Sustainability has become a buzz word in fashion, and with good reason. The garment industry is the second largest polluter after oil and is notorious for human rights violations. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend watching The True Cost – a documentary about the environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry around the world. Unfortunately, very few brands prioritize sustainability beyond their marketing. It is difficult for large companies to reverse engineer sustainability into their supply chain and company culture; I am poised to make a difference by prioritizing sustainability from the beginning.

Sustainability has always been important to me. Growing up in Maine, I developed an appreciation for the natural world from a young age. My mother founded a natural food store, so we always had local, farm raised, organic, and natural foods in our house. When I was in design school, I shared my vision for a clothing line 100% sustainably produced in the U.S. and my professors told me it was impossible. Maybe so: it is unfathomably difficult to understand the full supply chain of an article of clothing. Planet Money did a great series called the T-Shirt Project that clearly illustrates this fact. Back at Parsons, I thought my vision had to be perfect – if I couldn’t have the whole thing I would have nothing. Now I realize there are many ways to be sustainable, and many ways to be made in the U.S. 

fashion swatches process

Swatches of some of the fabrics I am considering.

As I discussed in my last post, this company’s most fundamental principle is quality. The goal with my first product is to create the best shirt you’ve ever had – your favorite shirt. To make the perfect shirt, I need to find the perfect fabric. In my search, I have attended two fabric trade shows, met with a sustainability consultant, and spoken or met with countless mills and sales representatives to find fabrics that meet my criteria. On the most basic level, the fabric has to be of the highest quality and fit my budget. I’ve decided to focus on 100% cotton because it is biodegradable and recyclable, unlike synthetics (e.g. polyester) or blends (e.g. 98% cotton 2% elastane). I am committed to fair labor, so any mill I work with must comply with the highest labor standards.

After filtering for these criteria, I still have lots of options – a good problem to have but a problem nonetheless. Each of the fabrics I am considering has pluses and minuses; there is no perfect solution. I found a fabric that is nearly perfect except for one important detail: it is organic, 100% made in the U.S., super high quality, but it is 5x my budget. I found one that is 100% made in the U.S. and in my price range, but it is conventional cotton, lower quality, and from a not-so-reliable source. I have found many that are made from cotton grown in the U.S. but spun and woven (turned into fabric) overseas.

fashion sustainability statistics

1 in every 6 people work in the garment industry. Source: The True Cost

17 to 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment. Source: The World Bank

The apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions. Source: Forbes

Some of the best cotton in the world, Supima, is grown in the southern United States, but other parts of the supply chain have largely left the country due to price pressure from overseas and a lack of government, societal, and cultural investment in our textile industry. The bottom line is the highest quality spinners and weavers are in other countries. Any attempt to create a high quality fabric in the U.S. necessarily will cost more simply because there isn’t the infrastructure for it. I want to support domestic textile production, but there are significant tradeoffs to doing so. If I use fabric that is produced in another country, it doesn’t really make sense to prioritize American-grown cotton when it has to fly around the world and back before becoming a shirt.

Other countries have tremendous support for their textile industries and have honed the craft to the utmost levels of quality. I have considered fabrics produced in countries all over the world. Given equal quality, there are many elements other than cotton origin I could prioritize: traceability, energy efficiency, chemical usage, social responsibility, political risk, properties of the yarn and fabric, etc. Many of these decisions are more complicated than they seem at first glance. Do I really need to prioritize certified organic when mills have to pay for certification and some countries have existing high standards for pollution and chemical use? Many people like wrinkle-resistant shirts because they are convenient and easy to care for. This property can lead to less washing and dry cleaning, which is significant because 70% of cotton’s environmental impact comes after you take it home. But it is a chemical process, which means a fabric can’t be both organic and wrinkle-resistant. 

There is no way to quantify the costs and benefits to these options. Ultimately I will have to decide which of these elements are most important to me, and which make the most sense to pursue for my company. I would love to hear what you think! You can share with me by taking this short survey or posting in the comments below.