It’s no secret that many fast fashion brands are responsible for alarming levels of environmental pollution, poor working conditions, unfair pay and animal cruelty. Consumers are getting wiser and are increasingly demanding more ethical and sustainable practices. But while a few brands are implementing changes, there’s a lot of greenwashing going on – with many companies providing misleading information. So what can we do? Well, we can be mindful of our choices; consume less, reuse more, boycott the unethical brands and support companies we feel proud buying from.
Here, I interview three inspirational emerging brands from around the world who focus on creating clothing using ethical and sustainable practices: Airbrushed Intimates, Lamb Of: The Label and Meüne. I also speak to two fashion designers, Lucy and Dani from Our Fashion Garden, for their take on the fashion industry and the role that designers can play in promoting sustainability.
1. First up is London-based Mia Lewin, who launched Airbrushed Intimates in July. Currently offering a colourful debut collection of bralette sets made from recycled ocean plastic waste, Mia hopes to show how fashion can be done slowly, ethically and sustainably.
What inspired you to set up airbrushed intimates?
“The environment became my world during University, where I specialised in sustainability within society. Afterwards, I became a full-time model, where I was immersed into the fashion industry – an industry that I have always adored; as it promotes diversity, enables self-expression, enhances confidence, reflects religion and keeps history alive. To my dismay, this world also exposed me to the harsh reality that is fast fashion – the sheer number of garments that are purchased and discarded for the industry is devastating.
Nonetheless, I have to admit that I am an absolute sucker for cute clothing. Which brings me to why I chose to start a sustainable brand – to ‘airbrush’ the bad bits out of the fast fashion industry and show how sustainable manufacturing can produce designs that are even more appealing, and just as affordable as those offered by fast fashion brands. I know the joys of fast fashion first-hand, and thus the sole aim of the brand is to bring you these joys without harming the planet.”
Tell me more about your partnership with the Big Blue Ocean Cleanup
“Here at Airbrushed, we think that partnerships should go beyond fundraising. It’s not just about financial support, but also making a social difference. We all know how much awareness matters, and raising the profile and awareness of charities can gain them new supporters and help their cause long term. That’s why we will always tailor our charity partnerships to the collections being released. Given that our debut collection was made from upcycled ocean waste, we decided to partner with one of the world’s leading ocean clean up non-profits. For every new follower, the Big Blue Ocean Cleanup removes 1kg of plastic from the sea, and thus in line with this, for every person who shares a photograph of their bralette set on Instagram, Airbrushed will donate £1 to support them.”
What’s eco-friendly about the brand?
“All of the pieces are, and will always be made with sustainable fabrics, with the debut collection being made with Econyl, a recycled fiber made from upcycled ocean waste that can be recycled, recreated and remoulded again and again. Although fabrics are of course relevant in a company’s sustainable efforts, their importance is often exaggerated. Reducing the environmental impact of products is far more than fabrics, it’s a culture, and one that Airbrushed Intimates is founded on. We are dedicated towards all things environmental; including research into how the sustainable fashion industry is changing (because it constantly is!), design and production of current and new products (which we will forever keep within the UK for quality and to reduce our travel footprint) and packaging (which is, and always will be plastic free).
Manufacturing is key to being an eco-friendly fashion brand, as having production miles away can make it almost impossible to ensure practices are ethical, environmentally friendly and safe. This is why all of our production is in London, and more specifically at ApparelTasker, whose eco policies are in line with the international standard ISO14001:2015, to ensure that environmental impacts are being measured and improved. Essentially, they are the gold standard of ethical production.”
What advice do you offer people when the clothing comes to the end of its life cycle?
“Please send it back to us! In the UK alone, consumers send a nausea-inducing 350,000 tons of clothes to landfill every year, our fashion waste problem is an epidemic that we should not ignore. Simply let us know, pop them into the post (we’ll pay for this!) and we will upcycle, donate or recycle it for you to ensure that none of our products ever end up in landfill.
Our first point of action is to try and rejuvenate the product, or its trims and fabric, and then upcycle it for donation so that it can be enjoyed again! If this is not possible for any reason, we will recycle it with local recycling centres.”
2. Next up, we meet Rachel Palko, founder of Lamb Of: The Label. After studying in the fast-paced fashion capitals, Paris and New York, Rachel was called to slow, sustainable fashion.
All Lamb Of: The Label pieces consist of naturally dyed, organic, ethical fibers that are 100% biodegradable. Each garment is carefully cut and sewn on Rachel’s great-grandmother’s farm table and signed by the person making the piece.
What did you learn from your time studying in the fast-paced fashion capitals, and why did this encourage you to turn towards slow, sustainable fashion?
“While studying fashion design in college, I had the opportunity to spend a summer in New York, as well as a summer in Paris. While these experiences were dreams come true – I was put off by the ever-changing culture of fashion that these places emanate. I feel as though I got an inside peek at the fashion industry’s tendency to push trends while simultaneously exploiting our fellow humans and earth’s resources. I quickly decided that this wasn’t for me, and I turned toward pursuing a path that will allow me to make a positive impact – both in my career and my brand.”
Each of your pieces is ‘intentionally designed’, can you expand on this?
“To me, intentional design considers the whole life cycle of a garment. During the design process I focus on the entire lifespan – from the fibers created, to how they will be disposed of. This also includes how the garment is worn – its versatility and longevity. “
That sounds great! What materials do you use and how are they ethical compared with alternative materials used in the fashion industry?
“I use various organic cotton fabrics, all of which are GOTS certified. Organic cotton uses no fertilizer or pesticides and consumes considerably less water. Peace silk is the other main fiber that I use – which is often called “cruelty free” silk. Unlike conventional silk, the silkworm is allowed to emerge from their cocoon before the silk is harvested, saving its life. I also love to use second hand or deadstock fabrics to save them from landfill!”
The eucalyptus and clay silk scrunchies are lovely – what was the thinking behind these pieces?
“The clay-dyed silk scrunchie and hankie were deeply inspired by my childhood in North Carolina. Like a lot of southern children (pre-tech days) I spent a lot of time playing outside, and most days I would come in covered in grass and red clay stains. This memory is what inspired me to paint with clay. As for the eucalyptus scrunchies, these were made from remnants from my senior capsule collection. This fabric was so special to me, I wanted to make sure it was given a second life. I try to give each of my pieces a story and nostalgia seems to be a running theme. I love honouring the past through my art.”
Your website mentions that giving back is a key component of Lamb Of: The Label. Can you share some examples with us?
“Each month, we donate 10% of our total profit to a non-profit/organization that is making a positive impact in the community! For example, in honour of Pride, we donated to the Okra Project during the month of June and we are donating to The Loveland Foundation for July and August. I know this is a small start, but I hope I’ll be able to help make lasting change as Lamb Of: grows!”
What do you hope people feel when they wear your pieces?
“I want people to feel confident! Confident in their looks, inner beauty, and capabilities to make a positive impact on this world. I especially want people to feel confident that they made a sustainable/ethical choice!”
Will you be adding more pieces to your collection?
“Right now, I’m interested in expanding my one-of-a-kind/custom dyed designs. As for adding more garments to the permanent collection – probably in the distant future. I want to create a collection of high quality, ethically made garments and that will be a slow process, but I’m excited!”
3. Here, I interview Nahir Sarsur from Argentina who is the founder of Meüne – a unique denim wear brand fused with naturally and ethically sourced artisanal woven fabrics, handcrafted by indigenous communities in the Peruvian Andes. The startup hasn’t been launched yet, but will be coming very soon.
After studying and working in Buenos Aires in International Affairs and finance, where she was exposed to a world of injustice and exploitation, Nahir left her job to travel to Paris to find more purpose and fulfilment. Here, she tells us more about her background and setting up Meüne – which partly arose from her concern over artisans, including indigenous communities of weavers across Latin American Andes, living in poverty and in danger of disappearing.
“I’ve never been much of a fashion person, but I do love art and craftsmanship, and I realized we can make art through fashion. Living in Paris kept me close to the clothing industry, where it became clear that fast fashion has taken over any other way of producing and selling clothes, harming nature and people. Eventually, I decided to start Meüne. I like to think about it as a project, more than a brand, because I created it with the sole purpose of helping transform fashion by aiding the indigenous communities with millenarian woven techniques and proposing ethical and responsible clothing.”
Can you shed some light on your relationship with indigenous communities and how your partnership works?
“I went to Peru to meet the indigenous communities. As they live in high altitudes and very isolated places, I needed someone local to help me get to them. There is a nonprofit organization in Peru who helps connect artisans with people who are willing to work with them to keep alive their culture and tradition. I got to know them and how they work, learnt a lot about their culture and I became even more excited than before to start working with them. I decided to work with the communities willing to do everything in a sustainable and animal cruelty free manner. For example, using alpaca wool that comes from free ranging herds treated correctly and properly taken care of. And using only natural pigments, plant based products and rain water to treat the wool.”
What pieces will be included in your range?
“We’ll be showcasing our first two denim jackets models exclusively created for the Kickstarter campaign. People will be able to get them during the crowdfunding campaign and these models won’t be reproduced again. This is something I decided to do for our supporters who want to see this project happen. They will be aseasonal and timeless, simple but creative, and deep rooted in nature and its colors.”
Please tell me more about your brand ethos
“The aim of this project is to show others we can be and do better for people and our planet. To encourage everyone to take a step further to be a more sustainable and aware person. Ask yourself these questions before choosing any brand: Are the right things celebrated? Are there structures in place to achieve change? Do the right people hold the power? Is investment being made in the things that really matter?”
Finally, I interviewed friends Dani and Lucy – fashion designers who run the blog ‘Our Fashion Garden’ to help people build a sustainable and ethical wardrobe (and overall lifestyle) on a budget.
What role do you think fashion designers play in sustainability?
Lucy: “I think every new designer today has to consider sustainability in all of their projects. It’s true that fast fashion is our worst enemy. Many people don’t want to spend a lot on clothing, so when it comes to prices it’s hard for us to compete with them. However, we can always be advocates and start spreading awareness about the matter.”
Dani: “I think we have the main role in applying sustainability in fashion. We should design products that care for the planet and the people living in it. We have the responsibility to do it.”
How do your values affect your designs?
Lucy: “You have to get away from trends and start building an eye for what is timeless, without losing your own style. It can be hard honestly, and you will make mistakes at the beginning, but everyone starts somewhere. Our designs need to generate from almost no to zero waste. Incorporating our values also affects the fabrics we use, because you can’t simply use whatever you want anymore. You need to choose sustainable fabrics & materials.”
Dani: “I believe that everything we do has a consequence, good or bad. For a great design, that will have a good impact, we need to take into consideration the user and the planet. We need to create things that make the world a better place, not harm it. That’s why everything I design needs to be thoughtful.”
Why did you set up the Our Fashion Garden page?
“Before graduating, we built sustainable fashion brands and we discovered one of the main struggles as a designer who worries about sustainability: There are a lot of people interested, but they can’t always afford it. Our main mission is to change the mindset and teach people how to live a more sustainable lifestyle and have a more conscious wardrobe, without spending a lot of money. We left our businesses to really focus on educating people and showing them all the possibilities that exist.”
Where do you think the fashion industry is headed? Are they taking enough steps?
“There is A LOT of greenwashing. Fast fashion brands are just pretending to sell “sustainable fashion” and people believe them, so they keep consuming it. We really think that there are a lot of people interested in sustainable fashion. But still, a lot of information needs to be shared in order to make better choices when buying. Unfortunately, prices are still very high, and not everyone can afford it.”
What’s your advice to consumers?
“As consumers, there are so many alternatives. First, consume less. Stop giving your money to millionaire brands who don’t care about anyone but themselves. We need to care more about us than just money. Investing in sustainable brands is caring about us, about people. Long term, it also benefits our economy. And finally, if you learn how your garments are made, you’re being more conscious about what you buy, so you could demand better things from fashion brands.”
For more information on how to live sustainably and reduce waste, read 5 top tips to zero waste living.