On a crisp November evening in New York City, some of the sharpest voices in sustainable fashion faced off with an unlikely audience: bankers. Featuring an inspiring group of women, including Jill Heller, Soraya Darabi, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart, and Shannon Whitehead, “An Evening of Sustainable Fashion” by Credit Suisse didn’t pull any punches, not even with the concept of “sustainability” itself.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE?
“’Sustainability’ is most certainly a buzzword in the same way that the word ‘green’ has been co-opted by marketers,” said Darabi, co-founder of Zady, a conscious e-tailer. “It is really hard to understand if someone says the products is sustainably produced—what do they mean? Do they mean the catch phrase version of sustainable, or do they mean it is authentically sustainably produced?”
Zady carries 65 curated sustainable brands, plus a freshly launched private label that boasts a “farm to closet” ethos.
Zady prides itself on its transparent supply chain, which consists of five points, all situated in the United States. “Sustainability,” for the company, doesn’t have room for ambiguity.
“At Zady, a sustainable garment is one produced with low water usage because 20 percent of the world’s water waste is caused by the apparel and textile industry,” Darabi added. “For us, a sustainable garment is one that uses high-quality raw materials that are locally sourced.”
NOT BUYING IT
Conventional fashion, is a model we don’t need to subscribe, said Heller, who runs stylist boutique The PureThread. “Typically the fashion industry has been ‘buy now, buy quickly, buy in season,’ and toward the middle of the season it is all about sale and discounts,” she said. “Then we see the next season is stocked in store about four months ahead of the weather changing. It is a very fast cycle.”
Buying into sustainability could be as simple as opting out. “We don’t need to consume as much,” she said. “We probably have a closet full of clothing that you can figure out how to reuse and restyle; like shopping your closet, meaning take a fresh look at it.”
Heller, who helps clients fit their closets to their needs, says personal style is the key to sustainability. “When you identify your own style, you can really create a wardrobe that is very you and very fresh—one that speaks to who you are inwardly and then what you present outwardly,” she said.
Heller’s advice also translates to larger corporations. Together with C.L.A.S.S., a sustainable-textile library based in Milan, PureThread helped Gap source botanically dyed Tencel, made from eucalyptus trees, for its Spring 2015 collection. “When mega-companies want to make sustainable changes in their collections, one place they can start is in the fabric they are using,” Heller said.
THE MEDIUM OF THE MESSAGE
But change isn’t always easy, as Hilgart, founder and creative director of, Vaute, the first vegan fashion label to debut at New York Fashion Week, knows better than anyone. If people were going to pay attention, her message had to piggyback a familiar medium.
“It was really important that we had top models and everything else be what editors would understand and look for, so that the message itself that I wanted to portray would come through and be something that they would listen to,” she told the crowd.
In a similar vein, Whitehead, who launched online business accelerator Factory45 this year, offers a platform for people who want to shift the industry in a forward direction.
Still, as the organic food movement demonstrated, tenacity can be its own reward. “The co-founders of Whole Foods were turned down by every venture capital firm. And now, where I grew up in Minnesota you can buy organic food at Walmart,” said Zady’s Darabi. “A certain group of people will proliferate a movement and show how fast it can grow. All of these [food] businesses have bulldozed the way for organic fashion. Look at what took the organic food movement 17 years, with the advent of social media and community, this will take us five.”
“If you want to start a business, you probably want to start it ethically, and environmentally friendly,” she said. There are more people that want to start conscious businesses and it just isn’t easy.”
Fashion, however, has more obvious pitfalls, with sweatshop disasters such as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh casting long shadows. “[Workers are] being paid pennies to the dollar to make clothing that we are supposed to wear as fashion items,” Darabi said. “There is something deeply dangerous about that.”
But entrepreneurs shouldn’t see these issues as hurdles, but rather opportunities, the panel argued.
“I think people are starting to understand that shopping for clothing, can in fact, link them with something bigger,” said Heller of The PureThread. “One thing to really look at is fair trade. Are the workers being paid fairly? Are they being treated fairly? Are the labor conditions safe in the building? Are there reasonable hours of work? I think it is a very important to look for fair-trade certifications on the garments.”
And progress, however incremental, is still progress. “The fact that we are all sitting in this room with a bunch of bankers talking about this—that is a really big thing,” Whitehead added. “Five years ago, I don’t know if we were talking about sustainable fashion in this way.”