It’s no secret how very many costs are associated with the production of a fashion garment. Farming of the raw fibres. Payment of the farmers’ wages. Raw material production. Processing of said material. Designers and artists. And all that comes before we even begin to consider things like transport, packaging, branding, and marketing.
When a company is truly sustainable, what that essentially means is that they’re committed to paying fair prices (meaning a livable wage is paid to every participant) at each of these stages.
As such, when the price of one of these components goes up, the overall price of the garment has to be adjusted to reflect this. Unlike large commercial chains, price adjustments can’t be absorbed and redistributed elsewhere in a small sustainable business’ supply chain, something that allows fast fashion brands’ garment prices to remain relatively stable.
The price of a sustainable product may be subject to fluctuations because the final price is a fair representation of all the components that went into its creation. If product prices are not adjusted to reflect an increase in costs, the excess needs to come directly out of the business profits which, in itself, can cripple a small sustainable business’ operations and very quickly see it derailed.
Another challenge faced by sustainable businesses that are dealing in handmade items is that economies of scale behave very differently compared with a large scale factory produced item, and in some places do not exist at all. Take, for example, a handwoven tapestry; even if a production line style of operation is established, the weaver can only weave at a certain speed and so it is time that becomes the limiting resource. She cannot weave 100 tapestries any faster than she can weave one single tapestry 100 times, and if she is paid a livable wage for each hour she spends at work, then the final piece she creates cannot compete financially with a machine-produced item that can benefit from economies of scale.
We face these challenges at Maria Malo, and part of our journey is striking the balance between satisfying our high standards of sustainability, whilst also producing an item that is feasible for our customers to purchase. It’s no joke, to be honest - but it’s important as hell.
Here are some of the steps we take - and the challenges we face - to this end:
We only use eco-friendly fabrics
While the vast majority of clothes that exist on the planet are made of environmentally catastrophic fabrics like nylon and cotton, here at maria Malo, we’re committed to using only sustainable fabrics in our range of eco-friendly clothing. Some of our go-tos include bamboo, TENCEL™ (and its super cool offspring, eco-denim), and econyl.
If you’re unfamiliar with these fabrics, the basic idea is this:
Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing grasses (yes, grasses; it is in fact not a tree!) in the world, which makes it incredibly quick at regenerating itself - especially when sustainably harvested. Bamboo also has the power to regenerate arid, unfarmable soil wherever it’s growing. This makes it a far more eco-friendly fabric than cotton, which is slower growing, detrimental to the land, and requires massive amounts of water to produce.
In order to meet the high sustainability targets set for Maria Malo, we choose to use both natural and regenerated materials, like TENCEL™ Lyocell. Using sustainable wood sources, the manufacturing of lyocell is an eco friendly process that generates the highest quality fabric. The production method has earned a commendable reputation for their environmentally responsible, closed-loop process that transforms wood pulp into cellulosic fibers with high resource efficiency and low environmental impact. This solvent spinning process recycles the process water and reuses the solvent at a recovery rate of over 99%.
Another ecological advantage of TENCEL ™ Lyocell fibres is that the raw wood comes from forest plantations that practice sustainability. The cultivated forest land is unsuitable for agriculture, which means that it does not compete with food production. Also, the water consumption is 10-20 times less than that of cotton.
In its finished form, the fabric is absorbent and allows the body to breathe naturally. This in turn allows it to drape better, because it doesn’t stick to the skin (this is because it does not generate static energy). Remember that much of the total environmental impact of textile products comes from their care; with lyocell fabrics, there is no need to use fabric softeners or whitening agents, and energy and water use are decreased due to the shorter wash cycles needed.
Another fabric we use - and a crowd favourite for our eco-friendly swimwear line - econyl, is made from recycled ocean plastics, like bottles and ghost fishing nets.
Because these fabrics require specialist production processes and are typically produced on a smaller scale, they cost more than the likes of cheap polyester or cotton. But is that expense really anything compared to the damage we save the earth from by choosing a sustainable alternative?
We Employ Organic Dying Processes
The plant and its leaves, the paste, vat, light, fabric, baths, oxidation time - there are so many variables in this process; it’s near impossible to end up with the exact same colour twice.
Because our unique dying process is completely manual, we need to hand cut the pieces of fabric in lengths of 8 meters. In doing so, we are able to manipulate the complete piece by putting the fabric in a bath while we remove the air with our hands to prevent the oxidation process from starting too early, which allows the colour to be distributed evenly across the fabric. If there are any air bubbles, the oxidation will start irregularly and we will not be able to get the whole piece dyed in a uniform color.
This process is heavily involved and time-consuming. It requires skilled artisans that are trained in their specialist techniques. On top of this, we only use organic dye, natural resources, and we reuse everything many times in our specially designed circular system.
Due to the use of high quality, non-harmful materials and high levels of manual human labour, the cost of our fabric is higher than your average fast fashion brand. But isn’t it worth it for, oh, y’know, a fair livable wage for skilled artists and not polluting the beautiful planet we have the privilege to live on?! I mean….. For sure, right?
We are Limited by Our Supply Chain
Without boring you with the nitty gritty, we’ll just summarise with this:
Sourcing eco-friendly fabrics is hard at times. It’s just simply not as available as your standard synthetic and non organic fabrics. To boot, transport fees are sky high and there are taxes to pay at every turn. Our garment prices have to incorporate the costs we incur as a business at each of these stages.
We are Committed to Ethical Human Resources
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we have to drive home once more how deeply, utterly committed we are to paying a fair salary to all parties involved in the production of our garments.
It can be so frustrating for us, as a small business struggling to remain viable while making choices from a place of integrity for the earth and ourselves, to witness companies like H&M claim to be ethical and sustainable and yet contribute to a system that leans on child abuse and modern slavery to get their jobs done. Next time you hear someone complaining about the price of an eco-friendly, ethically made design, maybe remind them of that one.
Another reason we choose to use sustainable fabrics like those listed above in lieu of cotton is because, not only is it terrible for the environment, but the production of cotton also perpetrates serious human rights issues all over the world. That is just another example of a global atrocity that is so. damn. commonly accepted and ignored - that we refuse to play a part in.
Despite the hurdles, expenses, and logistical challenges that come with running a sustainable clothing line, we are wholeheartedly committed to running a conscious business that leaves no trace on the earth’s environment and is fair, respectful, and compassionate to all humans who play a part in its creation.
Thank you for choosing sustainable