Traditionally tapping into young, informed and often opinionated consumers, streetwear seems poised to evolve as a platform for a more sustainable fashion landscape driven by niche brands across continents that are banking on eco-friendly products and socially responsible practices.
This wasn’t always the case: Many of today’s biggest streetwear players, which turned into fashion phenomena, owe their success more to zeitgeist-y designs and cultural relevance than to eco-friendly business models.
“Obviously streetwear points to our culture and in that I think it’s interesting because to a certain extent potentially [streetwear brands] were the most reticent doing brave conversations and the fact that they are embracing it [demonstrates] that sustainability is the new culture, is the new reference and without that you are so bloody…out of touch,” said Orsola de Castro, the cofounder and director of London-based nonprofit organization Fashion Revolution.
As luxury brands have rushed to be at the forefront of the eco-friendly conversation and fast fashion have hurried to catch up, most streetwear players — bar a few names, such as Heron Preston — appeared to stand on the sidelines of the revolution, despite their direct line to the youngest generations of consumers.
But the winds are changing — and the COVID-19 outbreak could speed up the shift as customers are poised to become even more environmentally and culturally aware.
Andrea Rosso, sustainability ambassador and upcycling artistic director, as well as creative director of Diesel Licenses and of MYAR, contended that the word streetwear has evolved from its original meaning in the late Nineties. Back then, it was upheld by “a niche group of people with a certain sensitivity who used to create hemp and organic cotton T-shirts, in the more up-and-coming, underground markets. Probably too hippy and advanced for that time and especially with no Instagram. Today, I think it is ‘normal’ to see this approach from younger streetwear brands that, with a more digital-oriented information system, are faster in spreading the green voice.”
“The new generations speak sustainability without spelling it out, it’s way more embedded in young designers, more than it was even two years ago,” agreed de Castro. “The conversation around sustainability makes clothes the vehicle of principles and of our definition of who we are. So inevitably it makes sense that they are embracing it.”
“We have sacrificed part of our margins to push sales and yet be sustainable as we were approaching the market,” noted Stefano Pugliese, cofounder of Italy-based streetwear brand Àlea, which officially debuted at Paris Men’s Fashion Week last January, drawing the interest of stores including LuisaViaRoma, Selfridges and Browns, although orders were put on hold in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Helmed by Pugliese, a former start-up project manager; Vincenzo Lattanzio, a fabric researcher who worked for Jil Sander, Giorgio Armani, Prada and Ermenegildo Zegna, and Tatiana Orlova, who honed her skills in the sales department of New Guards Group, the brand exclusively employs sustainable fabrics, either through responsible sourcing, processing or recycling. Tops are crafted from GOTs-certified cotton supplied by Eusebio SpA; prints are created using a digital inkjet printer by Colors Company that does not release waste, while workwear pants are made of unsold deadstock from Como-based Diemme Abbigliamento Professionale that are embellished and customized.
“Sustainability and upcycling are both pricey processes so as a plus we’re also committed to always disclose our suppliers as we’re not afraid of competition. But most importantly because we want to provide our end customers with the traceability of our products ,” added Pugliese.
De Castro also believes in the value of transparency as a means of delivering a consistent message. “Wearing a recognizably sustainable brand or a brand that has a strong sustainable message is as strong as wearing a slogan T-shirt,” she said, referring to the power of streetwear labels’ customers to amplify the message and spread it across a potentially less-engaged audience.
This approach is very much in line with Australian brand HoMie, which launched in 2015 with the aim of driving awareness of homeless people and ultimately to destigmatize and humanize the issue. “Streetwear as a whole has changed a lot since we started, from a basic fashion aesthetic to posing the question: ‘How can this T help someone else?’,” noted Marcus Crook, the brand’s creative director. “We can now wear our values on our back, whether it’s supporting a cause or aligning with a brand’s sustainable practices…We aim to evoke an emotional connection to our clothing. If people love their clothing and attach more meaning to it, it won’t end up in a landfill,” Crook contended.
“Fashion companies tend to exploit sustainability as a marketing tool, while our background is so much rooted in textile research that we’re able to track the entire supply chain and understand what true sustainability means. Through our offering that is fresh and au courant we want to deliver that message to Millennials and Gen Z, who are the most important recipient,” noted Pugliese.
Committed to building a community around itself, Àlea has applied to a range of international contests, including the European Social Innovation Competition, or EUSIC, a challenge prize run by the European Commission that in 2020 is focused on fashion. The brand’s project encompasses crafting knitwear from up to 100 percent recycled plastic polymers, such as polyurethane and acrylic — a first in the fashion industry.
Similarly, New York-based Chnge believes in the power of youth. Jacob Castaldi, the brand’s founder, described Millennials and Gen Z as among the “most altruistic generations our world has ever seen.”
“As a small team of individuals born in these generations, our mission is to prioritize the protection of our planet and the well-being of the people living in it ahead of the maximization of profits. By doing so, we aim to provide consumers who care with an outlet to feel confident about the footprint of their purchase,” said Castaldi. After working with brands helping them navigate the sprouting influencer marketing realm, the entrepreneur cofounded the Ivory Ella clothing company affiliated with Save the Elephant, an organization promoting wildlife conservation.
“I became increasingly aware of how dirty the world’s most ‘beautiful’ industry can truly be. With the fashion industry being one of the world’s five most polluting industries, I was determined to use my opportunity and experience in this industry to create a business model built on the pillars of sustainability, transparency and philanthropy,” explained Castaldi.
The company, which offers slogan and printed T-shirts, hoodies and tracksuits, has pledged to source responsible fabrics, especially GOTs-certified cotton that is treated with no harmful chemicals or pesticides. Castaldi said the brand saves 500 gallons of water for every shirt it produces and uses 62 percent less energy and 70 percent less acidification potential.
Additionally, the company pledges to offset the carbon footprints of both its production processes and the first 50 wash-and-dry cycles for each T-shirt it sells. “Our brand is committed to doing our small part in achieving this goal from the beginning of our existence,” explained Castaldi. The company has also been offsetting 4 million pounds of its carbon dioxide emissions by making donations to Stand for Trees, a campaign within the REDD+ program aimed at curbing emissions from deforestation.
Back in the day, Castaldi knew little about fashion’s manufacturing processes but he knew how to print T-shirts. “We looked at streetwear as being more about culture and identity than clothing,” he said. “While that may remain true today, it may also now be more about exclusiveness and materialism, with people desiring to have pieces others cannot obtain and afford, while instantaneously gloating by posting these pieces to their Instagram accounts. This is the part of the industry which I find quite repulsive.”
Also Ashlea Atigolo, founder and creative director of London-based men’s streetwear brand Ebyak, underscored that the current streetwear scenario seems to lack purpose and meaning. “I wanted the brand to be a form of expression for men, but more importantly I wanted to solve the problem surrounding streetwear and its lack of sustainable processes, by offering a green, on-trend alternative,” Atigolo said of the label she founded in 2018 after 15 years working as a director of operations for the U.K. Educational Centers.
“Streetwear to me was a way that someone could express their inner thoughts and make a statement through their clothes without having to speak,” she added, noting the category seems to be reverting to its “former stereotypes of being just for skater kids.”
In contrast, Ebyak — which was awarded the PETA Approved certificate — pledged to be vegan-friendly and employ GOTs cotton sourced from organic farming, which implements circularity by repurposing waste into organic cow feed and vegetable oils into products for the food industry. Discharged water from dyeing processes are usually purified and recirculated and plastic mailer bags were replaced with paper ones.
These efforts require extra costs. “I instantly recognized from my research that a large drawback of sustainable fashion is that it is typically higher in price. It was therefore important for me that Ebyak was able to ‘compete’ with the current fashion trends and high street stores in order to increase the amount of sustainable purchases,” explained Atigolo.
“I believe that fashion plays an important part of a person’s life and the people they connect with on a daily basis. Therefore, each piece has been created to evoke a chain reaction of spreading more positivity within the world,” she said.
According to Livia Firth, founder of brand consultancy Eco-Age, it is much easier for independent brands to leverage sustainable practices, “both because they can take decisions faster and move faster as a result, but also because chances are they are more in control of their supply chains,” she said.
De Castro believes in the notion of small. “I think it’s not so much around how agile and nimble things are when you’re small, it’s because we also need to celebrate what’s small and stays small,” she said. “The main thing that has been lacking in terms of sustainability offering is choice, and by choice…I mean that we need more diversity in the industry’s offering, full stop. That means that we can’t survive with a hegemony of the big brands whether they’re luxury or mainstream, and near invisibility for the little ones.”
“When you have to report to shareholders, and shareholders only want fast returns, it’s more complicated. Sustainability is all about long-term vision — the word in itself is about that,” Firth added.
The Fashion Revolution cofounder also underscored that brands “may not report to a board or to investors, but they are reporting to an audience, to their garment workers, to the followers, so that needs to be also taken into account.”
For instance, among Chnge’s concrete actions to engage its audience, the brand pledges 50 percent of its net profits to charitable organizations, “to prove that businesses can and should give as much as they take.” In addition, it transparently discloses common practices of its suppliers, making sure their employees are paid fair “living wages,” promoting a socially responsible business model.
The latter is also the funding principle of HoMie. After meeting on a charity bike ride in Cambodia raising money for anti-child trafficking, cofounders and chief executive officer Nick Pearce and Crook established a Facebook page, called Homelessness of Melbourne, which developed into a retail pop-up at Melbourne Central shopping center before the company established a permanent flagship in the city’s Fitzroy neighborhood.
That seminal approach is still there, as HoMie has implemented the Pathway Alliance retail training and education paid internship program for young people affected by homelessness or hardship, and the VIP Shopping Days initiative under which at least 12 times a year young people can shop complimentary garments, beauty services and lunch with the brand’s team, in an effort to reinvest all its profits to support those in need to be work-ready and prepared for the future.
“From the beginning, we set out to spark conversation and draw attention to the more vulnerable members of society. Our values from the outset have largely been connection, transparency, openness and trust and to make caring cool,” explained Crook.
In 2018 the Melbourne-based label was accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia, which works collaboratively with local textile, clothing and footwear businesses to ensure the country’s supply chains are legally compliant. HoMie’s sustainable commitment is very much linked with its social endeavor, as unsold garments are either destined to the VIP program or upcycled as part of its Reborn by HoMie project launched last year. “We started sewing and upcycling HoMie garments with pre-loved clothing,” Crook noted. “Reborn is a label born out of a desire to encourage consumers to think and shop ethically, with a focus on reusing and upcycling secondhand clothing and materials.” Each garment is crafted from unsold HoMie items along with samples and scraps from factory floors.
“Sustainability and social responsibility are aspects that streetwear brands can adapt to in order to keep evolving. Being a global brand and a household name is great, but all brands, big and small, need to stand out and be innovative to stay ahead of the curve in whatever way is unique to them,” Crook said.
Could sustainability be a lever for the future of the streetwear market, which to some extent has reached the point of saturation?
“In my humble opinion, sustainability should not be a lever brands are pulling to avoid death, but rather should be a core value every company working in the fashion industry is instilling in their day-to-day decision-making, regardless of which vertical you may fall under stylistically,” argued Chnge’s Castaldi, adding he hopes consumers, too, will shift their spending habits, even more so in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency.
“In my own experience with MYAR, I’ll try my best to be even more transparent now than before. I hope all of us from independent streetwear brands, to higher luxury brands will take these future steps with a more responsible mind, so that the young consumers don’t have to think anymore of the content of what they buy,” explained Rosso.
De Castro acknowledged that the outbreak might change paradigms, although she expects a “period of excess” following the easing of the compulsory restrictions. “Although I understand that we need to think of the business and use sustainability as a driver for business and for sales, we also need to use sustainability as a driver for best practice. It doesn’t mean anything if all we achieve were sales that amplify a message but there is no substance behind that product. This is the responsibility of the brand to be honest, nobody is expecting 100 percent right now, we need to celebrate the commitment and streetwear has some sort of an honesty to it. The fact that streetwear [taps into] opinionated communities means it needs to communicate honestly what they’re doing,” added de Castro.
“Sustainability is all about our culture, the values we hold, and how we therefore approach everything. It is about codependence and realizing that there are multiple human components for everything we do and everything depends on the resources we have,” argued Firth, forecasting a post-coronavirus scenario that can be either of responsible or binge shopping.
“Streetwear has the ability to connect and create communities, and that can be very powerful. Using fashion for good will hopefully be the evolution of the industry,” Crook said.