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How California is Setting Fashion’s Sustainability Standard

These West Coast brands are making a serious statement

Words by CHRISTINE WHITNEY
Illustration by NEIL WEBB

 

While some in the White House may try to deny it, the majority of Californians consider climate change to be a real threat, and that includes its homegrown fashion businesses. Reports of the 8 million metric tons of new plastic that enter the world’s oceans each year, coupled with China’s decision to close its doors to California’s recycling waste, don’t bode well for our state, let alone our planet. And as much as we love fashion, we’re all too aware that this industry takes a heavy toll on the environment. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world and despite our best efforts, a whopping 85 percent of donated clothing ends up in dumps or floods markets in developing countries. “The fashion industry has the same level of emissions as the continent of Europe,” says Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown, who pledged to make his San Francisco-based sneaker brand carbon-neutral by this year.

Brown is not alone in tackling the climate crisis head on. A collection of California startups are following suit, beginning with their relationship with plastic. San Francisco footwear company Rothy’s creates its machine-washable shoes out of recycled materials, including plastic bottles (to date, it has repurposed 25 million of them). As creative director Erin Lowenberg explains, their mission is “not building a brand and then finding a way to use recycled products, but building a company and ethos that started with literally ‘less is more.’”

“Plastic is killing the world. It’s also a big energy sucker

Kimberley Smith, Everlane’s head of apparel

Everlane, one of NorCal’s fastest-growing clothing brands, has vowed to eliminate virgin plastic (which can take up to 1,000 years to decompose) from its supply chain by 2021. It has also introduced ReNew, a collection comprising puffer jackets, parkas and fleeces made from postconsumer recycled plastic bottles. “Plastic is killing the world. It’s also a big energy sucker,” says Everlane’s head of apparel Kimberley Smith. “We can help by not making any new virgin material, and [stop further] depleting our resources. This is really our first stance in doing that.”

Making your business “circular” is one of the latest buzz words. But don’t think of it as some ephemeral fad. Fashion industry veteran Kristy Caylor, best known for having founded the eco-high-fashion brand Maiyet, was inspired to start her “circular” L.A.-based organic-cotton T-shirt brand For Days after the experience of moving into a new home. “I did a classic purge and I was very conscious of where my products went; I sold things to The RealReal (the $2.4 billion California-based luxury consignment site which went public this year) and Buffalo Exchange and really tried to prioritize reuse. But then I was still left with a pile of stained T-shirts, single socks and stretched-out pajamas,” Caylor says. “Wouldn’t it be great if these items, one, were high-quality, but, also, if I knew something positive was being done as they left my life?” The business is a membership service that invites customers to send back their tees once they’ve bitten the dust (which are then upcycled), in exchange for new ones.

San Francisco’s Marine Layer has a similar program with its Re-Spun collection. It promises 100-percent-recycled tees and has committed to a process using no added dyes or even water in their manufacturing. (It also offers a $5 store credit for unwanted cotton T-shirts.) Water conservation is a particularly hot topic in drought-prone California. Levi’s introduced its WaterLess collection back in 2011 and calculates that it has saved more than 3 billion liters over the past eight years with a production cycle that uses up to 96 percent less water. “We recognize there is real urgency around our water footprint,” says Paul Dillinger, VP of global product innovation. Levi’s uses proprietary technology which it has shared with other brands. “We took all of this information and made it open-source and offered it to all of our competitors on the premise that if you figure out a way to save water and you don’t tell people about it, you’re kind of a jerk,” Dillinger says. Levi’s is also focused on modifying user behavior to reduce water use after jeans have left the factory. “All of our garments have something called a Care Tag for the Planet, which is a label that suggests that you wash your jeans infrequently, wash them on cold, and you hang them to dry,” Dillinger says.

“If you figure out a way to save water and you don’t tell people about it, you’re kind of a jerk”

Paul Dillinger, Levi’s VP of global product innovation

The innovation doesn’t stop at improved technologies around recycling and water reduction. The search for alternative, plant-based materials to replace water-dependent ones has also borne fruit. The aforementioned Allbirds, known for its keenly priced, uber-comfy sneakers which are popular in Silicon Valley, makes its uppers out of sustainably sourced New Zealand merino wool and Forest Stewardship Council-certified South African eucalyptus — not standard fare in a category that revolves around leather (the treatment of which creates some of fashion’s most harmful pollutants), rubbers and plastics. It has also developed a sustainable new material for soles called SweetFoam made from sugarcane, which is carbon-negative in its raw form. Like Levi’s, it is open-source, so competitors are able to access the technical know-how. (To date, over 100 companies have made inquiries about how to use it.)

Tencel, a fabric made of recycled tree pulp, is one of Los Angeles-based designer Shaina Mote’s favored materials for her dresses and jumpsuits and is made using a closed-loop water system. “Fabric development with sustainable materials isn’t that progressive,” Mote says. “So I’ve had to get outside of the box here and there.” Rothy’s, meanwhile, is in the process of experimenting with a sustainable new algae-based foam for its insoles.

To a large extent, Ventura-based Patagonia, which has championed sustainability since its founding in 1973 and introduced organic cotton back in 1996, has set the standard and remains steadfastly committed to the cause. The company recently partnered with a fishing village in South America to dredge discarded fishing nets from the local shores and turn them into fabrics. Beyond that, products such as the Frozen Range jacket are made of 100-percent-recycled-polyester Gore-Tex. The brand’s updated mission statement has shifted the focus from “making the best products and causing no unnecessary harm,” to “using the business to save our home planet,” says Helena Barbour, VP of global sportswear. In other words: “What can we do that really causes good?” she adds. Now there’s a trend we’d love to go global.

 

This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of C Magazine.

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