What is sustainable fashion?
We’ve all read about how much damage the garment industries cause the environment. Yet ceasing to buy new clothing at all defies logic, not to mention the repercussions such as the number of people who would lose their jobs. Even as fast fashion brands H&M, Zara and Topshop join the sustainable path to offer consumers eco-friendly fashion, it’s still important to first understand what “sustainability” means in the fashion world.
Freya Williams, CEO of sustainability consultancy Futerra North America, says sustainability encompasses both environmental and social aspects. This means the process, from the making of the garment to the end of its life, has to be considered, including the materials used to make a garment (whether it’s sourced sustainably or recycled), the impact of the materials (how the cotton is grown, how much carbon is emitted, water usage), how workers are treated (human rights, fair wage), and finally, whether it can be recycled afterwards.
However, one brand could claim itself as sustainable for using artisans from around the world to create handcrafted pieces rather than employing labour from a factory. Another brand may claim it is sustainable for sourcing organic cotton or recycled materials. Is one better than the other? And who gets to decide that?
Yael Aflalo, co-founder of eco brand Reformation said in an interview with the Huffington Post that the lack of third-party certification is an issue in the industry. “It’s a bad situation. There’s nothing that creates standards for businesses to follow,” he said.
Even as the industry struggles to develop measurable sustainable standards and guidelines, The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, has rounded up almost 50 brands as members to collaboratively work toward a solution. Another organisation, B Corporation, determines whether a business is “good”, looking at businesses that do their best to be socially and environmentally responsible.
In the aftermath of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord on Climate, we feel it’s never been more crucial for consumers like us to do our bit. So, whether you’re a fashionista, a designer, or a future entrepreneur looking to develop an ethical brand, here are some examples of sustainable fashion brands with an eco-friendly or ethical mindset.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #1: Reformation
Reformation states in its website – ‘Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. Reformation is #2.’
Most Reformation products are designed and manufactured in limited quantities at their own factory in downtown Los Angeles. Other garments are produced by responsible manufacturing partners using sustainable methods and materials. They source sustainable fabrics and vintage garments while advocating and integrating better practices throughout their supply chain to make fashion at a fraction of the environmental impact of conventional fashion.
At Reformation, too, there’s the RefScale, an internal measurement of how much water, waste and CO2 emissions the brand saves when producing a single piece (the brand was 50 percent more carbon efficient in 2016 than an average clothing company).
Often, with ethical or upcycled items, the products can look awkward though we discount this, knowing it is for a good cause. Not at Reformation. Their highly covetable dresses and pieces are fashion forward with a slight vintage edge.
By Malaysian standards, they’re not cheap, but sustainable fashion rarely is; there are no shortcuts or underhand practices, and recycled materials require processing and R&D.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #2: Sunad
If you’re as obsessed about shirts as we are, you’ll love this Spanish brand. SUNAD creates beautiful shirts for women using only 100% natural fibres. Inspired by nature, deserts, and menswear styling, the brand was started by Paloma Canut and Ana Marroquín in 2015. The duo met at Parsons in New York, but realised that their country (being home to retail giant, Inditex, which owns Zara, Mango and Massimo Dutti, to name a few) had been lost to fast fashion. “We wanted to do something about it and start an ethical brand in Spain,” they said in an interview with Vogue.
Expect to be charmed by their highly-wearable shirts and jumpsuits in florals, stripes, eyelet details, and in luxurious silks, cottons and linens.
While there are no cutting-edge technologies in their processes, the challenge for the founders lies in acquiring high quality cottons, silks and linens. They told Vogue: “Synthetic fabrics have experienced a big boom in the past few years. They’re cheaper and faster to produce, so a lot of textile companies have stopped offering most of their 100 percent natural fibres.”
Sunad keeps their prices as low as they can without compromising safe practices, as well as paying ethical salaries to manufacturers and sourcing the best-quality fabrics. Their aim is to raise awareness around purchasing good-quality garments at good prices rather than competing with fast fashion brands.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #3: Mayamiko
Of all the brands here, UK-based Mayamiko truly has a heartwarming story. Established in 2013 by Paola Masperi, Mayamiko is a collection of clothing, accessories and home ware, ethically made in Malawi and proudly showcasing traditional African techniques in contemporary design. The key thing, however, is that the brand’s production actually supports the people of Malawi.
The chief material used in its collections is African printed cotton, or chitenje, for dresses with trendy accents such as statement sleeves, or off-shoulder looks, tops, and jumpsuits, all in tribal prints and a palette of brights.
Apart from Malawi, other unique fabrics are sourced from neighbouring African countries including batik and dip dye cotton, hand dyed by local craftsmen. The brand also has a line called Rebirth, a fully up-cycled capsule collection, giving a whole new life to pre-loved reclaimed fabrics.
As a natural extension from the Mayamiko Trust, which Paola launched back in 2008 as a way to benefit the most disadvantaged people in Malawi, Mayamiko practises fair wages, humane working conditions, provides meals, training, and the use of natural, often recycled materials.
Proceeds from every sale go back into the Malawian communities and prices are some of the lowest seen in the international sphere.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #4: Idioma
Idioma takes a novel approach towards creating a sustainable brand, aiming to promote curiosity for other languages and cultures, using fashion as a unifying factor.
Their website states: ‘We aim to challenge, inspire and encourage multiculturalism and a fascination for world languages.’
A family-run business based in London and Ipswich, Idioma (meaning ‘language’ in Spanish) was founded in 2011, beginning with a colourful multi-lingual table mat designed for children to learn more languages. Now the brand has expanded to a clothing line peppered with interesting words, phrases and symbols from different languages.
The collection includes a line of basics – tees, caps, sweatshirts and tote bags, all designed and embroidered with quirky phrases such as “Tes Yeux” (‘Your Eyes’ in French) in the UK, made from organic ring-spun combed cotton and manufactured in a Fairwear Factory in Bangladesh.
The Idioma site also features an informative blog on their website enlightening us with stories such as – what happens to clothes that we donate to charities.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #5: Biji Biji
The Biji-biji Initiative is a social enterprise that champions sustainable living and reusing waste creatively. Their spinoff brand, Biji Biji Design aims to inspire the sustainable lifestyle by using discarded materials.
The brand predominantly has bags as its core product, and has previously launched a line of bags made from discarded advertising banners and industrial felt. For its Raya Collection, the team has launched a sleek range of clutches, totes and bucket bags made from over-runs and rejected seat belts.
Biji Biji typically adopts “alternatives” to the typical manufacturing process with positive social and environmental impact, from material and accessory procurement to the end of the production line.
They also run workshops to share their love for creating jewellery and other useful items from waste.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #6: Kedai Bikin
Kedai Bikin is an offshoot of architecture studio Studio Bikin and champions local and underprivileged artisans to create their line of furniture, homeware and fashion accessories.
Run by architects Farah Azizan and Adela Askandar, their philosophy is to work directly with artisans so that they bypass agencies who may charge a commission, allowing the artisans to earn more. It’s also a way to get the best out of the Designer – Maker relationship.
At their store in Bangsar, you can expect large totes hand-woven from colourful plastic strips sourced from Tibet, tote bags and mats made from recycled PVC from Thailand, Bidayuh baskets given a contemporary update and made by weavers in Sarawak, shawls made of woven fabrics including recycled materials by special-needs artisans, and even patchwork toys and bags made by underprivileged mothers in Chow Kit, amongst other things.
Another goal of the brand is to revive local talents in traditional arts and crafts, polishing up the products of these artisans to an international standard and make them marketable.
Studio Bikin observes best practices laid out by the Fairtrade Foundation.
Sustainable Fashion Brand #7: Encircled
Founded by Kristi Soomer, Encircled advocates buying one eco-friendly item and wearing it eight different ways. In her previous life as a consultant who spent a lot of time travelling, Kristi also believes in travelling light, which is why the range of products at Encircled are made from fabrics that are as comfortable, and travel friendly as they are good for the earth, plus – some of the items can be worn several different ways.
Most of the garments are made from Modal, a renewable source created with minimal chemicals, no pesticides and using a closed loop process, which means nothing is re-released back into the environment. The products are also ethically-made in Toronto, Canada through small batch production, producing only what they need and encouraging customers to pre-order from their online site.
The brand also uses sustainable practices from the sourcing of eco-fabrics to up-cycling production cuttings, using recyclable shipping materials and printing on only 100% post-consumer recycled paper.
If you know of any other sustainable fashion brands, or if YOU are one, hit us up!
Words by Maya Tan Abdullah.
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