Technology is rapidly creating more sustainable options in the fashion world. Fabric is being made from fungi, seaweed, and cow dung, while a robot in Japan can now create a T-shirt in 22 seconds! Zero-waste design is impressive and promising as well. 3-D laser scans take 43 measurements of a client, then make clothes that perfectly fit the client’s specifications, wasting minimal time, energy, and fabric.
Yet in the past few decades, the fashion industry’s evolution into “fast fashion” has by-and-large degraded both the planet’s environment and its workers.
Jennifer Nini is a renowned sustainable fashion blogger in Australia who’s waking us up to this shift and giving consumers and businesses alike some basic guidelines for making fashion more sustainable.
This interview was edited for clarity.
My original goal was to start a line of clothes with a friend of mine from Macao. Her parents owned a textile company in China, so we traveled to that region to see if we could produce our clothes there.
What I saw in the factories really struck me and got me thinking about what was going on with the clothes I was wearing.
A Look Behind the Curtain
I mean, these were just a few factories that we saw, and they weren’t the exception. Many of the workers worked 7 days a week, 14-16 hours a day.
That’s when it hit home for me. Fashion isn’t as glamorous as we think.
Long story short, we didn’t end up starting our business, she married a doctor and I started a blog (Eco Warrior Princess) to raise awareness about sustainable and ethical business practices, especially in the world of fashion.
Back when I started, sustainable fashion was very hempy, hippy, crunchy – not my style.
It’s very fulfilling to show consumers, mostly women, that there’s well-designed high-quality really stylish fashion that’s mindfully produced. I see myself as a bridge between designers and consumers in the sustainable world.
For those who want to be more conscious consumers of clothing, first I tell them to buy second-hand. That slows down the industry in a good way.
Labels, both on clothing and on people, can be misleading. I remind my followers not to get caught up in the words “Eco” or “Ethical”, but to just be more conscious and aware of how you consume.
Third, I tell sustainability-minded consumers to ask yourself before you buy something, “do I need this?”
How many white T-shirts or jeans do you actually need?
The Real “COST” of a $3 T-shirt
What continues to shock me is how far brands go to drive down the price of fashion, and not have a consciousness about what’s happening, and what they know is happening.
They relentlessly drive a hard bargain and push producers to hit deadlines at a pace and volume that’s cut throat, and to understand what that means in terms of degrading worker experience.
The cost of making cheap clothing is transferred onto the producer, and then pushed ultimately onto the workers.
The shift from unsustainable, “fast” fashion to more sustainable “slow” fashion follows a few essential steps.
Most designers will focus on fabric first – natural fabrics rather than synthetic fabrics, which are fossil-fuel based, and organic vs. conventionally grown. Then they look to produce locally for a lower carbon footprint.
The next step is to go to your factories and see if the workers are being treated ethically.
Today, when I’m asked by a designer why they should move in the sustainable direction, I say 1) profit is shifting towards sustainability because consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of sustainability. 2) I ask them to think about their values. Do they align with environmental degradation, pollution, and horrible worker conditions that are the status quo in most of the industry?
Women, somewhat ironically, are underrepresented in the fashion world, along with in many other parts of society. Beauty and brains are shown as opposing in the fashion-show culture, but I don’t subscribe to that.
I advocate for equality for women, rather than waving a flag that says I’m a feminist.
And it’s important to me not to just preach to the choir. I want to reach people who don’t look like me, or live like me, or think like me.
That’s how you catalyze change. So I love it when I can draw in people or businesses who wouldn’t normally be in a conversation about sustainable fashion.
Slow Food Meets Slow Fashion
Even though “fast” unsustainable fashion dominates the industry, we’ve only been in the throes of this approach for a few decades.
A generation ago many or most of us knew how to sew or even make our own clothes.
We’ve become disconnected from the source of our clothing, much like we’ve become disconnected from the source of our food. Its all about re-connecting. So the movement to slow, local food has been paralleled by the emergence of slow, local fashion.
And that association is alive in me.
My partner and I bought a 120-acre organic farm about three years ago now. Even though it’s a small farm, we plan to make it a fully viable commercial enterprise – we want to put healthy food into local bellies!
The farm is totally off the grid, and is essentially a permaculture operation – a holistic symbiosis between animals, insects, soil, water, and crops.
I love going to the farm at least twice a day to tend veggies and “Earth Out” – put my feet in the earth and just re-center.
When we start to connect again, we become conscious consumers and livers.
We build our identities based on what we wear, what we eat, where we travel.
Often, when you tell people that their lifestyle is unsavory, or unsustainable, or unethical, people don’t like that. So smaller choices should be the focus, and simply being a conscious consumer is where it all begins.
Learn more about the work of Jennifer Nini to align the world of fashion with people and planet.