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Material Equilibrium

Material Equilibrium

Sustainability is a buzzword of the past few decades that is currently at a peak in its popularity. In the fashion world, much of the conversation on sustainability has focused on a problem succinctly known as fast fashion. Fast fashion is a phenomenon that encompasses the rapid production of new clothing styles, bringing them to market in low-quality form and at low cost. This proliferation of new styles, coupled with quick turnaround fashion trends, is intended to keep consumers constantly buying new clothing items. The ability of consumers (like you and me) to afford this is made possible by fast fashion’s success in driving down the real cost of clothing. Low cost begets high volume; if it costs less, we buy more of it and replace it more often (Note: fast fashion is also known as disposable fashion). Over the course of a century, several developments in clothing manufacturing have contributed to creating the conditions that gave birth to fast fashion and have enabled it to thrive.  The timeline below is a brief summary of these developments, shown alongside indicative growth in the size of the apparel market. The graphic is illustrative, as data on apparel production volumes prior to 2000 is not readily available. However, recent reports show that the amount of global clothing production doubled in size between 2000 and 2015.1

Before the 20th century, ready-to-wear clothing existed, but was not that common. When department stores started to carry it, it had mixed success as many consumers continued to prefer home-made or tailored clothing. In the 1920’s, the average work wardrobe still consisted of only six outfits for men and nine outfits for women.2 In the 1940’s when polyester made it’s first appearance in clothing, it offered a lower-cost, lower-maintenance alternative to natural fabrics. Although it has a history of being equated with clothing that is cheap and unstylish (think polyester suit), technological improvements in the last couple of decades have made it possible for polyester to increasingly mimic the appearance, feel and comfort of natural fabrics. Today, it is found in more than 60% of manufactured clothing.  In the 1970’s, the next big change in clothing production began with its movement offshore to countries where it could be produced more cheaply. In 1965, 90% of clothing worn by Americans was made in the U.S.; by 2010, that number had declined to less than 5%.3 Factory production. Synthetic fabrics. Cheap labor. All of these advancements have been disruptors in the paradigm of clothing production. Pursued and rationalized in the name of progress (or profit), they are also responsible for creating the fashion norms we see around us today.

Fast fashion is the norm we’ve already discussed above; the contribution of fashion to climate change is another. The growing role of petroleum-based polyester in our clothing has made fashion responsible for contributing an estimated 10% of global carbon emissions. Finally, a norm that began with the mass-production of clothing and has since accelerated with fast fashion, is our expectation as consumers that clothing should be inexpensive or always bought on sale. As the real cost of clothing has declined over time, our ability to know what clothing should really cost has turned nebulous. So much of our clothing is made in other countries under conditions that are unknown to us and these circumstances have come to set the price level of clothing to which we have become accustomed. By comparison, an article of clothing that is made in the U.S. is something we may easily find to be too expensive or unfairly priced. But there is something puzzling about this; how is it that we could come to believe that we can’t afford to buy clothing made in our own country?

What does the future hold? What can sustainability do for fashion? Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level; conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” In the illustration above, the historical trend in clothing production suggests that the status quo will lead to even greater volumes of polyester-based, fast fashion, both produced and consumed. So then, sustainability in fashion should involve measures that aim to keep the level of production and consumption of clothing at a sustainable level, one that doesn’t create undue burden on the environment. Understanding this goal is easy, but knowing the solutions that will get us there is much more difficult. The effectiveness of a solution depends on our understanding of the problem it’s trying to solve. A solution that helps the environment in one way, may have a negative impact on it in another way. For example, if we only buy clothing produced out of sustainable fabrics, how do we ensure that we will consume them at a sustainable rate? If we help the environment by purchasing clothing made out of recycled plastic water bottles, does it matter that we are putting more plastic into the clothing stream? If we only buy used clothing, does the growth of a secondary market impede or enable fast fashion because it is now even easier to turn over your wardrobe?

At Lily Kastur, we don’t have the answer to this conundrum, but we do have our own approach to sustainability. It starts by taking a few steps back – 1) returning to a slower clothing cycle (i.e. not fast fashion), 2) reviving domestic production of clothing, and 3) focusing on clothes that are made from natural fabrics. For us, this is the starting point from which clothing can then evolve onto a newer, more sustainable path. It also means taking some of the “fashion” out of clothing, and elevating style in its place. Achieving timeless style depends on thoughtful design. By doing this, our new paradigm for clothing becomes one where clothing consumption (and production) is based more on a durable need, rather than a transient want.

Today sustainability is “in fashion”, and we can turn that into meaningful steps that have a lasting impact on how our clothing affects the environment. We just have to do it the right way.

Shilpa Shah

1. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017.
2,3. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fashion, Elizabeth Cline, 2013.

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