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Stop using the term 'Sustainable Clothing'?

The article isn't new - but what sustainable business advisor, investor, and educator, Kenneth Pucker, has to say needs to be heard.

In his piece from January 2022, he outlines how the fashion industry has failed to live up to its sustainability goals. But here, I'd like to provide a summary to his article and linked references.

Kenneth Pucker has harsh words for a fashion industry enamored with speaking out about sustainability without actually adopting real sustainable standards or reaching self-prescribed goals.

His opinion is that these businesses won't move the needle on climate change and environmental degradation unless regulation forces them to do so. (This means the Fabric Act (#fabricact, #passfabricact) needs to pass! Don't know what the Fabric Act is? Check out my previous post.)

So, what about consumers hungry for small carbon footprint clothing?

"The sad truth ... is that all this experimentation and supposed 'innovation' in the fashion industry over the past 25 years have failed to lessen its planetary impact — a loud wake up call for those who hope that voluntary efforts can successfully address climate change and other major challenges facing society." -Kenneth Pucker

Below is a bullet point review that outlines the thoughts presented in the article and some of my own. Let's talk sustainable fibers, recycling, upcycling, and the benefits of thrifting and renting clothing.

Recycling Clothing. Only about 1% of clothing is kept out of the trash/incinerator stream by recycling. Why?

  • Many garments are mixed fibers.

  • Separating mixed garment fibers is difficult to impossible.

  • The quality of the recycled fiber is less than the original.

  • Infrastructure isn't up to scale of need.

What Can Be Done? Increasing recycling infrastructure and developing better recycling techniques are big ticket items (think millions or likely more). It is a big task to increase the amount of fibers that are diverted from landfills.

  • Can we scale up fiber recycling for clothing? Material Return is recycling clothing in North Carolina. The question is, can their model be recreated around the US and around the world?

  • How energy-intensive is it? Does recycling fibers help with energy demands, as well as waste streams? (I don't know. Typically, exactly how this is done is proprietary and I couldn't find information on websites. I plan to dig further and publish if I learn something new.)

  • What are the majority of recycled fibers used for today?

    • Much of the recycled material is used in furniture stuffing or non-yarn usage.

    • A question becomes: Even if we upscale the collection and processing of these fibers, what is the total need? Is the demand sufficient to offset the clothes going into waste streams?

    • This seems unlikely, since the average, US consumer throws away over 80lbs of textiles yearly. That's about 350 t-shirts a year for each US resident!

Upcycling Clothing. This quote is going to hurt, but the truth is: "..[A] recent life cycle analysis (LCA) on cotton jeans revealed that the climate change impact of buying and disposing of a pair of jeans is almost the same as upcycling the jeans into a new pair." -Kenneth Pucker

  • This is difficult to hear, and should NOT make upcyclers stop what they are doing. If the goal is to purchase less, then upcycling clothing with an eye on using all of the fabric is a worthy goal.

  • It just isn't a global solution to a huge problem. It is part of a solution for those who want to invest in creating new designs while using as much of the previous garment as possible.

  • It isn't for everyone, and it doesn't scale up easily without going into the recycling of the fibers rather than re-imagining and reusing the fabric 'as is.'

Reselling of 2nd-Hand Clothing. "Be it online or in-store, resale retailers reject most goods that are presented to them for sale." -Kenneth Pucker

  • "This percentage will likely grow because of the low prices and poor quality of fast fashion."

  • In my previous, 2-week piece about resellers, I discussed online companies which clearly state that only about 40% of the clothing sent to them is actually accepted for resale. And, they do not return clothing, so it ends up in the waste stream or shipped overseas to be another countries problem.

  • "Notwithstanding the recent growth of the space, over the past 10 years, the average percentage of carbon emissions obviated due to resale amounts to far less than one hundredth of 1%." This isn't solving the issue because we are not limiting new sales of clothing. We are increasing them and therefore, also increasing the resale inventory.

  • Sounds grim - but the bottom line is that in-person resellers are still doing a big share of used clothing sales. And donating the clothing to LOCAL resellers that aren't shipping it around the country or overseas increases its sustainability.

Renting Your Clothing. Although locally, rentals encompass tuxedos for weddings and formal events, online retailers exist in this realm that ship clothing to you for rentals.

  • Online sites that ship garments back and forth do not significantly decrease the environment impact of clothing. "According to Rent-the-Runway’s own site, rental only reduces CO2 by 3% versus conventional new apparel buying."

  • Why? The last mile dilemma in shipping (see my blog) is the likely culprit. There is no way around this dilemma except having a robust Clothing Rental business local to you. And even then, it would require picking up and dropping off clothing while doing other driving chores so as not to add to the carbon output used in getting to the store.

It may make you feel helpless that these individual efforts are not sufficiently robust. But the fashion industry as a whole needs skin in the game too! Now is the time to set limits on the industry. Why?

“The urge to sell more and get consumers to buy more is still in the DNA of the industry,” says Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary for the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion.
“Clothes have a very short life span and end up in the dump.” -Kenneth Pucker

New York state, a leader in fashion, has a piece of legislation introduced and in committee, which if it is moved forward, could help change the landscape for sustainability. It would require businesses to disclose their supply chains. This is a significant change as many businesses may not even monitor their supply chains.

"Requires fashion retail sellers and manufacturers to disclose environmental and social due diligence policies; establishes a community benefit fund for the purpose of implementing one or more environmental benefit projects that directly and verifiably benefit environmental justice communities." Text from the NY Bill

So keep doing what you are doing to be sustainable—wear clothing longer, shop local thrift stores, purchase less, and purchase local as much as possible. AND support legislation that will move the industry's needle toward real sustainable changes.

Without this last piece, we may not get to finish line. But if we raise our voices by backing this legislation and urging our representatives to create more legislation, we can make changes at all levels and create a new paradigm for the future of fashion.


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