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What is sustainable fashion?

what is sustainable fashion
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So, if you follow us at all on social media (link here if you don’t and you want to) then you might have noticed that we often tag or reference sustainable and ethical fashion. As daughters of environmentally conscious parents, who moved to New Zealand from Germany in the late 80’s due to concerns about nuclear pollution from Chernobyl, we grew up being more aware than most (at the time) of pollution, the importance of recycling and the joys of playing in the dirt. We were brought up in a household with no clingfilm, homebaked bread and an attempt at all organic food (if you know New Zealand, you’ll realise this was pretty near impossible in the ’90s and definitely unachievable, even now, on a budget as tight as ours was!). How is this relevant to selling vintage kimonos and talking about sustainable fashion you wonder? Having parents who instilled a mentality of conscious consumerism into us has carried over into both of our lives in a way that we’ll never be able to ignore. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not an eco-saint who produces zero waste and never buys from H&M, far from it, but I’m always aware of the choices that I’m making and knowing that I could be doing better even if I sometimes/often ignore my conscience and do what I know I shouldn’t be doing. In saying this, when my sister and I were deciding what was important to us, being environmentally conscious and avoiding fast fashion was pretty high on the list, which is why we’re happy that we’ve found a niche that fits with both our enthusiasm for high-quality textiles, fashion and design and also our environmentally conscious leanings.

Sustainable fashion and the environmental movement

If I try and pinpont exactly when sustainable fashion started, it would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but the birth of the modern environmental movement has been strongly linked with the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962 by biologist Rachel Carson. It’s an exploration into the use of pesticides in agriculture and the often negative effect humans have on the natural world specifically in regard to overuse of pesticides and the pollution this can create. The modern environmental movement opened the discussion into production methods of materials and over the next couple of decades, this led to more thorough investigations into the effects of industrialization and ways of mitigating the negative effects. The Brundtland Report, published in 1987, first used the term ‘Sustainable Development’ meaning "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." and brought environmental issues to the table and made production methods part of the political agenda.

Mushrooms, bamboo and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Sustainability, specifically in fashion, came to the fore in the early 1990’s when the ‘Rio Earth Summit’ was held by the United Nations. This prompted some fashion and textile publications to start talking about “green issues” and they started featuring content from well-known brands like Patagonia (who, by the way, were ahead of the curve and started thinking about sustainability in the 1980’s after seeing the detrimental effects on the environment due to overconsumption and overproduction of material goods). The publication of this type of content opened up the conversation about where and how clothing was produced and what effect it could be having on the wider world. “Sustainable fashion” has opened up a whole new industry, with people trying to reimagine what fashion is and what it could be in a future that is starting to look increasingly bleak due to the ravaging effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Some of the innovation we’re seeing is super exciting (I’m talking about you mushroom clothing 🍄 link here, here, and company making leather here) but there also seems to be a whole industry based around marketing “sustainable products” which aren’t actually that sustainable, a good example is bamboo rayon. Bamboo rayon has long been lorded as the best and newest sustainable fiber but in actual fact, it’s not that sustainable at all. Bamboo grows fast but at the end of the day the chemical processing required to break down the hard fibers to make fabric are super intensive and something like 50% of the chemicals used can’t be reused and are turned into hazardous waste which then has to be discarded. BOO!

This, for me at least, creates quite a conundrum. As a fashion-conscious consumer, what do I buy? I feel like I can’t buy cotton products anymore due to the HUGE amount of water needed to produce cotton, I don’t support bamboo production methods (don’t get me wrong, bamboo itself is absolutely amazing and a great option for lots of other things, just not for textiles) and I don’t want to wear materials made from plastic (we all know it’s terrible for the environment, not to mention sweaty. Ew!). So where does this leave me? I could go around in “the Emperors New Clothes” but I’m not sure that that would be so socially acceptable (I am in Berlin though so maybe it would be 🤷) so what do I do? I’ve realised that one of the best ways to lower my consumption is to buy vintage clothes, and to just buy less. I don’t need a new, cheap, t-shirt every other week. I think I’d rather buy great quality, locally produced ones made from sustainable fabrics that I can wear for a long time rather than just a good time. Our sister company Northern Archive actually made some t-shirts from deadstock fabric which was going to be thrown out and had them sewn locally in Poland (it’s only 1.5hours drive from our doorstep). I bought one a few years ago and wore it to death, like probably once a week for at least 2 years where I covered it in acidic coffee on a regular basis (the joys of owning a cafe) and when it eventually was too holey to get away with anymore I used it as rags to clean my house, but anyway, that’s an aside we maybe didn’t need to go into.

The gloriousness of pure silky Kimonos

How does all this relate to our social media posts claiming to be sustainable and ethical? As it turns out, buying vintage products is one of the best things that you can do in terms of sustainability. Anything you purchase has already been made, the production of it has already had all the environmental impact that it will have and now someone doesn’t want it anymore so you’re directly stopping it from being sent to landfill, it’s a win-win for everyone! Most of our Kimonos are silk, which is also a bonus because being a 100% pure product when it eventually has to be recycled, it can be. I’ve been reading about it and apparently mixed fabrics (say 80% cotton and 20% something else, the percentages are irrelevant) are the worst because each different textile requires a different process to break it down so if there is a natural fiber mixed with an un-natural fiber you can’t break it down easily and it ends up in landfill because it gets thrown into the “too hard basket” for companies who recycle fabric fibers. Due to their vintage nature, most of our kimonos are also handmade and have been made in an era where there was still demand and an appreciation for handcrafted products meaning that the producers were paid fairly (definitely not the case these days) as buying a kimono came at a considerable expense. Apart from the fact that vintage clothing means that I’m giving something a new lease of life, I always feel better wearing vintage, I know that generally speaking there were fewer chemicals used in the production of them, and also they’ve most probably been worn and washed so many times that anything that was in the fabric is long gone. Cotton, and most other fabrics really, are often treated harshly with chemicals either in the production stage or later to bleach the fibers, and that's just not really something I want in direct contact with the biggest organ in my body…

Sustainable fashion making waves

Sustainable fashion is a rapidly growing industry, which I think is, in general, a great thing. There are a growing number of sustainable fashion companies like Stella McCartney and Patagonia making waves with their ethical standpoints and an increasing number of high profile people supporting the cause as well. Emma Watson is very vocal in her support of sustainable and ethical fashion. I for one am all for the rise of slow and sustainable fashion and am happy to say that I think we can definitely say that we are a sustainable fashion brand. We know where our stock comes from, we’re buying vintage clothing and redirecting it from landfill, the stock we’re sourcing already exists so we aren’t contributing to pollution through the production of new fabrics and we definitely aren’t producing anything in sweatshops in underdeveloped countries. We might ship around the world, and that’s something I question whether I’m comfortable doing, but we try our best to not use any plastic packaging, our boxes are cardboard and we only use tissue paper to wrap our products. We’re learning how to be better and in a world of hard and fast consumerism, I definitely think it’s a good place to start!

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