This story is taken from Issue 17 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.

The word “sustainability” in fashion might bring to mind hemp tote bags and corporate greenwashing, but behind the scenes there’s been rapid progress and insane innovation. Dio Kurazawa is a production expert who’s worked in the clothing industry his whole life — and he’s on the frontline of the war against waste, pollution, and worker exploitation.

It’s no secret that fashion is bad for the planet. Our addiction to cheap, disposable clothes is creating a global environmental crisis, and despite all the sustainability initiatives, conscious collections, and corporate responsibility programs out there, the industry isn’t adapting fast enough. Supply chains are opaque, complex, and difficult to change. Brands are thinking of their bottom line, not the ice caps and oceans. The human cost is tremendous, too. Garment-producing countries are locked in a race to the bottom, set off by fast fashion’s obsession with rock-bottom prices. That means factories cut corners with regulations and worker safety: in 2013, 1,134 Bangladeshi garment workers were killed when the eight-story Rana Plaza factory in Savar collapsed on top of them.

To make matters worse, there’s an ideological schism. What does sustainability even mean? Is it simply reducing a company’s negative impact wherever possible, or is it completely revolutionizing consumption habits?

On the one hand, we can minimize waste, incorporate more recycled fibers, and reduce chemical and water consumption, but that’s not going to solve things long-term — clothing consumption is set to rocket in the coming years as developing markets fulfill their true potential as consumers.

Different solutions have been offered by more radical minds, such as William McDonough, the award-winning architect and author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. McDonough believes the only way we can truly get out of the mess we’re in is by completely overhauling the way we design, produce, and consume things, only making goods that actually benefit the world we live in.

Highsnobiety / Eva Al Desnudo

Another figure on the frontline of the sustainability movement is Dio Kurazawa. He’s been in the clothing industry his whole life. He grew up running his family’s factory in Thailand before doing production for fast-fashion brands. During this time he saw firsthand how cost-cutting measures harmed workers and damaged the environment in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Mexico.

Now he’s denim director of trend forecasting agency WGSN and runs his own company, The Bear Scouts. In this role, he’s a middleman between brands and manufacturers, helping labels to achieve their sustainability goals by overhauling their production and supply chains using innovative technology. For Kurazawa, it’s about building from the ground up, helping brands on their journey toward a so-called “circular supply chain,” wherein waste is turned into new products.

He only works with forward-thinking, influential labels. Right now he’s producing for 1017 ALYX 9SM, Ex Infinitas, and Soulland, knowing that wherever influential brands lead, others will follow. He turns down fast-fashion business as a matter of principle. We caught up with Kurazawa as he met with Art Comes First’s Sam Lambert and Shaka Maidoh to get his thoughts on what the future holds for clothing production, consumption, and the fast-fashion industry.

How do you feel the sustainability issue is going, right now?

There are always going to be players like Patagonia, Levi’s, and Everlane who are really passionate about it. But as consumers don’t really demand it at the moment, the industry has to demand it. With companies like Zalando, MR PORTER, and ASOS making big statements about taking on brands that are only focused on sustainability, I think that will mark a big shift. That kind of statement changes the way the industry looks at sustainability.

How do you define sustainability? Is it using a bit less water? Or is it completely overhauling the way we produce, consume, and design things?

For me, it’s the latter. You could easily say that it’s also reducing water, and I’m not gonna say that that’s wrong, because we need to do that as well. It’s about first having the conversation: looking at your business and how your business can specifically reduce some chemical usage, can reduce some water usage, can reduce some energy usage.

But it’s also about looking at how to give back to the planet. For example, at the moment I’m dealing with laboratories who are making leather out of food waste, out of Cocoa Puffs, which is crazy enough, but it actually looks convincing. That’s where I think sustainability is going. Sustainability, the word itself, is not the final terminology. It doesn’t have an endpoint.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle?

Yes, of course. I’m a huge fan of Cradle to Cradle. But the biggest challenge is that not every product is able to be Cradle to Cradle-certified. We’re lucky enough to see G-Star having Cradle to Cradle-certified gold denim fabric. They’ve actually created a denim that’s as sustainable as any denim has ever been, because the fabric can be broken down and reused. Essentially anyone can use that fabric now. It’s open-source. The other part is that they use all these new technologies to make sure there’s no chemicals or no heavy water. That’s huge, but we need that kind of innovation everywhere.

So does that mean if you have a pair of G-Star jeans made with Cradle to Cradle gold-certified denim, once you’re bored with them, they can be recycled with no loss or waste?

You’re not gonna get a one-to-one. You won’t get a pair of pants from a pair of pants because it’ll be a smaller yield, of course. But you’re still able to put that back into a garment and produce a brand new garment from that used item. It’s really amazing what they’ve done. G-Star’s not just talking about it, they’re really about that shit. They’re not trying to do it for publicity or any other reason. They really are pushing the envelope.

What do you think about the future of clothing production?

I prepare my bespoke supply chains for a more consumer-to-manufacturer relationship. I think in the future, designers and buyers will select silhouettes, they’ll select fabric options, they’ll select hardware options, and they’ll select color options. They’ll allow the consumer to put those pieces together, and that customized or bespoke look will go directly to the manufacturer. The manufacturer will have a direct link to that information and produce whatever needs to be produced for the client or consumer directly.

Highsnobiety / Eva Al Desnudo

You’ll no longer have the need to overproduce and hope that it sells. It will all be sold essentially by desire.

Almost like pre-ordering.

Exactly. It gives consumers the ability to have a high-street price point but get a product that’s different from anyone else. They’re not buying off the shelf and running the risk that everyone is wearing the same shirt. It’s like customized Vans. If everyone were to take that model, there would be a massive amount of success.

Same with NIKEiD, right?

Yeah, Nike was first, I guess. But if you take that basic business model and apply it to a whole collection, it could easily work. The biggest issue is time. How long is a client or a customer willing to wait to get their product? If they’re willing to wait — let’s say a week — if we can do it in a week’s time, then that could be a really viable business model. At the moment, you wait around two to three weeks for customized Vans.

Given the information out there is so hard to digest, so scrappy, and so inconsistent, what can consumers do to shop more ethically?

We need to remember that when we think about food, we look at the ingredients. When we think about clothing, we look at the clothing itself without looking at the hang tag or labels. If we start looking at the labels and looking at the hang tags more, then we’re more informed, aren’t we? We’re able to see where this product was actually made, what the composition of this product is.

If you think about the food industry, we didn’t have to do anything for the food industry to become more ethical. Clothing is not a public health issue, so it’s not getting the same level of attention that the food industry does. It requires the consumer to inform themselves a bit more, but the information is already there on the hang tags.

But right now, regulations are quite lax, in that you can finish a product in Italy and that then counts as “made in Italy.”

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of that. At one brand I worked for in the past, we had the last label sewn on in California but everything else was made in Mexico, but you can call that “made in America.” It’s like the Wild West when it comes to this kind of thing.

If you’re Patagonia, you know this. So you know not to go down this path because you think, “Although I may be able to get away with it, we don’t feel that it’s the right thing to do.” More companies should say, “Yeah, it’s actually misleading. Let’s not go down that path. If it’s got to be made in Italy, let’s make sure that every last drop of the garment is made in Italy and not play in this gray area,” which happens far too often.

What do you think about the future of fast fashion?

I think it’s starting to die. With younger generations and millennials, they’re very critical about quality and they’re very conscious about branding. They’re also conscious about having something different from other folks. You can’t have that at the high-street level.

We don’t do high-street brands at The Bear Scouts. Most of the clients I’ve had with The Bear Scouts are also not working with high-street brands. The Bear Scouts turns down high-street brands almost exclusively because it’s not about money for us, it’s about the quality. The difference between ourselves and let’s say a Bangladeshi manufacturer is that we don’t focus on that business model. We’re simply focused on quality over quantity, with eyes to the future. Not that all Bangladeshi manufacturers are bad, but the majority of them are cutting costs and trying to figure out ways to get high-street business.

The fast-fashion business is a race to the bottom, isn’t it? Everyone’s trying to get the cheapest price imaginable.

I’ve been in meetings where I’ve seen factory owners reduced to tears when a high-street brand nickel-and-dimes them — and I’m talking about $0.07 between Bangladesh and Pakistan. So the Bangladeshi supplier has to say yes to a $0.07 reduction, which when you talk about 500 pieces is nothing, but when you’re talking more, about 20,000 pieces or more, they can’t say no because otherwise they can’t keep their business running. If they say yes, they can keep their business running, but something’s gonna be missed.

And that’s how things like Rana Plaza end up happening.

Exactly. Rana Plaza is exactly what we’re talking about, but that got a lot of attention. Imagine when a lot of people don’t die but constant injuries are happening. I’ve been to places where heavy machinery is on the third floor of the building and there are no temperature gauges on the machines and chemicals aren’t stored in climate-controlled environments, just to save costs.

It can be really, really bad. I’ve been going to Bangladesh for two months every two years and I don’t ever want to go back. It’s not because the people aren’t great or that it’s a terrible culture, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that we’re gouging places like this. Bangladesh is going to be underwater soon.

Is the situation getting better at least?

I mean, if you listen to Mostafiz Uddin, who’s CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange, he says don’t come to Bangladesh unless you’re willing to invest more money. I think the thought process is going the right way, that, yes, you need to spend more money to get the product you need. But then it doesn’t really make sense to go to Bangladesh anymore.

We’re giving Bangladesh the wrong option. We should be figuring out how to help Bangladesh deal with their flooding issues, not overwhelming them in production, which isn’t doing anything to help them with the water issue. To me, it’s not getting better because we’re not placing the proper attention.

Do you think innovation in the industry should come from brands?

No. Brands are still stuck trying to focus on their profit margins, and I can’t really hate them for that, because without money they can’t produce clothing or pay their salaries. A lot of this has to come from the manufacturing and the fabric mill side. Fabric mills, in order to stay competitive against each other, need to look at what can they do to stay relevant and innovate.

This is what you do with The Bear Scouts, right?

Yes, definitely. Basically, we’re there with fabric mills looking at options for how we can reduce from every perspective, or how we can reuse from every perspective, while still ensuring the product looks just as good as if it were made in the traditional way. That’s the most important aspect of our job.

We can talk about sustainability, reduction of water, chemicals, and energy, worker impact, all those types of things, all day long. But if the product never stands up against a traditionally made garment, then the consumer will have reason to choose a traditionally made garment instead of a sustainably made one.

If something doesn’t feel right, then that’s it.

There’s no hiding anymore. But the thing that’s always surprised me is that brands are not aware of certain types of technologies out there that they can really take advantage of, which would almost immediately reduce 20 percent of their water usage or their chemical usage. That has a lot to do with being digital. You can digitally print color on everything. You can even eliminate the dying process by digitally printing the color on the fabric. I’m always surprised that brands don’t know this.

Speaking of factories, which ones are leading the conversation?

Saitex in Vietnam is amazing. One of the craziest things they do, which I’m always impressed with and can’t figure out how to do it on my own, is they take the sludge, which is a huge issue with manufacturing — the runoff, all that muck — and they actually turn it into bricks. They build houses from it and put their employees in those houses made from the sludge in the runoff. That’s something businesses usually have to spend loads of money to get rid of. Instead of getting rid of it, you’re turning it into building material. Freaking amazing.

You also have manufacturers like Pedrosa & Rodrigues out in Portugal. They’re a family business. They’re a manufacturer, they do a lot, they do Kenzo and Neil Barrett. They spend loads of money on machinery that is very sustainable but also almost robotic. It doesn’t require human intervention to use. They have a gym in their facility, they have a doctor there constantly, they have a playroom. It’s ridiculous, really on another level.

Then you have Tintex, a fabric mill also in Portugal. They have a couple of scientists who just sit in their laboratory figuring out ways to create amazing textures and fabrics out of things like food waste. I mean, with the leather made of Cocoa Puffs, that shit is actually convincing. They’re just playing with everything: wood dust, corks from wine bottles, lots of crazy things. And the outcome looks like shit a luxury brand would love to have. It’s just really a matter of getting designers into their laboratory and just brainstorming together, because they’re coming up with shit out of thin air. Imagine if they had a bit of a focused initiative.

There are a lot of manufacturers who are doing really crazy, innovative things, but I don’t know why there seems to be a disconnect between brands who know about this and what they’re actually doing. I think it has to do with the fact [the manufacturers] aren’t screaming about themselves. They’ve not got a platform to talk about what they’re doing.

In terms of brands, which do you think is really leading the way?

I’m always gonna say Patagonia. The nucleus of their business is sustainability. They think about the environment first. From a Bear Scouts perspective, that’s one of the reasons we don’t work with high-street brands, because it’s hard for us to change the nucleus of their business.

It’s very hard for us to say, “Okay, consider how much paper you’re using, consider how many employees are taking company cars instead of riding a bike or taking public transportation.” It’s very hard to change those ways of thinking. Patagonia started that from day one. I always looked at them as a business model to copy, if possible.

Highsnobiety / Eva Al Desnudo

It helps that Patagonia is still independently owned.

Yeah, it always helped that they’re independently owned. As I said before, I’ve worked with a lot of big companies, and when they’re not independently owned, you’re trying to convince people but you’re never speaking to the decision makers. There’s a board of directors from a variety of different companies with different initiatives. And at the end of the day, it’s often their wallet they think about first. It’s very difficult when it’s a big brand. But Patagonia’s not small.

The progress being made is completely independent of price point. You can be the cheapest brand in the world or the most expensive brand in the world. It doesn’t make a difference to how your environmental program is.

No, it doesn’t. As long as you’re starting to have that discussion, that’s already a win for me. Because the next step is to do something. As long as you’re not greenwashing and saying you’re doing something when you’re really not. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. It has nothing to do with the price point. It has everything to do with just getting involved and starting with a strategy.

And the future?

The future for sustainability is looking quite good. The reason I think that is because influential brands are focusing on it. Gucci has built a whole facility focused on sustainability. Massive retailers like Zalando and ASOS, they’re starting to stand up and require their brands to have a foothold there.

I think it’s bright. What I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows, is if we’re moving fast enough. We need to make it sexy and stop talking about the science. You have a lot of big brains talking about the top-level helicopter view, which alienates those who’re just in the fight.

Those people in the fight, those brands and those manufacturers, they just want to know what they need to do to make their company more sustainable and to have a positive impact on the environment. We can start to get there by giving brands and manufacturers the opportunity to meet and speak on issues that are related to them directly, instead of just having a helicopter view and a big-brain discussion about sustainability. It needs to be made practical.

Highsnobiety

Highsnobiety magazine Issue 17 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.

Words by Alec Leach
Freelance Writer/Editor/Consultant

Alec Leach grew up in Brighton, England, but now lives in Berlin

What To Read Next