On a balmy Sunday in August, the cognoscenti of the sustainable fashion world took over Los Angeles’ chic Ace Hotel theater to carry the message that it is indeed possible to build a line of clothing without destroying the lives of everyone it touches along the way. The Library’s Study Hall was packed with great new information on how to build a sustainable clothing line.
The conference opened with a moving keynote speech by Standing Rock Founder, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard. She reminded us that Water is Life. Since the fashion industry gulps down at least 425 million gallons of water per day (well, that’s just in India), and accounts for roughly 20% of all industrial water pollution, fashion matters a lot to water. Even as textile manufacturers use less water and act more responsibly, the vast majority of water used in textiles is in your washing machine.
To cheer things up a bit, we then heard from a panel on Colonialism, Human Rights, and Supply Chain. They showed how the apparel industry’s manufacturing jobs have followed the same path as colonialism. This panel was very uplifting because we saw proof of journalism making a massive difference. In 2016, the film River Blue showed us the crisis dyehouses were causing.
In October 2016, Transparentem was on the case. Benjamin Skinner told us about its deep dive into the humanitarian and environmental crises of tanneries in Bangladesh. And how on April 8, 2017, the Government of Bangladesh enforced a Supreme Court order to close down Hazaribagh’s wet tanning operations and cut water, electricity and gas to the tanneries. The action was a vital step toward the industry’s relocation to a more sustainable tannery estate in Savar. Transparentem works by notifying the factories, then the brands they serve, then the rest of the world, if they still haven’t changed.
TRANSPARENTEM is a discreet, non-profit unit that illuminates supply chains and spurs eradication of human and environmental abuses. We use frontline investigative reporting and forensic methods in compliance with international ethical standards. A public service initiative, Transparentem is a sentinel, not a saboteur, to industries at inflection points. We believe that securing and improving the lives and environments of workers at all tiers of off-shored industry must start with independent, methodical inquiry.
This is what it takes to create real change in an industry ruled by money. Sure, we got to hear from quite a few brands who are committed to sustainable fashion. But the glorious theater at the Ace Hotel was barely even half full. In a city with more apparel industry employment than even New York City, that’s depressing. Most of the industry here simply doesn’t care until it affects their bottom line. A handful do care, and do use some sustainable materials, but don’t want to make a big deal about it. And a growing number care a lot and are trying to make sustainable (particularly circular) design accessible to even the most budget-conscious brands. But most of them aren’t in LA.
Panelist Sam Radocchia founded Better Kinds as a way to use blockchain to improve transparency in manufacturing. She founded it when she learned that mica, the source of all that is glorious and glittery and shimmery, is mined by children sold into slavery. L’oreal, one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies, is contributing toward a solution. But improved traceability is still needed, as some governments and companies manipulate data from factory audits.
Panelist Sissi Johnson is an MBA Professor and so much more. She pointed out how much wealth comes from Africa, and discussed her work in ensuring that Africa’s many different cultures are appreciated and understood.
Debate: Broken System: who is responsible?
Here we watched designers and influencers discuss what roles brands and consumers play in improving fashion’s impact. But you already know the answer to this question — we’re all responsible, including brands, customers, and manufacturers. Have a favorite brand that’s not doing much for the environment? Tell them! I’m talking to you, A.L.C. I was most impressed with panelist Maya Penn, who at the age of 18 has already given three TED talks, run a successful clothing line, and is basically making the world a better place. The rest of panel were sustainable textiles expert Kristine Upesleja of Madisons Innovative Materials, Frouke Bruinsma of G-Star Raw, moderator Whitney Bauck of Fashionista, and Jennifer Gilbert of I:CO.
Circularity: The Future is Here — Ignite Talks
One of the most exciting parts of this conference were the Ignite talks. People presented their business, and the solutions their business has to offer. Some were manufacturers who use sustainable materials and fair labor practices.
- The New Denim Project – Joanna Engelberg, sustainability director, represents a vertical mill in Guatemala that makes upcycled denim textile products.
- The Library – Céline Semaan told us about their Sustainable Standard.
- Soorty – Ebru Debbag represents a vertical mill in Pakistan with many environmental and social certifications.
- Everybody World – Iris Alonzo founded a unique brand that invites the general public to submit design ideas. And they’re manufactured in fair-wage factories in the US.
- G-Star RAW – Adriana Galijasevic, director of denim research, design & development, told us about how G-Star developed the world’s most sustainable jeans, and how they’ll gladly share their secrets with any brand that wants to follow suit.
Clear Solutions Can Exist Only When Embracing Both Diversity & Inclusion
The closing panel included supermodel and sustainability champion Amber Valletta, sustainability directors Claire Bergkamp and Shona Quinn from Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher, respectively, as well as Pashon Murray of Detroit Dirt and Patricia Ermecheo of Osmotex, a circular textile mill.
You can now watch the whole conference here.
Will sustainable fashion ever go mainstream?
The apparel industry is an old pro at appalling working conditions and environmental degradation. It’s the industry that benefits from slavery in cotton fields to slavery in sewing factories to this day. Not to mention the hordes of unpaid interns ready to have coffee thrown at them for the chance of a career in the “glamorous” world of fashion.
So why change? Business as usual is chugging along at a mere $2.4 trillion, according to this MicKinsey report from 2017. Sales are falling in the top-consuming countries, while newer markets present new challenges to brands. Thanks to the internet, it’s no longer designers telling customers what they want. The age of the Fashion Dictator is over. Thus creativity is dead, except in couture and on Etsy. Customers who used to run out to buy the latest trend are now more interested in spending what little money they have on experiences. Clothes need to bring a deeper meaning, a better story, to be compelling. Thanks to this movement toward meaning, sustainable fashion is finally starting to make its way out of the “green ghetto” of yoga pants and baby clothes to the mainstream.
Study Hall Los Angeles was presented by The Library, a sustainability initiative in collaboration with MIT Media Lab. The main apparel sponsor was G-Star Raw, the chic denim brand that’s just developed the first Cradle to Cradle Platinum level jeans. It has an entire collection of C2C denim here. What makes this more sustainable than the beloved jeans you already wear every day? Well, not much. But if you’re in the market for new clothes, it’s great that there are finally a few more options out there than yoga pants and t-shirts.
Check out more of our coverage of Circular Fashion here.