How Fashion Brands Make Sustainability Possible - A Panel Discussion Review
The fashion industry is indisputably wasteful. Every year, people throw out nearly 200,000 tons of clothing, and companies use 5 trillion liters of water on apparel that won’t last us more than one or two washes.
A recent talk titled “Sustainable Fashion: A Brand New Bag,” at New York City’s Baruch College addressed what companies, factories, designers and consumers can do to combat these issues. Speakers included Kate Daly, Meghan Ryan, Megan Meiklejohn, Tara St. James, each of who works on the sustainability side of the fashion industry. Debera Johnson, the executive director of the Brooklyn Fashion & Design Accelerator (BFDA) and director of Pratt Institute’s Design and Sustainability center, moderated the panel.
The event was sponsored by the Sustainability Practice Network, (SPN), a New York-based organization that aims to raise awareness about sustainability at home and at work. Johnson and the panel discussed where and how clothing is made, the importance of transparency, and the facets of a sustainable supply chain. Each woman provided unique insights based on her own experiences inside and outside the fashion industry.
Kate Daly started the talk and discussed her unique career path—she recently transitioned from economics to fashion.
Daly, who previously worked for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, determined that a sustainable economy was lacking in the fashion industry. She found that the circular economy—a cycle that includes reusing and recycling resources— could fulfill fashion’s demand for sustainability
Daly now serves as the executive director at the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, an incubator that helps startups launch economically and environmentally sustainable businesses. One of the key takeaways from Daly’s talk was that customers play a large role in waste. To reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, we must not throw valuable clothing materials in the trash, she said.
A key to achieving this, Daly said, is to be aware of what our clothing is made of.
Tara St. James, founder of the recycled clothing line Study NY, talked about hand sewing as a dying art. She said that most customers think machines make their clothing, when this isn’t always the case.
People in oversees factories are hand-sewing clothing for low pay. And when we buy cheap, fast-fashion products, it exploits the skills of these workers, St. James said.
St. James, who weaves and knits her products and uses natural dyes, exemplifies that technical skills, though rare in this country, are still useful and are often necessary to produce sustainable clothing.
St. James chooses local materials for her collections, which feature casual garments made of organic cotton and recycled materials. She also works at the BFDA’s sustainability lab to help other brands achieve sustainable sourcing practices. According to St. James, the key to increasing sustainability in the fashion industry is “inclusivity.”
The women cited sustainable brands like Patagonia and Bolt Threads. Patagonia creates durable active wear and camping attire that is built to withstand weather conditions and outdoor activities whilst Bolt threads spins natural fibers and knits them into fabrics and garments.
Meghan Ryan, who manages advisory services at BSR, works to ensure supply chain sustainability for different types of businesses. Ryan spoke about the importance of transparency in clothing factories. She stressed that today, companies should tell consumers how they treat their employees by posting stories about workers.
Megan Mieklejohn, who manages sustainable materials and transparency for the tenured women’s brand Eileen Fisher, talked about the company’s ethical supply chain.
Eileen Fisher maps its supply chain from farm to finish, Mieklejohn said. This means the company knows what happens during the formation of the yarns, at textile mills and during fabric dyeing. The fabric suppliers are sustainable, and the farming practices are ethical. Mieklejohn said the employees go as far to meet the farmers in person and produce certificates of authenticity to show customers.
The fashion industry must work together as a whole to become more sustainable in each of the aforementioned facets. A recent report published by McKinsey & Company and the Business of Fashion, summed up the industry’s future.
The fashion industry will also play a crucial role in reducing waste, particularly in New York City. New York has a statewide goal, and aims to reach “zero-waste” by 2030. Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed the initiative in 2015.
Eileen Fisher is on its way to becoming totally sustainable, and currently uses 95 percent organic cotton to manufacture its products. According to Mieklejohn, the company aims to hit 100 percent by 2020.
Though the above companies are using sustainable and ethical business practices, the industry still has a lot to improve on.