Episode 9: 3 Sustainable Fashion myths examined
Deadstock, Natural fibres, Ethical Manufacturing, Sustainability.
Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.
Hello and welcome to episode nine of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. How is everyone? I've been busy in the last few months creating this podcast for one, doing some extra study as well as working with a few smaller businesses. And I found that there have been some common questions lately, which I wanted to address in the next few episodes.
I've also noticed that there's a lot of fashion jargon that gets used and I'm guilty of using it too, I do it subconsciously, I think, and from someone outside of the industry, this can feel intimidating. So I've created a FREE A-Z dictionary a guide on How to Speak Fashion. It's got nearly 100 terms, including the most important sustainability ones that I use every day to talk to suppliers. And many of the definitions have some helpful tips. For example, for a lab dip, I explain what it is, what to expect when it's being submitted, and what choices you have if it's not perfect. And you can get that by going to the shop at belindahumphrey.com and like I said, it's a new little freebie.
Right, so onto today's topic. I chose this general topic around myths because much of what you find about sustainable fashion myths can be geared towards the consumer, rather than the business, which is why I was getting a few questions around this lately.
So today, I wanted to focus on three myths that people often come across when they're trying to decide on the most sustainable way to create product. And I hope that today's one gives you the confidence in your choices when making decisions through your product development process.
Okay, so the first one is "Deadstock is a more sustainable option than buying new fabric". Deadstock is sometimes called sleeping fabric in Europe, and most of the information in the media centres around it being rescued fabric from landfill. For those of you not familiar with what deadstock is, it's basically leftover fabric. Sometimes a mill will create more of a fabric knowing it will sell and this is called available fabric. But again, if it doesn't sell it becomes dead stock. Deadstock can also come from designers or factories that have purchased fabric for production runs and have leftovers.
So this middleman emerged called a jobber, which has apparently been around since the Industrial Revolution, who buys it at a discount and then sells it on. And I've been to some mind boggling fabric markets in China, but recently there have been some retail stores popping up that will buy it and sell it on at a retail level. Actually, most of deadstock fabric is purposefully over produced yardage. It was never intended for landfill, it was created at the same time as other orders, because it's more efficient with the machinery set up for the mill to create a little bit more that they know will sell.
But the other main way of fabric can become deadstock is if a customer orders fabric from the mill and it's not what they ordered, it might have a fault in it, might not pass testing, or it might be something minor such as a background of a print colour being wrong. It might have failed a traceability test which happened to one Australian retailer not that long ago, which means the fabric might still be okay to use, It's just that the fibres that were used in it didn't come from the place that it said it did.
So if a customer rejects the bulk fabric, it becomes dead stock and a mill will try to sell it off to recoup losses. So in this case, you could be buying a lower quality fabric and the mills do not have to disclose it at the time of purchase. Leading on from that if they don't need to disclose the issue with the fabric, you can also see that transparency becomes an issue, you have no way to tell if it was polyester that was dyed with toxic chemicals, it didn't pass the chemical test or where it came from, where it was knitted or where the raw materials came from.
The other issue is that even if you want to get some of the available fabric and test it, by the time you had the results, the fabric could be gone. So it would be an expensive exercise. But having said all that there can be a place to use deadstock. Perhaps if it is your own, and you know the quality and where it has come from. Many designers have been doing more of this for fashion weeks, actually, particularly because of the pandemic. And depending on what you have left, this could be a small exclusive capsule or even just used for sampling.
But I wouldn't say that deadstock is a sustainable option. Or you can actually even know if it was going to go to landfill unless it is your own fabric and you know where it came from.
I believe ultimately it's more important to know your materials, where they came from and put it into product your customer actually wants.
So on to the second myth I wanted to talk about. The common story that "Natural fibres are better than synthetics and man made fibres are the enemy". Many brands promote natural fibres as being better for your skin and being more breathable, which I agree is important in Australia, particularly where most of the country have a fleeting winter. But while I agree it's not entirely untrue, the devil is in the detail here. For one, this statement of natural fibres being better for your skin, prioritises the end customer, the person wearing the garment not the people at the farm in the communities relying on the local river source or the subsequent people working throughout the supply chain. Which if you want a definition of the tiers in a supply chain, you can get that from that new FREE A to Z dictionary on my website I mentioned earlier. But if we think back to Episode Three of the podcast where I go into certifications, you'll remember that conventional cotton is allowed to be grown with chemicals and pesticides. So what happens to the people working on the farm. The next step it might go through intense processing and treatments such as being scoured with chemicals, died with toxic dyes and finished with toxic materials. Who is making sure that the people that work at this stage are not exposed to these? Then not to mention the resources such as water, energy, etc that actually go into that process.
From what I read by the time it gets to garment the conventional cotton doesn't have any traces of pesticides in them, (and you can test your bulk fabric for this), but certifications are important here and we must take into consideration the whole process as well as all the people involved.
Now if we think about manmade fabrics, yes, there are some obvious bad choices in there virgin polyester for one. But if polyester is already here, and it's being recycled using regenerative power, does that improve things? As far as I know garment to garment, polyester recycling is still in prototype phase. So it doesn't solve the problem. But recycled nylon and polyester are coming from plastic bottles at the moment. So Is that better?
The bit where it gets complicated for manmade fibres is when we start talking semi synthetics or regenerated celluloses. Things like viscose, model, lyocell. These are fabrics created from a wood pulp of some kind and are processed with chemicals to create yarn to knit into a fabric. Once in fabric, the technology has advanced a lot to the point where it is also soft on the skin for the customer, absorbent, high colour retention and it breaths. But much like the cotton industry, there are things to look out for when using these materials. You want to use a viscose that is created from FSC certified sources. Again, go back to Episode Three if you want to refresh on that. But also you want a milll or producer who are using closed loop production cycles, which recover and reuse solvents and use renewable energy. If you're just buying a viscose fabric, there is no way to track what forests the pulp came from, and how the chemicals were managed in the processes or even if those chemicals were not allowed into local waterways. Also most advanced processes have the capability to certify their fabrics as compostable and biodegradable too.
Now consider that these semi synthetics can also be dyed in that same process, essentially making the pulp the colour requested before it is spun, negating the need for that process to be completed as a separate step. Then, if you want to start talking about some amazing man-made leathers for mushrooms, the discussion gets complicated quickly.
Interestingly, in a Premier Vision interview earlier this year, a Lenzing representative, (a mill in Austria who is considered the leader in this production method) was talking about their other fabric Refibra which is created from cotton scraps from garment production waste, and blended with tencel lyocell fibres. He mentioned that textile recycling was a very old idea, apparently going back to the 1500s where textile waste was used for paper production. For this reason, textile waste used to be a rare material and forbidden to be taken out of the country.
But I'm getting sidetracked. I hope I'm painting enough of a picture to show that it isn't as simple as natural fibres being better than synthetics, especially when you start looking at production processes and all the people involved at all of the steps.
Finally, let's talk about the third and last myth that gets talked about a bit in clothing production. That "Ethical fashion needs to be made locally", for example made Australia, Made in America. Firstly, let's look at what ethical means. When someone is saying something is ethically made, it generally relates to the social or human aspect of the process. Things like no forced labour, no child labour, safe and fair working conditions, a living wage not just a minimum wage, fair purchasing practices etc.
Secondly, I want to point out the "Made in" tag where it actually says where it was made only talks about the actual sewing or assembling of all the parts not necessarily the people involved in creating those parts such as zips, thread, dyes fusings, etc.
But let's just focus on the manufacturing part for now. In theory is it easier to physically check on your factory if they are local to you? Yes. Is it easier to see your items on the production line getting made? Yes. But does illegal piece work and production still get done in developed countries, also Yes. An example of this is a recent issue with a large UK retailer and UK manufacturers. They were placing orders with the factory, but a factor was then outsourcing work to unchecked subcontractors. These other factories or small workshops are hidden to the business ordering, and therefore difficult for those social factors to be monitored. Does this happen with overseas factories? Yes, it can. But can factories operate ethically that aren't on your doorstep? Also, yes.
It's good to investigate whether the factories have a third party certification such as Fair Trade, or Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation here in Australia. That being said, some certifications can be expensive, and an added burden of paperwork. So some factories still might be ethical without that accreditation. It just becomes very difficult to verify that if you don't personally know that factory, and in the case of the UK retailer I mentioned earlier, the factories had signed contracts, but due to over ordering and not wanting to lose the order, they were passing it on to factories that hadn't signed that contract.
And I don't want to highlight that to absolve the business of any responsibility and put blame on the factories, I purely want to show that just because something is made local to you doesn't mean that it's automatically ethical. That's why building long term relationships with your suppliers, and having a level of trust so there's honest communication is important too.
So my aim was to explain a bit more about the background to these myths, and why it sometimes still isn't a black and white answer, and to give you a bit more of an insight, so you don't waste limited resources going down a rabbit hole thinking, you need to start using deadstock fabric to be sustainable or feeling guilty that you're using a semi synthetic over natural fabric. Or you actually can't find the skill set to manufacture local to you, so you don't want to tell people where your product is made. I really want you to understand the nuances involved so you can be confident in your decisions.
So that's it for today. Did something really resonate for you? How did you feel about some of the things I talked about today? DM me on Instagram or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. I love hearing from the listeners. Again, a reminder that there is that new FREE A to Z dictionary on How to Speak Fashion in the shop on my website belinda.humphrey.com and as always you will find the links and show notes on the website too, in the podcast section.
Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.