A shirt from Uniforme, an ethical fashion label by emerging designer Alice Wang

A shirt from Uniforme, an ethical fashion label by emerging designer Alice Wang

Actually, it isn't one reader email that spurred this, but a dozen. Fashion students and professionals are starting to wake up to the massive environmental damage and worker exploitation inherent to the conventional fashion industry, and want no part of it. But they often don't know where to start. So they email me, or sustainable fashion designers, or advocates, looking for advice. They want to know how to do sustainable fashion. This guide is intended to answer that question definitively once and for all. Or, at least for the next year or so. The sustainable fashion scene is quickly evolving and expanding. Which is great for people like you, who want to get a piece of it. I talked to three people:
  • Tara St. James, whose bonafides are actually too long to list here, but let's start with Founder of a leading sustainable fashion label Study NY; plus Production Coordinator & Research Fellow in Zero Waste Manufacturing at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA); and Educator in Sustainable Design Certificate at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • Amy DuFault, sustainable fashion writer, consultant and activist, Director of Communications at the BF+DA.
  • Faye Lessler, a friend and sustainable fashion blogger who moved to NYC a year ago in search of a job in sustainable fashion. After trying a bunch of different routes, she now works at the BF+DA and is pumped to go in to her job every day.

1. Get specific.

One of the problems the experts and I encounter is the broad, hazy quality of the question of how to get into sustainable fashion. How do we answer it without knowing what your experience, wants, and skills are? "If it’s a designer or student, I always ask them what part of sustainable fashion they are most interested in," Amy says. "Is it the human rights perspective? Is it materials innovation? Is it working with young designers? What is it about sustainable fashion that you like? What is it that you think needs to be changed? What do you see yourself doing for five to ten years? And that really narrows it down. Look at that piece and what the different jobs are that can come from that." "For every specific area you choose there’s a rabbit hole to go down," Amy continues. "And there will be a whole other world of issues, in terms of human rights or water efficiency or materials. It’s systems thinking. That’s how an established or emerging brand would handle this issue of 'sustainability." In other words, become an expert in an area, and you'll be ready when a company comes looking for that expertise. But if you literally just watched The True Cost last night and honestly have no idea where to start, it's OK. Start at #3 and #4. Read blogs on sustainable fashion, like Ecouterre, and books, like Magnifeco. I do a link roundup every Friday that includes sustainable fashion stories, too. If you can be specific, that's great! We can then point you in the right direction, give you a person to talk to, tell you a course that would fit your needs, etc. Of course, be realistic and respectful of the time of experts. Remember before asking for a brain picking session that coffee is $5, while an hour of a fashion leader's time is worth much more than that. Though, "coffee is better than nothing," Tara says. "By the time I’ve agreed to meet with someone, I’ve kind of vetted out all other people, and they are the lucky few I’ve skimmed off the top who I think are legitimate and want to go somewhere with it." If she thinks you have the potential to really impact the industry, she'll give you some guidance.

2. Be flexible.

But on the topic of knowing what you want, don't be so rigid you get stuck. "The people who are recently graduated or transitioning from traditional fashion businesses, they tend to already have a place they’ve been pigeonholed into, whether they love it or not. They’ve already invested a lot of time and money into the current skill set they have. They oftentimes aren’t seeing the bigger picture and other options, because those other options require more education or a change in skill set," Tara says. "Those people I find the hardest to help, because they are looking for something specific." If you're not finding what you need, again, try #3 and #4 and expand your knowledge so you can break out of that box.

3. Attend sustainable fashion events and network.

"This is what really helped me," Faye says. "I started going to events and meeting people. Not just meeting them and saying, 'Hi can I have a job?' but learning about what they do in sustainable fashion and how they got there and all the ways you can be involved that are not being a designer. It gave me a lot of connections so when they had a job opening, I could just know." And there are a lot of sustainable fashion events in the city. There is a core group of experts and consultants that go from party to party, and if you go to enough you will quickly become familiar with them and they with you. But believe me, the people who organize these things love to see an audience or party full of strangers. That means they're preaching to someone besides the choir. Don't go to just free events, though. "Go to conferences even if you need to pay for them, because they have really good networking," Tara says. Those are the places where the CEOs and industry leaders hang out. Where to find out about these things? Sign up for the BF+DA's newsletter. Also, I throw up pretty much all the sustainable fashion events happening in NYC in my events roundup that goes up every other Friday.

4. Get educated.

If you're looking at undergrad programs, FIT offers classes to its students on sustainable fashion. Parson's also just overhauled its program and has built a lot of sustainability into its degrees. If you're out of school, you can choose to pursue a master's in CSR, like the one University of Maryland offers, for example. I asked Tara what she thinks is understudied, and she said there's a lot of need for more education in textile development and manufacturing systems. "People are studying production management, but usually that means coordinating with overseas, or just putting in production orders. They’re not studying actually how factories work and how to improve them," she says. "And general design thinking – how to be more thoughtful about your design." But don't think you have to take out new student loans to switch careers. You can sign up for a non-degree program, and take a short, inexpensive course. Tara recommends Pratt's CDE program at the BF+DA or getting an FIT Sustainability Certificate, which you earn after taking 10 courses. "Obviously, it won’t get you in the door any easier, this certificate that people don’t recognize," she cautions. But by the end you'll have a good lay of the land, and be well prepared to take your next step. And it certainly can't hurt to have that on your résumé!

5. Intern for an emerging sustainable designer.

If you would like to be a designer, this is one of Tara's top recommendations. "Internships are so broad, you tend to learn a lot and evolve your skill set," she says. "I worked for Titania Inglis as an intern, which was a super duper educational experience for me," Faye says. "I learned a lot about how she runs her business." She also learned, "how much you’re up against as a designer, especially a sustainable designer – the odds are crazy and you have to work your ass off all the time." Better to learn what being a sustainable designer entails the easy way – working underneath another designer – then when you've already invested $20,000 into launching your own brand! I often get emails from women who would like me to recommend a designer who is hiring. I don't ever know who is hiring off the top of my head, so I usually tell them to dig through my Shopping Guide and see what designers are in there, plus which designers are featured on the sustainable online stores I recommend. You can also check out Wellmade Jobs, which features, "jobs that don't suck for the planet."

6. Apply for a job at a larger label or company that is or is going sustainable and ethical.

This would be the holy grail, where you are surrounded by people diligently working to overhaul the fashion process to be more sustainable – and get paid to be there. Some of the brands that come to mind (in no particular order) are Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, Levi's, Nike, H&MReformation, Nudie Jeans, G-Star, Everlane, Maiyet and Stella McCartney. You could also seek out something in the offices of the fashion holding companies PVH, Li & Fung, and Kering. None of them are perfect by any stretch, but they've shown interest in the topics of sustainable fashion and have a lot of clout. Just know that you'll be up against a lot of competition. "There’s certainly not enough paid work out there for people who are interested in sustainable fashion," Tara cautions. Also don't be too dogmatic and rigid in choosing a company to work for. "The term that I get a lot is, 'I want to work for a company that subscribes to my personal ethos,'" Tara says. "Which is funny to me. You can look at the company’s ethos and think: Well yes, I can subscribe to that even if I don’t agree with everything they are doing. A lot of what they are doing is very impactful and I want to be a part of that." So maybe you're a vegan, but working for Eileen Fisher, who uses wool, could be an amazing opportunity, and be really fulfilling. Or instead of working at the corporate offices, you could work in retail, which is something Tara recommends as well. "I worked in retail at By Robert James," Faye says. "It’s not known to be sustainable, but it’s all made in New York, he uses a lot of deadstock, and they have a tailor in house. That was a way to keep myself alive and also in the fashion world."

7. Work to change a conventional fashion brand from the inside.

Tara teaches one of the classes on sustainable fashion at FIT. "Most of the students are currently working in the industry and are disillusioned with it and want to change and do good," she says. "And usually I tell them they can have more impact making changes from within. Go to a larger company and see what you don’t like about it, and make a change that way." It may not feel as warm and fuzzy as working for a tiny but perfect denim brand, but imagine if you could convince a corporate brand who manufactures 10,000 jeans to use some recycled cotton in those jeans – the multiplier effect of that one decision is huge. Even if you're so low down on the food chain that you have zero access to the decision makers, a job at a conventional brand can still be helpful. Faye had a job at Old Navy in San Francisco before moving to New York. "It ended up being a good jumping off point to understanding the industry," she says.

8. Start your own label.

If you feel ready, doing your own thing is absolutely a viable path. And it's something that Mara Hoffman recommended during my podcast interview with her, Melissa Joy Manning, Kristy Caylor of Maiyet, and Maxine Bédat of Zady. That is, if you're ready. I give the same advice to young people who want to be a freelance writer: Go work for someone and learn the ropes before you set out on your own. Tara agrees. "I don’t think you gain a whole perspective until you’ve actually worked for a company," she says. "You can get a lot from interning, but not the whole picture. It’s always better to work in the industry because you get contacts and you get a greater perspective on what is being done." For example, I know of many emerging designers who worked for larger companies, then leveraged the contacts they made at top-quality Garment District factories once they founded their own brand. Given how opaque and closed the garment factories are, these designers would not have been able to find or work with these factories otherwise. Unless you're independently wealthy, you'll also need to save up before starting your own brand. A first collection can easily cost $20,000 (excluding a marketing campaign and fashion shows), especially if you are outsourcing the tasks like pattern making and prototyping. "You could grassroots it," Tara says of having a Kickstarter. "But only a certain amount break through," she says. Yep, there are a lot of fundraising campaigns out there for sustainable collections. How will your brand stand out?