The Idiots Guide to Buying "Sustainable" Clothing
One of the newest trends in fashion is being, “sustainable” and it's the dirtiest word in retail.
Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.
You’ve probably seen this word a lot in the last couple years. Hey, maybe even from us. We’ve used it pretty carefully though and usually prefixed with “more.” Because guess what, producing any type of virgin good is not sustainable. Unless you run a closed loop process where you use existing materials and then recuperate that material at the end of it’s life cycle, you are depleting natural resources with production. Clothing is not sustainable - ever. That doesn’t stop brands from throwing it around willy nilly though.
The clothing business is one of the largest industries in the world. It’s far bypassed necessity and turned into a disposable commodity dictated by fleeting trends and clever marketing.
The barriers to entry are so low, I bet you all know at least one person who started a t-shirt business at some point. A good chunk of the couch potatoes that created ‘feature accounts’ on Instagram and miraculously accumulated 100,000+ followers, piggy backing off other people’s talent, then decided, “hey man, we should totally sell t-shirts now bro.”
There’s so many players in the game, it all comes down to marketing. It all comes down to “cool” and playing on the triggers that coerce people into pulling out their shiny plastic cards. It’s easy to get lost in all the bullshit, so how do you actually pick the good ones from the fakers? This is how I do it:
1) Fabric Contents and Transparency
There’s a company out of Toronto that has, “sustainably made” plastered in the first line of their Instagram bio. Their website rambles on about how committed to the environment they are and even mentions they donate to ocean charities (sounds familiar eh - we thought so too). Then you take a peak at their clothing and it’s all made from traditional pesticide-laden cotton and petroleum based polyester. Arguably two of the worst fabrics you can produce with.
Moral here is, don’t trust everything you see in a tagline. Look beyond the marketing tactics and figure out for yourself if the company is legitimate. Transparency is key. There should always be, no exceptions, fabric labels on every piece of clothing clearly stating where it’s made and what it’s made of. This should also be included on the websites. If it’s not, steer clear, they’re hiding something.
Here’s a general guideline of fabrics:
Remember although in the left column are “more” sustainable fabrics, no process is without it’s drawbacks, including ours, and we try to be as transparent as possible about this.
2) Responsible Manufacturing
A huge part of a product’s footprint is how it is made. Most fashion products are manufactured in developing countries because of the low labour costs and lower regulations on factories, including environmental regulations. So, local has become synonymous with “better” and this isn’t always true.
Producing offshore can create a lot of problems, as outsourced companies try to compete by cutting their pricing which results in cutting corners the buyer isn’t even aware of. This has presented some fairly public scandals for big surf brands who weren’t even aware they were using sweatshops. If you’re a decent human being you’d rather not wear something someone else suffered to make you.
The majority of the environmental impact of a garment isn’t actually the fabric. It boils down to how it was produced, how efficient the factory is, how responsibly they dispose of waste and chemicals, how the product is shipped and then how you take care of it. Traditionally, the thought process was that local producers are more likely to adhere to the environmental standards that you’d expect. That being said, five of the top nine pesticides currently used in the U.S are known cancer causing agents. Including cyanide. So, local doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Even, “Made In Canada” can be misleading. There are two main requirements that need to be met to place that on a garment in Canada. The first one being that the last major change to the garment has to be done in Canada. This could simply be printing. The second is 51% of the total direct cost of producing or manufacturing must occur in Canada. Once again, if you import a t-shirt for $3, this could also just be the printing. The, “Made In Canada” claims are not even policed unless a complaint is filed, it’s all done on an honour system. Needless to say, there's likely no shortage of companies abusing this honour system. Your, “Sustainably Made in Canada” shirt could really be mostly made in China and you’d have no idea.
Both local and global production have their downfalls so you can’t just rely on the fact that it’s locally produced to be sure it was done ethically.
So how the heck do you tell who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong? This is a tough one but one key component is the PRICE.
Responsible manufacturing can be done anywhere, but no matter where it happens, it costs money to do things correctly. Everything from waste disposal to fair wages, it all costs money. If your t-shirt cost you $15, you should be seriously questioning how the company made it that cheaply, offshore or not.
There’s a line here by the way. If it cost you $220, that doesn’t mean it’s really well made, it means you are an idiot.
The third and maybe the most important component is a product’s lifecycle. You can do everything right and if the product only lasts 6 months, then it’s all for nothing. Over 13 million tonnes of textiles are thrown out in the US every year. Fast fashion has basically resulted in disposable styles that are poorly made and are cool for six months - which is about how long it will last anyways.
A good shirt holds it shape, gets more comfortable the more you wear it and won’t go “out of style” in 3 months from now. This was one of the major motivators for us starting off in this industry. We’d buy a $50 t-shirt and take it on one trip and mid-way through it would be completely trashed.
Sometimes you can’t tell this at the time of purchase, you may have to try it and find out the brand isn’t as good quality as it seemed. I did this recently with a really cool shoe brand. I loved their styles and they were priced right, but I walked through the soles in 3 months. Nothing I can do about that but leave a review to educate others and not purchase again.
This is the beauty of the internet. Our generation has a plethora of information at our fingertips. So, do your research and buy from brands with a good track record of producing quality gear. Over time the good guys will survive and those in it for a quick buck won’t.
Then it’s up to you to make it last. Be an owner, not a consumer.
4) Just Ask
If you’re wondering about something a brand is doing, ask them. That’s an unprecedented privilege social media offers us. You have direct and public contact with the brands you buy from. They have to answer your questions! If they don’t, you aren’t going to buy are you? And neither is anyone else that sees them ignoring your questions. I reached out to the, “sustainably made” brand I mentioned earlier and asked them what about their cotton/polyester clothing was “sustainable”?
They’re answer: “We are committed to supporting local manufacturers and promoting environmental sustainability and ocean conservation through the sale of every item. If you have any more questions please feel free to contact us at…”
I asked again, because that was just a crap marketing line and didn’t even attempt to answer the question. I even offered to help them source fabrics that would suit their marketing narrative. They never responded.
If they can’t answer your questions or don’t care to, I’d take that as a heavy sign they’re out to make money and their “commitment to sustainability” is really a commitment to saying whatever it takes to sling some clothes.
In contrast, a good example is TenTree who publicly answers all the questions pertaining to their manufacturing process. Just like us, and everyone else, they aren't perfect. But when they are criticized or questioned about choices, their responses really seem to show they have thought out everything they make and weighed the pros/cons. That I respect.
5) Social Causes
There’s a shift in culture happening and millennials are almost expecting their favourite brands to have a social cause now. Brands with a charitable side to their business are everywhere and many are making incredible tangible differences in the world. Everything from planting trees, giving sight to the less fortunate, hats to the homeless, water to developing countries and cleaning up the ocean.
This is no different to everything else I've discussed. Just as many brands that are throwing around social causes simply as a marketing strategy and really they aren’t doing jack shit.
So how do you tell?
One key factor is the sentence, “a portion of our profits…” This means that after they factor in product costs, pay all their bills, pay all the employees, take their own salaries, write off expenses and travel and invest back into the business - whatever is left, some small percentage goes to “x” charity.
Most start-up businesses are not profitable for the first 3-5 years, so consider that when you see pop-up brands donating portions of their profits to charity. This could, and most likely does, mean they aren’t donating anything to anyone.
Look for brands that donate a portion of SALES to a cause. Members of 1% for the planet are committed to donating 1% of everything they SELL to a pre-selected group of legitimate organizations. Other brands commit an actual tangible difference with every sale like planting ten trees or providing one pair of glasses to someone who can’t afford them. These guys are for real and regardless whether they make money or not, your purchase is doing what they promise.
It still astonishes me that some of the brands leading the way in this movement still ship in plastic bags. I don’t understand why they choose to use single use plastics when other options are available.
The answer is money. It costs us about 80x as much to ship in 100% recycled, 100% recyclable and biodegradable packaging. I don’t care, I couldn’t ship one single shirt in plastic when I knew a better option existed. It would be talking out both sides of my mouth. Once enough people become aware of this, they’ll start demanding it and once it starts to hurt the bottom line of the bigger brands - they will listen. This leads me to the real answer here, it’s all up to you.
At the end of the day it’s really about doing your research and going with your gut. If you look at things critically you can tell who’s full of shit and who isn’t. No one is perfect but true consideration and effort are the factors that will continue to push this movement forwards.
Nothing makes me happier than when people criticize our production process and demand answers from us and other brands. When I started this business I was told, “not enough people care, they want cheap clothing, period. You’re fighting a losing battle.”
I disagreed, still do, and I pushed on with L/L’s commitment to doing things differently. Every time I see people calling out brands, it proves that statement wrong.
I know you aren't going to swap out your wardrobe to 100% organic. That’s not my goal here. But maybe of the four shirts you buy this year, one or two you’ll consider trying something different. If you do, now you can make sure that decision counts.
It’s in your hands. In the free market economy, consumer demand will ultimately result in companies having to produce better products for the environment and for you. So every time you do choose to do a bit of research on your threads, you become a big part of a movement that’s changing an entire industry.