Most people know that person. They’re the type who reposts stats about the amount of water it takes to make a pair of jeans while eating mangoes from Whole Foods and sitting beside their bursting closet. When they’re drunk on lightly limed vodka sodas, they pull up Lauren Singer’s TED Talk on their phone. As they sip from their chartreuse aluminium water bottle and exude Aesop scents, their presence seems to radiate Reformation’s slogan, which is: “being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We’re #2.”
The recognisable colour palettes and simple cuts of Reformation garments have in some ways become a virtue signalling of sustainability. But, is it possible for such prevalent, wide-scale brands like the Californian label to remain truly eco-friendly once they hit a certain threshold? At what point can a brand reach success until it’s necessary to fall away from its original message to keep up with the inundated, widespread demand for its floral tops?
In 2019, the founder and former CEO of Reformation, Yael Aflalo, said to Vogue Business that her brand is like “Zara but with a soul.” The California native went on to explain that “people love Zara, but the issue is that they don’t feel like Zara shares their values from a sustainability and inclusivity perspective.” Starting off as a vintage shop and then growing into its own in 2009, Aflalo’s label is underpinned by a penchant for sustainability. But, this inherently contradicts its aim to emulate the success of a fast fashion company.
This Zara-infused inspiration is reflected in Reformation’s ‘Sustainability’ page on its website. Here, it states that “at Ref, a sketch can become a dress in about a month,” echoing the Spanish fast fashion giant’s ability to turnover designs in about a week. Harvard Business School reports that while most retailers commit 100 per cent of their designs ahead of the season, Zara strategically waits to design 50 per cent of its clothes, drawing on what’s trendy. Reformation follows a similar approach, saying that it’s “designing and making what you want to wear right now.” As the brand grows, this turnover rate increases, bloating the supply chain and output immensely.
Reformation strives to create garments with primarily natural, renewable, or recycled fibres. However the brand recognises that to craft at the level it needs to in order to reach its demand, it can only have these materials realistically compose 75 per cent of its clothing. While its factories are based in Los Angeles, it does supply fabrics from Turkey and China, similar to Zara and most other labels at its level. The company’s effort is commendable—and even Reformation realises it still has a lot of work to do. But, with the trajectory of this brand from a small store rooted in environmental morality to the nearly global availability of its products today, it seems almost impossible that it could keep up its original green mission.
Although Ganni could fit into the upper end of this category—that being expensive, somewhat fast fashion—the Danish brand has taken a different approach. Ganni openly declares on its website that it “doesn’t identify as a sustainable brand,” acknowledging the disconnect between cyclical fashion at a large-scale level. Instead, it states that it “recognises the inherent contradiction between its current fashion industry that thrives off newness and consumption, and the concept of sustainability. So instead, we’re focused on becoming the most responsible version of ourselves.”
This honest approach echoes the label’s Danish origins and its signing of the UN’s 2019 Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. The charter’s primary goal is to work with its signatories to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Copenhagen-based company clearly lays out its shortcomings and its extensive plans to reach measurable goals annually, integrating this approach into its day-to-day, rather than flagging it within its marketing campaigns and perpetuating complacent consumption towards an illusive cause.
By contrast, online shoppers can purchase not just clothing, but Climate Credits on Reformation’s website. These credits are intended to offset carbon usage—like that burned for domestic flights, weddings, or your day-to-day life—by donating the money to verified projects through Native Energy. By conflating its clothing with metric tonnes of carbon, it’s webbing sustainability into the lifestyle it wants the brand to project. While Reformation does outline its plans in a similar fashion to Ganni on its website, its emphasis on sustainability takes on an almost passive, California-cool tone.
While the second most sustainable option definitely isn’t Reformation, in a time of saturated globalisation, the most environment-friendly clothing options are most likely those in your own neighbourhood. Rather than propelling small stores—like the California brand once was—into global producers, fashion lovers invested in sustainability should consider supporting local designers who use fabrics native to their immediate area. In an alternate world on the cusp of carbon neutrality, Reformation most likely would have never left the West Coast and Ganni would only be seen in the streets of Copenhagen. However, of course, this isn’t the case. Now that we have a global appetite, it will be hard to diet and satiate ourselves with materials produced within our local vicinity.
Due to this taste of globalisation, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever go back to buying 100 per cent local. For that reason, Ganni states that it remains in the industry because it believes that “fashion can be a force for good, and a vehicle for change,” and that because of this it would “rather go to work every day and focus on creating a responsible fashion industry,” than shut down its business. And at this level of global consumption and supply chains, this awareness and transparency seems like the truly most sustainable option.
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The fashion industry is slowly becoming sustainable, or at least it’s aiming to—not truly because it wants to but because, like the rest of the world, it has to. And while fast fashion may not be completely up for it just yet, new gen fashion designers, which are the ones that will actually build the future of that industry, are pushing for change. First innovation on the never-ending list? A biodegradable fabric that decomposes within a day. What exactly is this new bio-fabric and what potential does it hold for a sustainable future for the fashion industry?
The Decomposition of Materiality is a project from Central Saint Martins graduate Scarlett Yang exploring biodegradable materials. Yang researched and developed a biodegradable textile made with algae extracts and silk cocoon protein. During the project’s showcase, the designer also added 3D simulations of the fabric’s decomposition process, documenting how the wearable objects gradually dissolve while environments change.
Alongside a 3D animation film and an augmented reality experience, Yang created a material archive for people to touch in order to understand the new possibilities this biodegradable fabric could bring the fashion industry. Highlighting four digital wearable pieces, the collection was displayed in a gallery floating above a virtual ocean.
The LVMH-awarded project offers fully biodegradable, glass-like garments that organically evolve as they’re worn, eventually decomposing. The garments can gradually biodegrade in rain, river, and seawater, while soaking them in 60-degrees Celsius water can speed up the degradation process to as little as 24 hours.
Yang’s approach to bio-fashion should not only be seen as a sustainable alternative that could potentially allow us to indulge in our consumerism but more as a first push towards consumers understanding the concept of a material’s life cycle. Yang’s resulting texture and lifespan of each piece is subject to temperature and humidity levels—seasonal changes from hot and humid to dry and cold can also make the garments appear more sculptural. The ephemeral nature of her fabrics echoes our fast-paced consumption of fast fashion.
Many of today’s garments are woven from plastic-based acrylic, nylon or polyester threads. Cut and sewn in factories, all these materials are non-biodegradable. To combat the ill effects of fast fashion, young designers are looking for more sustainable methods. One thing is for sure, the materials of tomorrow will be smarter and less ecologically damaging. What remains unsure is whether we are ready to change the impact of what we wear.