According to a recent survey commissioned by the British charity Barnardo’s, a majority of women’s garments are worn a mere seven times before being pushed to the back of the closet or tossed into the garbage.
Combatting this wastefulness is at the heart of a growing number of clothing brands offering alternatives to so-called “fast fashion,” the trendy, throwaway method of selling clothes pioneered by companies such as H&M, and the cultural force to blame for the world’s overflowing and underutilized closets. Among the other startups positioning themselves as durable and ethical alternatives to throwaway fads are the online retailers Zady, Cuyana, Of a Kind, Everlane, and The 30 Year Sweatshirt.
Mainstream fashion’s bad behavior is arguably opening the door for these more ethically-minded companies to flourish. Last year, a particularly withering segment on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and a similarly-themed documentary The True Cost detailed the environmental and labor costs of cheap, trendy fashion to the attention of large audiences. And in the last two weeks, H&M has admitted to finding Syrian child refugees in its factories in Turkey, while another of its suppliers caught fire in Bangladesh just a few days later.
Meanwhile, these new, durability-focused companies say their success lies in providing a true antidote to fast-fashion: ultra high-quality clothing, made sustainably, that people can afford.
Tom Cridland, a 25-year-old British designer and entrepreneur, launched The 30 Year Sweatshirt last summer to call to task fashion’s built-in obsolescence. Fast-fashion clothing is notorious for looking faded and dated in a handful of wears. By contrast, Cridland’s pullover is handmade in Portugal of Italian organic cotton and finished with a treatment that wards off shrinkage and pilling. The company pledges to provide repairs free of charge through 2046.
“We’re not claiming to have made the first sweatshirt to last 30 years,” says Cridland. American brands such as L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer have offered a lifetime guarantee for decades—but these labels tend to hold sway with older shoppers. The 30 Year Sweatshirt doubles as a way to educate younger consumers about chintzy fads “in a way that’s less preachy and more light-hearted,” he adds. “I wanted to make ethically conscious clothing seem less stuffy.”
Along with using The 30 Year Sweatshirt as a PSA for the pitfalls of fast fashion, Cridland is proving there’s a market for durable clothing, having sold 5,000 of the pullovers already. He says he’s expecting to bring in $1 million in revenue in 2016. He’s also launched 30 Year T-shirts, and jackets are to follow later this month. Items from Cridland’s trouser line have been seen on Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Grant.
The San Francisco-based online ethical retailer Cuyana is another company selling consumers on clothing built to last. The brand’s slogan is “fewer, better things,” and its elegant and feminine wardrobe staples (think silk button-ups, cashmere boatneck sweaters, and soft leather totes) are crafted from premium fabrics, with leather from Argentina, Italy, and Spain, and cashmere from Scotland. Cuyana’s peers also boast close, transparent, and generally more ethical relationships with their factories, with Zady.com going the furthest, providing backstories and photographs online for its suppliers.
“For us it’s about providing a product that is durable and affordable that will actually last,” says Karla Gallardo, the co-founder of Cuyana. “But in the long run,” she adds, “what we’re actually doing is building a very strong relationship with our customers, who trust us for quality products made in a sustainable way.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Cuyana and Tom Cridland both launched online. By cutting out brick-and-mortar expenses, wholesaling and retail markups, their products go for prices that might not scare off a generation raised on frocks that cost less than a Happy Meal. Other lines, such as Warby Parker’s eyeglasses and Greats’s sneakers, have found success with direct-to-consumer prices that are higher than Target’s and H&M’s, but still manageable for younger, high-end consumers. More generally, sites like buymeonce.com and buy-it-once.com point visitors to all sorts of products sold online that are intended to be held onto, not tossed out after a few uses.
There was a time, not too long ago, when well-made clothes were standard, available in catalogues, malls, and chain stores. Sweaters were often hand-knit, jackets were tailored and lined, and dresses had blind hems. A look through a JCPenney catalogue from 1990 shows that most clothing was still made in the U.S. as recently as 25 years ago.
What’s changed since then, in addition to products’ quality, is consumers’ expectations about price. The cost of clothing was in a period of deflation for almost 20 years before edging up more recently. That drop was largely the result of the globalization of the fashion industry and the movement of garment manufacturing from unionized shops in the United States and other developed countries to low-wage factories with few environmental regulations, most of them in Asia.
Americans also buy a lot more clothing than they once did, on average 64 items and more than seven pairs of shoes per year—double what they bought annually in the 1990s. What this really means is that the culture of saving up and investing in fewer pieces and wearing them for longer has all but waned.
Reversing this logic is a tall order, and Gallardo and Cridland say that without more alternatives such as theirs, little will change. “Customers are really encouraged to buy trends and to buy lots of clothing,” says Gallardo, but she adds that there also hasn’t been much in the way of alternatives, until recently. Earlier ethical-fashion efforts, such as bamboo or hemp, often missed the mark on being fashionable. “As retailers, it’s our duty to fix that and to make better products, more expensive products and to make an alternative offer and stop making products that neglect sustainability,” she says.
Cuyana sells a $40 Pima cotton scoopneck T-shirt and a $215 silk tee dress, and has some items that are even pricier. Cridland’s sweatshirts fetch $85, while his organic, handmade men’s trousers go for $129. For those raised on fast fashion, this might seem like an impossible leap.
But maybe not. There’s growing evidence that U.S. consumers are slowly gravitating toward spending more per item of clothing anyway. The number of garments purchased in the U.S. has fallen slightly from a high of 68 in 2011, while total spending on clothing has edged up at the same time. And according to a 2014 Nielsen study, 41 percent of Americans responded that they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to making a positive impact socially and environmentally. Among all global respondents to the survey, which spanned 60 countries, more than half of those who would pay extra for a sustainable product were under the age of 34.
“There’s a big trend in the growth of ecological sensibility, the growth in demand for artisanal products, and more handmade items,” explains Juliet Schor, a professor of economics and sociology at Boston College who studies consumer behavior. “More people are rejecting mass-production for aesthetic reasons and because of the exploitation in the fast-fashion system.”
Sure, a $215 dress is not something most people are likely to buy on impulse, but that’s really the point. “Fast fashion sees clothing as something that’s disposable,” explains Gallardo. “You wear it once or twice and it’s over. But when you think about investing, you’re paying a little more, you’re actually careful about what you select.”
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