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West Coast Way: Is California the Sustainable Fashion Capital of the US?

Allbirds. Levi Strauss & Co. The North Face. Patagonia. Reformation. Think of an American brand with an earth-conscious bent and chances are its roots are in California. 

The Golden State’s legacy of environmental protection runs deep. For decades, it has led on pollution, chemical and conservation policies that have often served as proof-of-concept models for other states and even federal authorities. John Muir’s brand of grassroots activism sprang out of California, as did the organic and farm-to-table movements. The concepts of “green buildings” and “wellness” started in California, too. And it was California that first required products to include cancer warnings if they contain hazardous chemicals. 

Even today, Sacramento plays offense on the climate-action front, not only by fighting the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks but also by establishing emissions standards stricter than those set out by Washington. The state is working on sweeping legislations that would curb the use of single-use plastic, and in 2019, it became the first state to ban fur. 

Part of it has to do with the way Californians simply are. (It isn’t for nothing, after all, that the Golden State still telegraphs a counterculture vibe.) Another is its geography. 

“California is unique in that it’s close to mountains, it’s close to the ocean, it’s close to deserts,” said Jordan Nodarse, creative director of Boyish Jeans, a Los Angeles-based women’s denim brand that employs better-for-the-planet materials like recycled and deadstock cotton. “Everyone, even people living in cities, are very in tune with nature, with going to the beach, with going hiking and just being out and involved.” 

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All of that lends itself to thinking about sustainability, even without the intensifying wildfires and droughts that have thrown the state’s new global-warming reality into stark relief. For the designers who live there, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, it’s an imperative. Just think of outdoor brand Patagonia’s mission statement (“We’re in business to save our home planet”), Allbirds’ self-imposed carbon tax or Levi’s pledge to cut its supply-chain emissions by 40 percent by 2025. 

“Californians have a very can-do, edge-of-the-Western-world point of view,” said Lynda Grose, chair of the fashion design program at the California College of the Arts, one of the first design schools to incorporate sustainability in its curriculum. “There’s also a history of dissent and nonconformity, which I think enables thinking to go beyond the traditional fashion industry that might be more restraining on the East Coast or in Europe.”

Plus, they’re also happy to share what they know. Matthew Mathiasen, a manager and buyer at the California Market Center, says collaboration over competition is almost a mantra with Golden State fashion professionals. “We see them interacting at networking mixers or in between seminars just to talk shop and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you found a new vendor. Let’s share contacts, let’s get lunch with them,’” he said. “So it’s very much community driven out here because we want everybody to win and succeed.”

In other words, if any state could lay claim to the “sustainable fashion capital of the United States” moniker, it might as well be California, where small-scale and industrial farms, textile mills and sewing factories lie in neighboring proximity. 

“There’s an opportunity to create essentially a very small, tight geographic supply chain that would be difficult in in most other parts of the country,” said Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg Co., the Bay Area firm that manages the Higg Index suite of sustainability-measurement tools.

Indeed, New York City may have showrooms, marquee brands and flashy catwalks, but California has the supply-chain muscle. L.A., which employs twice as many workers as New York City to cut, sew and finish garments—45,000 versus 22,600, according to census data—is widely considered the nation’s garment production capital. 

But creating sustainable fashion in general, and denim in particular, in California remains a challenge. Globalization and the migration of jobs overseas have left gaps in the supply chain, and even the facilities that stayed behind grapple with outdated and inefficient machinery.

“When I first started working in denim in L.A. you could find a cut-and-sew and wash place every 10 minutes, but they’re few and far between now,” said Adam Taubenfligel, creative director of Tencel-focused denim brand Triarchy, who was initially drawn to the city because of its reputation as the premium denim capital of the world.

That stature has waned over the years, however. The biggest roadblock at the moment, Taubenfligel said, is infrastructure—and cost. Sustainable laundries, for instance, are expensive to set up because the technology is still new. “So until we can find a way to bring the cost down or get help from the government, it’s challenging,” he said. 

Otherwise, why shouldn’t L.A. or California be the sustainable fashion capital of the United States—or indeed the world? Many of the key elements already exist, whether in terms of raw materials or demand. And with its generally temperate summers and mild winters, California is ideal for fiber farming. 

“It’s a little easier for us to have access to potentially more scalable fibers, than in, say, New York,” said Andrea Plell, co-founder of the Sustainable Fashion Alliance, a member-based community of fashion professional in the Bay Area. “And the collective culture here is very much supporting sustainable fashion. It’s just part of how we live.”

Nicholas Wenner, the lead process engineer at Fibershed, a natural textiles collaborative from San Geronimo, describes building out a regional fiber-production system like piecing together Legos. But work is coming along. In March, the group launched an initiative to “catalyze” fiber production on the West Coast using a soil-to-fiber, carbon-negative philosophy that is “supportive of people and place.” It’s an expansion of efforts such as the “climate beneficial” wool project, which promotes regenerative techniques that feed rather than deplete the soil.

Already, The North Face has incorporated some of the fluffy stuff into its “Cali Wool” range. More brands could climb onboard by experimenting not only with local wool, but also alpaca, llama and industrial hemp. Natural dyes derived from domestically grown plants, such as indigo, are another option. “We just need to bootstrap things back into place after all of the infrastructure left,” Wenner said. “But there’s a strong desire to get that ball rolling again.”

There are other bright spots, particularly in L.A.: Ustrive Manufacturing, which specializes in knitwear recently became the first and only vertical clothing manufacturing facility in North America to be certified to two of the world’s leading textile standards, the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Organic Content Standard. In 2017, Reformation opened a factory—chockablock with sustainability features such as wind power and LED lighting—to churn out its cool-girl threads. And sometime this fall, New York textile-reuse enterprise Fabscrap will be setting up a satellite branch there. 

Expertise abounds in the Golden State, too. Organizations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which Patagonia and Walmart founded in 2009, and its spinoffs, the Apparel Impact Institute and the aforementioned Higg Co., hold court in San Francisco. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which manages one of the most rigorous social and environmental standards for fashion, lies a stone’s throw away in Oakland. Some of them are mulling California-specific programs that could shore up resource efficiency or address pollution in existing factories or mills. 

With Silicon Valley in the north and Hollywood in the south, the Golden State is predisposed to innovative thinking. Fashion and textile startups such as Bolt Threads, Unspun, Mango Materials, Circular Systems and Ambercycle have gained eager investors looking to “disrupt existing models”—another classic Californian inclination, according to Lewis Perkins, president at the Apparel Impact Institute—by using 3D-weaving technologies to eliminate waste or turning agricultural waste into textiles. 

“There is also a great amount of wealth that allows for a larger body of influencers to take leadership and turn their financial backing toward solving problems,” Perkins said. “So tech money, entertainment, industry money and every other type of money that we have in the state of California flows back into progressive policies. I think that’s the real advantage to California.”

Sustainability proponents like Nicholas Brown, West Coast coordinator for the nonprofit Fashion Revolution U.S.A., would like to see some of these textile-recycling technologies scale up locally. “So much manufacturing goes on in the L.A. area, and there hasn’t been any place for textile scraps to go,” he said. 

Still, Brown remains optimistic. The L.A. sanitation department is piloting curbside pickup for textiles. Last year, the L.A. mayor’s office, launched its version of the Green New Deal to meet zero-waste, zero-carbon targets in line with the goal of the Paris Climate Accords to limit temperature increases to a further 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even now, the city is expanding public transportation in preparation for the 2028 Summer Olympics, which it says it wants to make the most sustainable Games in decades. 

“I see it as everyone is coming together and tackling these issues,” Brown said. “It’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen.”

This article appears in Rivet’s “LA Issue.” Click here to read the magazine.