Denim has turned from workwear to runway over the last hundred and thirty years, and jeans are worn across the world despite being a purely American construct. But the popularity of Western tastes brings challenges when considering the offshore production of clothing by the world’s largest clothing vendors such as Zara and H&M.
What’s the Big Deal?
Traditional fashion retailers require a minimum of 6 months to design, purchase, order, and receive new garments, and many work over 12-18 month timeframes for creating seasonal collections. Fast fashion retailers streamline this process through small batch runs of product which can push product from production the sales floor in as little as two weeks. The ability to create timely products and messaging is highly accepted in our hyper-fast digital age, where what was hot six months ago can be found at your local Goodwill, and perhaps with tags still attached.
Western consumption creates a problem: it’s optimized for political and profitability reasons, not sustainability. Much of this can be described through 19th century craft-production, where there is considerable philosophical research on the negative impact of distance between the maker and that which is made. The formula for fast fashion is simple—give consumers a reason to buy more frequently and profits will rise. With so much political discussion around jobs creation and globalization of production, it’s hard to determine what the best approach is.
Who’s at Fault?
Further complicating the issue are retailers’ efforts to appear socially and environmentally friendly. From H&M’s recycling program which saw only 1% of donated clothing actually recycled, to Lululemon’s ‘seaweed’ fibre clothing, Vitasea, which studies found contains no real seaweed, greenwashing is all too common.
But there’s another problem—us. Ultimately, the responsibility is ours to determine what factors are important when purchasing clothing, not the retailer’s. It’s difficult to break the habit of buying a new top for that event or wait to have those old jeans repaired, but it’s even harder to look at your chequing account balance after this suggestion: spend more money on the things you wear. Go on, you deserve it! No really, do it—but educate yourself before making a purchase.
There is a huge resurgence of Classic Americana culture across the world, and many brands have chosen to institute sustainable business practises which are consistent with the culture of this movement. These garments are built to last a lifetime with proper care, with the intention of becoming molded to your body, works of art, or even family heirlooms. Moreover, these brands stand for ethical business practises, transparency in materials sourcing and production, and the wellbeing of both those who make the product and use them. To quote 19th Century British textile designer, William Morris, “Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers,” because adhering to this rule will surely improve the sociocultural aspects of production and consumption.
In the case of Japanese denim manufacturer, Iron Heart, a transparent supply chain tells consumers where and how their products are made, and even highlights the people who work in their factories. American cotton farms are used for consistency of color, but Iron Heart’s CEO, Haraki, mentions he will use whatever cotton which is the highest quality. When you aim to make the uncompromised highest quality, long-lasting garment available, only the best will do.
Haraki also chose a factory which dyes, looms, and sews fabric, where production workers can see the transformation from design to finished product. Having the opportunity to see this entire process creates a more satisfying work environment and develops a stronger relationship between workers and the garments they make.
There are several other similarities between the British Arts and Crafts movement and slow fashion, but one which stands out is the reduction of ornamentation to focus on truth to material and functionality. Iron Heart’s core group of products (denim, buttoned shirts, and jackets) use minimal decoration and logos, and they update classic designs from American Workwear brands Levi Strauss & Co., Osh Kosh, Lee, and Stifel with functional features like handwarmer pockets. Some denim is made raw and unsanforized, or ‘shrink to fit’, where the garment is made to be worn as long as possible unwashed so it can conform to the wearer’s body. The combination of natural indigo dye and heavy wear of denim produces beautiful fading and wear patterns in jeans, and there are many communities dedicated to the evolution of these garments as they are worn—there are even international contests for the best worn jeans.
Great, but what does this have to do with Sustainability again?
The culture of using a garment until it’s no longer capable of being worn has become foreign as we are bombarded with the latest trends. The decision to spend the same amount on one pair of jeans to last 5 years, or 5 pairs of jeans to last 1 year each is yours, but there are significant social and environmental impacts to the former which ultimately lead to a more sustainable world.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will explore brands that uphold the values described in this article.