Earlier this year, New York-based sustainable textiles expert Tara St. James launched the United State’s first free-standing sustainable textiles library, called Re:Source. It’s a space where designers can touch and sample eco-friendly textiles and seek advice and best practices on how to curb the footprint of their products. In this exclusive interview, TNFI talks to St. James about what passes muster as a sustainable material, what materials don’t make the cut, and how a library of eco-friendly offerings can help transform fashion.
Elizabeth L. Cline: You’re a designer and have now launched a sustainable materials library, called Re:Source. Why have a library dedicated solely to sustainable materials?
Tara St. James: With the Re:Source Library, the one point that I want to get across is that there is already sustainable material solutions for every level of designer or company size. Textiles and yarns are so tangible and have to be touched and felt in order to be selected, and no one really had a physical library here in the US and certainly not focused exclusively on sustainable materials for the fashion industry. I’m also continuing textile Tuesdays, which I started at the BFDA [Ed Note: a sustainable fashion accelerator that recently closed], and that’s an education series that people can attend and meet the mills or meet the textile manufacturers and ask them questions and even be contentious with them about their solutions.
No one really had a physical library here in the US and certainly not focused exclusively on sustainable materials for the fashion industry.Tara St. James
EC: Are there other libraries doing what you’re doing around the world?
TSJ: Yes, we did the inaugural launch event by inviting The Sustainable Angle here for the Future Fibers Expo in July. And they are a very likeminded library and consultancy in London that serves a similar purpose there. We want to prove to designers and brands big and small that there are a lot of sustainable materials that are available from every price point and range and solution, all the way from low-priced mass market to high-end luxury. And that there is no excuse any longer to make other choices that are not sustainable.
There are a lot of sustainable materials that are available from every price point and range and solution. There is no excuse any longer to make other choices that are not sustainable.Tara St. james
EC: There’s so much debate around what counts as a sustainable material. What for you is off limits in the library?
TSJ: I wouldn’t let conventional materials into the library, like conventional cotton or virgin polyester, nylon, things like that. The only time I might make an exception is if there’s a social component, so if it’s a hand-spun, handwoven cotton from India with a traceable supply chain. The library does include some wool and includes some leathers, and it includes some recycled polyesters even though there’s a little bit of debate around them. And it includes in organic cotton too. There’s pros and cons for material, so we try to remain flexible about what we include. So, if water conservation is really important to you as a brand or designer, then maybe cotton in any form is not the best choice and if you want natural fibers, you’d go more with hemp or linen or Tencel or Refriba for example. The whole landscape has to be understood in order to make those decisions. And that’s what we’re offering.
EC: What are the most eco-friendly textiles in the library?
TSJ: One of the questions I get a lot is what is the most sustainable material? It doesn’t exist. It’s just what’s the most sustainable for you and your supply chain and your design. I also don’t think that there should be one clear solution because there needs to be diversity in the supply chain for purposes of farming and biodiversity in farming. If everybody decided to use organic cotton, we’d have a big problem. But just like if everybody decided to use recycled polyester, we’d still have a big problem. There needs to be encouragement for diverse material selection in design and also because it makes the world more interesting as far as clothing is concerned.
One of the questions I get a lot is what is the most sustainable material? It doesn’t exist. It’s just what’s the most sustainable for you and your supply chain and your design.TARA St. james
EC: What sustainable materials are you most excited about? Are you into the futuristic materials, like fruit-based leathers?
TSJ: I’m personally I’m kind of a purist when it comes to materials, so I really like the recycled or organic cottons and hemps and linens and those kinds of things. That’s just my personal choice aesthetically and as a designer. But I also think Orange Fiber [Ed note: A material made out of citrus byproducts] is really interesting and as a material it feels like a cellulosic material would feel like Tencel, modal or Cupro [Ed note: cellulosic fibers are chemically reconstituted from wood pulp and are conventionally known as “rayon” and viscose”] would feel.
EC: How do you encourage brands to move towards thinking about the entire life cycle of their designs, down to how the item is disposed of or recycled?
TSJ: There’s a lot of different ways that that can be considered from the start. A lot of that right now is dependent on technology and recycled materials, like Evernu. [Ed note: Evernu is a company recycling cotton waste into new fiber]. For now, recycling is dependent on designers using either mono materials [meaning materials made of one fiber] in their products or materials that are entirely biodegradable and making considerations for dyes and finishes. A lot of times I’ll hear designers say that they want to design compostable or biodegradable products. That’s fine and well and good because it means using natural materials, sometimes natural dyes, but how many people are really composting their clothes and what systems are in place to take back those clothes and put them into compost so that they can biodegrade? None that I know of really. So, and I don’t think it’s the best use of those materials when they could be used for other things.
EC: What do you think is the future for sustainable materials.
TSJ: I’m most excited about systems and recycling plants like Evernu or For Days, an organic cotton t-shirt company that also takes back its shirts and recycles them into new products. I think the future is really in solutions rather than the materials themselves, solutions that can be applied to end of life, to recycling, to take-back, to reclaiming the materials. If you look at this NuCycle material that Stella McCartney and Adidas are putting out, I think that that can be recycled more than once. That’s really exciting.
EC: What do you think of the label of “sustainable fashion?” What does that term mean to you?
TSJ: I even think that any brands making product at all should be called a sustainable brand. Companies that are producing anything and putting their name on it should be responsible for that product all the way through its end of life. But I think the idea of classifying anything as a sustainable something has to be made obsolete. One because it’s really exhausting having to define yourself as a sustainable designers or brand. And I’ve been saying that for a long time, and I would really like it to stop. I would prefer if brands had to say, well, we’re an unethical brand or we’re not sustainable brand because they’re the minority.
Companies that are producing anything and putting their name on it should be responsible for that product all the way through its end of life. But I think the idea of classifying anything as a “sustainable” something has to be made obsolete.Tara ST. James
For more information about Re:Source Library or to book an appointment to visit, visit the website.