Sustainable fashion. I moved to New York to be a part of this burgeoning community and to become a participatory voice in the movement that will change the fashion industry as we know it. On Monday, May 18th I had the privilege of attending an NYCxDesign panel hosted at the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator (BFDA). The panel was titled “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and featured representatives from three major leaders in sustainable fashion: Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Nike.
"Solving economic, social, and environmental challenges is hard" quips the event description. Indeed, it is. Especially when we are up against one of the biggest, most entrenched industries in human history. The fashion industry holds a lot of power through the capital it creates, the materials it uses and the people it employs. This makes the fashion industry a major player in turning climate change around and using the things we make to make the world a better place. Is the industry ready?
Jill Dumain is the Director of Environmental Strategy at Patagonia, and she has been working for the brand since 1989. Dumain says that "sustainability can be a trickle, no matter how small or insignificant our actions are, it all adds up." Patagonia has certainly proven this to be true. The brand got the ball rolling towards 100% sustainability in their line with the decision in the early 1990's to make the switch from conventional to organically grown cotton. Today, Patagonia employs a number of different practices at every step of the supply chain and product lifecycle in order to uphold their values, and they are constantly looking for ways to improve.
Ed Thomas, the General Manager of Material Science and Innovation for Sustainability at Nike, and Candice Reffe, the Core Concept Leader at Eileen Fisher agree with Dumain. They have both worked with their respective brands to improve sustainability step by step. Thomas claims that "innovation is sustainability and sustainability is innovation" and his passion for designers that "make better things while making things better" is apparent when he talks about the innovations that Nike has made in the past. Waterless dyes, zero waste footwear and recycled plastic are all a part of the movement towards sustainability. At Eileen Fisher, Reffe states that "sustainability is everybody's work, not just that of one department." She says that the womenswear brand is constantly looking to "turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one," but that the road is difficult and confusing.
How can we turn the cycle around? We have these three brands pushing ahead individually, but, as Reffe says, they "can't pull it off on [their] own. It will require new and unusual collaborations." Yes. Collaboration is key. One brand cannot change the industry all by itself, not even three brands can do that. Every brand in the industry needs to get on board because that is the only way that the factories, the farms, the fabric mills and the dye houses will change. If every designer does not demand and design for sustainability, business will go on as usual. “The challenges we face are so monumental that we cannot get there alone,” Thomas says, and he is right.
There are people and brands out there who are nervous about collaboration, thinking that giving away their supply chain or resource secrets will leave them vulnerable to the competition. Thomas argues that “the threats that come with collaboration are not as big as the threats that come with not collaborating” and Dumain backs him up saying that “there are things that can be done in a pre-competitive space.” In the fashion industry, brands love to protect their secrets, but those secrets often indicate poor business practices. When a brand has built walls around its supply chain or its design process in the name of intellectual property, that just leads me to believe that there is something shady hiding behind those walls. Luckily, Dumain has observed that “sustainability is starting to take away those professional boundaries” and allow people to see what really goes into the manufacturing of what they wear. Thomas says that this excites him because “when you stop competing with the planet, you start competing in the right way, in a creative, design focused way.” And that is where the true leaders will emerge.
Seeing these three, very different brands, come together and totally vibe off of one another was amazing. As Reffe put it, it was like “a conspiracy of people who have strong convictions” towards sustainability and good design. By itself, a brand has “no limits to imagination, but if you are alone, there is a limit to impact,” (Reffe) and impact is what we need. The fashion industry is a major culprit behind environmental and human rights issues, and that has got to change. “We are entering a different era,” Thomas says, and the time for change is now. Dumain puts it quite frankly when she says “consumption needs to change” and that requires consumers to change. “As consumers, we have a lot of power even if we don’t realize it. Companies do want to listen to our feedback,” (Dumain) but we’ve got to give that feedback and collaborate with the brands as they collaborate with each other.
Are we ready to start coupling our purchases with our morals? Are we ready to chime in and give support to those that are paving the way towards a more sustainable future? Are we ready to commit to doing better?
I say yes, I am ready. What about you?