The Science of Sustainability
No doubt sustainability is one of fashion’s hottest topics—first and foremost because we need to preserve the environment, and consider how what we wear impacts where we live. But all that is green has also become “trendy”—and for those not in the know, it’s hard to decipher the most important qualities when picking your socially conscious eco-chic duds. So in honor of Earth Day, Style.com spoke with renowned agronomist and 2004 MacArthur Fellow Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Sandy Black, sustainable-fashion expert, professor at the London College of Fashion, and author of Eco-Chic and The Sustainable Fashion Handbook, about the dos and don’ts of sustainability. “It’s complex,” says Black, when asked to define sustainable fashion. “The big definition is about long-term sustainability, but also there’s the economic sustainability, then there’s ethical and social issues. So in a way, the best type of businesses have combined all sorts,” she adds. Meanwhile, Sanchez qualifies “sustainable” as having to do with the source of textiles. “Production has to be economically profitable, environmentally OK, and agronomically OK.” However, he continues, “Nothing is completely sustainable. We’re all going to die. And people need to think about the time dimension. For how long is something sustainable?” he asks.
This brings us to the question of natural versus synthetic fibers. “I’ve made some mistakes in buying polyester,” laughs Sanchez, noting that due to the carbon released into the environment during synthetic production, he’s a natural fibers kind of guy. But Professor Black suggests that we need to factor in the time component. “It’s not natural’s good, synthetic’s bad. You have to take the whole life cycle into account,” she says. “You only have to consider the amount of water and energy that’s used in washing T-shirts and jeans that isn’t needed when you have a polyester item. Polyester lasts an awful long time, and people can keep it for a long time.”
“Locally produced” is a phrase we’ve all grown fond of. But from a carbon-footprint standpoint, Sanchez says, it doesn’t have an outstanding effect. “Local production is very fashionable, but its [impact is] not supported by data. Transport causes only a minor part of a carbon footprint,” he says. “There’s always been things traveling around the world, made in one place and sold in another. That’s how the fashion industry works,” offers Black. According to the professor, local production helps consumers engage with the product (i.e., they come to appreciate that, as Black puts it, a garment “isn’t just born in the shop”). However, Sanchez, who is currently working to boost agricultural production in Africa, stresses that from a consciousness perspective, producing in and sourcing from growing economies is beneficial, even if the product or textile is flown overseas once it’s finished (think brands such as Edun and Maiyet).
Perhaps the buzziest term of all, though, is organic. “‘Organic’ has been grossly exaggerated,” says Sanchez. “Organic production decreases yield by 25 percent in most cases, so you have to have a very high markup in prices. It will remain a niche market for those who are willing to pay for it, but under the financial crises here, the sale of, for example, organic produce in the supermarket has reduced dramatically.” Black notes that organic textiles are environmentally friendly, without exception, but stresses that there have been “lots of really good initiatives to move away from pesticide-heavy conventional cotton, toward better cotton.” A prime example of this, says Sanchez, are transgenic cottons—particularly those of the Bt variety—that are engineered to fend off harmful insects without decreasing yield or disrupting the ecosystem with pesticides.
“There are high-tech and low-tech sustainable solutions,” says Black, highlighting a “return to craft,” as well as wearing vintage, as sustainable options. But when it comes to big brands, Black suggests that one be wary of the occasional eco capsule. “It’s not viewed positively to do just one ‘organic-cotton line.’ These days [sustainability] has to be integrated much more thoroughly across a business. Quite small changes made across a big company have a big impact,” she explains, citing H&M, Marks & Spencer, Nike, and Dries Van Noten as admirable examples.
Of course, we can’t forget about the design element of sustainable design. “Something has to be fashionable, desirable, and sustainable,” says Black. “People are doing a lot of really good things with reusing and upcycling materials, but in innovative ways that are a little bit more sophisticated. And that’s the change.”