the trace journal

stories of sustainability, changemaking and collective power, through the lens of the fashion industry

Navigating sustainability in fashion

A question that we often get asked is how to assess which pieces of clothing are sustainable and which ones are not. The truth is that there are many factors that come into it, so this makes up for a long post, but for those of you do not have 10 min for the whole read, here is a quick summary that will take you far. At the top so you find it easy, how nice are we?

  1. Think who produced it, and where it was produced. Try to reduce shipping miles and go for brands that choose to produce in factories that take care of the environment. Ask questions and push for transparency, and please make sure there is no human exploitation behind your choices (tip: if a piece costs less than 30 quid, it is not looking good for those who made it).

  2. Choose the right fabrics. Avoid blends, polyesters and animal fabrics (to the extent that you care for animals), and be careful with non-organic cotton and viscose fabrics.

  3. Buy less, treasure your clothes, and reduce the impact at home. Put on less washing machines (spot clean more), use cold water, and if you are washing polyesters use a Guppy bag to prevent the micro-plastics from shedding into our water stream.


If you want to go deeper into any of the above (we seriously find this topic fascinating), keep on reading. We break each of those guidelines up in order to give you all the info and make you a fancy sustainability expert. Great stuff for conversation warmers. Just joking, don't do that.


Question no. 1: Who made these clothes, and where?


While this may be common sense, it is often a disregarded factor. There are two key here:

  • First, a significant part of the impact of fashion comes from the travel miles of our clothes. If the fabric was produced in India, and then sent to Malaysia for production, and then travelled to a warehouse in Germany, and then was sent to your house in Spain, that garment has travelled way more than it should have before reaching your hands. Think of short supply chains and buying locally whenever you can.

  • Second, think about who produced it and whether you can find any certifications or validations that it was produced in a green factory, one that is powered by renewable energies or is CO2 neutral. Having factories and brands take accountability for managing their emissions has a huge impact, and tells us a lot about their priorities.

So ask questions, and push companies to be more transparent. And if you are curious and want to do some desk research, Fashion Revolution's Transparency Index gives a great overview of what companies have way too many dirty secrets and are failing to be accountable to their clients (you) and society. But don't be fooled, remember that being transparent is not the same as being sustainable.



Question no. 2: What are these clothes made of?


This is our big passion at Trace Collective. What your clothes are made of matters. A lot. And the brilliant news is that you will always find this information in the care label of each piece, as it is a legal obligation for companies to disclose this. There are 3 types of fabrics out there. Synthetics, animal fabrics, and vegetable fabrics. This division will take you far if you understand what it means.


Synthetics

If it is synthetic, don’t buy it. Might seem harsh, but what you have in your hands is a piece of plastic, which is a piece of transformed oil. We barely should be putting that stuff in our cars anymore, so wearing it is out of the question. It is bad for the planet, bad for your skin and bad for the soil, and it will shed micro-plastics into the ocean every single time you put it in the washing machine (more on this later).


And what about recycled polyesters? Tricky one! Theoretically, we are 100% into recycled fabrics and say YES to everyone who is providing a solution to the plastic problem that we have gotten ourselves into. But recycled polyesters still shed micro-plastics when washed, which is why we choose not to work with them. A thumb rule if you are struggling to decide is to think about how often you are going to wash that piece, whether you can commit to washing it by hand or always using a Goopie bag, and whether you would be able to find this in a different fabric. If the answer is "I will always wash it by hand" or "I will wash this twice a year", probably go for it. Swimsuits for example make a great piece for recycled polyesters, as you probably will not find them in a different fabric, and you can commit to washing them by hand easily. Sportswear? Not so much.


Animal fabrics

Most commonly these are wool, silk, leather and fur (yes, fur is still a thing). These make up for a complex and more subjective category. Trace Collective is a fully vegan brand, and we don’t use animal fabrics, simply because we don’t want to use animals. Now, there is a case to make that some wool is being produced in a way that does not mistreat animals, while being managed as part of environmental regeneration projects. But our view is that that is a very small percentage of the wool produced worldwide, and the truth is that there are heartbreaking stories behind the living conditions and the brutal deaths that most animals in the fashion industry suffer. It is up to you to make your choice, and you can research more here.


Vegetable fabrics

Ohhh this is our favourite thing to talk about! Here are the most popular vegetable fabrics:

  • The popular kid has been, for the past decades, cotton. Now, cotton is not good. Regular cotton uses an insane amount of pesticides and water to grow, heavily degrading the land and posing serious health risks to producers. We don’t know how this is still a thing. Organic cotton has gotten very popular in the past years. While significantly better than regular cotton, it still ranks pretty low in water usage and does not really do anything good for the environment. If you must buy something made of cotton, please make sure it is GOTS certified. But let's be honest, you probably don't have to.

  • Then we find viscose fabrics, made incredibly popular by their team leader Tencel. Viscose fabrics (which include fancy bamboo) are obtained from wood pulp. We don't think that cutting trees to make clothes is a great approach, and an insane amount of chemicals are needed to treat the wood pulp and make a textile fabric out of it. Tencel (the patented trademark of Austrian company Lenzing) fares much better than any other viscose fabrics. They are committed to sustainability and continuously innovating to improve their processes. Tencel uses less water than cotton and no pesticides, and the fabric is soft and feels quite wonderful, so can be a good alternative. Not for us, but if you must, it is better than cotton. Do make sure it has the Tencel trademark (watch out for abundant copies).

  • Then we have fabrics that come from bast fibres. Here we can find hemp, linen, ramie and jute. These are the kids that stole our heart and where we hope the future of fashion can pivot towards. They are non-aggressive crops that need practically no water or pesticides for their production, and enrich the soils where they grow. They increase soil fertility and biodiversity, are wonderful for your skin due to the lack of pesticides and their hypoallergenic properties, and regulate body heat like real bosses. We call them regenerative fabrics. When used as rotational crops (as they frequently are), they have incredible potential to support us into transitioning to more sustainable farming methods and healthier soils.

  • Finally we have another category of more innovative vegetable fabrics, where cork is presiding. There are a lot of newcomers here, like those made of food waste (yes, you've heard us well!). While we love the idea, most are in prototyping-stage, and very few stand alone without blending with other fabrics, such as synthetics, cotton, or wool. So we are still looking for the right match to join our family. Our general tip here is beware: many are not as wonderful as they seem, and the process to convert them into fabrics or the glues used for binding don't make for a very sustainable output.


And what if this particular jacket you have fallen in love with is a blend of different fabrics? Then we recommend that you avoid it. If the fabric itself has 2 or more textiles blended, this makes it pretty much unrecyclable. Today, only 2% of global textile production is recycled, which is bonkers as our demand for new clothes keeps growing, and in the meantime we burn or incinerate tonnes of perfectly fine clothes that could be recycled. It is a complex topic, and the textile recycling industry has a long way to go. But we think it is crucial that as consumers we start thinking of circularity and the full life cycle of our clothes. If they are useless after we no longer want them, no bueno.


You may be thinking: this leaves me with basically no options when buying my clothes. We know, and that is why we started Trace Collective. But we hope that the key takeaway can be that producing clothes is environmentally expensive for the most part, and that the most sustainable pieces are those that you already own, or those that you can buy second hand in a local shop.



Question no. 3: What will happen to these clothes after I buy them?


A significant part of the environmental impact of our clothes happens after we buy them. In general, we wash them too much and we don't take care of them appropriately. Reformation has put together a great guide for in house garment care, so we won’t go over it ourselves. And remember, the best way to honour the environment and the people who made your clothes when you buy something new is by treasuring these clothes for a very long time, repairing them if they are damaged, and passing them on to a friend or relative who will look at them like Jack looks at Rose, once they don’t fit in your wardrobe any more.


We hope this helps you understand the impact of the industry better, and how can you shop with a more sustainable approach. We would love to hear your thoughts and please please, if you have questions or comments, or see things differently, let us know!


And that's a wrap. Because what is a better closing than Leo's face? There's a beautiful man doing beautiful things for the planet.

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