How an L.A. Based Apparel Brand Is Modeling Clean Fashion

Globalization and industrialization have enabled the rise of fast fashion, but cheap clothes come at a high cost that brands like MATE the Label are looking to eliminate as they move the fashion industry forward.

In 2013, numerous overcrowded clothing factories collapsed in Bangladesh. The accident was the deadliest in garment industry history, killing more than 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500 others. Workers in that factory made clothes for big global brands such as Benetton and Mango.

After the accident, which is also considered the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure in modern human history, many big brands pledged to improve garment factory conditions. Almost a decade later, it's worth looking at how the fashion industry got to this point and how one upstart apparel maker based in California is making clothes in a way that's gentler on the environment and on the people who help transform raw materials into the outfits you love.

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The Rise of Fast Fashion

For most of human history, the clothes on people's backs were made locally. Often, they were customized by artisans who spent their lifetimes honing their craft. This was highly laborious and time-consuming, but there weren't many alternatives.

The Industrial Revolution brought about a number of innovations that revolutionized fashion. Chief among them was the sewing machine, which was patented in 1846 and soon catalyzed both a rapid fall in the cost of making clothes and a huge increase in the scale of clothing manufacturing. But it wasn't until after World War II that the nexus of making clothes shifted from homes and small workshops to larger factories that produced standardized clothing that had become appealing to typical consumers thanks to the war.

Partly in an effort to reject the sartorial traditions of older generations, young people began to embrace cheaply made clothing that they felt was trendier and more expressive of their identities. Meanwhile, some fashion houses sought to slash the time needed for a garment to go from a designer's brain to a customer's closet. Globalization and industrialization enabled the rise of complex, international supply chains that allowed brands to take advantage of international differences in labor and business conditions to quickly make cheap clothing that resonated with customers.

This all gave rise to the concept of "fast fashion," which is now a dominant force in the global fashion industry. Fast fashion describes a business model focused on quickly mass-producing clothing at a low cost to meet ever-shifting demand. Fast fashion items often sell for a fraction of the price of comparable products, but while they might be cheap on your wallet, they come at a high cost.

The Costs of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion inflicts massive environmental and social costs that are borne most acutely by people involved in the industry but to a larger extent across the globe. Millions of workers (some of whom are children) in poorer countries toil under brutal working conditions with low pay (often illegally low) to quickly make products that retailers might only sell for a few weeks and then discard. A typical workplace environment is a windowless room with the air full of fumes from the chemicals used to manufacture and dye clothing.

Fast fashion perpetuates a culture of disposable consumerism in which consumers chase the latest trends and constantly discard items that are no longer in style. If you don't have a closet full of cheap clothing that you hardly wear and will likely toss in a landfill soon after purchase, you likely know some people whose closets look that way.

Americans buy tens of billions of garments every year and, on average, throw about 76 pounds of clothes and shoes away every year. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average person bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000.

Meanwhile, less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments. As a result, one garbage truck of clothes is burned or landfilled every second, and humans waste enough clothing to fill the Empire State Building 1.5 times every day. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments, and every year, some $500 billion in value is lost due to clothing that is barely worn, not donated, recycled, or ends up in a landfill.

"The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new garments, and every year, some $500 billion in value is lost due to clothing that is barely worn, not donated, recycled, or ends up in a landfill."

All of those cheaply made sweaters and jeans exact a terrible toll on the planet. Synthetic fibers release microplastics that disrupt a variety of bodily systems in humans and many other species. Approximately 35% of all microplastics come from synthetic fibers used in textile production. Of the total fiber input used around the world for clothing, 87% is incinerated or disposed of in a landfill.

Plus, many of those cheaply made garments require a lot of water. It takes about 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of conventional cotton. A typical cotton shirt requires roughly 3,000 liters of water, which is enough to quench one person's thirst for almost three years. Every year, the fashion industry uses almost 100 billion cubic meters of water.

Cotton is probably not the worst environmental culprit within the fashion industry. Chemical leaching and excess water use are problematic, but carbon emissions are the most worrisome dimension of fast fashion's environmental impact. Fast fashion is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and the maritime shipping industry - combined.

All in all, fast fashion is highly polluting and detrimental. It encourages customers to treat their clothes disposably, meaning they often end up saving little to no money while imposing immense costs that they're often hidden from.

But fashion doesn't have to be this way. As accidents like the Bangladesh factory building collapse and growing awareness of environmental degradation put a spotlight on the flaws of fast fashion, some brands are leading the industry toward a cleaner future.

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MATE the Label: Making Clean Clothes For A Better Planet With Tyler Cobian

Founded in 2013, MATE the Label has grown in expanding array of "clean essentials" geared toward women, with offerings ranging from crop tops to jumpsuits to loungewear. As part of its Dress Clean motto, MATE upholds eight key principles in its quest to make clean clothes that treat the planet and the people who make it well.

The brand maintains a strict list of restricted substances to ensure that carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and other toxins are kept out of its supply chain and don't impact the health of their customers. Organic yarns and dyes are used to avoid harmful pesticides, and all labels and packaging are free of plastic. Garments are meant to be seasonless, and if customers no longer want a particular garment, they can return it as part of MATE's circularity program.

The L.A. based company, which is proudly women-centered, prioritizes ethical working conditions at every level of its supply chain. We spoke with MATE's sustainability manager Tyler Cobian to understand how the brand embraced ethical fashion and where the future of sustainability might take them.

Life Cycle Analysis at MATE the Label

Perhaps the most glaring flaw of fast fashion is that it doesn't account for the full life cycle of its products. Whether you buy your clothes in a store or online, your exposure to its life cycle is quite narrow. It's easy to forget that your clothes had to be manufactured from raw materials, distributed to you, and then sold to you. Once you buy it, you use it and eventually stop using it.

Life cycle analysis is a methodology used to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a product at each stage of its life cycle. It's a tool used to support sustainable decision-making in all sorts of industries.

MATE the Label looks at the full life cycles of its garments, from harnessing the raw material to manufacturing a salable product to the point of sale, to its use, to its end of life. The brand places a particular emphasis on the chemical impact of its products, which it sees as often receiving short shrift compared to metrics like carbon footprint and water use.

"Knowing that the fibers you choose, the manufacturing processes, the dye processes, and the impact (of making apparel) on people and planet from a chemical lens throughout its entire lifespan can (all) be emphasized throughout that life cycle thinking as well."

As part of its emphasis on chemicals, MATE sources as little synthetic fibers as possible. It only uses a select few base fibers, including organic cotton, flax, linen, and TENCEL Lyocell. These are all cellulose base fibers that tend to degrade both more quickly and more completely than synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester. Additionally, MATE does not use more than 8% spandex (which is synthetic) in any of its stretch garments to stringently limit the use of synthetics in its creation process.

"MATE the Label looks at the full life cycles of its garments, from harnessing the raw material to manufacturing a salable product to the point of sale, to its use, to its end of life."

Ideally, MATE could further reduce or fully eliminate synthetics from its product lines. As such, the brand is actively looking for a more biologically friendly alternative to synthetics that meet the attributes customers expect from stretch garments while aligning with MATE's sustainability goals. The brand hopes that continued innovation could soon allow synthetic-free production at an industrial scale.

To extend the life cycle of many MATE products, the brand recently launched a circularity program that allows customers to return used merchandise they longer want for whatever reason and receive a portion of their purchase back. MATE then takes that used merchandise and turns it into a brand new product, keeping the underlying raw material in circulation.

This mirrors the larger concept of a circular economy, which is centered on keeping goods and services in circulation throughout the economy for as long as possible to eliminate waste. It's a far cry from fast fashion, but the circular economy is an essential aspect of the sustainable future we must pursue as a civilization, and the fashion industry will be a key piece of that global transition.

Cobian envisions a future fashion landscape in which customers can compare apparel options on their sustainability metrics just as they compare food options based on their nutritional values.

"I think people are starting to become more familiar with carbon values and carbon savings. I'm not quite sure if it's something that the customer seeks out, but my hope for the industry is that customers become more familiar and aware of the scale of carbon. We're all familiar with calories, and that's not something we're inherently born with. We don't come out and understand that 2,000 calories is probably too much for a granola bar, but 500 calories may be appropriate for a home meal. And I hope that we start to develop that kind of community knowledge in terms of carbon."

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Looking Inward To Cut Emissions Without Sacrificing Growth

Far too often, the fashion industry prioritizes cutting costs without cutting emissions. As a planet-conscious apparel brand, MATE wants to do both. The brand is constantly scrutinizing its production process to find ways to both cut costs and cut emissions. As Cobian reiterated, the insights from that internal analysis can help shift their business practices.

"It was a big insight for us that anywhere from 20% to 30% of (our) overall emissions are coming from the dye. I think that is maybe an under-discussed topic in the industry. People are really focused on materials…but the energy use required to dye the fabric is huge. If companies are striving, as we are, for these really ambitious product emission reductions and (move) forward with an undyed product, that could be in contrast to what your customer wants."

MATE's analysis revealed that the majority of its carbon impact comes from fabrication and dye whereas very little comes from cutting, sewing, and packaging. Cobian sees an opportunity to drastically slash emissions by getting renewable energy into its fabric mills and dye houses.

However, unless customers suddenly express a preference for undyed cotton and linen, this implies that there are limits under the current production paradigm to how much MATE can slash product emissions. In essence, processes like LCA help brands like MATE categorize the factors they can change internally versus those that require some external change.

Similarly to other industries, the fashion industry's supply chain is complex. It's hard for an individual player to make and sell apparel that's fully removed from some of the industry's supply chain issues.

But that complexity is precisely what drew Cobian to work for MATE. He recognized that working in the fashion industry would enable him to move "light and fast" on these issues and affect change quickly. As Cobian recounts, the apparel supply chain is known as one of the world's most complex, leading to a lot of environmental degradation. This gives Cobian an opportunity as MATE's sustainability manager to tangibly help mitigate some of those supply chain issues for a brand that has a sustainability focus in its DNA.

One of his key goals as part of MATE's sustainability efforts is to reduce the company's emissions as the company grows. Across almost all industries and countries, for that matter, emissions tend to rise as companies and economies grow. Some service-oriented firms (such as Big Tech giants) can grow sales while cutting emissions largely because they have much lighter physical footprints and don't need to create a physical product to make money. For instance, Google did this by switching its massive server farms to renewable energy.

For a company like MATE that has to sell a physical product to make money, this is a much bigger challenge. It requires lowering the carbon intensity of its products (basically the amount of carbon emissions needed to generate a given unit of product). Decoupling revenue growth from emissions growth would be a massive achievement for a brand like MATE.

Cobian sees different ways to meet this goal, from using factories powered by renewable energy to increasing the recycled content of MATE products to capturing more content that has already been put out into the world (i.e., post-consumer waste and post-industrial waste). It won't be easy, but these are the exact sorts of ambitious problems Cobian wants to solve. And he sees opportunities to amplify MATE's impact by looking horizontally across the fashion industry to literally fix the supply chain from the ground up.  

"We're seeing really strong opportunities in working with other brands. We're working with a coalition of brands to source Farm Forward, (which means we will) commit to a group of farms, pay them a premium, and commit to cotton before it's ever planted in the ground. (We will) help them transition towards carbon farming or regenerative practices that reduce soil erosion, reduce emissions, build soil diversity, and increase soil health."

Furthermore, MATE is in the process of obtaining a B Corp certification, which both reflects the company's sincere sustainability efforts to this point and will benefit their sustainability efforts going forward. Cobian is excited about the prospect of working for a B Corp but stresses that MATE won't get complacent as a result of obtaining that certification.

"I think that it's one thing to be certified, and it's another thing to make goals and strive towards improving that (B Corp) score year on year. And then I'm really looking forward to promoting that score and that change in score year on year to our customers and showing a growth curve on how we're measuring through B Corp and how we improve that score."

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Consumer Education

"I think what we want to communicate and is the most honest communication of (metrics like) life cycle values is that these are estimates created by a model. They're not perfect. And I think a beautiful analogy that I got (from) my data science mentors was all models are wrong, but some are useful. And I think that understanding that these numbers come from assumptions and that (these are imperfect calculations) gives us and our customers really good insight(s)."

A quick glance at MATE's website shows that when Cobian describes consumer education as a key component of MATE's business model, he isn't kidding. When you look at a particular product page, the brand compares the environmental inputs required to make it to non-organic alternatives. Plus, there's a dedicated sustainability page on the site that describes MATE's sustainability efforts in rare detail.

Regardless of where you shop for clothes or how often you buy clothes, there are simple ways to be a more responsible fashion consumer and, in so doing, stretch your wallet further while helping the planet and the people who helped get every piece of your wardrobe from raw material to your closet.

The most important thing is to limit your purchases as much as possible. Think critically about whether an item of clothing you might buy is merely something you want or something you need. You're entitled to buy things you don't need but consider the environmental impact required to make a pair of jeans that might just collect lint in your closet. Like MATE, try to make your wardrobe essential and seasonless.

If you choose to buy something, ask if the manufacturers used sustainable criteria to make the clothing. Some brands like MATE provide robust transparency into every aspect of their creation process. Others make it almost impossible for you to understand what goes into their products. The more information you have, the more informed you can be as a consumer.

When assembling a wardrobe, consider quality over quantity. Sure, a lower price tag might appeal to your frugality, but cheap clothing is often easily damaged. In the long run, you might either not save money or even lose money by constantly buying cheap clothing that doesn't last a while. And try not to buy something just because it's trendy. Timeless wardrobes are more environmentally friendly and often just as stylish, if not more so.

Likewise, consider second-hand clothing. Just as used cars are often comparable to their newer counterparts at a fraction of the price, second-hand clothing might be almost as good as new while hurting your wallet far less.

If an item of clothing is either damaged or you no longer want to wear it, either repair it or donate it. Repairing can be both cost-effective and enjoyable. Donating also allows you to extend the lifespan of an item while potentially helping someone in need and preventing pollution. And if you buy from a brand like MATE that provides a recycling option, consider giving your used clothing back to the seller and getting part of your purchase back.

And all along, do laundry smartly. Use sustainable detergents and wash full loads to conserve water and cut down on polluting chemicals. Avoid machine drying if possible to help clothes last longer.

Business Takeaways
  • One garbage truck of clothes is burned or landfilled every second, and humans waste enough clothing to fill the Empire State Building 1.5 times every day.
  • A typical cotton shirt requires roughly 3,000 liters of water, which is enough to quench one person's thirst for almost three years.
  • Fast fashion is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and the maritime shipping industry - combined.
  • Life cycle analysis is a methodology used to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts of a product at each stage of its life cycle. It's a tool used to support sustainable decision-making in all sorts of industries.