Sustainable Fashion: The Road Less Traveled

 
 

Laura and I embrace many of the “green” tenets necessary to be a Brooklynite.  We recycle avidly, we bring our reusable bags to the store and we pick up our weekly veggie and fruit allocation every Saturday morning from our local CSA (community supported agriculture). In fact, we even share our CSA with our neighbors--I mean what is more Brooklyn than that…besides bushy beards and artisanal coffee shops? In short, we take active steps to make sure we are taking care of the environment, but none of those sustainable actions translated into our clothing. It wasn’t until we started working on Kirrin Finch that we understood how much the fashion industry damages the environment and people living near it and working in it. In fact, many people don't realize the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry, second only to big oil. When we found this out, the floodgates opened, and there was no turning back.  We had to be a part of the movement to make fashion more sustainable. 

 
 

So, sustainability, that buzzword that everyone keeps throwing around. What is it actually, and what does it look like in the context of fashion brands? Well, at Kirrin Finch, we wondered too. So we investigated to find out what different clothing brands were doing to incorporate sustainability into their business models and which of those strategies would fit for Kirrin Finch. In the end, one of the things we realized was that sustainability takes on different forms depending on the unique needs of each business.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We should start from the beginning when Laura and I commenced working on our business plan and started to plan out ways to incorporate sustainable practices. Our first thoughts went directly to using recycled packaging materials, manufacturing locally and using fabrics with natural fibers so they would eventually disintegrate all by themselves. To be honest, those are all valid ideas and we plan to implement all of them…but it wasn’t until the BF+DA asked us to complete our sustainability plan that we realized how much more we could do. Zero waste fashion, buttons made out of nuts, promoting low impact care, slow fashion… all these new ideas!

Sure, they all sounded fabulous! And our first thought was sign us up for ALL of them!  But once the dust settled, we realized we couldn’t do it all–and certainly not all during our first collection. In fact, the ironic part about sustainability strategies is that many of them can’t coexist with each other. Charlie Morris, the owner/creative director of Fanmail was asked how he approaches the need to pick through the various sustainability strategies to find what works best for Fanmail. “It’s a balance, definitely, but I see the potential for greater sustainability initiatives that can come with business growth–comprehensive auditing of ourselves and our supply chain, R&D of lower-impact product, and the buying power to influence our manufacturers to partner with us in these initiatives.” You simply can’t do them both at the same time. 

At Kirrin Finch, we recently ran into a sustainability dilemma with our buttons. On one hand, we loved the idea of using buttons made out of a natural material, like corozo (a nut) or shell. However, we were concerned about depleting natural materials from the environment.  The other option was to use buttons made out of a synthetic material, like polyester.  Synthetic materials never break down, thus contributing to the build up of waste.  Paradoxically, since they don’t break down, the garments will be less likely to be discarded due to broken buttons. Neither option offered the perfect solution, which unfortunately, is sometimes the case with sustainability. 

 
 

So we spoke to several brands that we thought were good models and asked them how they implemented sustainability. We figured we'd get a better understanding of the different ways brands can be sustainable, and then we would know what would work for us.  One of the people we spoke with was Mandy Kordal, the owner/creative designer of a women’s knitwear brand called Kordal Knitwear that produces in NYC and in Peru. “We do production in Peru because Alpaca is considered a really sustainable fiber. One reason is that the Alpacas themselves naturally irrigate and keep the land extremely fertile because their feet are more like dog paws, so when they are walking it isn’t super hard on the grass.” Even though Kordal prides itself on local manufacturing, she realized that manufacturing in NYC doesn’t make sense when she is working with Alpaca. “Instead of having the Alpaca wool shipped to the US, I am working with manufacturers in Peru. It took three trips to find someone who I really clicked with, and was someone who I knew would treat their workers right. They are also a small business, so it feels good to work with them.”

 
 

We also spoke with Tara St. James from Study NY. She told us the sustainable strategy she felt most proud of was her anti-fashion calendar. Tara developed a new calendar because she felt “The fashion calendar in it of itself is broken, and I think that the way we approach the calendar is just antiquated…and not-because its current state is relatively new.  It has just become so fast and so overwhelming that I don’t think that’s sustainable in concept, let alone in practice. At Kirrin Finch we are focused on bucking the current trends of fast fashion and embracing slow fashion like Tara’s idea of the Anti-Fashion Calendar. That means that 80% of our garments are made outside the traditional fashion calendar to increase job security for the garment manufacturers we work with. We are also defying the traditional fashion calendar by having at least 70% of our designs be able to be worn across seasons. 

Example of zero waste pattern making technique that makes 3 garments from one pattern. Sourced from Holly McQuillan. 

Example of zero waste pattern making technique that makes 3 garments from one pattern. Sourced from Holly McQuillan. 

Tara also engages in a practice called zero waste design that we think is really innovative. Timo Rissanen, a professor at Parsons the New School for Design, who completed a PhD in the topic, defines zero waste fashion design as “designing with the fabric, including its width, to ensure that none of the fabric is wasted at the cutting out stage. Patternmaking must be an integral part of the design process. On average 15% of fabric is wasted during cutting; zero waste fashion design eliminates this offcut waste.” It can be approached in two different ways.  The designer can blend the skills of a true mathematician with a puzzle master to create a jigsaw patterns for the clothes, and cut the fabric without any waste. Another way is to drape and pin one piece of material so that it creates an article of clothing without cutting any of the fabric.  No matter the approach, it is a creative new method to reducing waste in fashion. 

After hearing all these great ideas, we started to map out the areas we wanted to focus on. We haven’t mastered zero waste design, but we are cutting fabric in a way that maximizes use for today and future pieces. So the fabrics you see in a shirt today, will be the interior of a cuff or collar down the road. We are following the lead from brands like Eileen Fisher who have set up goals to ultimately achieve 100% sustainability through programs like Vision 2020. Similarly, we set goals for Kirrin Finch to increase the percentage of organic cotton in our collection each year. And we set long-term goals to establish more transparency in our supply chain. One day we hope to be able to trace our entire supply chain from fiber to finish like Boreum Apparel. 

The next step was to figure out a roll out plan. Luckily, one of our mentors gave us a friendly reminder that you can’t do everything…especially not all at once. Pick one small step, implement it and build from there! So we proceed…one step (well, sometimes a few) at a time.  Since we realize that being sustainable is a marathon, not a sprint, we developed a three-year plan with metrics to make sure we are holding ourselves accountable to the vision we have for our company. We plan to share our successes and our failures, because “being green” isn’t always easy and sometimes isn’t possible. For example, The North Face, Sustainable Cotton Project and Fibershed recently teamed up to create a hoodie using local materials and production all within 150 miles of North Face’s Headquarters in San Francisco. Even with all these people working together, including a big brand like North Face, they had to have their yarn spun in the Carolinas because the facilities to spin yarn that had once existed in the Bay Area had all shut down or moved. Even though the project, aptly dubbed The Backyard Hoodie, didn’t meet all of its goals, it was deemed a success.

Picture sourced from The North Face

Picture sourced from The North Face

The Backyard Hoodie Project exemplifies how reality can limit your goals, even with resources, connections and the best of intentions. At Kirrin Finch, it's our hope that more and more brands, big and small, will continue to push the boundaries about how they make their clothes and serve as examples to others about what the fashion industry can achieve. We believe no matter how you decide to approach sustainability, just staying in the game is important. It's the road less traveled, and can be pretty bumpy sometimes, but we think it is worth it.

So, you’ve made it to the end…and now you’re hooked on being greener when it comes to fashion. You realize that clothes are more than just what you wear and you want to reduce the impact of the clothing industry on people and the Earth. But you might find yourself saying, “I’m only one person, how can I make a difference?" Fear not!  Here are a few simple steps you can take to be a part of the movement to make fashion more sustainable. 

  1. Support brands that manufacture in the USA. Yes, it may be more expensive, but people are likely being paid fairer wages, working in safer conditions and keeping jobs within your community. (Check out Kirrin Finch's Made in the USA blog post)

  2. Change your habits in regards to clothing.  Wear your jeans one more time, use cold water to wash your clothes to save energy, and mend buttons that fall off instead of throwing out the shirt.

  3. Consume and purchase less. Buy one high quality shirt that will last, instead of three that you plan to drop in the bin after the latest trend fizzles.

  4. Educate yourself about the impact of the fashion industry.  The documentary, True Cost, is a great place to start.

  5. Get involved.  Follow organizations like Fashion Revolution who are starting the conversation about how to bring change to the fashion industry.

Most importantly, don't get overwhelmed. If every person around the world takes one small action, we will create momentum for big changes in the future. 

Kelly Sanders