The industry may be uncharacteristically late to the party, but sustainable fashion is quickly coming into style.


WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick

Lewis Perkins is the interim president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. Photo: Emily Hagopian

Take a poll of sustainable fashion gurus, and you’re likely to hear the same thing in multiple ways: They’re currently a small group, but they’re poised to set a trend. Lewis Perkins, interim president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a nonprofit that certifies sustainable materials in several industries including fashion, says there was “not much movement at all” around sustainable fashion as recently as a couple of years ago. To the extent that fashion designers did focus on environmental and human rights issues, they largely did so on an individual basis, he says. Now, finally, Perkins is starting to see collaborative efforts across the industry. “It’s never going to move fast enough for those of us that are advocates in the space,” he says, “but the reality is, it’s moving faster than it ever has.”


“Consumers certainly haven’t taken up [sustainable fashion] in the way they’ve taken up organic food,” says Kate Black, author of Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-toxic Beauty. But, she says, a number of companies are making positive changes anyway, both for business reasons and because they anticipate that shoppers will soon begin paying as much attention to how their clothes are made as to how their food is grown. “Everybody is scrambling to change their ways before consumers realize what they’re paying for.”


“I would say [the fashion industry] is a lagger, if I’m completely honest,” says Shannon Whitehead, founder of Factory 45, an online business accelerator for sustainable fashion designers. She bemoans the “fast fashion” culture that promotes cheap and trendy items that might just as likely find their way into a landfill as into a closet after their first wear. But she’s also excited about independent designers like the ones she works with, who take a storytelling approach to their companies, with an emphasis on products that will last. “It’s going to take a very small group of early adopters to really create a movement,” she says. “We have that small group, but we just haven’t gotten to the mainstream yet.”


There are a number of possible explanations for why “sustainable” and “fashion” are only recently being put together in the same sentence. For one, it’s not immediately intuitive to many consumers how large an environmental impact the clothing they wear can have. While the production of clothes requires resource-intensive processes—such as agriculture, manufacturing and shipping—the average person doesn’t think much about how the shirt on his back got there. While it’s readily apparent to most people how gas-guzzling SUVs and inefficient buildings can cause environmental harm, they rarely apply the same level of eco-scrutiny to their socks and underwear. And in some ways, the very notion of fashion—with its focus on trends, newness, variety and constant reinvention—may seem inherently incompatible with the ideals of sustainability.

Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory 45, an online business accelerator for sustainable fashion designers.

Kate Black is author of Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-Toxic Beauty.

But Perkins says that high-end fashion items are already made to last, and that, even with the change of seasons, there is little danger of them being discarded. “When I think of high fashion, I think of people who stay current,” he says. “But those kinds of consumers tend to purchase and hold on to legacy items, and there’s a tremendous market for them in consignment boutiques, where a $1,500 dress is going to retain its value and become a vintage piece. It’s almost like precious metals like gold and silver. You don’t have to worry about them being thrown into the trash.”


In fact, Perkins says, high-end designers are uniquely poised to adopt sustainable practices because their customers aren’t as price-sensitive as those in the larger fashion marketplace. “The luxury industry has the price points to be able to innovate,” he says. “They have the price points to say, we can make this a better, higher-quality, safer dye, and if it goes up one dollar per unit, we can absorb that, because it’s already a high price point.”


Some luxury shoppers are already coming around to the idea, Perkins says, that beauty should encompass more than just the garment itself and also incorporate the way the apparel affects people and the planet. “I think that’s the conversation that’s changing in the luxury market, where the discussion is about how, to be to be truly beautiful, there aren’t any ugly stories that you’re going to uncover.”


Black argues that there’s nothing inherently unsustainable about fashion, and says that the emphasis on constant turnover is a recent phenomenon. “When you look at something like a kimono, it’s a lifetime garment,” she says. “I think fashion really was sustainable up until the last 30 or 40 years when we got into this idea of everything being new, and [utilizing] mass production overseas. I think we’re just going back to how things used to be—well-made garments that we have a connection to.”


As in any industry, a number of factors will have to come together in order for sustainability to become the new normal in fashion. Not too long ago, “green” was a relatively novel concept in the built environment, as evidenced by the dramatic growth in the numbers of U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings over just the past few years. Early adopters long ago embraced concepts like solar panels and efficient heating and cooling systems, but it took industry-wide standards like LEED to create a larger marketplace for sustainable building materials. As more suppliers competed to create products that met the standards, prices came down, and in many cases have reached a “tipping point” where they are attractive to mainstream developers (rather than just to developers specializing in sustainable projects). As green buildings became more prevalent, more businesses and landlords began to see how energy and water efficiency could save them money. At the same time, governments and other institutions began requiring that new buildings be built to green standards, and today the basics of green building have entered the public consciousness.


While sustainable fashion advocates acknowledge that the industry hasn’t kept that same pace, they can point to activity that mirrors each step along the pathway. Certainly, the designers working with Whitehead at Factory 45 bring the same enthusiasm and creativity to their work that early green building advocates did, and also have the benefit of several more years of green products and practices to draw from. Black points to the steps around corporate responsibility and sustainability that a number of large apparel companies are already taking, which she says is evidence that they see a business case for green practices. And Perkins sees emerging fashion sustainability standards, including Cradle to Cradle’s own standards as well as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, as analogous to LEED in that they provide a new level of transparency and accountability around materials used in the industry.


Whitehead says that the designers she works with—her “group of early adopters”—are approaching sustainability from a place of passion and appealing to a younger demographic of shoppers who are more eco-conscious than previous generations “I think the millennial generation is putting pressure on the brands, because they care about where their clothes are coming from,” she says. “They’re much more particular about where they’re spending their money. Now that they have more purchasing power, the bigger retailers are feeling [that] pressure to create transparency within the supply chain. And the smaller brands are putting pressure on the bigger brands, as well.”


Levis’ Water<Less™ techniques substantially reduce the amount of water needed in the finishing process when making jeans.


Even in cases where consumers still aren’t fully aware of sustainability issues, Black says, a number of companies are “greening through the backdoor”—quietly making changes in their supply chains that benefit both the environment and their bottom line. These companies, she says, may not want to draw too much attention to their green practices at a time when some of their other processes may continue to be less-than-ideal. But, she says, the result is the same, regardless of the motive or how much attention the changes get: When a company takes steps to reduce water use or packaging materials or shipping distances, people and the planet benefit.


“I don’t know whether [companies] are empathetic to the planet or empathetic to their businesses,” Black says. “It’s not clear what the motives are, but the motives are leading to change.”


While eco-friendly changes in corporate practices and consumer concerns are welcome, Perkins suggests that a true sea change will come about when standards and regulations simply make it unacceptable for companies to continue environmentally destructive practices.


“This is where third-party verification comes in,” Perkins says. “As we change the conversation around what is acceptable—what chemistry is being used to produce all the things we make, what labor practices are employed to make the things we make—as we change the conversation, consumer awareness about the impact of products will shift. We’ll get to a point where so many products will be third-party verified and meet a certain production guideline, that you just wouldn’t dip below that anymore.”


“It’s like with buildings,” Perkins adds. “At some point we’re going to get to a place where all buildings must be energy efficient. That’s the future state. It’s where we’re headed. I think it’s going to be the same for apparel.”

The 300,000-square-foot San Francisco headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co. was certified LEED Gold after a recent renovation. BAR architects were the executive architecture firm on the project.

The interiors of the Levi Strauss & Co. overlook San Francisco Bay.

Forward-Thinking Fashion

For some apparel giants the future is now. A few iconic brands have been focused on ways to make the garment industry greener for close to a decade. For instance, in 2007, Levi Strauss & Co., maker of the iconic 501 jeans, conducted what it says is the apparel industry’s first-ever lifecycle assessment study—focusing primarily on the company’s U.S. operations to determine the environmental impact of certain products.


The findings were many, but one stands out: From the day the cotton is planted to the day they’re tossed into the trash, a pair of jeans uses up a lot of water. To be exact, the average 501s go through 3,781 liters of water throughout their entire lifecycle. That’s enough to meet the needs of the average U.S. household for three days.


If it’s startling that creating and caring for a pair of jeans takes up enough water to fill a small swimming pool, then one of the company’s water-reducing solutions is perhaps also a touch surprising. Customers can help fix the problem, Levi’s suggests, by washing their jeans less often.


Your mom may not approve, but fashionistas have long touted the style benefits of leaving your blue jeans unwashed. If you buy them a bit tight and break them in, the thinking goes, they will have a lived-in, fitted look that can be destroyed by washing. Jean-washing skeptics also say that unwashed jeans last longer, as washing can break down fibers and fade dyes. Now, they can add environmental reasons to their list of arguments.


“It’s time to rethink autopilot behaviors like washing your jeans after every wear because in many cases it’s simply not necessary,” says Chip Bergh, the president and chief executive of Levi Strauss & Co. “By engaging and educating consumers, we can fundamentally change the environmental impact of apparel and, ideally, how consumers think about the clothes they wear every day.”


More than two-thirds (68 percent) of the water used in the lifecycle of a pair of jeans is consumed during the cotton-production process, but consumer care (i.e., washing) has the second-largest impact, accounting for 23 percent of the total water used.



The interior of H&M’s newest location will operate on renewable power sources and will use less electricity than conventional retail spaces.

Consumers in the U.S. wear their jeans an average of 2.3 times before washing them, according to the lifecycle study. If that was increased to an average of 10 times, the company says, water use could be reduced by 77 percent.


It’s easy, of course, for a company to call on consumers to change their behavior, but Levi’s is also taking dramatic steps of its own. In a series of techniques the company calls Water<Less™, the company is substantially reducing the amount of water needed during the finishing process; for example, by removing water from some stone washes and combining multiple wet-cycle processes.


Last March, Levi Strauss & Co. announced that the program had saved 1 billion liters of water since 2011. That number could soon be dwarfed. While the company currently makes around 25 percent of its products using Water<Less™ processes, it plans to push that number up to 80 percent by 2020.


Another Goliath in the apparel arena is also pushing the envelope in terms of sustainable ready-to-wear. In March 2015, fashion companies Kering and H&M announced a partnership with a United Kingdom company called Worn Again to test that company’s processes for reclaiming raw materials from used clothes.


Worn Again says that its textile recycling technology is the first of its kind, able to separate polyester and cotton from end-of-use clothing. The partnership with Kering and H&M is aimed at bringing these processes to market.


“Our technology is at the heart of a global vision that will engage all brands, textile recyclers, suppliers, and consumers in a unified ambition to keep clothing already in circulation out of landfill, and as part of a global pool of resources to be used time and time again,” says Cyndi Rhoades, chief executive of Worn Again. The company, founded in East London in 2004, began as a business-to-consumer “upcycling” company, but since 2007 it has focused on business-to-business consulting and has worked on zero textile waste projects with companies like Virgin Atlantic and McDonald’s.


H&M and Kering (through its brand PUMA) will monitor testing of Worn Again’s fiber extraction and recycling technology, during which time the reclaimed raw materials will be converted into yarn and fabric. The companies hope that the tests will demonstrate that the technology is commercially viable.


“Innovation is what we need to solve our global environmental challenges,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering. In addition to PUMA, the French company also owns brands such as Gucci and Stella McCartney. Daveu calls the collaboration with H&M and Worn Again “a great example” of this necessary innovation and says the company hopes to use sustainable raw material sourced from the recycling technology in its sport and lifestyle brands.


According to Worn Again, approximately 65 million metric tons of polyester filament were produced globally in 2014. By 2020, the company says, the global demand for the fibers is projected to increase to 90 million metric tons.


Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M, says her company is also excited about the collaboration. “It brings us closer to our goal of creating fashion in a circular model,” she says. In the long run, this can change the way fashion is made and massively reduce the need for extracting virgin resources from our planet.”


According to Worn Again, approximately 65 million metric tons of polyester filament were produced globally in 2014. By 2020, the company says, the global demand for the fibers is projected to increase to 90 million metric tons.

Gigi Hadid walks the runway wearing Balmain x H&M collection during their launch event in New York City.

LEED Highlights



The 300,000-sq-ft San Francisco headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co. was certified LEED Gold after a recent renovation. The building repurposes more than 25,500 pairs of blue jeans as insulation.


“They really wanted it to be an environmentally efficient—as well as inviting—space that would help serve as a creative expression of who they were,” says Linda Crouse, director of marketing for BAR Architects, which served as the executive architect for the project.


The building also includes features like efficient HVAC systems and bike storage.


This January, Levi Strauss & Co.’s Henderson, Nevada, distribution center achieved LEED Platinum certification, with the help of features such as a reflective white roof (especially helpful in the desert sun), LED lighting and motion-sensor lights, and a green cleaning program.


In addition to being more environmentally friendly, the center will be good for the company’s bottom line. Through water savings, energy efficiency upgrades, and tax abatements from the state, the center will save approximately $60,000 in each of the next 10 years, the company estimates.



Set to open in the spring of 2016, H&M at Westfield World Trade Center—the company’s first store in lower Manhattan—will also be the retailer’s first U.S. location to apply for LEED certification. The 25,000-sq-ft space will incorporate recycled materials throughout the store and use LED lighting and ENERGY STAR–certified equipment.



In 2014, Kering announced that Luxury Goods International (LGI), the Swiss-based Kering Group subsidiary that manages distribution and logistics for most of Kering’s luxury brands, achieved LEED Platinum for its distribution center. The center was the first distribution hub in the luxury sector to attain the designation, and uses 43 percent less energy and 70 percent less water than a comparably sized conventional building.