Too often do we market sustainable fashion in a vague and superficial way when it has always been and will continue to be both a challenging problem and a launching point for new innovation.
To give a better understanding of what constitutes sustainable fashion, I've outlined some general issues that independent brands like A.Oei face from fabric/fiber sourcing, garment manufacturing to prevailing retail patterns within the industry. I will also propose some solutions and principles that A.Oei abide by.
One of the biggest problems is the inability to accurately track and control the fabric and fiber manufacturing process.
Fibers can be divided into three groups: Natural Fibers stemming from vegetable (cotton, flax, hemp) or animal (wool, silk), Synthetic Fibers based on minerals and oil (polyester, acrylic), and Man-made cellulosic fibers (bamboo, lyocell, viscose).
The easy consensus is that natural fibers are 'good' because they are bio-degradable with low-impact on the environment and synthetic fibers are 'bad' because it is non-renewable. However, a material's renewability does not tell us much about the conditions in which it is created.
Questions that we ask:
- what types of chemicals and dyes are used? do fabric workers wear sufficient protective gear during the manufacturing process which sometimes emits harmful by-products?
In the early nineties, 'unbleached' was one of the mantras in 'eco' fashion and one of the main cause of concerns was the use of chlorine which has been linked to suspected carcinogens. However, bleaching fabrics is an important stage in textile processing because it ensures dyeing fabrics right the first-time as well as color fastness.
Most textile factories today use hydrogen peroxide to prepare fabrics for dyeing. Some problems with hydrogen peroxide is that the chemical additives are highly polluting if left untreated in the discharge water. Another method of bleaching is the use of ozone which does not require any water. However, it is much more expensive. A combination of the two across several processing stages is thus more sustainable and cost-effective.
In terms of color dyes, the higher the fixation rate, the less dye remains in the waste water and the lower the risk of water pollution. In conventional reactive dyes, which are the most common dye for fibers such as cotton, approximately 35% of dye remains in waste water.
New developments in dyeing techniques include bi-functional reactive dye which allow as much as 95% fixture to the cloth. In addition, dye bath reuse and reconstitution allow the bath to be recycled up to 6 times before the quality of the dye is affected. There is also increased research to develop 'universal' dyes that can be used over a variety of fibre types.
Using natural dyes from food waste like onion skins, coffee grounds, turmeric is the most sustainable method as it works within the limits of nature. However, its lack of color-fastness, stability and scalability is both desirable and undesirable depending largely on the design.
- what are the water / energy consumption levels like?
Cotton requires the highest percentage of water irrigation, in turn affecting access to water for other purposes such as food-crop. In contrast, synthetic fibers such as polyester use low levels of water.
In terms of energy consumption, synthetic materials such as acrylic consumes high fossil-fuel energy which releases high amounts of carbon dioxide as compared to flax and hemp which is much less energy-intensive.
As an alternative, recycled fibers, including recycled polyester or nylon is around 80% less energy-intensive than the manufacturing of virgin fiber. Using recycled fibers where possible is therefore the most sustainable route in fiber production. However, sourcing for the right recycled fibers that can achieve the same desirable look as virgin fibers is still a challenge as it isn't as readily available.
Where do we source for fabrics and what types of fibers do we use?
Given the pros and cons of different fibers, these are some principles that A.Oei follows when it comes to fabric sourcing:
1. We use natural and bio-degradable fibers where possible. Most of our garments are made of 100% cotton that are mercerized with long-staple fibers. They are more tightly woven with better strength, give off a refined sheen, comfortable and easy on the skin.
2. We are currently increasing the use of Tencel-lyocell fibers, which are regenerated cellulose fibre made from wood pulp. The production of lyocell substantially reduces water pollution as raw cellulose is dissolved directly in an amine oxide solvent which is non-toxic. Almost 100% of the solvent extracted can be purified and reused. We only use Tencel that are certified Tencel (TM).
3. We use polyester-blends for sturdier garments such as outerwear, trousers or essential staples. We believe that different product groups have different needs, and that the end-usage of them are just as important. These are easy-care-wear pieces that don't require as much washing, and are comfortable and durable. They perform other functions such as water-repellant needs or provide stretch. We are currently sourcing for recycled polyester that have lower impact than virgin polyester but maintains the same quality.
4. We source directly from textile factories where we can have answers regarding fiber content, manufacturing process, and fabric quality. We try not to work with 3rd-party suppliers who are unable to provide accurate fiber content. We only work with factories that have no minimums.
Our main textile partners are based in Japan and Thailand:
Most of our cottons, tencels and polyester-blends are produced by an established Kyoto-based textile factory.
Our unique patterns are digitally printed in Thailand by a factory that uses raw Thai silk and cotton. The advantage of digital printing is that there is less set-up cost and time than traditional methods such as silk screen which requires a screen stencil. This allows us to print the exact amount that we need.
We are constantly revising our fabric inventory so that we can have a range of staple fabrics that can be used across different designs and seasons. We create tightly curated collections in order to keep our fabric selection and consumption to a minimum. At the same time, this enhances each collection's identity and helps us work in a more efficient way.
2. Garment manufacturing
As an independent brand, this is one aspect where we are able to have the biggest control. Since we are not a large corporate company, our manufacturing volume is significantly smaller and therefore we have to find alternative manufacturers who can cope with small-batch, no-minimum requirements.
It took us time to test out different factories but we are proud to work with our sewing partners in Seattle, Vancouver(Canada) and Singapore, where we have built up personal working relationships and understand their production environments.
75% of our designs are sewn in Singapore by a small team of 1 tailor and 2 seamstresses who have extensive manufacturing experiences. The owner is a former designer with strong knowledge of high-end fashion. As I am originally from Singapore, I am keen to support local manufacturing.
A portion of our products are sewn by a garment factory in Vancouver with over 20 years of experience. The owner is the head pattern-maker and therefore has a strong understanding of garment construction and design quality. She has a team of around 10 seamstresses and personally oversees the production stages.
Finally, pieces that are made in Seattle are mostly handcrafted in our studio. Some are sewn by myself and some are sewn by part-time local sewing contractors. These designs are either custom-made or require an extremely small batch.
What do we do with scrap materials / unfinished prototypes / defective merchandise? We cut out usable portions from these pieces to create new fabric yardage that can be reused into new prototypes, or patched into one-off designs.
As with fabric sourcing, we are continually testing out different styles to find the right fit that is timeless, accessible and will last a long time in your wardrobe.
3. Retail Patterns
Meeting the demands and expectations of a ready-to-wear fashion market is another challenge. The search for "new" is a consistent, necessary and also crucial part of the industry. However, fast fashion has significantly increased the pace of design and production almost to a point of inefficiency. The stress of working with the seasonal cycles is relentless and sometimes we end up creating for the sake of creating.
I have had the opportunity of working for fashion companies of various sizes; from designing 180 styles per collection x 4 seasons a year, to being solely in charge of 50 knitted sweaters every 3 months (in addition to other product group designers), to working on a hands-on level and creating 20 styles per season, 2 seasons a year. What I have discovered is the emotional connection and pride I take in each individual design when I produce at a smaller scale.
A.Oei currently follows a traditional seasonal cycle where we showcase a line of samples to fashion retailers 2 times a year (Spring and Fall), receive orders and have around 5 months to produce the orders.
We follow this cycle because it allows us to use samples to test the market. Often times, retailers reflect customers' needs. We realize that perhaps not all samples are worth producing either because of the fit, style or season. This helps us make better decisions in term of what to produce, when to produce and how much to produce.
With the rise of online shopping and direct-customer purchases, there is a democratization of distribution channels that allow us to continually revisit and better communicate our values and process.
We are increasingly trying to make adjustments that would allow us to become more flexible in our design and production process. At the same time, we have been joining more pop-up shows with the hope of meeting customers and seeing first hand how our designs fit on different people. We are also in the process of taking on more custom designs that are tailored just for you.
As a consumer myself, when purchasing a garment, aside from fit and style, I look at the wash care label that tells me about the material used and where it was made in. On A.Oei's hang tags, we indicate both fabric and sewing origin so you know where our garments come from.
When it comes to wash care, I generally advise cold hand wash and hang dry for natural fibers. If you prefer to use the washing machine, I would advise putting the garment in a laundry bag and using cold wash, and hang dry.
Tumble-drying should be avoided not only because its high heat can cause shrinkage and pilling of natural fibers, but also because it is highly energy-intensive.
We recommend dry-clean for pieces with silk and wool, unless stated otherwise.
If possible, wear the same garment a few times before washing. Since most of our pieces use lightweight and breathable fabrics, they are able to withstand sweat and multiple use. In particular, trousers and outerwear generally do not require washing after each use. This should extend the lifetime of each piece.
Our current packaging includes a clear poly bag and a poly mailer bag that keep the garment well-protected against rain and shipping conditions. We will be developing more sustainable packaging options in the coming year, but hope you can recycle the bags as much as possible.
The fashion supply chain is murky and information is often hidden or obfuscated, in addition to creative urges and commercial demands, making it hard to talk about sustainability in fashion.
As an independent designer, we have the freedom to steer away from prevailing retail and production patterns that may not be as eco-friendly. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback and how we can improve our approach towards becoming a more sustainable brand.
1. Designing durable, timeless pieces with natural fabrics and components from trusted suppliers. Using polyester only for specific product groups and continue sourcing for recycled polyester.
2. Working only with reliable factories that we have build up personal working relationships with, and have no minimums in order to maintain production flexibility.
3. Developing more sustainable packaging options with bio-degrable materials.
4. Keeping our ready-to-wear line of bestselling essentials and statement pieces and moving towards more made-to-order artisanal designs. Creating more one-off pieces that recycle scrap materials.
Fashion & Sustainability, Kate Fletcher
Cradle to Cradle, McDonough, W and M. Braungart