What actually is sustainable, or the true definition of being sustainable?
Do a quick google search and you'll find:
'The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed. Environmental Science. The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.'
So how, you might ask, does this translate to fashion? How can a brand be sustainable? And more importantly, how as a consumer can you ensure that the brands you support actually are sustainable?
I am not going to lie - last night I received a beautiful newsletter from a service based company talking about sustainable and ethical brand. The problem here was that one of the brands they where promoting frequently uses synthetics and non-recyclable in their raw fabric choices.
For anyone that doesn't know, synthetic fibres are one of the most commonly used fabrics - and the most common synthetic fibre is Polyester, derived from coal and petroleum. Polyester is the result of a chemical reaction between acid and alcohol. The exact process which the material goes through varies, though the specifications are kept secret because of competition between different companies.
Many companies use this fibre due to costs, synthetic fibres are so much cheaper to manufacture and purchase. For example, a garment made from cotton can be halved in price by using a synthetic yarn - in essence, larger profit margins is why this fabrication features so regularly in our clothing.
Polyester is alsolong-lasting due to its synthetic qualities. It's resistant to stretching, shrinking and wrinkles. This is due to the synthetics 'plastic-like' characteristics, meaning they are non-breathable and unfit for young children, and in particular babies with sensitive skin. Polyester is man-made from toxic substances that can be uncomfortable and irritable on the skin; think of that dress you have that always itches in a funny place, or a top that makes your body odour seem worse every time you wear it. Even worse, these are fabrics that we put on our children - what would happen if they got it in their mouths?
I have found out first hand how damaging the effect of a toy made from synthetics can be when it has direct access to the skin. Our first born had eczema as a child, and as all parents do to help ease their child's suffering, we began the quest to change all our products to the most natural possible alternative. The hardest alternatives we found to replace were soft toys, underwear and nappies.
Our Large Softies were born from this initial need, and this is how we started our brand and continue to run our business 9 years later. We have since extended our selection to include clothing made from cotton, silk and this year linen.
So, why did the newsletter hit a spot? Because this brand frequently polyester in their production in one breath, then screams sustainability from the roof top in the other. Polyester is in no way sustainable - the impact it has on the environment is utterly devastating.
Now, of course, every single fabrication has an impact on our earth - no matter if it's a synthetic man-made fibre or 100% natural. Here's the punchline: some have a lesser impact than others, and I am happy to break this down too.
Polyester was developed in a 20th-century laboratory, formed from a chemical reaction between an acid and alcohol. In this reaction, two or more molecules combine to make a large molecule whose structure repeats throughout its length. Polyester fibers can form very long molecules that are very stable and strong, and ultimately are derived from coal, air, water and petroleum.
Cotton is a shrubby plant, a member of the Mallow family. It's name refers to the cream-coloured fluffy fibres surrounding small cottonseeds called a boll. The small, sticky seeds must be separated from the wool in order to process the cotton for spinning and weaving. De-seeded fibres is cleaned, carded (fibres aligned), spun, and woven into a fabric that is also referred to as cotton. Cotton is easily spun into yarn as the cotton fibres flatten, twist, and naturally interlock for spinning. Cotton fabric alone accounts for half of the fibre worn in the world. It is a comfortable choice for warm climates in that it easily absorbs skin moisture.
Now, there has been a lot of controversy around the water usage and also the chemical sprays that exist in cotton farming which decrease substantially. Did you know, there are apps to monitor water/pest control etc? Technology is an enabler for better and more environmentally friendly farming. While the amount of water used to produce a cotton plant is widely known, what isn't talked about is the new farming practices being introduced to support this water usage. Practices like land being lasered for farming/paddock rotation, and catching water run off straight into recycling systems. Farming has evolved, and people that live on the land also fiercely want to protect our beautiful Earth.
In recent years more environmentally friendly practices have been put into place - but with the mass production of polyester and other synthetics, the base and the raw materials used cannot be improved on. Again, synthetics are harmful since they are made from fossil fuels and other chemicals - their production destroys habitats due to the process of extracting these non-renewable resources and the raw materials can not evolve, unlike the faming of a natural product.
Fibres like cotton are also also biodegradable, however the garment as a whole needs to be considered - down to elastic, buttons and thread - You need to source items that will eventually breakdown after being discarded. Unlike polyester, natural fabrics can be reused, which requires 97% less energy than brand-new material requires in manufacturing.
Clothing created from synthetic fibres are non-biodegradable, and typically spend about 30 or more years in a landfill before they begin to decompose. Though polyester can be made of recyclable materials such as plastic bottles (which reduces waste in other ways); polyester production rates are continually increasing, vastly exceeding the decomposition time after disposal—inescapably creating more waste on our planet.
As a small business who has chosen to use natural fibres, it is not a cheap alternative. Sometimes using natural fibres makes choices in the design process limited, as some synthetic fabrics have incredible drape qualities that natural fibres don't always have.
But as awareness of the impact we have on the Earth increases, in comes the greenwashing - Brands who promote themselves to be sustainable and ethical, but use otherwise dubious fibres or manufacturing, just like the brand mentioned above. Consumers, do you research - read garment labels just like you would a food label. Understand and teach your children what's in our garments, be aware of what you are putting on your body and how these products are made.
Small changes and education make consumers aware of the impact these products have on our body and also the environment. Are we as a family perfect? No we are not, but like many we continue to make changes - Our journey started with clothing and toys 11 years ago when our lives changed forever with the blessing of our beautiful son.
So how as a consumer do you know when you are being green washed? Best practice is to buy fabrications that last and are in as natural state as possible.
Certain certifications like GOTS also help with transparency when buying. Avoid synthetic fabrics where you can, purchase vintage or used clothing from thrift stores, pass loved and considered purchases on to the next child and above all, when buying, make sure your values and ethos reflect that of the companies you purchase from.
All our love,
Miann & Co.