Does sustainable always mean better quality? What is a high quality, sustainable garment made of? How do you discern truly sustainable materials and processes from greenwashing?
To help unpack this nuanced topic we interviewed Corinne Brothers – apparel designer and small business owner – to share her expertise. Corinne is also a professor at FIDM – the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising – and has extensive experience advising small brands on sustainable sourcing.
Q: First thing’s first. What is a “sustainable” fashion brand? Because let’s face it, most people find the concept confusing and it can mean different things to different people (myself included!).
This is a great question. Just like “sustainable” can mean different things to different people, it can mean different things to different brands. When advising small brands on better ways to source and produce sustainably, it’s so important for them to choose their “sustainable” priorities and place their focus accordingly, and this same principle applies to consumers looking to connect with “sustainable” brands!
Sustainability in fashion can be defined by the fibers and fabrics from which the clothing is cut and sewn, in the dye source used to color these materials, and/or in the trims and notions used to adorn the final garments. Sustainability can also be defined by the type of production practices used, including locations and methodology. With this in mind, it can span the entire fashion supply chain, thereby including things like circular design/business models, and/or upcycling, thrifting, repurposing, recycling and more from the end-user perspective [see Fashion Takes Action’s 7Rs of Fashion]. Since “sustainable” fashion is truly as varied as it sounds, as conscious consumers it’s important to educate yourself on priorities that align with your interests, and seek out brands who share these same values! My advice is to stay away from brands that offer blanket statements of “sustainable” fashion, and look for brands that feature specific examples of their unique and applied focus on sustainability.
Q: Are sustainable fabrics long-lasting and high quality?
By definition, “sustainable” fabrics should be long-lasting! However, as previously discussed, there can be some ambiguity in this sector. Just like non-sustainable fabrics, of course there is variation in quality levels of “sustainable” textiles. Personally, I opt for natural fibers – such as organic cotton, hemp and linen, Tencel and recycled cellulose – when searching for high-quality sustainable fabrics. When treated properly, these fibers can yield beautiful, soft, yet strong textiles. Where and how the fabric is produced, from plant to fiber to fabric, should also be considered, as that informs quality-level and verifies sustainable practices. Deadstock fabric is another great sustainable option, however since these textiles are secondhand, they should be selected with extra care as it can often be tricky to identify the fiber content or origin of many deadstock fabrics.
For Barbra Lorain [Corinne Brothers’s small business], I primarily source deadstock fabrics. As a designer, I’ve always loved working with found materials and creating wearable art pieces. Making new items from things that already exist has always excited me and that’s part of the reason I love working with deadstock. Though it can be difficult to fully identify the full fiber content of these fabrics, I can typically recognize natural fibers from their inherent characteristics and traits.
Q: Which fabrics do you suggest avoiding, and what should we go for if we want to wear our clothes season after season?
I would suggest avoiding materials made with post-consumer recycled materials. While this is a popular trend in the “sustainable” fashion market, these secondhand plastic fibers tend to actually be weaker than their virgin polymer-based counterparts. While I love the idea of recycling, these pieces do not typically have the longevity that consumers are used to when wearing polyester and elastane-based garments. Overall, I typically stay away from any type of synthetic fiber or fabrics where these mingle with natural fiber blends.
Natural fibers are made for multi-seasonality and long-lasting use – Mother Nature really does know best! Many people just think of linen as a good fabric for keeping cool on a warm summer day however the flax fibers in linen are also well-suited for retaining warmth without making you sweat! Tencel – a lyocell fiber made from wood pulp – is naturally moisture-wicking and anti-bacterial. Hemp is super durable and retains colours better than any other natural fiber, making it great for multiple wears and washes! Air flows freely through organic cotton fibers, allowing them to actually breathe with you. They also quickly absorb excess moisture, pulling it away from your skin and releasing it onto the fabric surface, for maximum comfort.
When sourcing for Bablo, I only select 100% certifiably natural materials – so that means no deadstock. Instead I select the softest organic cottons and strongest hemp blends, 100% organic cotton threads, wooden buttons and plastic-free elastics. While we consider Barbra Lorain a sustainable fashion brand, Bablo is our circular fashion sub-label (officially launching in February). By choosing new materials that are properly produced in a renewable manner, we are investing in the type of production that is moving the entire fashion industry towards more sustainable sources – aka, circular models of business.
Q: Since we’re talking about how to reduce the amount of clothes we buy and how to reuse our existing wardrobe, would you say that it’s more than just picking fabrics, and also choosing classic styles?
Of course, choosing specific styles has a lot to do with getting the most from your wardrobe, beyond the properties of the fabrics themselves. However, I think it’s less about choosing “classic” vs. “trendy” styles and more about discovering the styles that best vibe with you! You really have to find pieces that match your unique personality and sense of fashion, and remember that this is something that can evolve over time. Just like finding “sustainable” brands who share in your values and have priorities that match your own interests, you need to select silhouettes that speak to your individual sense of self. Trying pieces that are designed to be “long-lasting” or “multi-faceted” only work if you actually like and want to wear them. Same goes for those “trendy” styles – it may be “popular” today but do YOU actually like it and would you wear it again (and again and again)?
Q: There are so many environmental and ethical certifications that fashion brands highlight in their messaging, but which ones should we actually keep an eye out for? And do any validate quality level – whether that’s relating to the raw materials or the processes used to turn them into finished garments – and/or verify/bring credibility to brands’ sustainability goals?
Another great question, as this area can certainly seem very overwhelming and ambiguous. When sourcing fabrics, I look for textiles that are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) Certified. This certification focuses on both ecological and social responsibilities. They look at the sustainable processes, as well as the ethical production practices of fiber, textile and garment production worldwide. Standard 100 by Oeko-Tex is another certification I look for; they investigate materials (thread, buttons, fabrics) for substances harmful to human health.
All of the fabric and trims I source for Bablo are GOTS Certified, which tells me that not only has the product been proofed, but the company who produces it has also been vetted.
Q: Any last tips for people looking to buy high quality and long-lasting pieces?
I think it’s so important to vote with your dollar – to remember, your purchases have power. We live in such a time of excess and image and convenience, but sometimes more is really less. There is a reason things cost what they do, whether that’s an apple in your local grocer or the t-shirt at a concert. Take the time to educate yourself, about where things come from, how and from what they are made – what are you actually buying? Brands are really good at selling you stories, ideas of what their products will do for you, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide what story you want to tell – with your purchases, through your style, using your own unique voice. Find brands that align with your values, across both sustainability and fashion. Those are the purchases that you’ll believe in, want to live your life in – day in and day out – and share with friends, family and strangers – those are the long-lasting, high quality pieces.