An Argument for Sustainable Style: Fashionopolis

September 10, 2019, 11:15 PM UTC

The word “polis” in Ancient Greek means “city,” but it essentially refers to an ecosystem where layers of people, ideas, and businesses intersect, which makes the title of culture journalist Dana Thomas’ latest book quite apt.

Thomas’ Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, peers into the international fashion industry’s ecosystem, what’s bad and the good that’s emerging. She critiques such things as fashion’s harmful environmental footprint, now facing widespread scrutiny by consumers and being acknowledged within the industry. Likewise, Thomas showcases entrepreneurs and designers providing sustainable fashion alternatives who are slowly revolutionizing the international market.

Thomas considers today’s fashion business ethos a descendant of the Industrial Revolution’s 18th century cotton mills of “Cottonopolis” Manchester, England, which “embodied capitalism with no motive other than profits,” she writes. Today, the global fashion industry is largely a similar grind, built on the concept of fast fashion—factories churning out volumes of yarn, woven into fabric, which are cut into pieces and sewn by factory workers, all at a rapid pace to constantly replenish stores with the latest styles.

Thomas, formerly a reporter for The Washington Post and Newsweek, began researching Fashionopolis after publishing Gods and Kings about haute couture fashion designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. In 2007, she published Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.

Her dive into the fashion industry’s practices took her to Alabama where she met with officials from companies at the forefront of the slow fashion movement, which relies on local garment workers to create entire products, instead of outsourcing the manufacturing process. Two industry leaders are the companies Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid. Thomas also went to Tennessee to Stony Creek Colors, one of America’s few indigo growers, a natural source of dye for denim, instead of the commonly used synthetic compound created from ten toxic chemicals.

Thanks to the introduction of Environmental Profit and Loss spreadsheets, companies are discovering that social good is good for business. Alternatives to ethically-dubious practices, Thomas says, include Vietnam-based Jeanologia’s clean, safe denim factories and Seattle-based Evrnu’s cotton regeneration project. The American startup Modern Meadow creates biofabricated collagen using a fermentation process, to create vegan leather. Look at designer Stella McCartney’s focus on sustainability helping to influence her label’s luxury parent corporation Kering and its competitors, and Dutch designer Iris van Herpen’s pioneering use of 3D printing to create avant-garde dresses.

Designer Stella McCartney poses with models carrying placards speaking to sustainability and tolerance, on June 14, during the Milan Men’s Fashion Week during which she showed her Spring/Summer 2020 men’s collection.
Daniele Venturelli—Getty Images

On Monday, before attending designer Tom Ford’s New York Fashion Week runway show in one of the city’s abandoned subway stations, Thomas spoke with Fortune about her Fashionopolis findings. (The interview has been edited for space.)

You draw a parallel between the slow food movement in the 1990s and today’s slow fashion movement, both being ethically-driven. Where do you see the slow fashion movement headed?

It’s growing quickly, and I do feel like it’s going to become like organic food and farm-to-table [restaurants, which are] all over the place. It’s very common. I feel like this book will help broaden people’s minds on the subject [of slow fashion], but I do believe already there is a movement toward that. Even since the book came out last week, I’m getting emails from startups reaching out to me saying, `this is what we’re doing.’ It’s happening everywhere.

The Food and Drug Administration defined what is organic produce and has regulated the standard. It’s been a boon to sustainable agriculture, which consumers overwhelmingly support. But there’s no such regulation for sustainability in the fashion industry.

There isn’t a fashion equivalent to the FDA. It’s a global industry, the supply chain is wildly fractured, and there is no inspection of fabric, cloth. Maybe there should be, but every time anyone tries to get [a bill] through Congress regarding fashion, it gets slapped down really fast.

I don’t know how you could regulate the industry. I feel like it’s more of a grassroots thing than anything else, and it’s going to be consumer-driven. People just do not want to wear jeans that have toxic chemicals in the synthetic indigo. They do not want to wear clothes that do not disintegrate or biodegrade in landfills. It’s going to come from the consumer saying, `we want organic cotton, we want a cleaner industry,’ and I think we’re going to make the change through the power of the purse.

Three skeins of two-ply worsted weight yarn, dyed with indigo.
Whitney Hayward—Staff Photographer/Getty Images

There are brands already touting their clothes as sustainable. How do we know whether their claims are meaningful?

It’s tricky and that’s my consumer-awareness reporting in action. I explain how companies are saying they’re using Better Cotton. Okay, well, Better Cotton is a smartly-named movement. And aptly named. Yes, it is better than conventional cotton, because conventional cotton is highly polluting, so it’s better but it’s not organic…It’s a gray area.

It’s hard to know as a consumer. The good news is, there are organizations like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in San Francisco, which was originally helping businesses track their supply chain and give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down in their practices. It was industry-oriented, a professional association. Now they’re going to put out a consumer-facing service where you can go online and see ratings on specific companies. There’s another one called Positive Luxury and [after their review process] they rate companies using a butterfly mark. For SAC, the data is provided by the companies so it’s not independently sourced and verified. Again, tricky.

While the Federal Trade Commission has Green Guides for environmental marketing claims, there’s no definition for the word “sustainable.” Many other countries also haven’t created a uniform definition of “sustainable” for use in marketing. How do you think “sustainable” should be defined?

I think we’re going to have to have an official definition at some point by someone. Who, I don’t know. What would be the regulatory agency? I don’t know. Maybe that’s what Ellen MacArthur will wind up becoming with her foundation in the Isle of Wight, which is independent with great integrity. Lord knows she has integrity, Ellen MacArthur. She can dig deep and let the consumer know what they’re actually purchasing. Maybe this is a great opportunity for someone else. Will the U.N. step in? The U.N. is very, very involved with sustainability in fashion. Maybe they’re the ones who will define what it should be and must be and if you meet those standards or not.

As I was reading your book, I was surprised the U.N. hasn’t taken a more active role in fighting human rights violations in factories.

I know. It’s mostly independent NGOs [non-governmental organizations] doing this, as it was a hundred years ago. Florence Kelly was doing exactly the same thing in the late nineteenth century [fighting garment sweatshops]. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, to raise awareness, a call to arms.

Activists mark the sixth anniversary of the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 workers.
Mamunur Rashid—NurPhoto/Getty Images

How sincere are non-binding commitments from private companies saying they’ll try to do better?

The non-binding ones? Not so much. But actually, in Rana Plaza [the 2013 tragedy in Bangladesh when 1,100 garment workers were killed in a factory collapse] the non-binding one doesn’t exist anymore. The only one that does exist is the Accord which is binding, and many of the members of the non-binding one have joined the binding one, which is heartening. I think we need more things like the Accord, but we shouldn’t have to wait until 1,100 or 1,200 people die in a factory collapse to do that. That just is wrong-headed. We need to be proactive, not reactive, in all walks of life.

It’s not just about fashion. It’s about business, it’s about society. I see myself more as a cultural anthropologist than a fashion writer. I’m using fashion to tell a bigger story about how we conduct business, how we live our lives, how we interact with humanity and the planet. There have been plenty of non-binding efforts that have kind of fizzled out. They do need to be binding, but maybe the G7 Fashion Pact will get there by everybody sort of saying ‘yes, we should do this’ is a big step. As long as we keep moving in that direction, there will be change.

Generation Z cares about sustainability, and companies are trying to reach this audience. But will it take a grassroots movement from consumers to bring about change?

Yes. And also they’re realizing that adopting such practices can be good business and can make them money. Stella McCartney led Kering to adopt a practice called the EP&L, the Environmental Profit & Loss spreadsheet. Not only are they crunching numbers and seeing how much money they make, like a regular profit and loss spreadsheet, they’re doing an environmental impact one, where they see where the impact is. Then they see where they can reduce the impact, and when they reduce it, they wind up saving money. And so then their profits go higher, they have less impact and they’re saving money.

All of the Kering brands have EP&L spreadsheets, and they’re starting to spread across the industry. That’s great, because you can now see, [for example], the impact of cashmere is catastrophic and it costs a lot in overhead to deal with this. Well, maybe we can eliminate the impact and the overhead at the same time.

[Then there are fashion companies working with sweatshops]. They always say, “We didn’t know. Our subcontractors were subcontracting.” They’re still contracting [with] subcontractors who are so shady and shifty that they’re subcontracting and they don’t know! It’s still not good practice. And they overproduce and much of it is thrown away without ever being sold.

A garment factory in Hanoi, Vietnam, producing shirts.
Manan Vatsyayana—AFP/Getty Images

When you write about a factory in Vietnam that has switched to partial automation, you seem to make a case for automation, because the jobs left at that factory are safer and higher-paying.

I went to a sweatshop that was hundreds of people working in this [toxic place]…and they’re inhaling the denim dust and fibers, and they’re hand-distressing the denim with this ear-piercing noise. Then I go to the second factory, Jeanologia, which is cool, it’s quiet, it’s clean, it uses lasers to distress…They’re in a little booth running everything in a safe, clean environment and the lasers are encased in a box where the dust is sucked up by vacuums. There are less jobs, but they’re safe, clean jobs, they’re better paying jobs, they’re not repetitive jobs that will give you injuries or make you deaf or give you lung disease, and you’re better educated. You go to a school they have to learn how to run the lasers. So you’re getting an education, you’re not sitting there using sandpaper to mindlessly sand someone’s blue jeans.

Working in a sweatshop doesn’t lift you out of poverty; it keeps you trapped in poverty. Working in a smart factory with state-of-the-art technology, where you have to be trained, you’re getting middle-market skills that you can take elsewhere and rise up to the middle class. It’s investing in people instead of just using them and spitting them out.

What is circularity, and what are the benefits of moving toward a circular economy?

The circular economy goes back to William McDonough and his book Cradle to Cradle. It’s about changing our behavior from a linear consumption model [from product manufacturing to its use and eventual disposal] to something that’s circular, where the product [is recycled] back into the system and gets reused.

There are various versions of recycling or reusing the product. It could be [selling used fashion or] repairing or dyeing it or mending it so it gets a longer life. My daughter and her friends swap their clothes. I met someone who said their apartment building does swaps. Love that. There are companies like Evrnu and Worn Again. Evrnu is in Seattle and recycles cotton by taking it down to its molecular level and regenerating it and turning it back into virgin cotton thread and yarn to be woven into fabric, and Worn Again in London does the same thing with poly-cotton blends, which no one could figure out how to separate for a long time. They regenerate the polyester and cotton separately. ECONYL does this with nylon from carpeting and fishing nets.

We can always grow and use new cotton, but right now the cotton industry produces four times as much cotton as Mother Nature would naturally produce on an acre of land, like when we feed the hormones to the cows and they give us four times as much milk. And the problem with that is there’s a lot of environmental impact.

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