How sustainable is luxury, bespoke clothing?

Wednesday, May 8th 2019
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Sustainability might be a hot topic at the moment, but it’s one I’ve always felt has particular relevance for the Permanent Style audience.

As consumers, we care more than average about clothes. We know and we care about quality. We deliberately buy things that we think will last better. Sometimes, we even purposefully support a particular craft or industry.

But on the other hand, we buy more clothes than most. When storing excess clothes is a regular topic of discussion, we can’t be the most frugal or focused of consumers.

So how do we fare from a sustainability point of view? And more importantly, what should we be doing better?

Spurred by comments on a recent post about fur, I recently spoke to American journalist Alden Wicker about fashion and sustainability.

Below is the interview, but this is only the start of more coverage of the issue on Permanent Style.

There will be a separate extract just looking at animal rights, and pieces driven by engagement with the academics on this issue in the UK in the future.

Permanent Style: Hi Alden. Could you start by telling me a little bit about your writing, and where you get information from?

Alden Wicker (above): Sure. I’m a journalist here in the United States, writing largely about sustainable fashion. My site, EcoCult, has been going since 2013, and was partly spurred by the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh.

A lot has happened since then. The topic has grown wider, gained more attention, and many companies have started to track sustainability through their supply chain - the ones under the Kering Group in particular.

I interview experts and academics, but actually there is a surprising lack of original research on this topic. It’s often pigeonholed as something just relevant to women’s fast fashion, and not that central to debate about the environment in general.

In fact a lot of the information about sustainable fashion on the internet is not true - if you try to track it down to its source, it’s just people repeating what someone else has written. Even the UN often repeats these facts, rather than doing their own research. There is a new group in New York now though, called the New Standard Institute. Hopefully they will improve matters.

I think you understand the typical Permanent Style reader and what they’re buying: wool tailoring, cotton shirts, leather shoes, largely made in Europe but with raw materials often from elsewhere. Can we break down how sustainable and environmentally friendly the different items are?

Sure. The first thing to say is probably that by buying things made in Europe, rather than Asia for example, the clothing is more environmentally friendly. Everything made in the EU is governed by the REACH guidelines, which cover things like chemicals that can be used and how they are disposed of.

But that won’t affect the raw materials if they’re coming from elsewhere?

No it won’t. And Italy is particularly bad at allowing goods to be largely made in another country, finished in Italy, and then stamped as ‘Made in Italy’. So that’s not much guidance.

But if you know the leather you’re buying was tanned in Italy or France, for example, then it does guarantee something. You know that heavy metals like chromium are not going into the water supply, in the way they are in other countries.

So a good rule of thumb is that the more of the product is made in the EU, the better it is likely to be in this regard?

Yes. There are exceptions, but that’s a good place to start. And the raw materials are particularly important because they will do the most damage.

Among the materials we mentioned earlier - wool, leather, cotton - which are the best and worst for sustainability?

Well taking them one at a time, wool is a great material. It’s biodegradable, it can be farmed in an ethical way, and often it’s very sustainable in its environment. Most Italian suiting will use wool that comes from Australia, and they’re pretty good in this regard.

[We will set animal rights aside for the moment, and deal with those in a separate article.]

There is a movement in the US at the moment around ‘regenerative’ farming which is trying to treat anything like a sheep or cow like another hooved animal - like a bison, perhaps. Allowing it to roam freer, and to take part in the maintenance of a sustainable environment.

How does an animal do that?

By grazing the land, by pooping on the soil, by walking on it which helps aerate and draw carbon down into the earth. All the normal things wild animals would have done. Patagonia as a company is doing a lot in this area and will be making things from regenerative wool, sold and registered as such.

It sounds like how most sheep farming is done in the UK, and a lot in Australia too. It’s free-range farming, rather than anything mass-farmed or done in cages.

Exactly. There are other specific requirements to call it regenerative, like pasture rotation, but any raw product made in this general manner is extremely sustainable. 

Good news for the British mill trade. The best thing you could buy might be cloth woven in Britain, from British sheep.

In general wool seems very good though - largely because the raw material is coming from these highly regulated countries. How about cashmere, how does that compare?

Cashmere is very different. There’s just too much cheap, destructive cashmere coming out of China, and it’s leading to desertification. There are better producers of course, but if you’re buying cheap cashmere from Uniqlo, you’re not helping.

Is there a way to know whether cashmere comes from more sustainable sources?

Not really, no, but the price is often a good indicator. You just can’t mass produce the more expensive cashmere. It takes more time and attention, you can’t overcomb the animals and so on. Buy from heritage companies that have been buying good cashmere for a long time.

However, I would suggest to your readers that rather than go for cashmere, they could look to vicuna or guanaco. There are four South American camelids (the other two being llama and alpaca) and they’re all very well farmed. They roam over large areas, and they’re often farmed by indigenous peoples too.

I guess vicuna is often too expensive for people.

Yes, and it deserves to be expensive for its qualities - it’s lighter, softer and more insulating than cashmere. But the way it’s farmed also makes it more sustainable.

If vicuna is too expensive, then they could try guanaco (below). It’s essentially the same as vicuna, it’s just hard to get out of Argentina and doesn’t have the marketing power of Loro Piana. Some Italian companies even mix guanaco into vicuna because it’s cheaper, but no one can notice the difference unless they look at it under a microscope.

I know cotton production has led to lots of issues with desertification as well, mostly in central Asia. But do the same points about mass manufacture apply here too? Is luxury cotton more sustainable because it can’t be produced in the same quantities?

Yes, cotton has big issues with water use and pesticides, and in general those smaller, luxury productions will be better. Egyptian and Pima cotton are good, for example. Organic cotton would be even better.

How about leather?

The first thing to know about leather is there are no good alternatives. There are some in the pipeline, which luxury companies are excited about, but really the only alternatives are plastics.

PVC is quite toxic, polyurethane is just a plastic, others are better but they’re pretty much all made with petrochemicals and not biodegradable. So I just don't think it's worth looking at the alternatives.

Also the best thing about leather is that it will last you forever. You can wear and repair it, for year and years and years. And of course that’s always the most sustainable thing you can do: buy something and wear it forever. Leather can do that.

Tanning isn’t very environmentally friendly, is it?

No, it’s a very intensive process. Traditional tanning uses chromium and other extremely toxic substances. And if it’s tanned in Morocco, say, or India or Pakistan, it’s likely that the effluence is just dumped into the waterways. People who live near the tanneries in Bangladesh have a life expectancy of around 45 years.

There is vegetable tanning and wet-white tanning, which are better, but they don’t tend to be used on leather jackets, more on shoes and on satchels.

Fortunately Permanent Style readers are fairly obsessive about the natural ageing of veg-tanned leather, so that’s another bonus.

Yes that helps. And as I said, tanning in the EU is always better - even in Turkey, which has its own version of REACH.

The separate issue with leather is the raw material, and here I think it’s important to make a distinction. Cows are not raised for their leather. They’re raised for their meat, and leather is about 5% of the value of the cow. So if you stop buying leather, there won’t be fewer cows.

Is that the case for really high-end leathers, like we might be dealing with? Calf, lambskin, goat etc?

No, those are raised for their leather. It’s a tiny part of the market, but they’re raised for leather.

OK, so a strike against us there - most of the leather for our shoes will be calf. How about exotics, are they similar in being raised for their skins?

Actually, exotics are a whole other area. There’s a lot of misinformation here. There was a good op-ed in the Business of Fashion about this recently, actually, following Chanel’s decision to stop selling exotics.

A group of conservationists pointed out that a lot of exotics are farmed by indigenous peoples, who use them as a way to make money from preserving wild areas. If that income is taken away, they have to turn to other uses for the land, like mining, logging or other activities.

[This is an area we'll cover in our second piece, on fur. It suffers from some of the same issues, just more intensively.]

It sounds like a more sensible approach is that taken by other fashion houses - to continually put pressure on producers to farm as ethically as possible. And on the point of farming animals, is that not very sustainable? There could certainly be animal rights objections, but from a pure sustainability point of view, those farms are producing and then killing the animals - there is no depletion of populations, no overuse of natural resources?

Yes, that’s true. You just need to add ethical treatment to that and you’re on the right lines. I remember going to a crocodile farm in Australia, run by an Aboriginal group, and watching the animals all swimming around the creeks and rivers that criss-crossed the property. 

By the way, there’s a surfeit of leather on the market at the moment, because everyone’s buying trainers, which are largely plastic. Some companies are making trainers from recycled plastic, and there are ones using merino wool, but they’re small.

On the subject of companies that offer more sustainable products - how do you think customers should treat them? There’s a tendency to be quite cynical.

People should question what they do, certainly. But the biggest way to enact change is often to reward those companies. It’s what drives the capitalist model: buy that type of product and they’ll make more of it.

There’s a nice phrase about that: ‘Those that care don’t shop, and those that shop don’t care.’

Exactly. Like Ralph Lauren has a new ‘Earth Polo’ on sale at the moment. You could be quite cynical about that being a tiny part of production, and just a PR stunt. But there will be people looking carefully at how that sells. If it does well, next time there might a full range, then the next year a full brand. Companies are set up to monitor demand and respond to it.

Yes, and use every chance to tell the company what you’re doing. Tell the sales associate, fill in a feedback form. I had a friend that worked at a large consumer company, and they told me how some feedback on sustainability was passed up the chain - often managers want to make a difference, they just need a commercial reason to do so.

We’ve often commented on the website that ethical aims can be conflicting: cotton might use more water, but alternatives might create more carbon. How do you feel about this area?

To be honest, I don’t think people should worry too much about it. They shouldn’t agonise over which ethical aspect to care more about. Just by making an ethical choice - with any aim - is a big step, and puts you ahead of the vast majority of consumers.

Buy Fair-Trade or buy local, they’re both positive choices.

As a final point, do Permanent Style readers do well on sustainability because many things are made to order? So there is no stock, no wastage?

Absolutely, that’s a big point. The fashion industry is very wasteful when it comes to seasonal collections that need to be replaced, things being wasted or thrown away.

Overall, having things made to order and just consuming less is the most important thing. Most of the problems with the fashion industry are from mass production: making things at scale so they can be as cheap as possible. Avoid that and you’re doing very well.

Thanks Alden. There are clearly areas of improvement, but Permanent Style readers will probably be quite reassured by this. Buying better products, often to order, and looking after them well.

I agree. I don’t think many consumers think about it anywhere near this hard, either, so that’s very positive.

Alden Wicker is a writer and founder of the website EcoCult.com She has contributed to several magazines including NewsWeek, and travelled the world looking at sustainable environmental practices. 

There will be a further part of this interview looking just at fur and animal rights soon. And more coverage on sustainability, including debate on film. In the meantime, here are some other resources:

The UK Parliament inquiry into sustainability and fashion.

London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

Alden on wool, cotton and leather.