What is Sustainable Fashion?

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Ethical and sustainable fashion. We've all heard these terms before but what do they really mean? We caught up with Whitney Bauck, assistant editor at Fashionista.com who frequently writes about these topics to learn what she defines as sustainable fashion, why it's so important to her (and should be for everyone) and what emerging ethical brands need to do to get her attention for press. 

Photography: Nic Raingsey

Photography: Nic Raingsey

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you go to school and what's your background in fashion?
WHITNEY BAUCK: I grew up in Manila, Philippines before moving to the US for college, where I studied fine art photography at a small liberal arts school outside of Chicago. I got serious about pursuing fashion during my sophomore year, but I didn’t necessarily know in what capacity — I thought at first it might be through fashion photography.

My school had zero fashion-related classes, so I started a blog and found a way to turn every class into an excuse to learn about different aspects of the industry, from studying the environmental impacts of fashion in my science class to examining the sociological ramifications in an anthropology course. Shortly after starting my blog, I began freelance writing, which paved the way for internships and eventually my current job. I decided to prioritize writing over photography in part because it was easier for me to see how I could use it to have a bigger impact on the industry in a positive direction.

Talk to me about the blog! You launched UNWRINKLING in 2013 and used it as a platform to talk about the intersection of fashion, faith, and ethics (which is very cool btw). What initially sparked your interest in this particular topic? Why is ethical fashion such an important  to you?
I was studying abroad in Ireland when the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh happened, which was the worst accident in the history of the garment industry as far as fatalities go. I had been a huge thrifter my whole life, but that particular week I had purchased a pair of sunglasses from Penneys, a European company that had ties to the factory in Bangladesh. Feeling personally implicated in that tragedy was a huge wakeup call that forced me to examine where my clothing comes from and what messed-up systems I might be supporting through thoughtless purchases.

From there, my interest has snowballed and so has my desire to educate a broader audience. The more you know about the social and environmental impact that the fashion industry has – like the fact that fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions equal that of all of Russia, or that slave labor still exists in major designers’ supply chains — the harder it is to want to maintain the status quo.

There's a lot of confusion and marketing jargon about what ethical and sustainable fashion really is. How do you define ethical fashion?
This is a good question and a really hard one to answer, because “ethical fashion” as a term really ought to be understood as more of a sliding scale than as a fixed category. No company is perfect and the most sustainable option would simply be to not shop. Genuinely ethical brands will almost always acknowledge that, rather than trying to pretend that they’re 100% sustainable.

For me personally, “ethical fashion” refers to apparel or footwear made by brands that are taking whatever measures they can to ensure that people and the planet are being treated well in the process of making their pieces.

The cost of producing a slow fashion garment has a lot to do with the price tag and its accessibility to people who might not be able to afford it. Do you think that's the reason why sustainable fashion isn't the norm when it should be in this day and age?
I definitely wish that more of the ethical brands I write about sold things I could afford to purchase. And we know that American consumers in particular value a bargain over almost everything else. But again, this is where I would encourage people to thrift. It doesn’t fix everything, of course, and there are things like underwear and socks that you’re going to consistently buy first-hand, but I really think thrifting is the best affordable, sustainable solution. I would also point to brands like Alternative Apparel, the Summer House and Uniform as examples of ethical fashion that’s not crazy expensive.

Do you think there is a 'granola stereotype' associated with eco-designers which makes people shy away from buying sustainable fashion?
I definitely think that is lessening. Brands like Reformation, Everlane and Stella McCartney that do branding really well have helped shift that perception; they tend to be well-loved even by those who don’t care about the ethics side of things.

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What is your response to the stigma or stereotype that ethical/sustainable fashion isn't visually appealing? That it lacks excitement from a design perspective? I.E no sequins, no glitter and all that jazz. 
I would point to brands like the above — and many other brands like TARA, Kowtow and Lonely Lingerie  — as proof that prioritizing ethics doesn’t need to mean compromising on aesthetics. If you look at their imagery or wear one of their pieces, that becomes clear very quickly.

That said, I do personally feel frustrated sometimes by the fact that so many ethical brands fall into the same aesthetic category. It’s often this very minimalism-inflected, earthy thing that feels like a pared-back blogger-mom version of boho-chic. Which is totally a great look and one I dabble in myself at times! But honestly, hippie-femme pieces and earth tones are not what I most naturally gravitate toward, so it can be frustrating to me when I want to look like a grungy club kid in her 20s but so many of the brands whose ethics I respect are focused on catering to chic PTA members who take ceramics classes. I would love to see a greater diversity of aesthetics represented amongst ethical brands.

We live in a society that's fascinated with what's new. Fast fashion giants have led us down the rabbit hole and now, there's a high demand for new styles, new designs, new colors, etc. How do we as a society come back from that?
As far as demand goes, I don’t have a great solution. But I will say that I try to re-wear things with pride — if I’ve posted images of myself in an outfit on social media before, I might do it again with a reminder that rewearing things is actually a good thing rather than something to be embarrassed of. It’s a riff on Livia Firth and Eco-Age’s idea of “30 wears,” which asserts that everything you own should be worn at least 30 times before you part with it.


Sustainabilty has defintely become a trend and although many brands aren't as sustainable as they claim, do you think their potentially false claims could actually be a good thing for the movement because it brings eco-fashion to the forefront of people's minds? 
I’m hopeful. The food industry has gone through similar growing pains. Yes, “natural” and “organic” food has become trendy and that has led to some brands trying to tap into that in inauthentic ways, but I think the consumer is getting smarter and better educated, too, and they can see through some of that. I think media that rewards brands for making ethical choices and consumer spending that does the same can only shift the industry in a positive direction and reinforce to brands that this stuff matters to the next generation. If it’s becoming generally trendy to be green, my hope is that it will force companies to realize that the best way to make their customers happy with regard to this stuff is to make authentic changes.


Do you think slow fashion will ever be able to scale in a way that's not fast fashion but more accessible to the masses? If so, how?
Depends what you mean by that. Do I think slow fashion brands will be able to grow successfully and do so without charging an arm and a leg? Absolutely. Do I think they will grow to Zara proportions and sell “ethical” pieces for Forever21 prices? Nope, because producing that much clothing is never going to be good for the planet and rock-bottom prices are never going to leave margin for fair pay or environmental best practices.


Okay, before we wrap up, for the sake of our readers, I have to ask, as a sustainable emerging designer, what's the best way for designers to get your attention and share their brand with you?
I cannot stress the importance of compelling imagery deeply enough. Whether you reach out to an editor like myself via Instagram or email — and honestly, either one of those can be fine — imagery always makes a huge difference. If you’re the most ethical brand in the world and even have great design in the garments themselves but your pictures suck, it’s going to be hard to get a write-up. That said, if your brand is really fun but I can tell that manufacturing and production ethics aren’t central for you, you’re probably not going to catch my interest either. Brands that get those things right really shine.