We’re in a period of change. The internet’s rapid dissemination of content has proven a double-edged sword. The shifting geopolitical landscape dominates headlines and the effects of climate change intensify with each passing season. Citizens across the world are yearning for greater transparency from governments, corporations and businesses, but facts are often misconstrued in the din of information online. Industrial pollution, among other pressing issues, is a flashpoint between First World and developing countries, and between investors and environmentalists. It’s a surprise to many, though, that one of the biggest contributors to industrial pollution is the apparel industry.

From production of raw materials to manufacturing and shipping, an incredible amount of natural resources are used in the creation of a garment. A large amount of water is needed for cotton production, and pesticides are frequently used to ensure crop yield. The process of dyeing clothing frequently uses toxic chemicals. Fossil fuels are burned transporting materials between every stage of production, and the growth and acceptance of fast fashion — and the consumer’s reliance on low prices — have exacerbated supply chain issues and unethical manufacturing processes. The big picture isn’t pretty.

There are a number of clothing brands, though, that see the environmental issues as imperative, and the complex manufacturing system as an ongoing challenge. Exploring the state of sustainability in the clothing industry, we talked with five people from a range of brands: Paul Dillinger (Levi’s VP, the head of global product innovation and premium collection design), Miles Johnson (Patagonia, creative director of product design), John Moore (Outerknown, co-founder), Mark Galbraith (Nau, co-founder) and Fernando Gerscovich (Industry of All Nations, co-founder). See highlights from the discussion below, and in-depth interviews on the following page. Though the industry has a long way to go, these people (and their brands) are leading the way for more sustainable practices in the clothing world.

Gear Patrol:
Why is sustainability important in the clothing industry?
John Moore:
Just as a car would emit CO2, or the way plastic pollutes our oceans en masse, our clothing can have similar effects on our quickly deteriorating environment — anything we can do to help reverse that process, we should be doing now.

Paul Dillinger:
We need to understand that we are not just buying a cute outfit; we are buying the manufactured output of an industrial system that consumes resources and creates waste. Each item of clothing is an assemblage of materials, and each material has a distinct environmental or social impact.

Mark Galbraith:
The reality is that clothing production has a large impact on the environment, related industry workers and consumers. For context with regards to natural fibers, conventionally grown cotton accounts for 25–30 percent of all pesticides used globally. In addition, these pesticides make their way into the biosphere and farm workers are exposed to these chemicals during production.

Miles Johnson:
With the environmental crisis reaching a critical tipping point, we now more than ever need to work to protect and save our most precious natural resources.

GP:
What has the industry model been in previous decades, and what were/are the problems?
Fernando Gerscovich:
The importance of sustainability is not a new concept; if you go back in time before the industrial revolution and mass production, most supply chains were sustainable.

PD:
From the consumer’s point of view, there has been limited transparency and a dearth of clear, useful information on the environmental impact of the current industrial model.

JM:
We’ve been on this seasonal treadmill of moving too quickly and cutting corners for speed and profit. From a business perspective, brands have always gone for manufacturing methods that will yield them the highest internal margin. In terms of distribution, we’ve always been held to the global fashion calendar, which dictates four seasons of newness every year.

MG:
The industry has primarily focused on performance and price with little attention paid to the effects on the environment, apparel workers and the consumer. If environmental concerns were addressed, it was typically through traditional conservation efforts on land and water issues or preserving natural landscapes for us to enjoy.

GP:
What are the difficulties surrounding the implementation of sustainable processes now?
JM:
Currently, it boils down to cost and resources. Until sustainable becomes the new norm within the industry, the demand for these types of materials will be lower, therefore making the cost higher. In our short history, we’ve seen many more resources become available — so the foundation is being laid.

MJ:
Materials are often not available or aren’t up to our standards.

MG:
If a company opts for sustainable materials and better factory conditions, they are faced with lower internal margins or strategic price increases. The need to communicate this added value to the consumer, and in turn their educated demand for better products, are the keys to success.

PD:
We know enough to buy nutritious produce when we’re hungry, but considerations of need or quality rarely inform our purchase decisions when we’re shopping for t-shirts.

GP:
What steps are you taking to increase and promote sustainable practices in the industry?
PD:
Our most recent Life Cycle Assessment, released last year, highlights the opportunity for water conservation at every stage of a garment’s life, from cotton cultivation and garment production, all the way to consumer care and end-of-life resolution.

JM:
Our global sustainability officer, Shelly Gottschamer, has helped us build Outerknown’s global supply network from scratch, working with like-minded suppliers who support the innovation we are looking for while continuing to provide style and quality.

MJ:
Using as many recycled materials as possible. Creating a neoprene-free wetsuit. Working with PrimaLoft to develop a technical insulation out of 55 percent post-consumer recycled content. Using 100 percent traceable down for our down products…

MG:
We continue to use only sustainable materials, and the current focus is on third-party certification to ensure integrity throughout our supply chain.

FG:
Human and cultural sustainability is a big part of Industry of All Nations; we take manufacturing back to the original makers.

GP:
What can customers do to find and support sustainably minded brands?
MG:
Research brands, know what you are buying and support brands that align with your values. Encourage your favorite brands to continue the journey to more sustainable and responsible practices.

FG:
When looking for sustainable brands, conscious customers should do their research ask a lot of questions. And don’t always believe what brands say.

MJ:
Seek out and support the growing number of certified benefit corporations that exist today. 1% for the Planet connects dollars and doers to address the most pressing issues facing our planet and has a network of 1,200 member companies and thousands of approved nonprofit partners located in more than 40 countries.

PD:
I also think that consumers should maintain a degree of healthy skepticism when they’re confronted with a marketing campaign that shouts loudly about a product’s sustainable bona fides. There’s no one right answer, and there’s no easy solution.

Full interviews on the next page.

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