You Can't Greenwash Quality
When it comes to sustainable fashion and how “green” a brand is, the conversation typically centers around its efforts regarding circularity or the transparency in their supply chain of late. It rarely touches on anything about the actual quality of the clothing. I believe every discussion regarding sustainability in fashion should address how to create a longer-lasting garment. A quality garment is a durable garment, and quality manufacturing is one of the most important things brands can do to create a more sustainable fashion industry. It’s the philosophy that led me to found Senza Tempo and one that a growing body of academic research supports.
Quality is something consumers can assess without any additional information from a brand. The fabric and how the seams are finished tell you more about a garment than any QR code or third-party certification. It’s why I show the inside and seams of Senza Tempo clothing on the website and social media.
How a garment is finished on the inside is a mark of craftsmanship, quality, and the ultimate form of transparency. Crooked seams and loose threads? Those are the signs of workers who are forced to sew as many items as possible in the shortest amount of time, likely in deplorable conditions, and for pennies per item. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see how the stitch line follows the grain of the fabric.
The same thing can be said for the choice of fabric. Using polyester instead of natural fibers saves a few dollars per garment, which makes a significant difference to a company's bottom-line when you sell millions or billions of units, which explains why nearly 70% of our clothing is made from polyester today.
A recent study of the circular economy compared the global warming potential of extended use, resale, recycling, and rental in fashion. The scientists found that extended use and resale have the lowest global warming potential. They found that recycling leads to a higher global warming potential, so the idea of buying cheap poor quality clothing and then simply recycling them — an idea pushed by fast fashion brands and non-profits alike as being an environmentally friendly way to buy cheap trendy clothing — is not backed by research.
It seems like there’s a new eco collection or sustainable brand launching every week. Yet none ever talk about the quality of their construction or versatility of their product — two things that are crucial to lowering fashion’s environmental footprint. Research by Mistra Future Fashion found that doubling the use of the average garment before disposal will lower its carbon impact by nearly 50% — more than any other measure a brand can take on the production side.
We consume more than ever and use our clothing less — this is the root of fashion’s sustainability problem. Yet these aren’t the problems most brands are looking to solve. They are focused on what will get them the best press, which is why so many companies focus on technological solutions instead of just making fewer better quality clothes.
To maximize the amount of use we get out of each item, we must buy better quality, and use what we have longer. I focus on creating high-quality, timeless styles that are largely seasonless to be as versatile as possible. I want Senza Tempo items to be the items women go back to over and over again — to have the highest utilization rate possible.
There will always be things that consumers end up donating and the quality of those items matters, too. Holes, and general wear and tear are the top reasons people dispose of their clothing — not necessarily trends as we are often led to believe.
A label used to be indicative of the quality of a garment. That’s how most luxury brands earned their reputation. Today, it can be harder to identify which brands are doing quality work and which are simply great marketers. Here are my tips on what to look for:
Country of Origin
The country of origin can tell you more about the quality than the name on the label. The highest quality clothing is made in the U.S., Italy, Switzerland, Japan, France, Germany, and the U.K. Senza Tempo is produced in a single atelier in downtown Los Angeles.
What is a garment made of? Natural fabrics like cotton, wool, or linen have proven track records when it comes to durability. They are also breathable and can often be worn throughout the year. It isn’t the wool that makes your suit hot in July, it’s the acetate lining. Acetate is polyester, so it’s effectively like wearing plastic. It isn’t breathable or biodegradable. It’s cheap though, and that’s why polyester is so prevalent. A recent report from Changing Markets shows that even the “sustainable” collections from many brands are 70% polyester.
Another thing to think about is how a fabric feels when you touch it: is it thin and papery, or soft and substantial? Compare a garment that’s 100% polyester versus cotton or silk. How do they feel compared to one another?
Look at your closet to see what your favorite items are made of and how they have worn over time. Auditing your closet to identify what your favorite clothing is made of, and what has lasted the longest can be an effective method to help you make more conscious shopping decisions.
Before you buy a piece of clothing, turn it inside out. How seams are finished is the most revealing part of any garment and a brand. It shows how much a brand truly cares. Are they straight? How close are the stitches? The further apart the weaker that seam will be. Are there loose threads or does the inside have a clean finish?
I was shocked one time to see what was supposed to be a high-end sustainable brand with a serged hem, which is a cheap and fast way to finish a hem — a technique not remotely consistent with luxury quality construction. The very best made garments have tight stitch lines that finish the edge of the fabric, or seams covered by a strip of fabric so that the edges can’t even be seen. My social media regularly features photos of seams and the inside of garments along with the outside.
Trying to shop more sustainably can seem like a tall order. It’s hard to sort out which eco claims are real and which are greenwashing, but most of the time the garment itself will tell you all you need to know.
Stitch counts and fabric durability might not be quite as sexy or deemed as newsworthy as how to turn plastic bottles into a shirt, but that attitude must change to make meaningful progress toward creating a more sustainable fashion industry. As consumers, we have to be able to look beyond the buzzwords, buy less, and truly buy better. Science has shown that buying less makes us happier than buying green, anyway.