.
But if one feels increasingly powerless (well obviously nothing good will come out of those presently in power, but if even our votes to attempt to change those currently in power may not be counted …) then withdrawing from the system as much as is feasible (even just as a consumer) is a power one still has.
Wear wool, eat lamb.
about 10 years ago, I took a 3 year course from a community college that teamed with a local private dressmaking school (run by teachers who had been trained in the early sixties in NYC, when there was still a two-tier clothing production system of union-run factories and millions of small tailors/dressmakers who created cut to measure or fully custom designs for individuals) as well as the Bunka school in Japan. The course was for ‘fashion design’ but the actual specialties were patternmakers and technical designers, and their primary hiring prospects were companies like Columbia and Jantzen. I had worked my way through the course with a technical support job, and when the crash happened it was far easier to keep the bills paid doing that. So I never did anything with the skills.
However since then I have wondered why the two-tier system went away and if it could possibly be a solution to the waste. Already there are lots of reuse-focused designers (who pick apart existing garments and use the resources to make something new) and zero-waste patternmaking processes that reduce the amount of inputs needed down the line in a factory process. It seems like more people are becoming aware of the atrocious labor and quality issues in fast fashion, which may have more impact on some people than purely the environmental impacts of waste. What if there was a new class of small business focused on hyper-local garment production? A small storefront for fitting, a small warehouse for the inputs, and a small workshop for actually sewing the goods. This is still done outside of the US, but it requires skills that have been dying off for decade here. Traditionally here and those I’ve seen in other countries are run by small cooperatives or families.
But there is still time to start transferring some of those skills from the elder generations to the younger. There is no shortage of people who want to be designer or feel they are not getting a good fit or a durable good. Many are conditioned to think of this stuff in terms of ‘fashion’ or ‘trends’ but it doesn’t have to be that way; how many people do you know who wear jeans just because it’s the most easily available durable trouser? What if you could say, I want a trouser with pockets here, and a soft lining, and a gusset in the crotch so I can ride a bike… and pay approximately the same to have one made than just buying the same jeans everyone else has that you still have to hunt high and low for a pair that fits and doesn’t fall apart. It doesn’t make financial sense if you are offshoring, though; it would only work if there was a genuine effort to rebuild the skills.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. As of Kennedy’s election, 1 in 8 US jobs was still textile- or apparel-related. That started changing as JFK entered some textile trade agreements, and then launched what became known as the Kennedy Round of GATT negotiations. The WTO subsequently replaced the GATT. But as you say, many of the skills are gone.
When my father graduated from high school — and his father refused to sign a minor league baseball contract for his underage son – Dad took a job in the local silk factory, which IIRC was near Paterson, NJ. Then the US started to mess about in Korea and Dad enlisted in the US Navy, so as not to get caught up in any land war in Asia. After serving honorably in the Navy for 4 yrs, he attended college under the GI bill. Then became a teacher (and coach), and finally, guidance counselor.
I spend much of my time in Asia, and have had clothing made in India, and in Vietnam. Fantastic quality, and made to fit ME.
As of Kennedy’s election, 1 in 8 US jobs was still textile- or apparel-related…Dad took a job in the local silk factory, which IIRC was near Paterson, NJ.
As an Old Millennial this makes me sort of weepy for what was lost. There are some ‘old timers’ who worked through the transition from local workshops and factories to decimation under NAFTA – obviously those still actively participating in the working communities came in around the mid-70s, so the rot had already started – but as Lambert’s beautiful story about working in a ribbon/trim factory in the 70s also shows, it was truly a different world then. I am one of the lucky ones in that I had computer skills and job experience at a critical time, so I am doing okay now, but many people I know did not have the option of dignified factory labor that provided a real living after the crash. They were crushed out of the gate. (I realize everyone was impacted I am not trying to incite intergenerational conflict just making an anecdotal point about my class/age/social cohort.) They have a hard time understanding why I care more about reshoring manufacturing or industrial policies or why I’m actively cheering on the China-US trade war. The more aware of them are socialist-leaning and aware of systemic rot but they’re not even thinking about how stuff gets made.
There are more and more ‘independent’ fashion designers now but imo they are still too focused on offshoring production, not really because of any intentional desire but because if they’re not focused on keeping production in house from the beginning it is easier to ‘scale’ by using suppliers (who may just outshore it to improve their own margins). The whole method of fulfilment and retail is optimized for and requires ‘scale’ to operate (you can’t get into a huge retailer with 10 units). If you get outside investment or financing you have to prove returns quickly. It’s a low margin industry. etc – it all builds up until suddenly you have thousands of tons of new crap generated a minute, most of it just to end up back in the trash.
Because I have to work with computers to pay the bills, I console myself watching French tv shows about savoir fair that show the ateliers for fine furniture staffed by working class French people of all ages. I realize it’s part of the French ‘heritage’ branding but also: isn’t keeping that stuff intact one of the many reasons why the GJ blew up last year? To prevent the labor reforms Macron wanted to put in to make French labor more ‘competitive’? Having spent a few years with the fantasy that I could make a living from doing creative work or at least work with my hands, I completely understand the desire to take to the streets if someone were threatening to NAFTA that away from me.
I think the change in economic conditions, esp for women, is at least as profound a contributor as the skill loss. Many of my female friends regularly make their own garments or quilts, for pleasure or as gifts for others – I’d say over 10% of the women I know have those skills, and some of those have more advanced skills in design and pattern construction. But only one of them makes a living in anything related – an art educator. The kind of skills, precision and design sense required to make good clothes can usually be turned into more lucrative work provided you can find the opportunity to get into it. I’m thinking of a woman I know who designs beautiful clothes and swimwear for herself, including pattern design. She once made an entire new outfit from scratch in 3 hours before a date. By day, she’s an aerospace engineer.
I notice here in Boston a distinct economic split between the high-end upcyclers and local boutique manufacturers (all now branded sustainable) who sell expensive items at art markets, and the immigrant employees at the storefront tailor/dry cleaners who I take repairs to. As with many areas of the economy, the middle has gone.
As with many areas of the economy, the middle has gone.
This is a really valuable point to reemphasize. I feel that the quality of fast fashion and indeed mid-level goods has deteriorated to the point that people would consider a revival of something like the tailor/dressmaker system that existed prior to the 70s or so. The only way to get the price point competitive with the fast trashion would be to cut all the middle layers and offshoring and rebuild the skills by manufacturing as close to the sale as possible.
I love stories about the secret sewing skills of women :) when I was learning how to make patterns at school, I had already taken some difficult math courses and I was astounded to realize that a lot of (hand drawn with a ruler and pencil) pattern work is effectively algebraic geometry performed on a paper model instead of with numbers.
“the sharing economy”
This is not a thing! Sharing, as defined by any dictionary, would result in no economy. No money would ever change hands. No billion dollar valuations for *platforms* that don’t actually do anything, but rather only monetize.
My mother used to knit sweaters for the family, when the sweaters were darned too often and looked sort of questionable, they were then pulled apart to make caps and mittens, and when the mittens had too many holes or snags they were unraveled and made into socks.
I still have 4 sweaters in perfect shape. They are 50 years old, I don’t wear them often they are heavy cable knit horse blanket type sweaters.
Too hot for wearing inside , and only one fits under an overcoat. The others are too bulky
Interesting to see Eugene Rabkin pop up here, what a cool crossing of worlds (he runs StyleZeitgeist, one of my handful of non-NC daily destinations).
My understanding is plastic is nearly impossible to avoid — even most “sustainable” lines are using poly blended construction threads, synthetic buttons, and all sorts of other little details that are made from petroleum. The only designer I can think of off the top of my head that has gradually worked toward eliminating all plastics in their garments, even the minor details, is Geoffrey B Small (who is a regular feature over at SZ). Exquisite clothing, but sadly priced way out of reach for most of us mere mortals.
Thank you for this article, Jerri-Lynn. Textiles are one of my passions. My sister is a great seamstress and there are many women my age who still sew, mostly as a hobby or for their families. Way back in my all-girls high school we were given the choice between taking sewing or art and I chose art.
I’m looking for a retirement occupation and have never sewn though until recently have been a silk painter and prior to that a graphic and commercial interior designer — so have a background in “putting things together”.
A friend tells me that she is constantly buying thrift store items and re-designing them into new frocks. Natural fibers are becoming more and more difficult to find but it would be wonderful to know how to re-work vintage fabric into new fashions.
I thank my textile teachers at university for enhancing life!
I am in Buenos Aires atm, and compared with Boston and NYC, people dress way, way down here (men in shorts and flip flops at the theater!). It was shocking at first, but I quickly came to love it. It is a more egalitarian and relaxed society. Also, people take care of their bodies rather than be clothes horses. Can we just stop trying to outdress each other?
Interesting take on knockoff/fast fashion from Bernadette Banner on youtube.