Ethical Fashion, Transparency and Bamboo
By this point, we can all agree that there are certain ideas and projects in the world of ethical fashion that sound great and even look great, but when you look into the details, there can be holes in their sustainability stories.
This is definitely not the case with Constant Simplicity, a brand new company that had good answers to all the hard questions. Often times in our research, we stumble upon individuals that offer rather vague explanations to the specifics of why are they “ethical” or “sustainable”; Atnyel A. Guedj, the brand’s founder was everything but vague. Transparency in the fashion business and particularly in the slow fashion movement is one of the main values we focus on, since the shift to a more clear and explicit supply chain is one of the keys to solve many of the issue’s with today’s fashion industry.
Constant Simplicity manufactures and distributes clothes for men and women made of bamboo and other eco-friendly materials with the highest care for the structure of the process itself and not just the end product. It is based on the principles of Transparency, Quality and Sustainability and a simple look at their website reveals this is a clear commitment and not just marketing.
Why bamboo? You might ask. What is the problem with cotton? What kind of clothes can you make with bamboo derived fabrics? We wanted to find the answers to these and may more questions, so we interviewed Atnyel and he gave us some of the best information we’ve ever gotten from a new brand. Here are some of the questions we asked him:
You explain the benefits of bamboo, as it requires less water, no pesticides and provides superior oxygen production. Is it significantly more expensive to grow bamboo compared to cotton? Where does the bamboo you are using comes from?
Bamboo as a source of fiber is a new thing. Only since circa 2003 technological advancements allowed companies to make the very soft fabric that we can offer today. Bamboo trees for textiles are not those tiny ones you imagine a panda eating (there are more than 2000 species of bamboo). It is large and very robust. To turn that into fiber you need to go through the Rayon process. In a nutshell you crush the bamboo and extract the cellulose (like cotton it is a cellulose based fiber). To do so you need strong chemicals. One of them is Lye, which is in daily use even in the food industry, and even most organic cotton fabrics use it in the finishing process. Rayon from Bamboo is very easy to handle as a final fabric and uses less finishing processes and can be dyed much more easily than cotton. Our bamboo sea (that is how a bamboo forest is referred to in Chinese) comes from Sichuan province. It is put on a train and goes to the eastern coast of China. There, in Shaoxing it is turned into fiber and fabric. It is currently more expensive than cotton for the brand. But the distribution of wealth from it is more just. A bamboo farmer needs lower investments and it has greater yields and is pretty self-maintained so the investment of the farmer is lower which helps bring his ROI higher than cotton farmers, which bear huge risks on their backs.
You reduced the polluting agents and toxins used in the manufacturing process by 40% (when compared to a regular t-shirt) How did you manage to achieve this? Did this imply heavy investment or was it more about simple changes on the way this is usually done? Does reducing these polluting agents affect negatively the final product in any way?
We did a few things. First, we recognized that denim or even a dress shirt will have to be made from Cotton but for t-shirts, polos and polo dresses it is not a must. By switching to bamboo as raw material we already got rid of the pesticides and insecticides used. We also were very picky choosing our partners along the supply chain. We tried to choose (whenever we could) partners that use alternative sources of energy. In Los Angeles for example our cutting partner are true visionaries and installed solar panels years ago, before it became fashionable. This efficiency in the system made a huge impact. Also, we paid extra attention to the use of chemicals and the way they are treated and recycled. Chemicals are needed to turn bamboo into fiber, even most organic cotton t-shirts out there use chemicals for dyeing and finishing. We cannot yet eliminate all of them, as that would mean a huge price hike but we can supervise the process. Unlike on the cotton field, these are contained processes, which we can really examine how the water is treated and what is the effect of each step on human health. We tend to think we are immune to the pollution caused by our buying habits. It’s far away in china. And China sounds a million miles away. But the great Chinese smog is crossing the Atlantic and ends up in the US. To get these reductions in pollutants is a lot of hard work and it is pure gain. Quality is the same. If anything we got to know our product better and will continue this and try to keep improving it alongside further reductions in pollutants.
Manufacturing in countries like China and Bangladesh has been demonized by some people in the ethical fashion industry. What are the real challenges to integrate these countries, for which this is a very important economic activity into a more sustainable track?
Textile production plays a huge role in China and more so nowadays in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a great example; the entire economy depends on it. Imagine a young woman that would otherwise be considered a burden on the family suddenly being able not only to finance herself but send money back to the village. There is only one way to move forward into a more sustainable path – commitment. Which is ironic as it’s the lack of commitment that brought brands there in the first place. We have to be willing to work with factories over a few seasons and not shut them down with the first problem in sight. We need to be willing to stick around and bring in knowledge into the country and provide stability so that they can establish change. Factory managers as a whole in Bangladesh or China are not these evil fictional characters out of a dickens novel. They are hardworking people that like us are trying to reach a better future.
( To be continued)
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, along with more information about Constant Simplicity’s clothing coming up soon.