The late, legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said that “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” And though this wisdom defined Cunningham’s own life—he famously bicycled everywhere, helmet-free, his only armor an iconic blue French sanitation worker’s jacket—his words resonate differently in a world defined by man-made climate change: Fashion in the 21st century has caused immense collateral damage. The global apparel industry’s impact is reflected in everything from environmental pollution and water shortages to human-rights abuses. The advent of “fast fashion”—mass-market clothing that replicates the latest high-fashion trends at low costs—has escalated these impacts in a constant cycle of consumer buying and disposing. Most of these garments are made from synthetic fabrics that produce greenhouse gases; they require vast amounts of water for dyeing and finishing processes; and the workforce making them (largely women and children in the Global South) is unfairly paid, denied labor and workplace-safety protections, and often physically abused.
This destructiveness happens on behalf of clothing we barely think about: In North America alone, more than 10 million tons of clothing are discarded every year to make room for new trends; most of it ends up in landfills, where its slow decomposition releases even more greenhouse gases. The movement toward sustainable fashion over the past decade is an attempt to correct fashion’s course, by moving away from expendable trend-mongering and toward more consideration of the conditions in which our clothing is made and the toll its production takes on the Earth. And while “sustainability” might sound like a trendy buzzword used by retailers to keep us shopping, it is actually a movement that brings together designers, retailers, activists, educators, media creators, and others committed to honoring what we love about clothes—making them better by, well, making them better.
Here are seven industry disruptors who inspire us.
Wilson Oryema’s poetry—written in free verse and animated by evocative imagery—may be familiar to followers of viral poets such as Nayyirah Waheed (Waheed cites Oryema as an influence). However, Oryema’s poems stand out for their stringent anticonsumerist stance. The sentiments shared in Wait, Oryema’s 2017 debut poetry novel, are hardly novel. But verses such as “It’s cool to love things/ But be you/ On your own” and “It doesn’t matter/ If you have the latest trainer/ Or mobile phone” become more compelling when you discover that Oryema is also a fashion model who has walked in shows for Stella McCartney, Wales Bonner, and other sustainability-minded designer. Fashion is one of the world’s most polluting industries, and clothing conglomerates are struggling to convert to less wasteful, more sustainable, and more equitable production practices. Oryema’s poetry takes on overconsumption and capitalism—arguably the fulcrum upon which much of the fashion industry pivots—to draw attention to fashion’s complicity in both.
Oryema’s recent rise to fame makes it difficult to estimate the twentysomething-year-old’s impact on the fashion industry. However, there are hints about what Oryema’s career can be: He frequently changes mediums, sometimes coupling his poetry with documentary film images. Occasionally, he narrates documentaries, such as 2019’s How Toxic Are My Clothes, about the impact of clothing manufacturing’s industrial waste. And then there is the intimate, radically pragmatic, and striking “How to Sew on a Button,” a tutorial Oryema shot for environmental nonprofit Fashion Revolution in 2019. I have often watched my mother pull thread through the eye of a sewing needle as Oryema does in the tutorial, and I refer back to these imprinted memories whenever I mend my own clothes. Never have I seen this act as a kind of activism, but “How to Sew on a Button” makes it clear that Oreyma does.
As you watch the video, you realize that Oryema is reveling in an experience that will likely feel familiar to many home sewers: Sewing can be meditative—an act of care and reciprocity between yourself and the garments you wear as protection. The video ends with a simple call to action to repair rather than throw out clothes. Given how wasteful the fashion industry is, if followed, Oryema’s tutorial—and overall mission—suggests a path to a more sustainable relationship with our clothes and the industry that produces them.—Adwoa Afful
Sustainable-design podcast Conscious Chatter starts with a story: Host Kestrel Jenkins begins her tête-à-têtes by asking guests what inspired their careers, thus catalyzing an intimate yet intellectually rigorous conversation about the implications of fair fashion. Conscious Chatter frames fashion in terms of universal human issues, traversing the fields of environmental studies, economics, and gender equity with a range of “conversation partners,” including journalists, Instagram influencers, and engineers. When asked why she created Conscious Chatter, Jenkins told Bitch, “[Audio] allows us to get intimate quickly, stripping us down to our voices. I believe this provides a powerful medium for transformational and revolutionary conversations that challenge us to shift our behaviors.”
There’s a lot to be skeptical about when it comes to the fashion industry, from mass pollution to exploitative labor. But despite the monumental ramifications of fast fashion, Conscious Chatter is rarely cynical; instead, the podcast bolsters the possibilities of sustainability. In one episode, Pangaia’s chief innovations officer Amanda Parkes, PhD, enthusiastically explains the biochemistry behind the company’s wildflower outerwear. On another, Dana Thomas, the author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, professes her love for her 30-year-old Gaultier jacket while simultaneously advocating for “shopping your closet.” In a 2017 interview in MOCHNI magazine about greenwashing—fashion brands using the language of sustainability without putting it into practice—Jenkins acknowledged frustration while also maintaining that companies are beginning to see the value in conscious production: “I guess this is me being an eternal optimist, but [greenwashing] makes me feel like larger change is on the horizon.”
Listeners find this level of optimism appealing: At the end of each interview, Jenkins asks her guests for practical tips for ordinary people who want to impact the fashion industry. Their answers are always encouraging: While phrases like “Every little bit counts” abound, they’re also advocating for bigger, structural changes and smaller, personal changes. Overall though, agency is the greatest gift Conscious Chatter gives listeners, equipping them with the knowledge to put ethical fashion choices into practice.—Rosa Boshier
The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity
The Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) is an organization that’s run by workers for workers. Kalpona Akter, one of the organization’s founders, began working as a child garment worker at age 12 after her father became ill. Akter worked more than 400 hours per month at a factory that paid her a paltry salary of $6 and subjected her to abuse, which eventually pushed her to begin unionizing. Despite being fired and then promptly blacklisted, Akter continued organizing, eventually leading to the formation of the BCWS in 2001. Akter’s experiences in that factory helped inform BCWS’s theory that change can’t happen without stringent legal measures to regulate corporations hiring garment workers in the Global South. Consequently, BCWS has advocated tirelessly for apparel companies to sign legally binding contracts, such as the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which ensure workers have safe working conditions, are only mandated to work a stipulated number of hours a month, and are paid at least minimum wage.
It’s been an uphill battle to implement these changes in environments where labor organizing is often criminalized: According to Human Rights Watch, “About 10 criminal complaints [were] filed in December 2016, implicating about 150 named workers and [more than] 1,600 ‘unknown’ people for crimes” during garment worker strikes that year. Despite concerted state efforts to suppress labor activism, BCWS was fighting for garment workers’ rights even before the Rana Plaza building collapse in 2013 brought international attention to the inhumane conditions within Dhaka, Bangladesh’s factories. Consequently, the organization has been instrumental in changing labor laws and improving living conditions for workers.
Of particular note is its commitment to ending gender-based violence and exploitation in the industry. BCWS has partnered with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation to help train potential leaders, especially women, in union organization and collective bargaining. BCWS’s efforts to train employees not just in industrial skills but in self-advocacy are a testament to the power of having workers organize themselves rather than talking in abstractions about what working class needs.—Mallika Khanna
In 2020, it’s not unheard of for a fashion brand to implement sustainable practices. Brands such as Everlane, Reformation, Pact, and Alternative Apparel boast about taking consumers beyond fast fashion; instead, they take into account water usage, waste production, and dyes and other hazardous byproducts that can impact the environment. But across the board, these brands aren’t inclusive about size. Alternative Apparel and Pact’s t-shirts only go up to XL. Much of the clothing at Reformation, a resident cool-girl brand, is available only up to size 12. Everlane—despite endless requests that it does otherwise—remains limited in its sizing, with jeans spanning sizes 23 to 33, and t-shirts ending at XL. That’s what made Chromat so impactful when it came onto the scene in 2010. Chromat, a “future-forward bodywear” brand, was created in New York City by Becca McCharen-Tran, a queer designer with a unique background in architecture and an intimate knowledge of the landscape.
McCharen-Tran focuses on swimwear, bringing a wide range of bodies to the runway—people of different races and ethnicities, along with plus-size, disabled, and trans people—in an intentional and matter-of-fact way. In 2018, her use of plus-size mannequins for her major Nordstrom buy gained traction, placing bodies that aren’t thin in a mainstream location with suits ranging up to 3X. Now, Chromat is a direct-to-consumer brand with lower prices, and ranges from XS to 4X, proving that sustainable, affordable, and inclusive fashion is possible. It’s worth noting that Chromat’s looks are bright and bold, often featuring neon and challenging the plus-size clothing norm of beige and taupe, showing that large bodies deserve to be looked at, not hidden.
In addition, Chromat has become a fan favorite at New York Fashion Week, an event that is typically reserved for thin white bodies, and an event that tends to spawn fast fashion. (Chromat, in contrast, is a ready-to-wear line, meaning the product from their shows doesn’t go to waste.) Instead of hiding behind the language of empowerment and inclusivity to justify poor business practices (something all too common with brands, fashion and otherwise), Chromat has positioned itself as a brand that takes care to be sustainable. Produced in fair-wage factories in New York City and Bulgaria, the brand’s iconic swimwear is made from fishing nets and plastic bottles sourced via a diving team Chromat collaborates with. The company also uses specific patterns to ensure the nylon is recyclable, which helps to lower its overall footprint.—Rachel Charlene Lewis
Bespoke binders. Custom-cut IV shirts. Made-to-order tucking panties. These are the kinds of items Rebirth Garments ships to queer and disabled folks across the country each month—and highlights in fashion shows and campaigns celebrating and centering queer and disabled bodies. Founder Sky Cubacub—who is nonbinary, queer, disabled, and Filipinx—sees the line of gender-nonconforming wearables and accessories as part of a larger “QueerCrip” dress reform movement centered on radical visibility. Their mission is to leverage “bright colors, exuberant fabrics, and innovative designs” to highlight “the parts of us that society typically shuns,” and they weave that revolutionary vision into every handmade piece. “The clothing that I make is centered on people,” Cubacub explains. “Almost all other clothing makers, all big-box stores, are making and designing clothing—and then people are supposed to fit to that. I am doing the exact opposite….I make a lot of these very necessary lifesaving foundation garments for folks so that they can feel good in their skin.”
For Cubacub’s customers, that approach makes a powerful difference. “I’ve had a lot of people cry when they first put on the clothing that I make because they never thought that they could either feel comfortable in clothing or feel affirmed in their clothing; or they never thought that anyone would care that much about how they felt, but also how cute they look at the same time,” Cubacub says. Cubacub makes each Rebirth garment by way of a flat pattern drawn for each customer, and throughout the process, they work to reduce waste and craft sustainably: “I am very careful with the way that I cut out the pieces of fabric, and I keep almost every scrap of fabric that is not used. Even really small ones.” These days, Cubacub produces about 80 pieces each month—helping to speed up that queer and crip revolution with a decidedly slow approach to fashion.—Carmen Rios
Céline Semaan’s values are deeply embedded in everything she does; one only needs to look at her work as a designer, writer, and activist to find evidence of this. The Lebanese Canadian fashion designer is best known as the founder of the Slow Factory, an eco-friendly fashion agency that centers sustainability in its work—and it’s not just lip service. Unlike many other organizations and companies that use “sustainable” as a marketing buzzword, her nonprofit is dedicated to working with brands to create clothing and accessories that are not only zero waste, but are also politically resonant. For Semaan, her work—which she refers to as “fashion activism”—is personal. “I was born in the middle of [a] devastating war, a war that has destroyed both people and planet, and the toll of the impact of that has shaped me forever,” she told Fashionista in January 2019.
The influence of the landscape Semaan grew up in is clear in the clothing that Slow Factory produces. For example, her experience as a refugee abroad clearly inspired her “Banned Countries” piece, a silk scarf featuring a thick black line crossing out the word “BANNED” overlaying the seven countries (Iran, Iraq, Lybia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) the Trump administration initially included in its 2017 travel ban. According to Slow Factory’s website, the scarf was created to raise awareness and funds for the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal work challenging the ban. Aside from her work as founder of Slow Factory, Semaan also started The Library, a nonprofit that aims to expand accessible information about the environmental impact of the fashion industry. In collaboration with the United Nations, The Library hosts Study Hall, a free annual sustainability summit, with smaller global conferences held throughout the year. Featuring climate scientists, policy experts, and activists, including well-known speakers such as Tina Knowles-Lawson, Bonnie Wright, and 2018 Bitch 50 recipient Mari Copeny a.k.a. Little Miss Flint, Study Hall promotes sustainability literacy and actionable solutions to decrease the environmental harm caused by fast fashion.—Marina Watanabe
In the 2000s, the rise of fast-fashion purveyors such as H&M, Zara, and Mango seemed like a godsend for people of all ages who needed to dress professionally on a tight budget. But Elizabeth Cline’s 2013 exposé, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, was an essential wake-up call, offering an incisive look at the impact of fashion’s new normal on the environment, the economy, and the lives of the people—the majority of them women in the Global South—making the clothes. If Overdressed was the bad-news shot, though, Cline’s most recent book, 2019’s The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good, is the optimistic chaser. Systemic, global changes in labor conditions and standards for waste reduction are the long-term goals of fast-fashion reform—but in the meantime, we have to get dressed.
The book urges readers to reframe how we see fashion, and to rethink the way the fashion industry has conditioned women in particular to associate trends and brands with status, success, and personal value. Fashion is a lot more than shopping—and it doesn’t take special skills to dress intentionally. Shopping resale and consignment, learning to mend and alter clothing, and making garments last longer by understanding construction and fabric are among the practices that Cline sees as essential to dressing sustainably and thoughtfully. In addition to writing and speaking, Cline researches the impact of postconsumer textile waste and is the director of reuse at Wearable Collections, a New York City–based used-clothing collection and reuse company that prevents discarded clothing and textiles from ending up in landfills, instead diverting them to secondhand markets, insulation manufacturers, and other sites of reuse.
Mindful fashion fans can turn to Cline’s Instagram (@elizabethlcline) for a treasure trove of resources: There are links to sustainable fashion brands and resale shops alongside ootd photos; mini-explainers on different types of fabric and instructions for their care; and video tutorials on mending tears in jeans and holes in sweaters. These personal practices are small, but they are crucial ways to underscore our own responsibility in making sure fashion is as ethical as it is enjoyable.—Andi Zeisler