Green Is The New Black: Activewear Brands Stand Up For Sustainable Fashion
Fashion has a sustainability problem. Every year, the global apparel industry produces more than 400 billion square meters of fabric — nearly enough to cover California — and consumes nearly 130 million tons of coal, making it “a significant contributor to global greenhouse emissions,” according to a report by the Materials Systems Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Apparel manufacturing also requires an incredible amount of water and uses some hazardous chemicals. Compounding this waste problem, Greenpeace reports, is the fact that of the 80 billion pieces of clothing produced annually, three out of four end up in landfills or are incinerated.
Entrepreneur Sadie Monroe has witnessed fashion’s dirty secret from the inside.
“I saw the amount of pure waste and how disposable fashion had become,” Monroe said of her time working in the industry and studying fashion design at Columbia College Chicago. “I learned about the time, craft, skill and how much human effort it takes to create something, and then you see it being dumped in a landfill. You see it being discounted a month after it came out.”
In response, Monroe and her business partner, veteran nonprofit professional Steve Sullivan, created Fibre Athletics, a company that is as strict about its commitment to environmental sustainability as it is to chic design.
From large companies like Timberland and Patagonia to startups like Fibre Athletics, the activewear industry is going green.
Sustainability Efforts As Unique As The Brand
While most sustainable businesses pursue the concept of the triple bottom line — social impact, environmental friendliness and profit — each one approaches the challenge differently.
Fibre Athletics sources materials domestically as much as possible, working only with vendors that guarantee things such as organic cotton, recycled polyester, no toxic chemicals, low-impact dying techniques and fair labor standards.
Monroe also wants to combat the trend of fast fashion, in which apparel flies from the catwalk to stores to consumers to landfills at lightning speed, all to keep up with the latest trends.
Though it seems counterintuitive for a business to do so, Fibre Athletics encourages consumers to buy fewer items of clothing.
“We want to reinstate the value of building a quality wardrobe over a big closet,” Monroe said. “Part of that philosophy is having a few products at a time.”
Fibre Athletics currently offers one style of T-shirt and a lightweight jacket for men and women. That’s it. Monroe’s focus when designing them was durability, comfort, beauty and performance so the pieces would be long-lasting and multifunctional, taking wearers from hiking to happy hour. When a shirt is high-quality and versatile, it can take the place of many shirts.
The company also gives 1 percent of profits to The Eden Projects, an organization that restores forests around the world, and The Cara Program, which supports job training and placement in and around Chicago.
Fashion’s Different Shades Of Green
Many of the brands that value sustainability have found unique ways to make it part of their business models.
Patagonia battles fashion’s transparency problem — the fact that consumers don’t have access to information about where its clothes are made — with an interactive map to showcase its eco-friendly vendors worldwide and engages in environmental political action under the hashtag #VoteOurPlanet.
Timberland, along with its own transparency efforts, encourages employees to volunteer in communities around the world and tracks that social investment. Thus far, the company has tracked 1 million employee volunteer hours and says 78 percent of its employees are engaged in volunteering.
Smaller Arizona yoga-wear company ChewyLou Designs focuses on community and environmental concerns. Owner Alyssa Dinowitz divides her screen-printing production between two organizations in her community: Acme Screen Printing, which calls itself Arizona’s greenest screen printer, and Arizona Centers for Comprehensive Education and Life Skills, a facility that teaches vocational skills to adults with special needs.
ChewyLou Designs also actively supports a range of nonprofits, including Chemo Companions, which Dinowitz founded.
“My mother’s motto was, ‘Leave it better than you found it,’” she said. “This is just how my mother would have run a business.”
Facing Sustainability Challenges
Although more fashion companies are incorporating environmental and social standards into their business practices, Monroe said that doing so while turning a profit can be difficult.
“It takes more effort; it takes more time. It takes more negotiating with people,” Monroe said. “You kind of have to see for yourself if it’s worth it. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Naturally, it’s more expensive for vendors to produce things in an environmentally friendly way, as well as pay their workers a fair wage. This makes striking a profitable balance between costs and what consumers are willing to pay a challenge, particularly for startups like Fibre Athletics. When some vendors hear about a sustainable apparel company’s aspirations — and price points — they just laugh, Monroe said.
However, with big names like Columbia and Adidas promoting sustainability, it may help establish precedents for newer companies looking for conscientious vendors. Small but long-standing sustainable activewear companies, such as 27-year-old climbing outfitter Black Diamond and 21-year-old Alternative Apparel, prove the formula can work on a smaller scale, too.
For ChewyLou Designs, which just celebrated its eighth birthday, the key to growing sustainably has been working with smaller vendors that share the company’s environmental perspective. For the owner, Dinowitz, simply being conscientious has been a business builder in an indirect way.
“If you’re kind, and your intentions are good, it just flows to you,” she said. “Business and people and connections and networking — and it just happens. It just did for me, anyway.”
Although fashion’s carbon footprint may still loom large worldwide, the activewear corner of the industry is making noticeable strides toward a more sustainable future.