Want to be a more sustainable fashion brand? Here's 5 methods!
Jump to video version of this blog post.
Sustainability is the newest fashion trend. And hopefully it isn’t just a trend but becomes standard operation for the fashion industry. If you’re a newer or smaller brand, you may be wondering, “How can I be more sustainable in my business?” It’s actually simpler than you think.
There are a lot of newer and smaller brands that want to be more sustainable, want to make sure that they are not part of the problem, and want to make sure they’re contributing to a future fashion industry that doesn’t harm the environment.
But when you hear people talking about what kinds of things they’re doing to make their companies greener, it can feel a little overwhelming . . . and expensive, like out of the price range of a small designer. So what are your options? Well, I’m here to share that with you today.
So, what can a small fashion designer or brand do to be more sustainable AND still be fashionable.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of “sustainable fashion”. If you’re like a lot of designers and customers, it might be things like this:
The first few are what a lot of designers I talk to fear when they’re asked about how they can design more sustainably. There’s this idea that you’ll have to design these shapeless, dull, unfashionable items. And that’s actually not the case. There are brands out right now that are doing some really fun and cool things that are very figure flattering, vibrant, fashionable AND sustainable.
Then, there’s the idea that in order for your brand to be more sustainable you have to create items with recycled fibers or these high tech fabrics that are biodegradable or dissolve in water or whatever is the newest advance in tech-y fibers.
Plant and algae biodegradable tee shirt from Vollebak
Biodegradable fabrics or recycled fibers are great, but most small designers can’t afford to develop their own high tech fabrics or get in on research and development with other larger companies so they can eventually use these new fabrics.
But there’s something even simpler and easier a small designer can do: don’t make so much stuff!
According to an EPA report, the main source of textiles in municipal solid waste (i.e. landfills) is discarded clothing, and in 2018, landfills received 11.3 million tons of municipal solid textile waste.
Another article published thru the BBC in 2020 said that an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created each year. And by 2030, we are expected as a whole to be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textiles a year.
That’s a lot of clothing being thrown out every year and sitting in a landfill.
So . . . how do we tackle this really overwhelming problem?
I have 5 strategies you can implement right now, and they’re strategies that are doable on a smaller level (meaning as a smaller brand) AND they’re not only sustainable but also potentially profitable.
1. Repair and mending programs
Companies like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia are already doing this, but you can set up a service that repairs your items. What’s great about this is that it encourages people to use your designs longer instead of just throwing it out (great for the environment) AND on a more practical level, people tend to spend more on items they keep longer which means you might be able to charge a little more (or for a lot of designers who under price and under value their work, PROPERLY price the item).
2. Buy back programs
This one may be a little trickier to implement, but deciding to buy back older items could be an option for you. Of course, the benefit to the environment is that it keeps an item out of a landfill, and what your brand may be able to do is mend it, dry clean and sell it as second hand or “pre-loved” as I’ve heard brands say. Or you can dissemble it and make something new. Then, sell that item as a limited edition or 1 of
3. Using thrifted or recovered fabrics
If you’re still setting up your new business, why not think about finding ways to use thrifted items or fabrics as part of your business model. Winner of the first season of the fashion business competition From Pencil to Production does just that. Mollie Miller, owner of Zest Dressed, upcycles and recycles vintage and found items in her collection and supports local artists and production partners that pay their workers a living wage.
She also creates “vintage edits” where she helps people understand how to shop secondhand and put outfits together while still being on trend. Her business is a great example of how you can use thrifting and upcycling, which of course, is great for the environment and create a viable, fashion brand.
4. Pre-order or Manufacturing on-demand
This is similar to custom but not exactly the same thing, and many more designers are doing this. And not only does it make sense for the environment, but it’s also a smart business move on the part of the brand.
Holding inventory and the expense of that is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. What I mean by that is that most manufacturers, when you’re ready to do bulk production, require you to order a minimum number of items. Even small production usually requires something like 25-50 pieces. And larger manufacturers can require 500, 1000+ pieces.
That’s 25 or 500 items that you have to pay for, ship to a warehouse (or your home to sit in your basement or garage or that corner in your apartment that you don’t use), and then house them until you sell those items. That also means that you have to have the money upfront to pay for the production plus shipping to get them to your house or warehouse. And you’re putting out a nice chunk of change BEFORE you even know if someone is going to buy your item.
When you do pre-order, you can not only gauge interest in the item before you produce it but you also get the money to make the item prior to producing it, which also means you don’t have to come out of pocket (or at least not nearly as much).
And manufacturing on-demand offers those same benefits: someone orders an item from you and it’s manufactured after they actually pay for it. The company Resonance in New York City is an example of this, and they currently produce items for several brands including Pyer Moss, The Kit and Little Minkoff.
So not creating excess inventory, great for the environment and not holding inventory at all, great for your pockets.
5. Digital Fashion Software
This is my favorite, of course, and what I like about the idea of digital fashion software and sustainability is that it feeds into a designer's creativity and design development. There’s also lots of ways for you to use digital fashion software in conjunction with some of the other methods I mentioned.
One of the most basic ways that you can be more sustainable is by being as accurate and detailed as possible when it comes to your flat sketches and tech packs. I can’t tell you how many times in my own career or how many times I’ve heard from young designers I’ve spoken to or worked with, that they’ve wasted so much time and money getting sample after sample because something wasn’t right, and eventually realizing that the problem was not the factory, but how their hand sketch was being interpreted or not having enough details on the tech pack.
It’s one of the reasons I tell all designers that learning to flat sketch is an ESSENTIAL skill, and learning to do it on Illustrator (which is what I teach all the time) will allow you to create accurate and very detailed sketches.
And then once you get that accurate flat sketch, it’s vital to make sure that your tech pack is just as detailed.
Once you master those skills, you can look into more advanced digital software like 3D which not only allows you to create but also fit your garments digitally.
So how is digital design software better for the environment? It all comes down to less waste.
Being more accurate in your sketches and tech packs ensure that you get what you want the 1st time and you don’t have to ask for multiple samples that will probably end up in a landfill.
“Fitting” your garment virtually means that the 1st physical garment will most likely be much more accurate and you won’t have to ask for additional samples before moving forward into bulk production.
In many cases, brands sell their designs from a CAD or a 3D CAD so that they don’t have to produce additional samples (or extra fabric) for buyers to see additional colorways or SKUs, AND
You’re also cutting down on your carbon footprint because you're flying less items overseas or trucking less items them across the country.
And as for how it benefits your company, each one of those samples can cost a minimum of $250 dollars and most samples cost more than that. So each time you create one more sample, you’re spending another $250 (maybe less if the factory is giving you a break because they’re already made the style once).
That also may not be taking into account any fees you’re being charged for pattern making, pattern corrections, cut, sew, make and shipping. It can all slowly add up and get very expensive very quickly. So if you can cut down the number of times you need to remake a garment, re-fit a garment, re-ship a garment, you’ll start saving some significant money and time.
In the words of poet and spoken word artist Gil Scott Heron,
“Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something.”
I would never say that once you implement these things you can call yourself a “sustainable fashion brand”. I don’t think even the industry has a concrete definition of what that is. But certainly implementing one or more of these strategies can help your brand do something that can help us move toward making our industry one that is better for the world and has a much more positive impact on the earth.