Originally posted June 13, 2018.
After reading Whitney’s article on Fashionista about if we really need more sustainable fashion brands, I started to wonder about Sotela’s impact on the environment and this community. Are we genuinely contributing to the industry that justifies our environmental impact? Are we doing more harm than good by way of sustainability?
On the ‘ethical’ front, I know we are doing well by employing hard-working people in the fashion industry living wages. We pay almost double the average hourly/wage for a dressmaker in Los Angeles and since we are under one roof, I can manage working conditions and am proud of the environment we’ve built.
However, on the sustainability front, how are we doing?
For starters, we use better-for-the-environment fabrics. Tencel, which is our most popular fabric, is made from wood cellulose and uses less energy and water to produce. The chemicals that go into creating tencel are also reused for future batches in a closed loop water system. It’s considered one of the most sustainable fabrics on the market.
Linen is a natural fiber that can be completely biodegradable if not dyed. However, we dye our linen so that lessens the biodegradability. Our linen is also not organic, which means pesticides and chemicals are used to produce the fiber. So far, I’ve opted for non-organic linen the supply for organic linen is low. It’s not ideal, so that’s an area we can improve on.
Modal is similar to tencel in that it is made from beech trees. We use Lenzing modal, which is a more sustainable fiber because of the practices Lenzing uses to conserve and reuse resources– but not all modal is harvested sustainably, so keep that in mind while shopping around. Modal also uses less water than cotton, which we all know is good for the earth!
Last but not least, some of our garments contain organic cotton, which is a well known eco-friendly fiber option because it doesn’t use pesticides or other harmful chemicals. It requires less water than conventional cotton and is completely biodegradable. In terms of its life cycle, it’s a great fabric option.
Since we are now only made to order, we aren’t producing unnecessary garments that have to be either completely discounted or thrown away. We only cut and sew pieces that you order.
That isn’t standard practice for the fashion industry. Most brands have to guess how many styles and sizes they will sell and produce those amounts in the hopes everything will sell. It’s highly unrealistic and the reason why stores like Ross and Marshalls stay in business.
On the flip side, the waste that is produced by cutting and sewing piece by piece is higher. I can only speak for my own company, but when we first started Sotela and had small inventory we were able to save more fabric by using industrial cutting machines that could cut with little to no space between pattern pieces. Since we now cut by hand, we organize pattern pieces strategically to minimize waste, but it is very difficult to cut by hand without ample space in between.
I’ve been contemplating ways to reuse the scraps of fabric that would otherwise be waste. One option is to create swatches for customers interested in seeing and touching the fabric. Coincidentally, I just received two requests for fabric swatches. A second option is to create hair accessories with the scraps. I’m not sure how that will look like, but after seeing Morgan of Two Fold create beautiful scrunchies and bows, it made me want to do the same!
Do you have other ideas of what to do with our fabric waste?
How Can We Improve our Environmental Footprint?
We could improve our footprint by using ‘deadstock fabric’ instead of creating a demand for fabric that needs to be produced. Using eco-friendly fabrics is great, but producing those fabrics still uses water, energy, and chemicals that our environment can do without. We’ve never used ‘deadstock’ fabric before because of its limited availability. There aren’t multiple rolls of the same color or fabric type. It seemed daunting to go this route before, but now seems like the perfect opportunity to experiment.
Earlier this week, we visited a deadstock location in Los Angeles and saw the hundreds of rolls available. We cut swatches from our favorite colors to mull it over, but now have to return and ask the fabric content. Most fabric rolls contain synthetic fibers like rayon and polyester.
Now the question is– do we use deadstock fabric made of synthetic fibers?
The obvious pro is not creating demand for new fabric. It’s already made and leftover from other companies. However, if I didn’t buy these deadstock fabrics, would they be bought by someone else? Am I really making an impact? I think it would be different if I found the fabric in a landfill about to be thrown away. Nevertheless, using deadstock fabric means I’m not using new resources, which is good for planet.
My biggest worry about using synthetic fabrics albeit deadstock is its end life. Synethic fibers take 20 to 200 years biodegrade and further pollute the earth when thrown away. Granted, Tencel is also a synthetic fiber that also doesn’t biodegrade quickly, but the chemicals used in rayon production, as well as the often unsustainable practices of harvesting the materiels, are worse. I’ve stayed away from rayon, polyester, and nylon because those harmful chemicals can seep into your skin, which is your body’s largest organ. It’s basically like wearing plastic on your skin. Also, every time you wash garments in those synthetic fabrics, microplastics are released into the water.
The printed fabrics we really loved were all rayon, which is a bummer because I was thinking about introducing a print next season, but now I’m not sure. There are pros and cons to using any fabric by way of sustainability. There really isn’t a perfect option, which is what I understood from the aforementioned article.
Creating a sustainable/eco-friendly clothing brand is a paradox. To be truly sustainable means to have a minimal environmental footprint. That’s impossible for a clothing brand where creating and producing is at the core. There will always be waste as well as an impact. The below quote from Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs of Livari hit home after reading the article–
“I say this in the most loving way,” St. Bernard-Jacobs says, “but when the reason a designer is starting a new brand is because they’ve always wanted to, then it’s time for them to examine whether their new sustainable fashion brand is a project for themselves or one that can actually add value to the environment, the marketplace and the world.”
I’ve grappled with the contradictory nature of Sotela’s ethos. We want to be a sustainable brand, but we use resources to create and produce. We want to encourage you to buy less, but your purchases keep us afloat.
I don’t think there is a perfect answer. People, will keep shopping and that’s something I can’t stop, nor will try to for obvious reasons. Clothing is a creative outlet, especially for me, and that will always be the case.
However, by thoughtful considering which fabrics we use, I hope I’m making a significant positive impact in the fashion industry that offsets the environmental repercussions. I’m sure that’s what every sustainable fashion brand hopes as well, but why not? There are huge brands like Zara, Gap, H&M, ASOS, and Madewell that are churning out clothing every five seconds and not taking people or the environment into consideration. These smaller independent brands can hopefully replace the Zaras and Gaps of the world.
In an ideal world, we’d have clothing made of air, ha! But, alas, it isn’t possible so until we find a better solution, we have to support the brands that are making significant changes the way they know how.
So to answer my question above–are we genuinely contributing to the industry that justifies our environmental impact? The short answer is that it’s complicated. Justification is a relative term, and there are, and always will be, drawbacks to creating more. But in my heart I believe yes. I 100% believe that Sotela’s products serve a need in the market, and are produced thoughtfully. We also focus on community building and education and believe that ethical and sustainable fashion spans well beyond each purchase into a larger lifestyle. Our clothing offers people the opportunity to stretch and grow while maintaining the same garments in their closet. With most brands, as soon as you gain weight, those items become unwearable and then either donated or thrown away. Sotela’s clothing is roomy offering the flexibility of 1-2 sizes in every garment.
I wore the same Sotela garments throughout my pregnancy, postpartum and now as a nursing mother. By creating designs that fluctuate with your needs, we are preventing customers from needing to buy additional clothing– saving environmental resources, and even saving our customers some money too.
There are so many things to think about as we grow and scale, but sustainability will always be at the forefront.