One of the first decisions we make each morning answers the age old question: what should I wear? The answer for many right now might be “sweatpants, duh,” but have you ever considered the source of those comfy sweats? We chatted with Kestrel Jenkins McGill about sustainable textiles and the future of ethical fashion on episode 32 of Good Together.
Kestrel had always been a lover of fashion. While completing her degree in Global Studies and International Journalism, Kestrel’s interest in fair trade was sparked. She knew that working for a fair trade, organic clothing brand would be a dream job, and eventually, she landed an internship with People Tree and started her journey into learning about sustainable fashion.
Now, Kestrel is the host of Conscious Chatter, a podcast that discusses how what we wear matters. She’s also a co-founder of the sustainable clothing line Left Edit. Their classic, versatile, heirloom-quality pieces are made from sustainable fabrics in Los Angeles.
Fashion’s Negative Impact on the Environment
“The fashion industry is a mess,” says Kestrel. As companies have ramped up their production, supply chains have gotten messy. It’s increasingly difficult to trace a garment back to the source, especially if the company is not transparent about their production process.
Clothing production has a human and environmental cost. Whether it’s the harsh chemicals used to treat fabrics, the use of petroleum-derived polyester that sheds microplastics with each wash, or labor policies that harm female factory workers, fashion doesn’t come without a steep cost.
Lastly, brands are overproducing each season. When a brand cannot sell all of its stock, the leftovers create massive amounts of waste.
Eco-Conscious Innovations In Textiles
Thankfully, many brands have been working to improve their processes and use more sustainable textiles. We as consumers are starting to take notice as the ethical and sustainable movement gains steam!
Kestrel says there are two main approaches to more eco-friendly textiles: looking to our past, and reaching for the future.
Some in the fashion industry are going back to the sustainable practices of indigenous people. These techniques include using plant-derived dyes, using the entire hide of an animal, and creating pieces that are customized to the wearer for less overall waste.
Companies like The New Denim Project are upcycling deadstock and scrap fabrics from factory floors. None of the fabric they receive from other factories is wasted—even the smallest scraps are broken down to be mixed into fertilizer for coffee plantations
Some brands are innovating by using fabrics such as tencel lyocell (it’s the fabric our friends at Sheets & Giggles use for their products). This fabric is made from the dissolved wood pulp of sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees and produced on a closed loop. That means that 99% of the water used in the production of tencel lyocell is reused many times over.
There is no perfect solution, though. Kestrel says:
“If you look back in the fashion conversation, when it comes to textile innovation, what people were talking about was recycling plastic…but we’re at a point now where we know so much more about microplastics.”
Recycled plastic fabric is still reusing a material that can harm the Earth, which is a great step. But in order to have a closed or nearly-closed loop for textiles, using natural fibers that can withstand being used over and over is vital.
The fashion industry will need to continuously innovate as we learn more about how to take care of the environment in the best way possible.
What You Can Do
1. Consider your values.
Kestrel recommends taking the time to educate yourself on the issues surrounding home and fashion textiles and then basing your choices on your own values. A perfect 10 of a brand to her might be a 7 or an 8 for you! It just depends on what you are looking for and what you stand for. As we like to say at Brightly, your values are your sustainability superpower.
2. Look for brands that use GOTS certified fabrics, have a Fair Trade label, or both.
The Global Organic Textile Standard is one certification that you can look out for when shopping for clothes. Brands with this certification use organic cotton that is sustainably harvested.
The Fair Trade label ensures that the people who made the clothes were fairly compensated, allowed to unionize, have regulated working hours, and are using more environmentally-friendly chemicals which are safely disposed of.
3. Find journalists, influencers, and online educators who are doing some of the tough research for you.
It can be beyond overwhelming to take on all of this research. To take some of the work off of you, find online sources that you trust, like Brightly! Companies like Brightly, along with journalists, influencers, and content creators, are working hard to present the information you need to make more sustainable choices.
4. Scour thrift stores (either online or in person) for the item of your dreams.
If there’s a piece of clothing that you need to add to your collection, try looking at sites like ThredUp, Poshmark, The Real Real, or Vestiaire Collective. Thrift shopping is growing even faster than traditional retailers, so you will definitely be able to find a piece that you love.
5. Buy less and adjust what you already have.
Most women in the US use a mere 20% of the items in their closets. If you have something that doesn’t quite fit right, try taking it to a tailor or creatively upcycling it into something new. You might be surprised at where your creativity can take you!
How Fashion Will Become More Sustainable
As COVID-19 continues to shape the future, Kestrel believes that fashion will change, too. One way that fashion might become more sustainable is through localized supply chains. Brands might focus on sourcing fabrics and creating garments on a more local level. Not only would this help brands continue selling throughout a disruptive event like COVID-19, but it would be more sustainable, too.
Fashion brands might also turn away from hyper-seasonal collections to pieces that can transition between weather changes. This would mean longer-lasting clothing and less overall waste.