While the conversation around sustainability in fashion has become much louder and more urgent over the past decade, up until this point it has tended to centre on garments at the point of manufacture – generally focusing on reducing the amount of new man-made fibres entering the fashion cycle.
The fact that the industry has zoned in on how garments are made is hardly surprising; the fashion system exists on an increasingly ravenous diet of new products to get us to part with our money, produced more quickly and more often (it’s not uncommon for luxury fashion houses to produce six collections every year now, when they previously might have only produced two).
What’s had far less attention is what happens after that product has entered your wardrobe because, cynically, that’s not where the money is. However, it’s this, as well as the fabrics used for manufacture, that a new generation of menswear brands are looking to address, at the core of businesses that aim to be fully circular – and it’s something we all should be paying attention to.
“We see sustainability as a moral imperative,” says Callum McCall, who co-founded Camberwell-based men’s label Flax London with his friend George Rutherford-Jones in January 2018. “Too many brands are content to address one aspect of sustainability and pat themselves on the back, despite it being the equivalent of a plaster on a gaping wound.”
For McCall, there are three core factors that need to be taken into account when a brand thinks about its sustainability: the impact of creating a piece of clothing, the impact of someone wearing and caring for that piece of clothing, and the impact of throwing away that piece of clothing.
To address the first (where many other brands focus their resources), all of Flax London’s clothes (a small collection that comprises a pair of shorts and a shirt and jacket in two fabric weights) are cut from linen sourced in accredited mills in Northern Ireland and Belgium – a material which requires only natural rainfall to cultivate in Northern Europe, as opposed to cotton that requires around 8,000 litres of irrigation to grow just one kilo (that’s around 65 bathtubs more water than for the same amount of linen). The clothes themselves are made in London, meaning a geographically compact, less wasteful process from start to finish.
However, where Flax London differs is that the founders have taken those second two points seriously too. Every item they produce comes with washing instructions to both protect its lifespan and the environment (they recommend a cold wash only after four to five wears). Soon they will introduce a branded care range to help people do it right, including a steamer to keep clothes crease-free between wears and a phosphate and preservative-free washing detergent.
This approach has been echoed by Leigh Keates, founder of beachwear label Thalassophy, which makes men’s swimming shorts out of 100-per-cent recycled marine and landfill plastic – each fitted with an innovative label that includes washing instructions designed to reduce microplastics entering the water supply.
“What is important to me is full transparency,” says Keates. “There is a misconception that using recycled materials is the solution to the world’s plastic crisis, but it’s merely a step in the right direction. Micro-plastics can occur when washing any garment made from synthetic fabrics. I feel that as a brand with a conscience it is our responsibility to educate our consumers.”
However, beyond preservation through washing, that longevity is also achieved through aftercare. Increasingly brands are offering lifetime warranties for their products. At Flax London, for example, anyone who buys one of their pieces can get it repaired forever for free – they even send a courier to pick it up. And if it can’t be repaired for any reason (a rarity, the duo assures me), they will repurpose the fabric into a new item or as pocket linings and give that customer 20 per cent off their next piece.
“Our motto is to buy less and wear more. To make this possible we strive to deliver a timeless product in terms of both design and manufacture – and we realise that when a garment is worn continuously it may need at some point some extra care,” says Margherita Cardelli, who founded Italian men’s and women’s label Giuliva Heritage Collection in 2016 with her husband, tailor and street style icon Gerardo Cavaliere.
“We are passionate about the aftercare process of clothing and our Lifetime Guarantee Policy offers repairs and restorations to pieces bought through both our own e-shop, as well as through all of our global stockists, forever. At the point when a piece needs mending, we propose adding stitches in contrasting colours to create a distinctive and personalised signature. An evident stitch can become a symbol of the history of the garment – it marks another chapter in its life.”
As man-made fabrics get filtered out of the fashion cycle, the larger challenge with sustainability becomes re-programming consumers and brads alike to value and cherish longevity. And with brands like these thinking holistically about the long-term effects of the garments they produce, perhaps in the future it will be physical marks of history like this, rather than newness, that become the most desirable thing about the garments we wear.