I care very much about the environmental impact of this business, or its “sustainability”. I’ve written about the ambiguity of “sustainability” before, here, but nonetheless, I pursue “sustainability” in this business. This week I made an exciting, positive discovery regarding the ecological sustainability of the fabrics used in ETL’s first collection.
Sustainability of Fibers and Fabrics used by ETL
As a fashion consumer, I felt endlessly frustrated by companies making vague claims regarding “sustainability” without providing details. I want to know the type of sustainability — environmental, ecological, fair trade? I want to know what stage of production is being described as “sustainable” — fiber production? fabric creation? garment sewing? If I can’t get those details, I assume they don’t pass the sniff test.
My exciting discovery this weekend concerns the environmental sustainability of the fibers used to make the fabrics used in ETL’s first collection. (You can read more about ETL’s “societal” sustainability measures here.)
The environmental impact of the production of the Micro-Modal and Spandex fibers that comprise the “95% Micro-Modal / 5% Spandex” fabric utilized to make Athena with the Sashes, Jane with the Chain, Morgana with the Silk Rope, Jo with the Bandolier, and the drapes in Maureen with the Drapes, scores better than 52% of other fibers on Higgs Sustainability Index, a recognized tool used by professionals in the fashion industry to estimate the sustainability of fabrics.
And now the details. What is Higgs and what kind of “sustainability” does it measure?
It’s very specific. Higgs was founded 10 years ago as part of a partnership between Wal-Mart and Patagonia, called the “Sustainable Apparel Coalition.” Higgs measures the impact of the production of fibers on:
climate change (20% weight);
eutrophication (artificial enrichment of bodies of water due to runoff) (20% weight);
fossil fuel depletion (20% weight);
water scarcity (20% weight); and
chemical impact (20% weight).
Higgs does not measure the environmental impact of “downstream” practices after the yarn’s creation: fabric production, garment production, consumer care (A large portion of a garment’s environmental impact comes from consumer care — between 40 - 70% depending on who you ask.)
Why did this “fiber blend” score well?
One big reason: the Micro-Modal fiber (95%). This fiber is made exclusively by the Lenzing Group in Austria. Lenzing, as Higgs tells me, have a rare “vertically integrated” yarn plant, meaning the entire process for creating the fiber is contained within one plant: everything from harvesting wood to spinning, knitting, coloration and finishing. This is very rare in Viscose/Modal/Lyocell fiber production. In comparison to other factories, the vertically integrated Lenzing factory significantly reduces fossil energy consumption due to the re-use of excess energy recovered from pulping process in the actual fiber production process.
Using Lenzing’s Micro-Modal fiber — as opposed to regular Modal — decreases the overall environmental impact of the production of this fiber by almost 25 points on the Higgs Sustainability Index.
Finally, what can we do better?
The issue is complex. I worked really hard to find beautiful fabrics that were made in the USA for the first ETL collection. I can’t live with the idea of unfair labor practices in the development of my business. I tabled the environmental impact issue because I was still researching and I didn’t want to make un-substantiated claims. What can ETL do better?
I’m on the hunt for fabrics (i) made in countries with fair labor laws, or at least made under fair labor conditions, (ii) that score even higher on the Higgs Index, and (iii) that fit my fashionable and artistic sensibilities.
I’m also on the hunt for other objectively verifiable measures of “sustainability” as it relates to the environment. The Higgs Index is great, but it is not the be-all-end-all. It measures one small part in the process — the fiber production process — which ultimately culminates in an ETL garment. The other parts of the process are important as well.
One of the 3 Rules of Lions (in Fashion) is “Unique Sustainability.” But in a product based business, what does it mean to be sustainable?
I believe that sustainability in a product-based business means identifying metrics and methods by which the world will be a better place ... and implementing those methods.
Sustainability Measure 1: Economic Growth and Influence
ETL is part of a local and national fashion economy.
Since its inception, ETL has voted with its dollars, choosing to partner with women-owned businesses based in Houston, Texas. These businesses, in turn, are estimated to employ mostly women as seamstresses.
ETL also votes with its dollars to purchase fabric that is made in American mills in New York state, as well as gold chain and buttons made in the USA.
IMPACT GOAL: As ETL grows in revenue, its business partners will profit. ETL will be able to vote with its dollars to improve its performance in other measures of sustainability.
Sustainability Measure 2: Social Activism
Most product manufacturing is a threat to the wellbeing of humans and animals worldwide. Fashion is no exception. Greed and willful blindness lead to cruelty and fortunes built on the backs of others.
That won't be the case here. I know my business partners, and I choose to partner with manufacturers in Texas (see above), where federal laws protect workers' wellbeing.
Sustainability Metric 3: Influence in Garment Care Behaviors
I took a UK-based course on sustainability in luxury fashion. I learned that my own washing and drying of a garment is actually the third largest contributor to that garment's carbon footprint:
I was surprised but thrilled! Why? Because it means I can have an impact. You too!
I am very excited to teach everyone my effective methods of caring for these clothes which do not involve much washing or drying. See my care guide here.
Given the impact of washing and drying a garment, you will be delighted (from an ecological perspective) to know that I wash clothes once every 6 weeks, if that. I have special tricks to clean clothes without washing them! Again, care guide here.
Read summaries of the report from which the above chart was drawn here.
Rule 1: Give as Much Creativity as I Get
My guiding principle in design: design clothes that allow the person wearing them to be creative when they put them on.
I have become a fashion designer because I want to have a creative output. But, I felt that way before I became a fashion designer! I want to be creative when I put on clothes.
I want to tie the sashes, put the thing on backwards, twist it round, pin something to it, and make it mine.
Experiential dressing is my made-up phrase, intended to capture my promise to you: dressing, for customers of ETL, will be an experience that creates an opportunity for creativity.
Rule 2: Excitement and Sparkle
I like sparkle and excitement.
Pouting and simpering, this brand will not be.
ETL is fashion...but it is excitement and fun.
I hope you will join me in this rule-breaking, exciting, fun and sparkling statement.
Rule 3: Unique Sustainable
This brand is not selling something you can get elsewhere. This brand is selling my vision.
I care about sustainability (more about this elsewhere on this blog) but I also believe my vision is worth expressing and has a value to both you and I.
My personal commitment to you is that everything you ever see here will be unique. I won't waste our time or our planet's resources.
I have taken concrete steps to ensure that my business aligns with my personal values. Every yard of fabric -- and each garment made from that fabric -- is made in the USA.
I will not make garments in a country without satisfactory labor laws, or partner with a business that operates outside those laws.