River Blue Shows Us How Our Clothes Affect Rivers

I just saw River Blue, a documentary about how the fashion industry affects rivers in developing countries. It was hard to watch, but it inspired me to contact my favorite brands and ask them how their textiles are made.

When NAFTA was passed in 1994, US apparel companies flocked overseas to find cheaper manufacturing, first to Mexico, then across the pond. The problem is, manufacturing in those countries is cheaper because people are paid less and because factories aren’t forced to adhere to environmental standards. Simple things like wastewater treatment simply don’t exist in India, Bangladesh, and China. Because China has been the world’s factory, especially post-NAFTA, they are starting to clean up their act. But their workers are also able to demand higher wages, so brands that compete on price keep finding countries willing to let them use factories that exploit their people and the water they need.

This documentary went behind the scenes, with a very thorough look at how leather is tanned in these countries and how denim is processed. They also showed some stunning state-of-the art denim processing being done in Italy. Spoiler alert because it’s so awesome- Italdenim has a special trick for making denim with far less chemicals and water- shellfish! They use discarded shells from crabs and such to grind it into a powder called Chitosan. Before dyeing the denim, they soak the fibers in Chitosan. It works as a natural fixative and makes the dye hold better.

Knowing there are solutions and companies using them makes any documentary easier to watch. This one focused on how much the textile industry has destroyed rivers that people depend on for drinking water, for agricultural water, for fishing. Yet what gave me hope was knowing that other rivers have died and been reborn. The Hudson river, The Thames, even the Los Angeles river have all been far worse off in the past than they are now, thanks to environmental activism. We can do the same for the rivers of these other countries.

This week has been Fashion Revolution Week. It began as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse, and has expanded into a week of raising awareness about the importance of sustainability in fashion. Fashion Revolution has put out this great index to the top 100 brands on their transparency.

Contact YOUR favorite brands and ask them- Who made my clothes? What’s in my clothes? My favorite things are my Swrve jeans and my Dainese jacket. Swrve answers the first question in their FAQ here. The “brand name” fabric they use in their blk label line is Schoeller, which is the Gold Standard of eco activewear fabrics, but their stretch Cordura blend denim is not from Schoeller.

My friends at Dainese got back to me immediately when I asked them where Dainese gets their leather. After watching the film, I was horrified to think it might have come from Bangladesh. More about why, here. Dainese’s leather comes from Brazil and is tanned in Italy. I found this 2003 article about how Italian tanneries treat effluent, then this 2015 article (pdf) explains the Italian tanning industry is still growing. My jacket was sewn in the Ukraine, where pay might not be as good as in Italy, but at least the leather was tanned in Italy, a country that doesn’t allow tanneries to dump untreated effluent into their rivers.

Swrve replied to me first thing Monday morning with this:

Hi Susanna-

We use a Factory that is on the cutting edge of sustainability.

They are the first garment factory in Pakistan to be LEED certified, use innovative waterless washing when possible, recycle and treat water, etc. etc.


They are also really good on social responsibility, so they are a great company to work with.


But the highlight of the entire film for me was discovering the genius that invented stretch denim! They interviewed Peter Golding, and now I want to build him a shrine. Or at least thank him. I’ve lived in stretch denim since I was 14, and really have to force myself to wear anything else. Now if someone would just invent a biodegradable elastin, we’d finally have fully biodegradable jeans. Then fast fashion would be worth buying, don’t you think? There is biodegradable elastin for use in wound treatment, perhaps it could be adapted for a longer life. The challenge is deciding what you’re selling- disposable clothing, or clothing meant to be passed down to future generations.

Afingo’s Behind The Seams Panel

In November 2010, Afingo invited me to moderate a panel on sustainable fashion. Here’s the condensed version of the video. If you have the time, check out the full video here.

From the schedule:

Eco-friendly fashion specialists will discuss whether “going green” is just another trend or a necessary, fundamental shift in how the industry works, as well as how to make the change at a level that is more than skin-deep.
• Susanna Schick, Founder of Sustainable Fashion LA (Moderator)
• Raissa Gerona, Designer, Brigid Catiis
• Dale Denkensohn, Founder & President, econscious
• Jason Kibbey, CEO & Founder, PACT
• M.J. Prest, Editor-in-Chief & Founder, EthicalStyle.com
• Anna Griffin, Editor-in-Chief & Founder, Coco Eco Magazine


Eco-Fashion: Going Green The Museum at FIT through November 13

 This exhibit is free of charge and housed in the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the country’s leading fashion schools. What most impressed me about the collection is that it did not begin with eco-fashion, but with a brief history of fashion from the 1800′s. The exhibit included a key which identifies the six major areas of impact, and each piece had symbols identifying the biggest issues around its manufacture.

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Global Green and What Makes an Oscar Gown Green?


Photo Courtesy of Brandon Hickman
 At the Global Green Pre-Oscar party last week, Suzy Amis Cameron’s eco Oscar gown was unveiled. It was lovely, but there was no mention of what made this gown more sustainable than most, other than it was colored “Na’vi blue”.

This sort of vagueness is how people can easily be accused of greenwashing.  Even the interview with the designer did not include this pertinent information, only her discussing the challenge of creating an eco gown. Yes, it’s a little harder, but when price is not an issue it’s no harder than designing any other couture-quality gown.

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What’s an Eco Designer to Do about Bamboo?

Having read a lot of recent coverage of the FTC’s August 2009 ruling about bamboo, I wonder what will become of brands whose staple fabric is “bamboo”? The problem is, most of these designers and the textile sales reps they buy from, were sold rayon fabric labeled as bamboo.

Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber based on wood pulp. Sure, some of that wood pulp could be bamboo, but try getting a Chinese textile mill to tell you what they’re actually putting into the mix, as opposed to what they know you want them to tell you is in there.

While Viscose Rayon (known simply as Rayon in the US) is a wonderfully breathable fiber with great texture, strength, and drape-ability, it does require a lot of nasty chemicals to turn that wood pulp, bamboo or otherwise, into soft textile products. In Delia Montgomery’s recent article on the subject, one of the comments mentions the impact of cotton, complaining that cotton has a more negative net impact than bamboo.

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Photo of Bamboo Dress by Anna Ostrovskaya, Courtesy Reuters Oddly Enough

Recycled Underwear? PACT Doesn’t Recommend It.

Earlier this week I spoke with Jason and Jeff, co-founders of PACT, the most socially and environmentally responsible underwear company on earth, as far as I know. Not only do they use organic cotton, GOTS compliant dyes and otherwise uber-responsible manufacturing, they also donate 10% of sales to charities. This is utterly astounding in an industry where even a 10% profit margin is a miracle. But then, most apparel companies weren’t founded by Haas MBA’s.

Cradle To Cradle For Everything?

Jason and I got to talking about Cradle to Cradle, as it’s an interesting topic, and well, they’re already doing everything else, why not take it a step further? Do I hear a protest? You don’t want someone’s underwear recycled into your t-shirt? But it’s for the cause, man… OK, jokes aside, and even if it wasn’t underwear being discussed, but some other form-fitting cotton garment, Jason did the research. Because he cares that much. The thing is, 100% cotton gets baggy and saggy. So it’s more likely to be thrown out soon. If it happens to be owned by someone who’s passionate enough to find a place to deliver their used cotton underwear, it can be recycled. Jason explained that less than 1% of all cotton is currently recycled, and Jeff pointed out that even pure cotton sometimes contains dyes and chemicals that make it impossible to recycle.

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