As it often goes, the most beautiful things in life also tend to be the most dangerous. Case in point, even a brief glimpse behind the curtains of the fashion industry generally reveals an unsettling amount of negligence towards people and planet, gracefully covered up by the throng of silk and satin threads they send sashaying down the runway twice a year.
It isn’t breaking news by now that the fashion business is one of the most harmful industries for the environment. The facts are out there: one pair of jeans can take up to 900 gallons of water to produce, cotton growing makes up about a quarter of the world’s pesticide usage, and two-thirds of the fibers used in all clothes are cotton-based. And that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.
In 2012, a Bangladesh factory popular among several top U.S. ready-to-wear brands suffered a deadly fire, also forcing the issue of humane work conditions into the public eye. Many fast-fashion favorites were reprimanded for their use of sweatshop labor, though apart from some low-key efforts on H&M’s part, few have publicly committed to making drastic changes.
In the wake of these relatively new insights, several entrepreneurial companies have popped up to establish themselves as leaders in the Green Fashion movement. They’re mostly e-commerce, focused on simple designs and admirably transparent. But they also don’t make up a big piece of the fashion pie; impactful change must come from the industry’s power players. So, in light of all the evidence about environmental and societal misconduct, and with a slew of promising innovations, why haven’t more big-name brands and designers – couturiers who are fashion week notables and sell their work at specialty stores – made giant leaps towards sustainability?
Then there’s designer Mara Hoffman. Her eponymous label was founded in 2000 in NYC and quickly became recognizable for eye-catching, bold prints and colorful swimwear. Saks, Neiman Marcus and Net-A-Porter all carry her designs, positioning her firmly in the luxury world. But Mara Hoffman is unique from the brands accompanying her in the high-end retail scene in one particularly important way — her commitment to sustainability.
Though she didn’t start out with a mission to be green, Mara Hoffman has been steadily transitioning her entire business ever since the light was shed on the effects of her industry on the world. Recently, she even used her Fashion Week platform as a megaphone, positioning, for example, her F/W ’17 show as an activist statement, inviting leaders of the Women’s March on Washington to recite quotes from Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou and possibly the most diverse line-up of models of the season. Her collection this past season was highly edited, as well, in support of reducing the rampant clothing consumerism that leads to so much waste. Hoffman’s website details all the efforts she has currently put in place in terms of sustainable fabrics and design process, from using digital printing to reduce water and waste to working with artisans in India to create responsible, sustainable employment for women.
We were lucky to have the opportunity to hear from Mara, herself, on how she sees the industry progressing and what’s next for her evolving brand.
What would you say was the moment or realization that first caused you to grasp the extent of the environmental impact the fashion industry has on the world?
Rather than one moment, it was definitely more of a rising of consciousness. The more that I learned and became aware of the extent of industry’s impact, the more urgently I felt inclined to lessen mine. It felt like a “change or die” moment in my life.
What is a sustainable innovation in the industry that you’re particularly optimistic or excited about?
The number of choices in recycled fibers has grown immensely, meaning it’s a lot easier to choose the sustainable option without compromise, which is truly exciting. On a broader level,it’s great to watch this movement gain momentum; sustainability is being seen as a necessity more than ever. I see magazines devoting entire issues to sustainability, universities are teaching it in school, consumers are starting to hold brands accountable and brands are starting to respond. It’s a really special time to be in this space because people are challenging and pushing you to do better.
What would be the one most impactful change every fashion designer could make to lessen their environmental footprint?
The changes you can implement vary depending on the size and capability of your team, and whether it’s something you can take on all at once or step-by-step. One of the biggest first steps can just be opening that door, looking into what other brands have done, learning from the people doing it right, and breaking down your processes to get an idea of where you can make some changes. For example, looking at airfreight versus sea. What are your fiber choices? Are you going to focus on chemical waste or water waste? We’re always working to lessen our impact, but knowing it’s a constant journey almost made it easier to start. Everyone’s timeline and everyone’s progress looks different.
You positioned your F/W ’17 show as a social statement and piece of performance art – what inspired you to take the creative direction that you did, and can we expect similar themes in your upcoming S/S ’18 show?
Fall 2017 was heavily influenced by the sociopolitical state that we, as a society, were experiencing and continue to experience. At the time, we were trying to figure out how to contribute, how to create community, how to stand up and protest, and how to amplify those messages that needed to be heard. Spring 2018 will continue to be about empowering women and reminding them of how strong they are; communicated not as a statement, but as a constant, as an inherent part of the collection and the brand.
What’s the next big sustainability goal Mara Hoffman is working towards?
There’s not an end goal here, so for us, it’s continuing to break down every step of our process and working to get transparency from fiber to final garment.
It appears you take equal interest in environmental and social sustainability. Can you comment on this?
Absolutely. Environmental and social sustainability are one and the same. If you care about people, you have to care about their home, if you care about the environment, you have to care about the people living in and impacting it.
At Davines, we believe a beauty product can be a megaphone for issues that concern us, do you hope the clothing you design serves a similar purpose?
I’m privileged to have a platform that reaches beyond that of a traditional fashion label, because I’m able to pass the microphone to those that need to be heard. There’s a lot of noise right now, so we’re carefully trying to figure out how everything we communicate can be impactful. Such a large part of our internal conversation is talking about how we can create something meaningful, how we can better stand behind the people wearing our clothes, and how we can contribute in a positive and productive way.