Sustainable Fashion: The Miseducation of Millennial Style
Do you remember Limited Too? The monarch of the tween girl market in the late 90s and early 00s, Limited Too was a mecca for blossoming tweens of the millennium, a splashy fruit-perfumed marketplace of rhinestone emblazoned everything for gender-conforming neophytes to discover their personal (read: societally prescribed) style. Too was the first clothing store that taught me the venerable American art of oblivious consumption. For us 90s babies, Limited Too was the precursor to Forever 21 and H&M. The clothes were on-trend, mass-produced, and lasted maybe five to six wears. The other defining feature of Limited Too clothing was that almost everything was made from polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, and spandex. Synthetic. Chemical. Cheap. What we were raised on was the opposite of sustainable fashion.
The Price Problem
As a kid, it took me a long time to notice that my parents wore clothing that was durable. My mom and dad wore the same pieces for years, clothing made of fabrics like wool, denim, silk, and cashmere. I naively thought this was a function of their age, an inevitable retirement of personal style and reinvention. Parents were supposed to blend into the background and I was supposed to stand out with a sunflower embroidered jumper that read "SOCCER BABE". How else would anyone know these delicate facets of my identity? My parents hated Limited Too. My mom could last about thirty minutes in the store before a swell of hot rage overcame her and she plucked the fistfuls of clothing from my hands, halved it, and dragged me by the wrist to the cash wrap. My dad wouldn't even go inside. The scented air gave him a headache.
Still, if you ask an average parent, they'd probably tell you that affordability is the main concern when spending money on children who grow in size every three months. For my parents, Limited Too, had one thing going for it, affordability.
I, like many of my peers who benefited from the convenience of mass-produced, inexpensive synthetic fabrics in their youth, unwittingly adopted this mantra of affordability when it came time to buy our own clothes. It's what we were raised on: an illusory impression of personal style attained with low economic impact. It is a clever marketing scheme that works to this day to keep young people marching in and out of fast fashion shops in droves.
But something happened to the Limited Too generation. We grew up and turned into Millennials, conscientious about a broader array of topics than many of our baby booming predecessors, things like self-expression, diversity, and for many of us, responsible consumerism. We process information faster, we are creative and individualistic, and we think globally. It's also quite possible that we are more materialistic and narcissistic than any previous generation. (But at least we meme about it.)
Yes, we are riddled with hypocrisies and anesthetized by the blue light of LED screens. So how do we reckon our penchant for bargains and revolving trends with a burgeoning emphasis on sustainability and ethical production? It's a fucking challenge.
Now when I walk into a store I ask myself a series of questions that could effectively ruin the entire shopping experience:
"Is this brand mass-produced?"
"Made in America or abroad?"
"Is the CEO of this domestic brand a pervert?"
"If a foreign product, do they pay their workers a fair wage?"
"Are their workers of age?"
"Are these fabrics synthetic? Sustainable? Recycled? Up-cycled? Good or bad for the environment?"
"Shouldn't I just go to a thrift store?"
And then I end up at Buffalo Exchange picking through racks of the same cheaply made Zara / Forever 21 / H&M hand-me-downs - this time with little micro holes in them and that distinctive ol'factory funk. Hey, at least they're being recycled… But so are my excuses for not putting my money where my mouth is and purchasing clothes conceived, designed, produced, and distributed with the standards I demand of the other products that go in or near my body or get reabsorbed back into the environment. I remain hesitant to invest in sustainable fashion.
About fifteen years have elapsed since my early days of cheap threads and I think I'm finally ready to kick the habit. The most preliminary of searches into eco and sustainable fashion yield much more diverse results than when I was a kid growing up in post-hippie suburbia in Northern California. Sustainable fashion used to mean handmade, crafty, ethereal garments that I could only pull off at music festivals, and sixteen-year-old me did try that on for size. At best I looked like I was channeling Penny Lane on Halloween night and at worst I looked like a colorful vagrant.
This is no knock on the clothes, which were beautifully constructed out of incredible organic materials, but merely a lady making amends with that time in her life when she tried to be something she's not. I never found handmade clothing that matched my style, was versatile enough to be worn in urban spaces and didn't make me feel as if I was wearing a costume piece. Now a quick look around and I realize the options have increased tenfold for eco and sustainable fashion.
The History of Sustainable Fashion
In 2010 the Fashion Institute of Technology had a retrospective of sorts for sustainable fashion of the past 250 years. FIT identified six major themes of ethical/ sustainable fashion, including the re-purposing and recycling of materials, material origins, textile dyeing and production, quality of craftsmanship, labor practices, and the treatment of animals. Today we see these tenets applied to many commercially popular companies. With the success of brands like Reformation, Patagonia, Re/done, Stella McCartney, Edun, and Everlane the fashion industry has been emboldened to move even further in the direction of sustainable and ethical business practices. Eco is becoming 'the trend', and hopefully, that trend is here to stay.
Materials like organic cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, and even recycled fibers (that might otherwise end up as pollutants in our water), are being utilized by designers to make long-lasting garments with much fewer detrimental impacts on the environment. Companies are disclosing where they find their materials, how they work to offset their environmental impact, and overtly stating their position on sustainability.
Luxury brands are popping up around the globe that cater to this widening demand for conscious fashion. In fact, no matter the price point, we are seeing the needle move. Established designers like Donna Karan, with her Urban Zen collection, as well as commercial favorites like Nike, with their Sustainable Innovation line, and even fast fashion favorites like H&M, with their Conscious Collection, are all investing their time and resources into ethical production. It's pretty cool to imagine the ways that sustainability will continue to permeate the mainstream fashion world. No matter your income you should, at the very least, understand where your clothes are coming from and have affordable eco options for staple pieces. We’re getting there. To all the haters who say that’s just a bunch of hogwash purported by crunchy SJWs salivating over identity politics and kale, I say: "What? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you because I ran away from your negativity and impediments to progress in my Adidas trainers made out of ocean plastic pollution."
The wheels are already in motion. Sustainable fashion is the future. The Fashion Institute of Technology foreshadowed this trend almost a decade ago in 2010 when they said:
"Quality craftsmanship, convertibility, and uniqueness are sometimes viewed as key to the creation of clothing with lasting value and emotional connectivity, effectively reacting against the fast fashion cycle. While the couture craftsmanship of the past is usually prohibitively expensive today, the offering of luxurious, sustainable goods is the objective of several leading Eco-fashion labels."
The prophecy is coming true and we’re seeing more and more eco-luxury brands paving the sustainable way forward at an affordable price. Not quite Limited Too or Gap affordability, but the garments are made to last and those of us fortunate enough to afford the difference in price are rewarded with chic and inventive designs that reflect the contemporary principles of the conscious consumer. As the demand increases, so will the supply, and everyday young designers are finding more ways to innovate with sustainable materials and the mainstays of corporate fashion can no longer turn the other cheek. No one understands more than our generation that the time to reevaluate our consumer habits is now. Around the world young people are waking up to the importance of protecting our environment from harmful and wasteful business practices. And now, thanks to the creativity and mutability of the fashion industry, it's time to dress the part.