On Being Green (and The Cult of Sustainability)

On Being Green (and The Cult of Sustainability)

by Saeed Al-Rubeyi

This is a long one, sorry. If you’re a TL;DR person, here’s the gist: Story mfg. Is not a 100% sustainable brand. No brand is. Lots of us are trying very hard and it’s a difficult space to work in. 

How we see ourselves

Based on our own evolving view of what it means to be sustainable, we think we are miles ahead of a lot of fashion brands - but we aren’t done. I’m hopeful that in our lifetime our company will not only be sustainable but create a positive impact in every area - and I think because we are small and nimble we can do things other brands cant in the name of ‘giving it a go’.

We do our best, but we are not perfect. We have issues, to name a few:

  • We make new items
  • We send items in single-use packaging (even if its biodegradable and recycled paper)
  • We fly to our dye house
  • We ship items across the planet to stores and customers
  • We use virgin materials 
  • We occasionally mix natural and (recycled) manmade materials on a garment 

I don’t want this piece to come off as marketing, or some kind of reverse-psychology virtue signalling. I just feel people and companies need to start being more honest about their shortcomings when what we are fighting for is so crucial to our future. 

We are an eco-focused brand. We are a sustainability-focused brand. We are also passionate about equality, culture, and the power of craft and language.

Story mfg. has a vision of a future where making something new is actually powerfully positive for the planet - and we think we’re on the right track but we can’t know for sure. We think fashion can be net positive, and power ecosystem growth, societal change and increased wellbeing. We’re careful to use materials that don’t poison the planet and even benefit the soil and water systems. Where non-natural we try to source recycled materials and innovative new approaches to the plastic problem. Above all, we think fashion can be a powerful form of social activism as this is how we speak truth to power. We feel good most of the time about it but we feel terrible when we think we’ve made some error of judgement.

The cult of eco

Sustainable fashion was something of a niche interest until recently, and it has now grown into its own culture and this is an amazing thing. Sustainability is now a discussion all companies need to address, and some are already making powerful changes. The downside (there’s always a downside) is there are a lot of voices and they are often at odds about what sustainability means. There’s a huge amount of in-fighting, gate-keeping, toxic behaviour and inflated egos in the space. We as a brand (and people) have received spiteful criticism and bullying so strong that we have asked some eco-centric press not to name-check us for fear of inviting comments. This isn’t because we are doing anything wrong or have anything to hide - it’s because the space can be extremely destructive.

I’ve noticed people tend to come into the space quite open, learn a little, pick a side and then calcify their position and often refuse to budge. Churches are founded on the religions of recycling, natural materials, plastic-futures, anti-plastic, anti-capitalism, pro-positive-capitalism etc etc. and it creates few places to meet, even though we all share so much middle ground in spirit. I think part of the problem is we are currently at a point where sustainability leaders in companies are people who have been in the industry for quite some time and have shifted their focus towards sustainability because of self-preservation or a new-found interest. They’re doing a good thing, but they’re also set in their ways to an extent from a lifetime making jeans for high street retailers, so they can't, or refuse to, see alternative solutions as valid. We need more radical thinkers, more nuanced approaches and more fresh faces and ideas in the space to address this - and we’re going to scare people away if we create environments where people feel unwelcome if they haven’t read and agreed with the same sacred texts.

We, for example, explore natural dyes as a solution to the issues surrounding chemical pollutants in the garment industry - and receive criticism for supporting a practice which uses more water than some other practices (despite the water being used being rainwater, and then recycled and put back into the earth as nourishment). We receive bile for practising vegan values and investing into animal-free alternatives (we think these are the future, even if they are currently imperfect). We get hate for making clothes that are ‘expensive’ (and thus not “truly sustainable”) which is a difficult one to retort because it's not in our nature to make people work for cheaper or make our materials worse. I could go on and on, but it's exhausting and I’ve discovered in the past that talking about criticism is like a magnet for more - so we generally remain quiet.

Eco Emotional 

It’s really, really, really, really, really, really hard sticking to your guns and staying true to your ethics. It's so so so so so so so so so difficult waiting three years to be able to sell t-shirts because the ones you could buy and print (for a tenth of the price) don’t fit your self imposed rules. It’s deeply depressing to pass up opportunities because they feel like a compromise too far only to then watch others take an ‘easier’ path that doesn’t involve the challenges we face.

That's why it feels so bad, sad and sometimes violent when we see people or brands back-patting themselves in public for being ‘sustainable’ for doing a bare-minimum thing. It causes us in the space to sometimes react, quietly among ourselves, or loudly on social media and take apart people's efforts. 

If you’re a wool brand that really believes the most eco solution is in animal fibres and you see Story mfg. talking about the virtues of an animal-free future you’re going to get annoyed. I get it. You annoy us too - but we’re on the same side when it comes to making a change and we should be respectful of each other. Our common foe is the people who don't give a fuck about us or the planet and are going to continue that way until the day they stop.

I’m not saying we should never be critical either. There are people and companies out there changing their marketing but not their practices. Fuck em. But let's be measured - because future generations of designers are already feeling like sustainability is being gate-kept from them because they don’t have the latest rule book, access to *the* material, or money to invest in making every corner of their idea perfect before they start.

Pushing the needle.

Little changes are big, and from small seeds, mighty oaks grow (this is a saying I’ve heard a lot in my life, especially in the middle east). Every time KFC sells a vegan chicken burger it changes the marketplace. Every time a cosmetics brand that doesn’t test on animals blows up, the industry shifts. Every time we, as a brand with activism at our core works with someone, hopefully, it pushes that needle further and further in the right direction.

Our job, as Story Mfg. is to challenge awful practices that have become ‘just the way things are done’, to make up our own way of working, and to prototype experimental solutions so they can be adopted by wider industry if they work. Up until now, that’s meant working quite isolated and making everything from scratch - but as the brand has grown in popularity other opportunities arise that offer ways to push the needle further than we ever could alone.

That’s going to annoy some people, and it's going to make others really happy - depending on how you feel about us. We have a couple of shoe projects in the works with big brands (collabs) where the result won't be a 100% sustainable product - but the impact of what we were able to contribute to the project will likely be more powerful than we could have ever achieved by being closed off (don’t worry, we aren’t changing our stance on animal products!).

Story mfg. is not the sole solution to the myriad of issues facing people and the planet, but we are trying to be part of the solution. We hope our research, development, funding and awareness of natural practices can make a jump into the mainstream. We are hopeful that our use of recycled manmade materials will continue to allow us to develop and get better and better, to a point where plastics become a powerful material with no downsides. Above all, we think making clothes that appeal to directional customers and then the consumer masses brings more people into the fold of conscious design, and we are able to inspire younger generations to build on what we can achieve.

“I try to be a good person
I wonder if it's annoying
Or worth pursuing
And pursuing
And pursuing
Down highways
At the risk of the road”
From the song ‘Ballad of the Hulk’ by Bill Callahan