Responsible Global Fashion LLC

Responsible Global Fashion LLC provides consulting services and continuing education resources around responsible designing, sourcing, production, and distribution of fashion merchandise within the global fashion industries.

Longevity of Use: My 30 Year Old Sweater

I recently watched an excellent webinar “The Future of Textiles: Creating Fashion Through Cradle to Cradle Design”, sponsored by SustainableBrands.com. In this webinar, William McDonough, Chief Executive of McDonough Innovation, speaks about circular models in the fashion industry – specifically around innovations in textiles that foster a more environmentally sustainable fashion industry. In addition, he speaks to other sustainability strategies such as designing for longevity of use, often initiated by fashion designers but then carried out by users. He tells the story of a Filson jacket, originally purchased and worn by his grandfather, which he still wears. This heirloom jacket embodies not only durable materials but also history and attachment.  If you aren’t familiar with Filson, it is a Seattle, WA- based apparel company that started in 1897 as the C.C. Filson’s Alaska clothing and Blanket Manufacturers. First catering to men who were heading north from Seattle to Alaska during the Gold Rush, Filson products were/are designed and manufactured for durability, comfort, and longevity of use. However, it takes a consumer/user, in this case William McDonough and his grandfather, to carry through with the intent of the company by wearing and caring for this clothing over time. I believe a quote from their 1914 catalog says it all:

The goods we quote must not be confounded with the cheap and vastly inferior grade with which the market is over-run. Such goods are not only useless for the purpose for which they are intended, but the person wearing them would be better off without them.
— Clinton C. Filson, 1914 catalog

I got to thinking – do I have any clothing that was originally designed for longevity of use and that I have, in fact, worn for many years? Although I have a vintage clothing collection of fashions worn by family members, I rarely, if ever, wear any of the items. They were for unique or special occasions (e.g., wedding dresses), do not fit me, or have long gone out of style. However, I do own a number of clothing items that I have worn for many years. One in particular, a Pringle wool/cashmere argyle cardigan sweater, was purchased approximately 30 years ago. I don’t wear it often but it still is in my “active inventory” and has lasted through numerous “closet cleanings”.

 My Pringle sweater

My Pringle sweater

As we think about purchasing fewer items and wearing them longer, what are the characteristics of clothing such as McDonough’s Filson jacket and my Pringle cardigan sweater and what can we learn from them? 

  • Quality fabrics and workmanship/construction. Both the Filson jacket and Pringle sweater were made with quality materials and construction. Whereas I believe this is a necessary characteristic for longevity of use, it isn’t a sufficient characteristic.  As stated so well by designer and author Kate Fletcher (2012, p. 227) “making a garment last is very different to making a long-lasting garment.” 
  • Classic style or a style that can be adapted over time. The Pringle sweater is most certainly a classic style. In addition, it can also be worn to reflect current fashions – over the years it has been worn with a variety of tops and bottoms, belted and unbelted, buttoned and unbuttoned.  Equally important is that I still like the colors and the argyle design, and it still fits.
  • Emotional and/or experiential connection between the item and the wearer. This was clearly the case for McDonough’s Filson jacket. But just because clothing has emotional attachment and therefore may not be given or thrown away, does not necessarily mean it will be worn – I have a collection of vintage clothing that demonstrates this. And whereby a designer or creator may attempt to contribute to this attachment (e.g., co-created, hand-made); ultimately, the user determines the attachment or connection and its implications for extended use.
  • Other attitudes and behaviors of the user.  In addition to the user determining attachment or connection to the item, the user also determines how long to keep and wear the item. Do I consider the item to be an heirloom that will be saved but not worn? Will the item be worn until it is “worn out”? Do I have the skills, time, and incentives to remodel, repair, or mend the item? Do I have the space to store or keep the item? These questions can only be addressed by the user.

Some of these characteristics are evident in the Slow Fashion movement in the fashion industry (Cataldi, et al., 2010): co-creation, quality materials and construction, and intent for the item to be worn for a long time. Therefore, as designers, how do you design for longevity of use? Other characteristics reflect the relationship between the user and the clothing.  Therefore, as consumers/users, what do you have in your closet that you have continued to wear over time? What are the characteristics of this clothing and what role did your attitudes, behaviors, and attachment play in keeping and wearing them? And, of course, how can we as consumers consider these characteristics each and every time we purchase new clothing? 

References:

Cataldi, Carlotta; Dickson, Mareen; Grover, Chrystal. (2010). Slow Fashion: Tailoring a Strategic Approach towards Sustainability.  Thesis submitted for completion of Master of Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona, Sweden. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A832785&dswid=-3996

Kate Fletcher (2012) Durability, Fashion, Sustainability: The Processes and Practices of Use. Fashion Practice, 4:2, 221-238 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2752/175693812X13403765252389?needAccess=true

 

Sans Soucie Textile + Design: Waste Hosiery to High Fashion

While in Vancouver, B.C. for the annual meeting of the International Textile and Apparel Association, I had the great pleasure of visiting the studio of Katherine Soucie, owner of Sans Soucie Textile + Design. Katherine creates amazing fashions and accessories from pre-consumer waste hosiery -- hosiery with some sort of flaw that would otherwise have ended up in landfills.

I found her zero-waste design processes fascinating! Whereas some zero waste designers reduce pre-consumer textile waste in the design and cutting process, she starts with the waste materials. She purchases 150-300 pound “bales” of waste hosiery from partner mills in Canada and the US. After receiving the bales, she sorts them –the materials are all usable but for different applications. Some are suitable for draping dresses; others are best for accessories. The next step is dyeing the materials. She uses a hot water dye process. However, none of the water is discarded; once the dyes are used, they get stored until the next time she needs them. Because she uses a drip dry process, she only dyes materials from April to October so that the material can dry during the warmer and drier months of the year (remember, she’s located in Vancouver, B.C.). The color palettes she uses are influenced by travel, nature, culture, art, and music. As she determines the color palettes, she continues to assess the materials for different applications.  

 Katherine Soucie for Sans Soucie Textile + Design, 2016

Katherine Soucie for Sans Soucie Textile + Design, 2016

Printing the materials happens year round. The materials are printed in either tube form or flat. She uses metal-free acid dyes and water soluble inks and natural pigments for the printing process.  Fabric print designs are influenced by whatever is going on in her life. Some of the prints are abstractions – letting the eye meander. For others she gets “nerdy.” For example, one of the prints is the chemical structure of nylon printed on nylon fabric.

Once the materials are dyed and printed, they are heat set -- she uses a very old mangle iron to heat set the materials (If you don’t know what a mangle iron is, you will want to google it!). The materials are then ready to be made into fabric. Fabrics are created using a visible mending/hemming process. In creating the fabrics, she uses historical and cultural elements as well as decisions about the application. Applications will include a combination of successful silhouettes as well as new silhouettes.

 Katherine Soucie for Sans Soucie Textile + Design, 2016

Katherine Soucie for Sans Soucie Textile + Design, 2016

She has opted not to industrialize her process. As such, she produces limited quantities and her primary distribution channel is through direct sales from her website. In addition, she does custom (made-to-order) designs. She is also a member of Circle Craft, a very successful artist cooperative in British Columbia, and distributes through their gallery and Christmas Market. Her business model has evolved over the years. In addition to creating her own designs from pre-consumer textile waste, she provides waste materials (shavings and yarns) from her work to other designers who are using the materials to make rugs, jewelry, and other fiber arts. From waste hosiery to high fashion – a wonderful example of zero waste design!

Keeping Post-consumer Textile Waste Out of Landfills: Role of Fashion Brands

I’ve written before about the importance of keeping post-consumer textile waste out of landfills and the role that charity organizations, such as Goodwill, play in this effort. Of course, when you think about the larger picture, less consumption, wearing clothing longer, and repurposing textile waste through upcycling or downcycling also keep post-consumer textile waste out of landfills.  Don’t get me wrong -- these strategies are very important and I could argue that they are even more important that the programs I’ll describe below! But fashion brands are playing a role through a variety of take back and recycling programs – and providing incentives to customers, such as vouchers for discounts for future purchases, for doing so. Are the motives of these fashion brands “pure” -- that is, only to keep post-consumer textile waste out of landfills? Of course not! That said, these programs are making a significant impact on this goals. Here are a few of these take back and recycling programs.

•    American Eagle Outfitters: any customer who donates denim products of any brand at one of their stores in North America gets a 20% discount on a new pair of American Eagle jeans. The Switzerland-based company, I:CO, sorts the clothes for a variety of purposes: resale, shredding, recycled yarns, etc. Unwearable denim is shredded and turned into insulation.
•    Columbia Sportswear ReThreads Program: any customer who brings dry and clean clothing, shoes, or other textiles (any brand) and drops them in any of the specially marked collection containers at seven Columbia Sportswear retail locations in Washington, Oregon and Minnesota receive a coupon for 10 percent or more of their next Columbia Sportswear purchase of $75 or more. I:CO also handles the reuse/recycle/upcycle sorting processes.
•    H&M: any customer who donates a bag of clothing (of any brand and in any condition) at an H&M store receives a voucher worth 15% off his/her next purchase at H&M.  I:CO also handles the reuse/recycle/upcycle sorting processes. 
•    Levi Strauss & Co: any customer who donates any clean, dry item of clothing or pair of shoes (of any brand) brought to a US Levi’s store gets a voucher for 20% off the purchase of any regular-priced in-store Levi’s item. As with American Eagle, Columbia Sportswear, and H&M, I:CO handles the reuse/recycle/upcycle sorting processes. Or you can download a free shipping label to Goodwill, fill a box with any brand of clean, dry clothing or shoes, affix the label and ship to Goodwill
•    The North Face Clothes the Loop Program: any customer who donates used clothing and shoes (any brand and in any condition) at The North Face Retail and Outlet Stores (US, Canada, and Germany) receives a voucher for $10 off their next purchase of $100 or more at The North Face. Items are sent to a recycling center where they are sorted for reuse or recycled into raw materials. All proceeds go to The Conservation Alliance.
•    UNIQLO: All Product Recycling Initiative.  UNIQLO clothing  is collected from customers at UNIQLO stores. The collected clothing is either distributed to those in need in over 50 countries or recycled for industrial re-use. UNIQLO currently partners with local agencies and non-profit organizations for distribution and recycling efforts. 
Personally, I find it ironic (and based on the push back seen in the media, others find it ironic, as well) that fast fashion brands such as H&M and UNIQLO have implemented recycling programs since the growth in fast fashions is one of the reasons for the growth in post-consumer textile waste. But, life is full of irony! And tackling the post-consumer waste problem takes multiple strategies. So, if the other strategies are not available or don't make sense for you, please keep these tack back and recycling programs in mind as you work to keep post-consumer textile waste out of landfills. In addition, after you take your used clothing to the stores of one of these fashion brands and receive your discount voucher to purchase more new clothing -- please, don’t use it on something new! Wear what you have, repurpose what you no longer wear, or purchase from those who upcycle textile waste!

Authentic and Socially Responsible - B Corporations in the Fashion Industry

I often get asked the question– how can I be sure a fashion brand that markets itself as socially responsible is actually doing good? There are numerous listings of socially responsible fashion brands – some of the listings are curated and some are based on what is on a company’s website. One listing that is based on a set of stringent standards is B Corporations™ or benefit corporations.  B Corporation™ certification is overseen by B Lab , “a nonprofit organization dedicated to using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”  B Lab certifies companies that meet the “standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability .” 59 apparel, footwear, and accessory companies are currently certified as B Corporations. Examples include Eileen Fisher, Indigenous Designs Corporation, Oliberte Limted, Patagonia, Inc., Olukai, MUD Jeans, and Threads 4 Thought. Some of these are large companies and others are small. Regardless of size, these companies exemplify some of the best industry practices around sustainability and corporate social responsibility. You can find a full listing and links to the company websites on the B Corporations™  website – under “find a B Corporation” and “apparel, footwear, and accessories” industry. Great brands using business as a force for good! 

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