I love this week - when Earth Day and Fashion Revolution Week coincide. Invariably, my thoughts turn to sustainability and ethics in our industry, and where S&S fits into the equation.
We are still a little company, meaning that we don't have the resources for custom-developed eco fabrics or founding ethical overseas factories. The sustainable things we are doing are small, but numerous. None of them make for splashy ad campaigns, but I'm kind of okay with that. As I once heard from a prominent trend forecaster at a fabric trade show, corporate social responsibility is no longer a trend, it's a requirement. Do it, but don't brag about it.
Although, just in case you're interested, I'm going to do just a tiny bit of bragging about how we've tailored our manufacturing with the planet and people in mind. Because that's the kind of thing I like to nerd out about. Interestingly enough, a lot of the decisions were also based on the financial health of the company.
Made to order
We are unique in that between myself and our little team of technical designers and sewers, we essentially have ourselves a mini factory. Pulling back from outsourcing to other local factories and putting those resources into developing our own made us incredibly nimble when it comes to making things on an as-needed basis.
We work out of a co-studio (879 E Hastings, come visit!) with a handful of other (really awesome) local designers. This is where we do everything from initial design and prototyping to sewing the labels on and shipping out. We have a selection of samples in the showroom for customers to try on, but other than that, we don't even cut the fabric until someone orders something.
As you can imagine, this is pretty labour intensive. It takes much longer to make just one of something. But the payoff is totally worth it. We get to spread out, and instead of making one hundred of one design, we can make one of each of twenty different styles. If one of the styles doesn't sell well, we simply make something else out of the same fabric.
I also love the old-fashioned sounding assurance I get to tell customers oh, don't worry, we can make that for you. It gives an opportunity to do little custom changes, like making sleeves longer. You guys love it.
Again, this was a business-based decision that is essentially recycling. When bigger designers are making thousands of units out of one fabric, they usually end up with a couple rolls leftover. there's nothing wrong with the fabric - they just ordered too much. What seems like a minuscule amount of fabric to them is the perfect amount for us.
Through a network of resellers, I've managed to wrangle some really nice Italian wools, which are usually very expensive. What would have sat on a dusty shelf for years, or (worse) thrown in the landfill gets turned into our Cavalry Capes, Unicorn Blazers, and Wool Slackers.
There are many Tupperware boxes piled up in the studio, containing pieces of fabric that are smaller leftover bits from cutting. Say I get an order for a navy Saddle Shirt - I'll pull out the bin and look for small bits of that colour and fabric. The piece may be so small that I can only cut the collar out of it, but I don't care. The only stuff that ends up in the trash is the itty bitty pieces that we absolutely can't use.
I generally do not use terms like "eco fabric" in our marketing, because in my opinion there is not really such a fabric in existence. There are so many factors that contribute to the environmental impact of a fabric that it is extremely rare to get all of them right - raw materials, processing, durability, biodegradeability, transport...
For instance, cotton is super durable and "natural," but uses a huge amount of water to produce. Bamboo rayon is made from easily renewable resources, but turning the tough stalks into soft fabric uses more than a few chemicals. Wool is easy on the planet, but how are the sheep being treated?
These are the things I think about every time I go to cut out a piece of clothing. As someone who is making "things" in a world that is already too full of "things," I feel a heavy responsibility that those things are going to do minimum damage and last a long time.
And so that is my number one requirement when picking out fabrics: durability. Clothes that will last a long time when being worn, and then at the end of their long lives decompose peacefully in a landfill. I want the things we make to be unearthed in grandma's attic in sixty years, by a teenage girl who declares that those wool overalls are "totally retro," and wears them to school.
It sounds strangely sentimental, but every time I ship out an order, I feel like a little piece of me is getting boxed up and sent out into the wide world yonder. Who will wear it? Where will it go? Will it make people happy for years to come?
I recently got interviewed for a book on sustainable fashion, which was a good excuse to finally condense all these rambling thoughts and worries. I decided that corporate responsibility isn't just about making things out of recycled plastic bottles (although that is really cool). It's about making both big and small decisions in a way that places people and planet above profit.
S&S is not perfect. Even with how small we are, it could be a full-time position for an employee to be tracking down sustainable and ethical resources - but I do look forward to the day when I can hire such a person.
Until then, I will keep hoarding small pieces of fabric in plastic boxes.