The unfortunate truth about thrifting

An ethical fashion designer gets real


While working at MSU as the education coordinator for on-campus sustainability, Lauren Olson discovered she needed a more creative outlet to promote low-impact living.

A thrift junkie at heart, she was aware of the abundance of cotton t-shirts donated to charities every day and began repurposing them to make dresses. In 2014, she started her online boutique, called Remark Clothing, and was a full-time designer. Olson, 33, had finally found a way to combine her interests in sewing and recycling. However, she started to experience the limitations of running a sustainable brand.

The State of Fashion 2019, a report issued by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Co., highlights consumer trends that suggest the industry is adjusting its practices to accommodate a younger, more environmentally conscious market. While the report attributes younger generations’ “getting woke” about environmental issues as the cause for consumers seeking both affordability through thrifting and renting clothing, it fails to mention consumer hesitancy to pay for ethically made fashion.

“I do think that fast fashion is still an issue,” Olson said. “We have an issue of expecting clothes to be too cheap and not expecting them to meet labor standards, caring about the materials and how they are made. I would like to see a shift of the consciousness fully.”

The report does point out that while members of Generation Z — ages 12 to 21 — are interested in environmental issues, they are hungry for new clothes. 

What is lacking in the younger consumer’s “pre-owned philosophy,” as pointed out by market analysts Mckinsey & Co., is “there are not markets large enough to absorb the volume of material” that comes from recycling or donating clothing.

Olson, who studies consumer products and sustainability at the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, says studies have proven about 15 percent of clothes donated to charities are purchased on site. The remaining are shipped overseas to developing nations which benefits the wholesale buyers, but ultimately “decimates their clothing industry.”

“We have such a wide variety of things going there that a lot of times those markets can’t even keep up,” said Olson.

The same goes for domestic, eco-friendly fashion businesses trying to compete with a billion-dollar industry built on the premise to provide cheap clothes.

Mckinsey & Co. reported in 2016 that the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60% over the past 15 years. Consumers treat the lowest-priced garments as nearly disposable — discarding them after just seven or eight wears — and see accessibility as a remedy for the unseen impact of the fast-fashion business.

While Olson has spent almost five years creating low-impact clothing, she is not deaf to the inefficiencies.

“I don’t pretend that using discards is ever going to replace the fast fashion industry if you just look at the bottom line of a price tag,” Olson said.

It simply requires too much time to obtain good materials and process them in a responsible manner, she said. To make one of her t-shirt dresses, Olson will spend days scavenging through aisles of pre-owned t-shirts, sorting materials by thickness and stretch, washing and cutting out each piece of fabric. She has considered hiring an assistant, but knows she can’t afford to offer them dignified wages.

“If corporations that flood the market with cheap clothes had to charge the social and environmental costs their clothing prices would be higher,” she said.

One of Olson’s custom t-shirt dresses goes for $145. Customers send her a t-shirt that they want salvaged and she builds an entire dress around it. In addition to ensuring a high-quality product, part of her process is learning about all her customers — from their favorite colors to how they feel about their bodies.

“I had a customer who sent me a picture of herself outside in the dress and she was glowing and radiant and I was just so happy for her,” said Olson.

While Olson only designs part-time now, her love for educating people about the nuances of recycling remains. She collaborated with local junker festival “ScrapFest” to incorporate a market catering to eco-friendly artists. Through collaboration and perseverance, Olson sees her brand as a platform to “communicate about the vast inequalities of the traditional clothing supply chain” without sounding too much of a Debbie Downer.


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