Sustainable style in Seattle: How local choices can make global impacts

A clothing rack at Red Light Vintage Clothing, one of seven thrift stores in Seattle’s University District. (Photo by Claudia Yaw)

Mary Lawrence picks up a second-hand leopard-print pencil skirt and inspects it. Its feline-inspired spots are almost identical to the ones on her long sleeve mesh top. She laughs at the idea of wearing leopard-on-leopard and puts the skirt back on the rack.

In her sleeveless white dress and chunky black boots, Lawrence struts through Lifelong Thrift, relishing the sound of her own footsteps — it’s clear that treasure hunting in second-hand shops is her passion. But her tendency to thrift isn’t purely founded on fun. Lawrence is also hyper-aware of the environmental and humanitarian costs of “fast fashion.”

“Fast fashion” refers to less expensive clothing that is produced quickly to take advantage of trends. Because of the quick turnaround, mass production and low price point, these clothes often come from factories in countries with low pay and, often, abusive labor practices.

Unfortunately, fast fashion has become an industry standard. This dark truth isn’t new.

In 2013, concerns over fast fashion came to light when the world watched a garment factory in Bangladesh, a leading clothing exporter, collapse, killing over 1,000 people.

“I remember when all those horrible things came out, but I didn’t want to put two and two together,” Lawrence said. “It didn’t even cross my mind that those people were making the clothes that I’m wearing.”

Lawrence and I look through Lifelong Thrift’s shoe racks and I ask her about her relationship with thrifting. She interrupts me to point out a pair of black stilettos with six-inch gold heels.

“Oh my goodness, I’m wearing heels for like the first time in my life,” she says, pointing at her thrifted platform boots. “They aren’t even really heels, but they make me feel so powerful.”

Lawrence says that these days she wouldn’t even think about spending money at a fast fashion store.

“I feel really dirty when I got into a Forever 21,” Lawrence said.

She noted that in addition to dubious labor practices, Forever 21’s low-quality garments are designed to be cheap and disposable, contributing to a cycle of environmental destruction.

According to Environmental Health Perspectives, textile manufacturing results in large amounts of crude oil, acid gases, solvents, and other pollutants being released into the environment.

Lawrence prides herself in being a conscious consumer. As a Seattleite, she’s not alone. In past years, our fashion-forward city has been moving away from fast fashion and toward more ethical and sustainable options.

Candace Cantaloupe is the director of the Seattle Fashion Academy and has studied both fashion and environmental science. According to Cantaloupe, sustainability has become “fashionable in fashion” over the last 3 to 5 years.

Although the Academy doesn’t teach classes specifically about sustainability, Cantaloupe says it’s “inherent in what we do.”

For example, Cantaloupe focuses many of her classes on high-quality construction in the hope that students’ clothing will last forever.

The amount of clothing thrown in the garbage is also what prompted King County to start their “Threadcycle” program — an ecological initiative that prompts residents to recycle unwanted clothing.

According to Threadcycle project manager Karen May, almost all clothing articles that are thrown away can actually be recycled. Threadcycle partners with local organizations to allow King County residents to recycle even their threadbare, stained or ripped clothing.

Cantaloupe says the Seattle Fashion Academy attempts to avoid this process altogether by teaching students how to repair clothing instead of adding it to the waste stream.

Although Cantaloupe has witnessed a rise in sustainable and ethical clothing, she acknowledged the many factors that prevent Seattleites from buying this clothing.

“People here are so used to buying things at H&M and spending $20 instead of $200,” Cantaloupe said. “A lot of it is just teaching people how to recognize quality.”

Cantaloupe believes that because much of the design process is hidden from the consumer, many think it’s unreasonable to pay $200 for a garment made with sustainable and ethical practices. For example, a buyer may not realize that a designer used natural and sustainable fibers, paid all her employees a fair wage, and built the garment to last a lifetime. These ethical and sustainable practices aren’t cheap.

Cantaloupe hopes that more transparency within the fashion industry will help customers understand why sustainable clothing, or “slow fashion,” costs more. This transparency may come in the form of designers sharing their practices via social media, or in the form of fast fashion industries being exposed for their unethical practices.

KnowTheChain, for example, is a humanitarian watchdog organization that assigns corporations a score out of 100 based on labor abuses within their supply chain.

This year, KnowTheChain assigned Amazon’s apparel department a score of 34. Columbia Sportswear Company, based out of Portland, received an even lower score of 31.

When you look around Seattle, it’s not hard to see small shifts toward more sustainable and ethical clothing consumption. From slow-fashion designers to the rise of your local thrift store, a culture of conscious consumption is certainly growing. However, that doesn’t guarantee a significant global impact.

Cantaloupe is skeptical of celebrating any environmental or ethical victories. She says that as much as local designers try to be responsible producers, KnowtheChain reveals that fast fashion reaches far beyond Seattle.

Lawrence echoed this sentiment. She said that thrifting makes her feel better about her role in the fashion industry, but she doesn’t kid herself when it comes to the actual positive impact she’s making.

“[Thrifting] doesn’t actually have that great of an impact on the environment,” Lawrence said. “It’s a low bar being presented, like ‘We did it! We did it!’”