The word "sustainability" is used so much in fashion that while it's become a familiar word, a lot of people are still confused about what is actually means. The fact is, it means a lot of things. The Oxford Dictionary defines sustainability, as it pertains to our planet, as "avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance," as in, "the pursuit of global environmental sustainability." That covers a broad swath when it comes to apparel manufacturing and the entire clothing supply chain, which starts with sourcing raw materials and ends with clothing being shipped to your door. Here, we break down a few of the basics.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLY SOURCED MATERIAL?
All finished clothing starts with raw materials, whether that's a natural crop such as cotton or bamboo, or an animal product such as wool or leather, or a man-made material such as nylon. There are ways that all these types of materials can be sourced more sustainably. Cotton, for example, is a crop that takes vast amounts of water to cultivate, as well as earth-polluting pesticides to keep the crops from being eaten by bugs. While we don't see cotton farming going away any time soon, there are different ways to go about it. Organic cotton is farmed without the use of pesticides. Sustainably farmed cotton means that the workers who grow the cotton are paid fair wages and their working conditions meet standards set by human rights regulatory groups. Cotton still takes a lot of water to farm, though. Plants such as bamboo or beech trees (the basis for fibers that make up fabrics such as Modal and Tencel) require less water to grow and are also quick to renew themselves when cut down (unlike cotton, which needs to be planted and picked each season). Therefore, these materials are also deemed more sustainable.
When brands refer to sustainably sourced leather it typically means that the animals were already being used for food, therefore not being bred specifically for their hides, or in some cases it means "deadstock" or unused leather that was never made into clothing, or vintage or second-hand leather that's been "upcycled" into new pieces. The dyes used to tan and color the leather can also be more sustainable if they're derived from plants or natural minerals, rather than man-made chemicals.
Finally, man-made materials such as nylon and plastic are made with chemicals, but innovative companies such as Unifi and Aquafil are finding ways to remake old or "post-consumer" materials such as old carpets or plastic water bottles into new-again fibers that can be used to make clothes. Econyl is the trademarked name for one brand of regenerated nylon that designers like Stella McCartney are using in their clothes. It's "circular," meaning that it came from old materials, was made into something new, and can be broken down and remade again and again.
There are also several science-driven technologies that are making materials out of things like algae, cacti, mushroom fungus, yeast and other natural substances that can be grown in a lab using very little water or electricity. We've written about algae foam, mushroom leather, cactus leather and other exciting things that we hope will become widely-used alternatives to non-sustainable materials.
WHAT DO ZERO WASTE AND ZERO IMPACT MEAN?
The term "zero waste" in fashion means that no excess materials were thrown away while creating a garment. Typical garment-making or manufacturing has a 10-30% waste rate. For example, with traditional cut-and-sew clothes, each pattern piece is cut from a bolt of fabric. While the pieces may be placed close together, there is still excess fabric that ends up on the cutting room floor. Newer techniques like 3D knitting, which means that pieces can be knit in three-dimensional shapes rather than a flat piece of fabric, eliminate this type of waste, and have a waste rate of just 1.65%.
"Zero impact" fashion means that there's no negative impact on the environment when it comes to making things. That would mean: no carbon emissions from freight trucks or planes delivering raw materials or finished goods; no chemicals released into the soil or water supply; no excess materials going into landfills, and so on. It's nearly impossible to be 100% zero impact, but many companies, including Variant, try their best to come as close as possible, and were founded on the idea of making things in a new way versus the old way.
WHAT IS LOCAL MANUFACTURING?
Local means close to home, so think about the factory that made your t-shirt being closer to your home than say, China, where a great deal of things, not just clothes, are made. There are many upsides to this: higher-quality items because it's much easier to keep tabs on something when it's being made closely; fewer carbon emissions because your clothes don't have to travel as far to reach you; quicker fulfillment and delivery. In the "old days" many things were made close to home, or even in the home, but larger economic forces eventually made it cheaper and more efficient to make things overseas. Now, the tide is turning back to local manufacturing, and we're fortunate to be a part of this movement making the change. We hope one day that our products will reach customers globally and be made locally, close to our customers, wherever they may live. Thank you again for following us and joining us on the journey.
The Variant Team
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