Updated: Jan 7, 2021
Well, this is definitely going to be a fun article.
When I first switched my blog name to 'The Suitstainable Man', I wanted to focus more on the benefits of buying bespoke tailoring that lasts, as well as the importance of being conscious in the way we interact with our garments. To me, this is a concept of sustainable living that truly captivates me.
Now, while I still strongly believe in this 'ideology', if you may, to this day, my philosophy on this matter has grown more nuanced since then. This is perhaps due to my current work on climate mitigation strategies and pathways as it allows me to learn more about this subject matter more professionally.
So, for example, factors like personal style and our tendency to stick with it became more important to me. Just imagine, if you could keep it to one style for long enough and buy just the right amount, chances are you produce less waste than most people out there already.
Then, of course, it is hardly feasible, if not unrealistic, for one to stick to a particular style forever ― style evolves all the time. So sadly, the notion of permanent style doesn't work in practice really.
That being said, certain styles are definitely more suited to last than some others. (Pun intended.) And above all, you could certainly act more sustainably from a garment angle.
In today's write-up, I'm going to look at how sustainable bespoke tailoring truly is. We'll first examine that from a carbon footprint standpoint and then from a more holistic social sustainability point of view. Hopefully, this will make our conversation more balanced.
Let's start off with carbon emissions.
Before we jump right in, let me highlight the reason why I think it’s important to talk about the carbon footprint of bespoke tailoring when we talk about its (environmental) sustainability.
As you may be aware of this already, sustainability is a term that is increasingly being used by many within the menswear industry. All of this had been great except we have now reached a stage of over-saturation where the term starts to lose its meaning.
Worse, many brands are using the word without actually explaining what it is they do sustainably. Hence, the ones that are actually doing something extraordinary are often lost in all the noise out there.
Needless to say, if we were to demonstrate this in a more concrete way, we need some indicators like carbon footprints. And so in this part of our conversation, I will be using a method that resembles what is known as a Life-cycle Assessment (LCA). This would help us visualize the carbon footprint of a bespoke garment from its production to end-of-life.
Oh, and one more thing before we begin. As you all know how complex it is to produce a bespoke suit. For the simplicity of this little project, I will omit or speculate certain details with less impact ― say the footprint for producing the horn buttons and the shoulder paddings or the emissions for the transportation from the mill to the warehouse. We will, however, still cover the main bits to make this as realistic as possible.
Alright, let's take an example of an 11oz wool-worsted 2 piece suit for a client based in London. The cloth, at a length of around 3.5m, would be sourced from an English mill and the bespoke commission would be with a local tailor in London.
We start with the wool extraction process. This is generally the most carbon-intensive stage throughout the whole bespoke journey, unsurprisingly.
Based on a case study looking specifically at this matter, it is said that for each kilogram of greasy wool, you would emit around 24kg of CO2-e. Now, considering a 3.5m cloth would require around 1.575kg of wool on average (based on a ratio I deduced from another study), this gives us a sum of 37.8kg up to this point.
Of course, this number would be lower if it had been a 2 piece linen or cotton suit.
That being said, I want to quickly point out these numbers don't really do the justice for wool.
Usually, many of these environmental assessments out there tend to criticize the use of wool for how carbon-intensive they are compared to alternative materials, like synthetics or other non-organic materials. What they miss out, however, is how these materials perform at different stages and hence its overall sustainability.
So first of all, wool would fundamentally be more carbon-intensive than other materials since it is an animal-based material. It would always have a higher footprint even if you try to reduce the amount the sheep consume or through other extreme methods. But then you'll be stepping into the animal rights territory.
Secondly, these arguments don't tend to elaborate on how these materials perform as a cloth, especially in tailoring.
The truth is, we use wool in tailoring more often than not because of its tremendous properties — like being elastic, insulating, and pivotally being able to drape beautifully if it comes in a decent weight.
After all, it is these factors that would make us want to keep our bespoke garments for years. It is just as important to look at a bigger picture if we were to address sustainability.
Moving on, we have the wool manufacturing process.
From a study that I have looked into, the amount of energy required to turn the fibers into yarn (everything from shearling to spinning) would be around 63mJ/ kg. In comparison, this is almost half of what's required for polyester and other non-organic material.
After some unit conversion and factoring in the amount of carbon dioxide generated per kWh for the UK electricity grid, this would bring us to around 4520g of CO2-e. As for the remaining steps (from weaving to finishing), that would be another 287g of CO2-e; making a total sum of 4807g, or around 4.8kg.
On a quick side note, producing 2m of viscose yarn using 2kg amount of fiber would be around 9kg CO2-e, with the remaining steps to turn the viscose into lining accounting for another 164g CO2-e.
Needless to say, this is significantly less than the previous stage.
We now fast forward from the mill, say one in Huddersfield, to a tailor in London. (In case if you're wondering, the CO2-e emitted during the shipment, according to a scenario I built with DHL, is at a tiny sum of 2g ― I wouldn't be too concerned about it.)
Now, since 80% of the tailoring process is done by hand, the carbon footprint for this stage is incredibly low.
Take the issue of wastage for example. In tailoring, since a skilled cutter is generally quite efficient in using the cloth, very little amount of fabric waste would ultimately end up in the disposal. Even more so, some of the larger houses would donate unused cloth and trimmings to students.
Less so for most mass-produced garments on the other hand ― on average, 35% of all materials in the supply chain end up as waste before the final product reaches the consumer.
Regardless, as for the remaining 20%, the impact is minimal as well. Ironing and pressing for 15 minutes would give you 61.5g of CO2-e while using the sewing machine for 20 minutes would give you another 4.92g if the sewing machine uses around 100 watts. This, in total, makes up a 66.42g equivalent of carbon dioxide, or just around 0.07kg.
Only one caveat to this, however.
This number is only this low because the cutter, tailor, and the client are all based in the same location/ city. Once you factor in the carbon footprint from transportation, the number would shoot up astronomically.
Put it this way, if you and your tailor are based in two different cities, then chances are you would only see your tailor during their trunk show, or when you're flying over to theirs. And the carbon emissions associated with air travel is generally quite high.
That being said, this ultimately leads to two wider questions that we all need to ask ourselves ― 1) How do we minimize emissions from flights while keeping everyone happy? 2) How do we balance the fact that we need to reduce our carbon footprint while ensuring the livelihood of talented foreign artisans and their businesses?
I will come back to the second point when we talk about the social sustainability element later in this article.
Next, we have the stage of use ― meaning us wearing the garment.
With this stage, the carbon footprint associated with it is generally very little, mainly because you iron your bespoke garment or send them to the dry-cleaners, rather than washing them.
Why does that make a big difference, you may ask? Well, washing and drying a 5 kg load of laundry every two days creates nearly 440 kg of CO2-e per year for example. In comparison, how frequent you need to press or dry-clean your 2 piece suit would depend on the frequency you wear (and stain) it.
Personally, if that 11oz cloth is more like a high-twist fabric like Crispaire, I would iron them perhaps once every 2 or 3 months or so. If it is more like a worsted flannel like the ones Whitcomb and Shaftesbury made for me, I would be looking at ironing them once a month. Either way, it would add up to about 246g of CO2-e per year for the former, or 738g for the latter.
As for dry-cleaning, you would be generating an equivalent of 0.369kg CO2 per clothing on average, which, of course, depends on what type of solvents your dry-cleaner uses.
On a side note, considering the variety of impacts chemical solvents would have on your garments and on the environment, I would generally avoid dry-cleaning my garments. (If you prefer your suits still be dry-cleaned, however, I would then suggest checking out some environmental-friendly alternatives.)
Finally, we reach the end-of-life for the bespoke suit.
Now, this is the stage where we tend to speculate, largely because all the variables determining how long the garment would last differs from one suit to another ― the durability of the cloth, how frequent one wears his suit, etc.
One thing that's for sure, nonetheless, is that bespoke customers tend to pass on their garments either to their children, friends, or charity shops ― very rarely would you see bespoke garments being sent to landfills or incinerators like many mass-produced goods.
For that reason, I figured it may be more interesting to bring in statistics on other types of garments for a comparison. A life-cycle of a t-shirt, for example, gives an equivalent of 22.5kg of CO2; while a pair of Levi's 501 is about 33.4 kg CO2-e.
On the other hand, a wool-worsted bespoke 2 piece suit, based on my rough estimate so far (excluding factors like the horn buttons and the canvas, a few transportation processes, as well as the use process) would be around 51.8kg CO2-e. So adding the missing factors would perhaps give us around 60-70kg equivalent of CO2.
(In fact, you could also joke about the suit is more sustainable than an iPhone X if you want since the carbon footprint of the latter is around 79kg CO2-e.)
Now, it is also important to factor in how long would each of these garments last in reality. What we would do, then, is to put them under a comparable timescale.
For the bespoke 2 piece suit and the Levi's 501, depending on how often you wear them (and what exact material it is for the former), they should both last for at least 5 years. (We will use 8 years from here for convenience.)
I would even say the bespoke suit could potentially last even more than 80 years if it is made with a heavy tweed or fabrics similar to that, just like the one I'm wearing in the picture above. (Full story behind that in this article.)
In any case, the carbon footprint for the suit and the pair of jeans for an 8 years timeframe would be 60-70kg and 51.8kg respectively.
The t-shirt, on the other hand, would only last for 6 months to 3 years on average regardless of how frequently you wear it. Either way, for an 8 years timeframe, the amount of t-shirt you wear would set you off a footprint of 60-360kg CO2-e. So not that sustainable all of a sudden.
That being said, since this is not a comprehensive study, I wouldn't just mark my words and claim bespoke tailoring is more sustainable than other styles or anything like that.
On top of that, we have only looked at the carbon footprint of bespoke tailoring and not the other environmental impacts, so it wouldn't be fair to make an assumption based on this.
(Meanwhile, I would assume bespoke tailoring would score quite high than other garments in the ecotoxicity category of an LCA - we tend to use natural dyes, and the treated wasted water tends to be cleaner than it was before!)
Nonetheless, some factors are guaranteed to make this more certain. Say, the way how a bespoke suit is constructed allows better aftercare ― easier in terms of both being altered, and also by the person who made the suit in the first place. This is a feature that most mass-produced garments simply can't have.
On the other side of the story, there are some arguments out there that frame bespoke tailoring less sustainable than other styles, especially with the point about bespoke customers tend to buy more clothes than most people out there. But that reasoning is a bit flawed ― you are just targetting the users and not necessarily the craft itself.
In any case, we should broaden our conversation to the wider notion of sustainability by looking at the social responsibility element of bespoke tailoring at this point.
We could measure how good the trade is for the environment as much as we want to by quantifying its level of pollution. However, only with a value-based approach could we capture the romanticism underneath bespoke tailoring, which had me started on my 'sartorial journey' in the first place.
In my opinion, the reason why the tailoring trade always seems to be quite virtuous is that most brands usually have a strong heritage, or that they have a strong company mission.
The story of how Nancy (right, pictured above) works with nomadic herders in rural Mongolia to revitalize their community livelihood (more on that here) is one that often comes to my mind the most.
Meanwhile, the work that Whitcomb & Shaftesbury is doing with their Indian workshop ― first by offering fishermen who lost their jobs in the 2004 Tsunami a place to work, then through this medium to train a whole new generation of Indian tailors ― is just as exemplary to me.
Now, as we have briefly touched on this matter earlier, having things made from either of these two brands would increase the carbon footprint of my bespoke garment. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make occasionally knowing the vast social benefits that would come with my decision. (I’m willing to see what’s your take on this.)
Regardless, however, already we could see more RTW or MTO brands within the classic menswear sphere is starting to adopt the principles of 'supporting local communities and paying craftsmen fairly' into their business model, just like what Informale is doing with their J002 Jungle Jacket. So things are improving definitely.
My point is if more fashion companies could reference these virtues that have been around the tailoring sphere for decades, if not centuries, then we could perhaps be a step closer to be sustainable in both the environmental and the social sense from a garment perspective.
And on that note, this is the end of this love letter I have for bespoke tailoring today.
Let me know what do you all think about this matter in the comments. I am also more than happy to clarify and also further engage in this conversation.
Special thanks to Karthik Raj Magizhnan and Jefri Ho for their assistance on the LCA section of this write-up.
Disclaimer: Most of the numbers demonstrated in the environmental sustainability section of this article is a result of my own calculation based on information from multiple case study. They are for illustration purposes only and may not accurately reflect reality.
Photography: as specified, otherwise own