There was a time when sustainable fashion conjured images of hemp overalls and harem pants. Today, sustainability has become something of a fashion blood sport as brands hanker after eco-bragging rights and fill our inboxes with “green” clothing campaigns. But among the tokenistic marketing ploys, a new crop of brands is reshaping the industry with savvy business models and techy solutions, and there isn’t a tie-dye handkerchief hem in sight.
The sustainable brands of today are less about recycled fabrics and natural fibres (although they have their place) and more about disrupting the models of waste that have traditionally dominated the industry. These brands are going beyond the garment and addressing the damage at every level, from supply chains to packaging. The crux? They’re asking us to buy less.
In Australia, 36,000 kilos of clothes and shoes are dumped into landfill every hour. Cheaply made garments with a short shelf life mean the fashion industry now accounts for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions.
A “green” clothing campaign that encourages consumers to buy more isn’t a fix; it’s reinforcing the problem. As long as wants are valued over needs, and the trend cycle continues to churn, the aspirational culture of consumerism will continue to damage the planet, regardless of how consumption is greenwashed.
The antidote, according to a new wave of durability-focussed brands, is to revive the culture of saving up and investing in fewer, high-quality pieces. “Buying less needs to be a big part of the picture,” says Misha Nonoo, a New York-based designer who launched her eponymous ready-to-wear brand in 2011. “It’s about thinking thoroughly about whether you need something and how it will work with what you already own. Just because something is on sale doesn’t mean you need or even want it.”
A true champion of the capsule wardrobe, Misha’s brand is all about timeless, chic essentials that flatter in every environment. Each piece is designed to meld to your existing wardrobe and other pieces in the collection.
“Part of our design process is thinking about how a piece will work in tandem with the rest of the collection, how critical it is in terms of a wardrobe’s building blocks, how versatile it is, and how much mileage you can get from it,” says Misha, who hosts regular styling videos on her brand’s Instagram account to inspire customers to re-work their pieces to create new looks. “When you look through that lens, it makes such a big difference.”
The line consists of crisp shirt-dresses and tailored jumpsuits, wide-legged pants, silk camisoles, oversized wool coats, refreshingly simple tees and the brand’s signature Husband Shirt, an oversized, crisp button-up in an easy palette that ranges from corporate blues to weekend neutrals.
While the pieces are elegantly laid-back, Misha emphasizes the brand’s commitment to a very serious model of sustainability. In 2017, Misha shifted the brand to an on-demand model, a method of manufacturing that, put simply, only produces garments when they are sold. In the era of major online retailers with huge budgets that can withstand excessive discounting, it made sense to work outside the gruelling cycle of excess inventory and sales periods.
“The first year I went direct to the consumer I bought inventory. We had really good sales through that season at 70 per cent, but we still had 30 per cent of our inventory just sitting there that we would have to discount,” says Misha. “I hated that feeling of trying to get rid of things that I had so painstakingly designed in the first place. It didn’t make sense to me.”
The switch was not without its hurdles. Factories that work via this method are difficult to come by, but persistence in the face of the traditional, lazy model has paid off. Producing on demand means Misha has unlocked the freedom to own every decision about what she creates, how much is produced and what it should cost. She doesn’t have to worry about selling out or not selling enough and excess inventory doesn’t run the risk of being marked down or ending up in landfill. Not only is it good for the planet, it’s good for the brand’s bottom line, and new styles can be trialled in front of customers without the need to commit to production.
The on-demand model also allows Misha to offer affordable personalisation to her customers. The increasingly popular Husband Shirt is now available in a “build-your-own” format where shoppers can customise the fabric and colourway.
Misha is optimistically pragmatic in her approach to sustainability. She admits there are areas that need improvement, but ultimately it’s about transparency. “We’re very open about what we do and we’re very open about how we want to be better.”
In an industry with seemingly infinite scope to fall short of what can truly be deemed sustainable, pragmatism is perhaps the only way to go. Between fibre and textile suppliers, intricate networks of factories, air miles and packaging, it’s almost impossible to be 100 per cent sustainable; labelling garments in such a way only works to relieve consumer guilt, not any true burden on the planet.
Part of the challenge is that every designer interprets “sustainability” in their own way, which means definitions vary greatly. A bikini made entirely from ocean plastic waste cannot be labelled sustainable if it’s created in a Bangladeshi factory with underpaid workers, for example.
Even in just one facet of the industry, such as fabrications, there’s a whole array of competing incentives. Some designers choose natural fabrics that are biodegrade but still require massive amounts of water to grow, others prefer to recycle the polyester already out there or use deadstock cut-offs, but then there’s the problem of releasing micro-plastics into our water supplies. The point is, values compete. Real sustainability is a lot more complicated than an organic t-shirt.
Transeasonal and trend-proof
For Lara and Matt Fells, founders of the Byron Bay-based label St Agni, the solution is less about trying to tick all of the boxes and more about focussing on the elements of sustainability they are most passionate about. “From the start we had a strong focus on using natural fabrications, but as we have learnt more about sustainability we can see how much bigger the topic is,” says Lara, who co-founded the fashion brand alongside her husband in 2017. “There are so many aspects to ‘sustainability’; for us it was about narrowing down what was important to us and working out how to achieve that.”
Like Misha, Lara and Matt believe in premium fabrics intended to last a lifetime as a true antidote to the damaging culture of overflowing, underutilised closets. For them, it comes down to natural materials, timeless designs and re-educating the customer about value. “As a business we believe in our responsibility to promote slower consumption habits among our customers,” says Lara. “All of our clothing and footwear is designed to last. You really don’t need many pieces, just a handful of good-quality items that work with each other.”
The line consists almost entirely of natural, biodegradable materials such as linen, silk, cotton, hemp, alpaca, Tencel and organic cotton. When synthetic materials are required, recycled options are sourced.
As well as easing the impact on the planet, everything that St Agni creates supports the makers by providing safe working conditions and living wages. The brand has pledged to build consciousness around sustainable practices by financially supporting their key suppliers through certification processes, rather than abandoning them for already-certified factories. Lara and Matt have visited most of their factories in person and are passionate about the relationships they form with their manufacturers. “We have decided to take the approach of education and development, which is why we have dedicated the time and resources to implement the long-term plan of bringing new certified factories into the industry,” says Lara.
Virtues aside, St Agni walks the line between functional and refined. Easy and comfortable enough to throw on, but chic enough to master that put-together look without much thought. It’s elevated eco-fashion at its best. Every collection is transeasonal and trend-proof, further stretching the wearability of each piece.
When you buy well, garments should last year after year. And that’s the point, really. As consumers, it’s easy to look to brands to lead the way, but we also have a responsibility to remove ourselves from the endless machine of seasonal drops and sales periods. More than just demanding transparency from brands, it’s up to shoppers to choose high-quality, seasonless offerings, delivered at a slower pace. Consumers are, of course, part of the problem, and we are all guilty of buying more than we need. What the industry needs, above all, is a huge mindset shift, and that can very much start at home.
6 ways to reduce the environmental footprint of your wardrobe
- Buy fewer better things. Both Misha and Lara agree that the easiest way to relieve the strain of fashion on the planet is to buy less. “Buy one piece you really love over several cheaper pieces,” says Lara. Misha echoes this sentiment: “Buy beautiful things you can reuse time and time again, whether that’s your clothing or lovely linens for your table.”
- Give old pieces new life. “There is a company in Sydney that dyes old clothing black. It’s a great way to recover any stained items,” says Lara. Visit blackfridye.com for more information.
- Buy second-hand. Try to find whatever you’re coveting on a second-hand site before you buy it new. Check out social enterprise Worn for Good, a company that circulates preloved garments and excess stock from brands.
- Get tech-savvy. There are plenty of apps and websites dedicated to ethical shopping. The Australian-based Good On You app rates brands based on their ethics, sustainability and transparency, so you can quickly find out if brands are acting as good stewards.
- Withdraw your support. Effect change in the industry by boycotting brands that violate ethical standards. As the all-powerful consumer, your spending leverage will get brands acting.
- Recycle your clothes. One of the easiest ways to effect change is by recycling your unwanted clothes. Organise a clothing swap with friends, donate what you can to a charity shop, and for more worn items, find out where your nearest fabric recycling bin is located.
Charlie Hale is an English-born journalist based in Sydney, where she writes about a plethora of things women care about — from pasta to politics and everything between. Charlie is also the deputy editor of WILD, WellBeing and EatWell magazines.