Fast fashion is big business, but it is also a big polluter, responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions. Roughly 70% of the $3 trillion fashion industry is comprised of articles made from synthetics or petrochemicals.
While some companies are claiming sustainable clothing lines, there is a very wide variance in what that means. For some the carbon reduction is in the manufacturing, while for others it is in the clothing itself.
The market for plant-based clothing is growing fast, shown by companies like Activ activewear, Kent underwear and startup Unless, which bills itself as "the first streetwear brand to create products that will harmlessly decompose at the end of life." Unlike today's mostly petroleum-based clothing, you can compost these clothes. They're all made from 100% plant-based nutrients like recycled cotton, hemp, plant-based leather and coconut fiber, according to the company.
"We started the company because we're a bunch of fashion executives that got tired of the make, take, and throw away culture of fashion," said Eric Liedtke, CEO of Unless. "The planned obsolescence of fashion is basically based on a petrochemical or petroleum-based feedstock, which means it's cheap. But what you don't know about that is it creates synthetics which are forever materials that never go away."
Liedtke came from Adidas, so it's no surprise that Unless includes footwear along with apparel and accessories.
"Our product starts with the end in mind. That becomes a very easy story to tell the consumers, because the clearest thing is what happens when I'm done using it? it harmlessly goes away and becomes plant and worm food. And that to me is just as important as the quality of the product you make. It's the product times the story," said Liedtke.
Unless has just one pop-up retail store in its home town of Portland, Ore., in addition to online sales. Liedtke hopes the company will grow along with the fast-rising consumer demand for greener products, and plans to collaborate with other brands as more companies look to combat fashion waste. Unless recently launched a collaboration with Mammut, a 160-year-old Swiss climbing company.
"We did that around International Mountain Day, and I'm happy to say the product sold out in 48 hours," said Liedtke.
Those collaborations could also help the company moderate its relatively high prices: A "Biodegradable Hoodie" lists for $119 on the company's website, for instance. Some shoppers say it's worth it for the cause.
"I would pay more for sustainable clothing I think it is, partly, just like it's my contribution to helping the planet, and I think we should all contribute the way we can," said Dru Ueltschi, who was shopping in the pop-up store.
Unless is backed by Connect Ventures, an investment partnership between Creative Artists Agency and NEA (New Enterprise Associates), and has raised $7.5 million to date.