Somehow October is already coming to a close, and we’re at the wind-down for Slow Fashion October. To close it out, I’ve interviewed Gina Stovall (@ginastovall) who is a climate scientist with a made-to-order clothing company called Two Days Off (@twodaysoffclothing). Naturally I wanted to get her dual perspective on the subject, but I also specifically wanted to end the month — to send us all off into the immediate future — with a focus on the environmental aspect of slow fashion. We’ve been looking inward this year/month, into our own closets and tendencies and preferences (always keeping a thought for the larger impact of our clothing), so I wanted to look upwards and outwards as we wrap it up.
The final pairing of Action Item and Discussion Prompts similarly is about giving thought to how we can each do better going forward, building on what we might have learned about ourselves, our habits and our closets this month. So check those out, and look for @ginastovall on Instagram!
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I’ve been asking this of pretty much everyone this month, because the term “slow fashion” means so many different things to different people. What is your definition of slow fashion, and how did you first become aware of the concept and the underlying factors?
Slow fashion, to me, is clothing that is produced and consumed in a considered manner. Ideally it means clothing that does not exploit anyone in the process of making it, it is made to last, and its entire life cycle is considered so it’s not a burden on the environment. I also think slow fashion encompasses alternatives to traditional retail of today, like buying second-hand, making garments yourself, or simply creating a closet to last season after season and bucking our disposable, trend-driven culture.
I first became aware of the term “slow fashion” after the Rana Plaza catastrophe (like many others). But consciously shifted my buying habits about seven years ago when I started exploring minimalism.
Before the collapse of that factory where so many people lost their lives, I had never thought much about the person making my clothes. This is surprising looking back because I have been sewing as a hobby since I was a teenager. That was when I came to understand my privilege as a consumer in a western country and my ignorance of what impact my purchases have on the world in both a societal and environmental sense. Rana Plaza was the trigger for me to learn about slow fashion.
I can’t say I was completely ignorant of my impact though. I am a geologist and studied earth and climate sciences. I have been trained as a systems thinker, so the concept of “cradle to grave” isn’t new to me. In my early twenties many factors began to converge (i.e my environmental ethics and mental burden of my stuff) and I began living a more minimalist lifestyle. The first thing to tackle was my overflowing wardrobe (predominantly packed with “fast fashion”). I tinkered with capsule wardrobes and learned how to build a closet based on durable, classic pieces that I felt good in and wanted to wear over and over again. I became much more thoughtful in my consumption, went back to thrifting and buying vintage, high-quality pieces. I had finally started to make the parallels between my lifestyle and my profession.
Looking back now I realize that I had a winding road to get to a slower more mindful way of dressing myself, and somehow my hobby of sewing, my chosen career path, and my moral compass were pointing toward the slow fashion movement.
When you talk about clothing that is not a burden on the environment, that’s a giant subject in and of itself, and one I’m particularly keen to explore with you, as a geologist and climate scientist. First, there’s just the sheer volume of clothing that is being produced and discarded and shipped back and forth across the ocean. Can you talk a bit about the environmental implications of that glut of garments?
The environmental burden of garments lies in the way we both produce and consume. The clothes we wear are sewn together which has an associated energy intensity. They are made from fabric that had to be manufactured involving machinery, chemicals, water and other resources. The fabric is manufactured from fibers that had to be grown and harvested (in the case of natural fibers) or synthesized (in the case of synthetics). And all along the way there is that transportation cost to get these materials from one point to another which also requires energy and generates emissions. By the time a garment gets to the consumer it has already lived a long life of its own and that life may be a pretty dirty one when it comes to the environment. If the environmental cost of this garment was built into the price it would be much more expensive than what you find in fast fashion chains. It would also likely make most of us rethink the disposability of these items!
I don’t want to make it seem like mass manufacturing is all bad though. It can be much more efficient to produce and ship in bulk than one-off, small-scale making if it is done consciously and in a sustainable manner. The trend I am seeing these days are small makers and brands leading the charge and seeking out the sustainable options, and I truly hope that leadership will scale to the entire industry, and soon!
And then there’s the question of fabrics and dyes and waste. This is the part that trips me up a lot, honestly, as a person trying to do her level best. I have always believed in natural fibers — it’s what I was taught to value as a kid, and what I prefer to wear (I can’t deal with fabric that doesn’t breathe), and natural fibers biodegrade. Whereas, in addition to the non-degradability of synthetic fabrics, there is increasing evidence of synthetic fibers (micro plastics) being washed into our rivers and oceans with every trip through the laundry. I’m happiest with a sweater when I not only made it myself but know exactly who raised the sheep and how they were treated and where the wool is spun and so on, but not every garment can be like that. Far from it! And there are downsides to my beloved cotton, as well. If we’re trying to do our best by the environment, what actually is the best we can do? And how do you approach fabrics for your Two Days Off goods?
I love that you bring up natural fibers, waste and other chemical processes associated with producing clothes because I think about this a lot for my brand Two Days Off. Because I am aware of the ethical and environmental ramifications in the industry I wanted to be as mindful in my decisions as possible. I decided from the outset that I would focus on natural fibers because they do biodegrade, and I try to stick to 100% of one fiber because they can be recycled. Natural fibers tend to have a lighter impact during production than synthetics, there are newer sustainable practices in the industry that can be leveraged, and like you mention they are breathable, comfortable and tend to wear longer. I also pay close attention to construction because if a garment is made of a nice material but falls apart then it again becomes a burden. So I use French seams, add pockets, reinforce areas that get a lot of stress because I want each piece to do the work over a long time. Finally, since I am small I can use deadstock fabrics. Deadstock is left over yardage from bigger brands that would otherwise go unused and end up in the landfill. This makes me feel better about using traditionally dyed fabrics because I know I am not adding to the demand for them.
You mentioned minimalism having played a key role in your evolution toward slow fashion, so I want to ask: Does minimalism for you mean simply living with less or are you also using it in an aesthetic sense? (For me, it’s both.) I ask because there’s been a lot of discussion (and I asked Martha about this earlier in the month) about whether “slow fashion” necessarily means austerity, or simplicity, or neutral colors. For me, like you, slow fashion primarily means clothing that is as responsible as possible and non-exploitative. It doesn’t mean a certain shape or style or color palette. Do you think a slow closet has to be a minimalist one, in either sense? Or do you think the one just naturally leads a lot of people toward the other? Does “less” have to also be colorless or shapeless?
It used to mean both for me, but since moving to California I feel my aesthetic sense shifting from a Scandinavian minimalism to something a little more wabi sabi. First and foremost, it is living with what I need and what adds value to my life and nothing more. (Which may be considered “less” by American standards!)
I definitely don’t think slow fashion has to be colorless and shapeless! Although admittedly my wardrobe is full of well-loved items that fit that bill. But I do think there may be something to a more austere approach to life and consumption leading to a simpler wardrobe. Or vice versa.
So how did you decide to get into the clothing business, and what do you hope to accomplish with Two Days Off? How does it relate to your own attempts to dress yourself personally and thoughtfully? And are you making the clothes yourself or working with sewers in LA?
When I began to look at my wardrobe more thoughtfully and turned away from buying fast fashion, I went back to sewing more of my own pieces. A lot of the things I wanted to wear and sewed up weren’t available from ethical sellers and I starting getting interest from friends about what I was wearing. It took me a while to build up the confidence to start my own line and get over the “imposter syndrome” of not being educated in the fashion industry, but now that I am doing this and learning along the way I realize my naiveté about traditional fashion production puts me at an advantage to do things differently and think more sustainably. I personally make everything to-order, and since I am a one-woman show I am constantly experimenting and try new things. My aim is to make high-quality pieces people can love for a lifetime and help broaden the options for those who want to shop ethically.
I often am asked (or hear people musing about) whether a comparatively small community of people deciding to make changes in how they approach dressing themselves can ever have a meaningful impact, and I think it’s the same argument that comes up around meat (the climate impact of every household eating one less chicken a week, for instance) and the environment generally. Like it seems silly to pick on plastic straws when they’re just one of a million seemingly insurmountable contributors to the problems. Do you feel like it makes a difference if we choose to opt out of fast fashion, or to buy less, keep things longer, be more careful where and what we acquire? How do we gauge the impact, or can we even?
I absolutely believe it makes a difference. And after years of studying and working on climate change solutions I can say that these lifestyle changes are meaningful and measurable. Climate professionals aggregating data on our impact can correlate the amount of cattle slaughtered and sold or the number of t-shirts produced to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. When our demand goes down those emission go down — in part it’s overconsumption that has thrown our planet out of whack. When each of us is mindful about what and how much we consume (of anything) it adds up, not to mention it teaches future generations better habits of consumption. And finally, and possibly most importantly, when people (the market) demand more from businesses it will be supplied. I truly consider the slow fashion movement as a Movement. Small indie brands like mine are stepping up to fill the need for ethical options and slowly we are see bigger brands hopping on board. Pretty soon I hope slow fashion will be the norm. It is up to consumers to hold industry accountable and push them to represent our values.
We’re coming to the end of a long month of a complicated, multi-faceted discussion of all the issues underlying and surrounding slow fashion. For people grappling with how to do better, make better choices — especially those just getting started — what do you think is the most important thing to concentrate on? What are one or two things you think everyone can do that will start to make a difference?
Start with what seems achievable to you and don’t compare your efforts to what anyone else is doing. Also, do your research. You can’t know if something aligns with your values if you don’t have the facts. So start by reading the labels of the clothes you own. What is it made of, where was it made, can you ascertain who made it and in what conditions based on the brand? The next time you go to spend you money after asking these questions I bet you will ask them again and again.
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Thank you so much, Gina! And thanks to everyone for making this year’s Slow Fashion October such a great conversation. Of course, October is not over yet and the conversation will continue on the #slowfashionoctober feed, but I also want to note that all of this year’s content will be preserved on the Slow Fashion October directory page, on @slowfashionoctober, and in the saved highlights at the top of the Instagram profile page. (If you haven’t seen all of the great stuff shared in those Story highlights, please do take some time to scroll through them! Such treasure.) All of the actions and prompts will be there any time you want to work your way through the steps — any month, any year!
PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: How many clothes do you make/buy each year?