Streetwear will always be tied into a culture of over-consumption. With product drops every week and constant trends to follow on Instagram, it’s difficult for anyone to stop buying and think about the impact of their spending habits. It shouldn’t be a surprise to many that fashion, like other mass-produced products, is a contributor to a number of social and environmental problems around the world. For example, according to McKinsey, nearly three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within years of being made. In recent years, brands have attempted to address this by touting the word “sustainable” or have released collections catered to a growing segment of concerned shoppers. However, it’s important to establish that sustainability isn’t something you can simply buy into.
“If we start to think about ourselves as citizens rather than consumers, then we'll be more open to thinking about what impact our purchases have,” says Maxine Bédat, the founder of the New Standard Institute, an organization that seeks to build a credible information platform for the fashion industry that can develop sustainability solutions. “It’s not about sustainable fashion versus not sustainable fashion, but the impact that clothing has and what a company is doing to reduce that impact.”
There isn't an official certification system on what makes a brand sustainable, so we hope this guide will help you make the best decisions you can. This guide won't tell you what brands to buy from or applaud a streetwear line for releasing a random drop of recycled cotton hoodies. In general, you should buy less clothing, buy better quality clothing, and wear it for longer periods of time. This guide is meant to offer suggestions on what to look for when shopping and how to consider the impact of your purchases. For expert insight, we spoke to Céline Semaan of Slow Factory, the organization behind the annual Study Hall summits on sustainable fashion, and sustainability strategist Lilian Liu of Futerra, who was the former Manager of Partnerships and Relations for the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.
Be Skeptical About the Word “Sustainable”
The word “sustainable” has become a buzzword for brands. A one-off capsule collection of upcycled goods or environmentally “conscious” apparel can make a brand look “sustainable,” but it typically isn’t reflective of the company overall. The biggest mistake one can make while shopping for sustainable streetwear is taking a brand’s claims about sustainability at face value.
“I think everybody now is getting on that train of let's make a collection that's sustainable, but try to look beyond that and think about the brand, overall, as an additional layer,” says Liu. “Have they shown leadership in the past or are they planning to do so? Is it more than just a brand having an Earth Day campaign?"
A brand seriously dedicated to sustainability will be transparent about its supply chain and their practices. It will share details and evidence on where they source materials, how they pay their workers, what factories it uses, and more. Instead of just publishing a general statement that it pledges to reduce its carbon footprint, a brand that is invested in sustainability will set actual goals and provide factual evidence on how it’s building towards those goals. One good example to look towards is the sneaker company Veja. The project section of their website breaks down multiple steps within its supply chain. It presents a map of where the cotton used for its shoes is sourced and even shares the contracts they sign with its cotton producers in South America. It discloses its monthly salary paid to factory employees and also provides a third-party audit report of the work conditions in one of their manufacturing plants. Although there is always room for more improvement, this level of transparency is something that shoppers should value and dissect.
Even if your favorite clothing brand shows some transparency by breaking down the pricing of select items or shows photos of its factories, it could still leave many questions unanswered. A photo of a factory from an undisclosed location does not answer questions about the exact wages paid to employees or whether or not its materials are ethically sourced. Furthermore, information shared by the company, like a sustainability report, should be analyzed carefully.
“Sustainability reports are produced by the marketing department and you don’t expect your average citizen to be an expert in these things. It's very difficult to kind of differentiate flowery language from something that's actually real,” says Bedat. “Initiatives like: ‘Here is our cool recycled plastic bottle T-shirt’ would be a red flag, because that's not doing anything meaningful. But if there are disclosures on their carbon footprint, chemical waste, and wages, that would be something from a company that is certainly meaningful.”
Certifications Are Good, But it Doesn’t Make a Brand Sustainable
When shopping online, certifications are one way to gauge if a brand is working towards a larger sustainability goal. You might see badges on a page that read “1% For the Planet” or “Fairtrade International.” These are two examples of certifications, which brands can apply for to show that they are participating in ethical, sustainable or charitable practices. For example, Noah is enrolled as a member of 1% For the Planet, which means that it pledges to donate 1 percent of its annual sales to environmental causes. Although this is good, this doesn’t mean Noah is a sustainable brand.
“There isn't any certification that will provide the shopper any certainty that a brand’s products are sustainable,” says Semaan. “There is no certification that is able to look at the whole production process and tell you holistically if a product is sustainable.”
Although a brand with any third-party certifications is better than none, it’s important to acknowledge that there are many steps that need to be evaluated within a brand’s supply chain and a single certification can’t completely account for it all. A brand participating in “1% For the Planet” doesn’t mean it’s not using underpaid workers to sew jackets or dyes that release harmful chemicals into the water. So don’t get too comfortable when seeing these badges. But make sure you understand what these certifications actually mean, check if the brands are actually registered, and do your own research on the standards that are required to get these certifications.
Know What Your Clothing Is Made Of
Many popular clothing brands use Repreve in their products, which is a clothing fiber made from recycled plastic bottles. Although turning plastic bottles into clothing sounds good on paper, these materials still make a negligible impact on the environment as well. “Turning plastic into a disposable material like fiber still means it is disposable material at the end of the day. It’s not going to last you a lifetime,” says Semaan. “Microplastic emissions are also horrible and it comes out of the clothes that we are washing.”
The largest problem behind fibers made out of recycled plastics or other synthetic materials are the tiny–sesame seed size–bits of plastic that shed from these articles of clothing known as microfibres or microplastics. These small pieces of plastic pollute the ocean, the air, and eventually make its way into our own stool. Since plastic is not a biodegradable material, this significantly impacts animal and human life. Clothing made out of synthetics, such as polyester fleece, are just one example of why it’s important to be aware of what your clothing is made of. Also consider if a brand is using deadstock or upcycled fabrics, which often times means it's more sustainable.
And even if something like an Off-White T-shirt is made out of a natural fiber, like 100 percent cotton, information about its production is needed to fully assess its carbon footprint. “An 100 percent cotton T-shirt tells you it is a natural fiber, which may have a lower carbon footprint than a synthetic fiber. But, the largest part–76 percent–of the environmental footprint is in the spinning and knitting stage,” says Bedat “We are not told anything about this from the information disclosed online.”
Lastly, even if alternatives like organic cotton are considered to be friendlier since it uses less chemicals to produce, some critics say it ends up using more resources and can also be tied into unethical labor practices. So when buying clothes, take time to research the material it’s made of, where it comes from, and how to properly wash it.
Demand More Transparency From Your Favorite Brands
Chances are, if you tried researching your favorite streetwear brand already, you will probably hit a brick wall when trying to figure out anything beyond what country its clothing is manufactured in. That’s because information about the supply chains of major streetwear and clothing brands barely exists. “Right now, what's really hard is there isn't a place to go where you can look up a brand that shows exactly what they're doing,” says Bedat, whose petition on NSI calls for brands to disclose what their carbon footprint is, what they’re doing about chemical management, and how much workers producing their garments are actually being paid.
Unfortunately, transparency in fashion is an industry wide problem. To make streetwear and fashion more sustainable, it starts with brands revealing exactly what they do and having the public hold them more accountable for their actions. As a person who wants to make more ethical and sustainable choices while shopping for clothes, this information is needed. One organization, Fashion Revolution, annually releases a transparency index that ranks how transparent 200 of the world’s biggest brands are. But even if brands are becoming more transparent about their supply chain, it doesn't guarantee better practices or change—as shown with the fast fashion retailer H&M ranking high on this index. And even if a brand produces clothing domestically in the United States and has a shorter supply chain this doesn’t automatically make it more sustainable or ethical.
“A shorter supply chain does not have to mean better, but often a shorter supply chain means you increase traceability and transparency of the product, so often it is because you can better trace materials, understand the working conditions of the factory and production, and obviously you save on carbon emissions caused by transportation and shipping,” says Liu. “It's harder to hide bad stuff in shorter supply chains. But you can have a piece of clothing that's made in China be more sustainable than a piece made in the USA depending on working conditions.
If you can’t even find any information about the supply chain of a brand to begin with, it’s time to start asking.
“How can a person know of these things? Of course, it's super hard to know,” says Semaan. "But if they think they're sustainable, we can ask them to show us how and where to find that information on their website. These conversations need to happen.”
Reuse, Resell, and Buy Well
Although the collectible culture behind streetwear encourages buying way more clothing than necessary, it’s unlikely that a Supreme head is going to dump his entire collection into a garbage can. As most of us know, there’s a lot of money to be made in the resell game. From flipping Supreme to building entire businesses off reselling vintage clothing like Round Two, buying or selling used clothing will give a garment another life cycle and extend its wear.
“Obviously, buying secondhand clothing on Grailed or Heroine can be cheaper and more environmentally friendly,” says Liu, who also recommends shopping at local consignment stores such as Tokio 7 in New York. “If you can't buy it secondhand or need something for a special occasion, there are so many options to rent or borrow as well. If you need to buy something new because you have something very specific in mind, it’s about buying less and buying well. It is about investing in quality before quantity.”
Whether it is used or new, investing in well-made clothing is key when considering the life cycle of a garment. Low quality pieces from fast fashion aren't going to last or have any resale value. If these clothes avoid a landfill and are good enough to donate, only 20 percent of this clothing is actually resold at thrift stores. The rest is either recycled or sold in large bundles to countries throughout the world. An excessive amount of donated clothing ends up in East African countries, which hinders the economic growth of these nations because it undermines their attempts to build a domestic textile industry. Furthermore, poor quality clothing from fast-fashion brands usually won’t end up selling. Instead it causes waste build up.
“The stuff that arrives in those markets in Ghana, 40 percent of it doesn't even get sold. It just gets trashed,” says Bedat. “That's pretty much the same thing that's happening in Africa and other countries in the developing world. We are dumping our cheap and crappy clothing on them and they don't have any use for it. One of the simplest ways to address this is to not buy crap, that's one of the best ways to be sustainable.”
Educate Yourself More
“Look at reports and what brands are doing beyond marketing. Educate yourself about the materials,” says Semaan. “Even laying clothes down to flat dry can extend its life. I'm not saying to never use a dryer again, but I'm just saying that even little actions can lead to big things collectively.”
Like any product, a piece of clothing goes through many hands within a large supply chain. From the laborers who pick the cotton to the very warehouse worker who puts it inside the box that gets shipped to your house. Every step of the garment-making process will make a negligible impact on the environment or human life. Dyes used to color garments pollute waterways in countries such as Bangladesh, China, and India. And although wages have increased in countries known for manufacturing clothes, the fashion industry still largely relies on the labor of female workers who are barely paid living wages. So before buying a new piece of clothing, think of the real human and environmental cost of each piece you buy, and if that makes it worth having another item sit inside your closet.