Beauty without Harm

Rethinking the link between fashion and the environment.

While the organic food movement and the use of green energy have taken off across the globe, there has been less chat about the clothes we wear, the processes involved to make them and the origins of the materials used. It has been estimated more than 17% of industrial water pollution comes from dyeing textiles. Just one pair of shoes can cause anywhere from 9-90kg of greenhouse gas emissions to produce. But there are some within the Australian fashion industry who are leading the charge when it comes to sustainable fashion.

Aussie fashion icon and designer Kit Willow has launched her new label, KitX, which is all about having an ethical and sustainable focus. “We’re a brand that conscientiously sources material from the button to the zip,” she said. Before the launch, Kit spent more than a year researching the processes involved in creation – from consulting manufacturers to chatting with weaving artists. “The aim is to be impact driven, so understanding the processes’ effects on the environment and limiting that whether it’s avoiding water contamination to being energy-efficient.”

Kit sources material that avoids having a negative impact on the environment from organic cotton to hand-woven silk. “Rubbish can be turned into new”, she said. Interestingly, some of the zips used in her range are made from recycled bottles while the lycra used is made from plastic bags taken from the sea. Beyond the materials and energy-saving, Kit believes in the importance of being ethical and ensuring the rights of workers. “It’s about transparency in the supply chain. Knowing where things come from and how they are made.”

University of Sydney PhD candidate and sustainability expert Lisa Heinze, author of Sustainability with Style, is currently working on a PhD project, examining fashion and sustainability. While the first stage of her research has looked at the retailers and designers’ perspectives, her next stage will look to understand how buyers shop and whether sustainability is a factor. “Price, style and availability tend to be the top three issues when choosing fashion, and many people aren’t even aware about the sustainability factor,” she said. Lisa believes marketing and labelling around sustainable fashion is an area, which is lacking.

Sustainable fashion appears to still be in its infancy. A New Zealand foundation has just introduced a labelling system that certifies clothing as being free of child labour. Currently, Ethical Clothing Australia provides information on accredited brands and manufacturers. Lisa believes the first step is to increase awareness among both consumers and the industry. “The answer is not to make people feel guilty about shopping for pleasure but rather painting a realistic picture of fashion consumption and in doing so it will make it easier for people to consume fashion sustainably,” she said.

David Jones is one retailer that is working hard to understand and influence the ethically-sourced nature of its products. Jaana Quaintance-James is the Ethical Sourcing Manager at David Jones and is responsible for the development and delivery of the business’ five-year ethical sourcing strategy. So far more than 1000 of the retailer’s suppliers have signed up to its ethical sourcing program and supplier code of conduct. “That’s more than 85% so it’s been really well received,” she said. These suppliers have pledged to become sustainable, environmentally friendly, as well as child and slave-labour free. H&M and Topshop have also recently promised to go eco-friendly.

Jaana says the industry’s been “crying for someone to take leadership in this area”. Where David Jones identifies a gap in a particular supplier, it builds training programs to improve its sustainability and ethics. Jaana adds while there is an information gap at the moment, this should be conquered over the next year or so as the company works towards labelling and enhancing the image of sustainable fashion.  “This issue is a journey. It’s not black and white. It’s complex. It’s all about one step forward at a time.”

Kit, Lisa and Jaana will share their expertise in sustainable fashion at the ‘Beauty without Harm’ event, which is part of the Sydney Environment Institute’s ‘The Small Changes’ conversation series. It will be hosted by Dr Frances Flanagan, research affiliate, Wednesday 12 August from 6.30 – 8.00pm, Law School Foyer Level 2, Sydney Law School University of Sydney.

Top Image: Rachel.Adams -Flickr Commons