Sustainability comes up when we think about food, energy, and the housing and transportation we rely on. It should also be top of mind in our decisions about the clothes we wear.
Thinking of sustainable fashion means considering the textile that a garment is made of. Was it grown without harmful chemicals that can throw the land off balance? Does it contain toxic chemicals that could lead to cancer? How was the textile created into a cloth, and who created it?
Today, there’s little awareness of the full life cycle of a garment and all the new research into sustainable textiles and apparel.
Although some people know about the damage caused by some conventional approaches to farming, shoppers don’t have time to research every T-shirt or jeans purchase.
Meanwhile, news stories about the unacceptable treatment of textile workers in overseas sweatshops seem to have faded from the headlines. And advertisers seem to get a free pass as they try to manipulate consumers into believing that they need to purchase more.
That, in turn, results in people spending too much on below-grade textiles — garments that, not long after the first or second washing, end up in landfills.
This Earth Day, it’s worth considering the link between clothing and waste. Each year, about 11 million tons of textile-related garbage accumulates in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the average American throws out an estimated 65 pounds of used textiles annually, with few cities offering a curb-side recycling option that includes linens or clothing.
Fortunately, as a teacher in textiles and apparel, I’ve glimpsed into a future where fashion designers can help lead a radical change.
Increasingly, young professionals in the industry are learning about an emerging trend in sustainable fashion. Although they apply their own views of how and where they can make a positive change, most begin by finding something they are passionate about and searching for high-quality fabrics that last.
For instance, one student purchased Italian lace. She searched the world for the specific product, not just choosing any lace that could have been made in China, for example.
Another student purchased fair-trade cotton batiks from Africa directly from tribes that make this fabric instead of going to a local fabric store. They sew everything with their own hands and dye their own fabrics (with nontoxic dye, of course) or hand-bead their garments.
In short, they put care into every step of the process.
Imagine how different it would feel to know that a lot of thought went into the item of clothing you’re wearing. What if your next clothing purchase had so much meaning that it was something you wanted to keep and actually helped the environment at the same time, or at the very least didn’t harm the environment in its creation?
The future of fashion has to change. We can’t continue to purchase throw-away fashion. That is not sustainable. Not for our planet, our bank accounts, or even our souls. It doesn’t feel good to own clothing that you care nothing about. It feels empty. The future of fashion will include thoughtfulness, meaning and a deep connection with our environment.
We must consider each purchase and the acts associated with how it came to be in our hands, and support businesses that demand sustainable processes in every step and fashion shows that showcase sustainable clothes.
From the birth of an idea, to the textile, to the actual sewing, a garment can be made entirely for you — and made to last. That type of sustainable fashion would be good not only for the land but for the spirit, too. We would be moved at the effort that went into what we wear. We would wear more of our clothes with pride.
Most importantly, the future of fashion must showcase a new generation of fashion designers, many with their sights set on leaving a legacy of sustainable fashion.
Karen Bravo is a lecturer of textiles and apparel in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
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