Sustainable design, second-hand clothes: How you can become a conscious fashion shopper

1 / 2
Sustainable design, second-hand clothes: How you can become a conscious fashion shopper

Reduce, Reuse and Rethink is a CBC News series about recycling. We're looking at why our communities are at a turning point and exploring ways to recycle better. You can be part of the conversation by joining our Facebook group.

From local, small-scale designers to huge corporations, it seems there is a glut of eco-friendly fashion announcements. German sportswear company Adidas has sold one million pairs of its sneaker made out of recycled ocean plastic.

Swedish multinational H&M is upping the ante by adding cutting-edge recycled materials to its annual Conscious Exclusive clothing line: recycled silver to make jewelry and a regenerated nylon fibre made from fishnets and other waste.

The North Face is the latest company to jump on the eco-fashion trend, with its decision to make recycled T-shirts and tote bags out of plastic water bottles collected from three American national parks.

"I've been at this for 11 years and there have been many times where I've almost thrown in the towel because it just felt very futile, " said Kelly Drennan, founder of the Toronto-based non-profit Fashion Takes Action.

No longer, she told CBC News.

"There's been a huge uptake, particularly in the last year or two — here in Canada and also globally."

With the wealth of information, and companies and designers on the sustainable fashion bandwagon, what can the average shopper do to help? Here are some suggestions.

Seek sustainable designers

A handful of Canadian designers are at the forefront of the eco-fashion movement.

Vancouver-born Adam Taubenfligel, the creative director and designer behind denim brand Triarchy, was jolted into action when he saw the 2015 documentary The True Cost and realized the negative impact his company's jeans were having on the environment — particularly the lighter washes, which use more water.

"A pair of 100 per cent cotton jeans can use up to 2,900 gallons of water by the time it lands on the shelf. So that is equivalent to 10,977 one-litre water bottles," he said.

That's what pushed Taubenfligel and his siblings to halt production and change Triarchy's entire business model, shifting to a denim made from a blend of cotton and Tencel, a processed wood fibre from the eucalyptus tree.

Not only did the change cut their water consumption by 85 per cent, the brand also now reuses the vast majority of the water in their denim wash process. 

"It really was starting a new brand," Taubenfligel said, with the break in production to switch to a sustainable brand stretching to nearly a year. Patterns and fits carried over but little else, including a popular rose gold foil-coated jean that involved a process too toxic to fit into Triarchy's new priorities. 

"We kind of had a moment where it was like, are we going to continue doing what we're doing? Or are we going to make our brand a vehicle for change and for exposure onto this issue?" 

The move helped Triarchy clinch the Fashion Impact Award at the 2018 Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards handed out on Friday. 

After designing for big box retailers, Ontario designer Peggy Sue Deaven-Smiltnieks started her brand Peggy Sue Collection with an emphasis on natural fibres: organic cotton, upcycled woven denim, alpaca and wool, drawn straight from local farms. 

"It's absolutely not important for everyone to have boatloads of wardrobes that we cycle through all the time," she said. She tries to create conscious customers who will want to keep their clothing and trace it back to the source. 

"When we find someone who's new to this concept, we really have a kind conversation, because we all started in those shoes." 

Second-hand finds

When a designer sustainable outfit, which often comes with a higher price tag, is out of the question, it pays to shop second-hand. 

Cynthia Dam is a pro at it. 

"When I find the perfect [item], I'm like, wow, this is so cool because what you're doing is eliminating something from ending up in the trash," said Dam, a video blogger who posts about sustainable fashion on her YouTube channel. 

A recent study of 2,000 American female shoppers done by Global Data for thredup, an online thrift store, found that millennials are driving the second-hand clothes market, which the study estimated will reach $41 billion US dollars in the next four years.

They buy a lot, sometimes impulsively, but also say they care about what they're buying: 77 per cent of those surveyed responded that they prefer environmentally conscious brands.

When she's shopping, Dam searches for second-hand items made in North America with sustainable fabrics. But she now understands that's not always possible.

"In the beginning, I was like, I need to have all of these things checked off in order to be this sustainable consumer, but then I realized if you do that, you're just going to push yourself into this corner and feel so frustrated that you want to give up," she said. 

​Watch how you wash

It's not always about what you're buying, it's also important to care for what you already have. 

"Things like washing in cold water, doing full loads of laundry, using an eco-friendly laundry detergent and hanging to dry," Drennan said. "Those are some really easy things that we can do on a daily basis that will collectively have a massive impact."

She said people rarely think about how they launder their clothes when trying to be more sustainable shoppers. 

Rent, don't buy

Another way to not only save money but also think of the environment is to rent an outfit instead of buying a new dress. 

"There are some really great companies out there that are offering high-end designer product or garments at a fraction of the cost," Drennan said. 

Clothing swaps are also increasingly popular. 

Don't get discouraged

It can be easy to get lost in the statistics: only 15 per cent of used clothing gets collected and reused, while 85 per cent ends up in landfills.

Still, if you don't have the budget to acquire a sustainable wardrobe, don't sweat it. Do what you can to slow down what you're buying and invest in pieces that will last.

"We talk about progress over perfection," Drennan said. That means not only educating the public but also convincing larger companies to pledge to reuse their old products to make new ones.

She also said many fast-fashion companies that push the easy, disposable buys, such as H&M and Zara, have conscious brands that are made of sustainable fabrics and are more affordable.

"We can only do what we ourselves can do," Drennan said. "Sustainability really starts with us."

Dam has learned from comments on her videos that every little step counts. 

"They get so overwhelmed because there's no right answer, which I think is the most terrifying thing. How do you know if you're doing it right?" Dam said.

"That's why I want to emphasize that it's baby steps."