Sustainability Is a Recycled Idea

Sustainability Is a Recycled Idea

When I looked at the label of my new blue camouflage puffer coat from Zara, I was a bit startled.  Usually, a coat like this is made of goose down feathers and nylon, this one was composed of recycled water bottles.  As explained by Zara, “This plastic is collected within 50 km of waterways and coastal areas without a formal collection infrastructure at the Rivera Maya coast.  Zara continues its mission of repurposed fashion in a partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers in America (CFDA) and challenged four designers to create an outfit that is half vintage upcycled fashion and part new fabric.  Nine pieces were created, including a tie-dye slip dress by Alejandra Alonso Rojas, a layered pink three-piece linen suit by Private Policy and a patchwork linen trench coat by Barragán.  There are several more companies that have jumped on board the trend.  Levi’s launched SecondHand, its first resale offering, and H&M opened Looop, which it described as the world’s first in-store garment-to-garment recycling system.

The terminology of “repurpose” and “sustainability” is the latest fixation of the industry.  It utilizes all kinds of used, tossed, thrown out, overage, garbage and trash to be reborn into a brand-new clothing item.  According to “Vogue” there are an estimated 50 million tons of clothing discarded every year, and most of it will not biodegrade in a landfill.  

The amount of time, energy, and resources that go into those trashed items is usually disproportionate to their lighting speed turnaround.  A single cotton T-shirt has a noticeably short closet life cycle.  One person’s trash is now becoming another’s treasure. 

I could refer to her as the Mary Poppins of revamped vintage, but Kate Mcguire’s Converted Closet is a pandora’s box of fashion goodies with a deep spiritual soul and a great British accent.  Her Instagram is filled with fun transformations of finds that magically turn into couture pieces designed or reconstructed by Kate and her crew of merry dressmakers.  After submitting my two worn out Burberry coats to be whipped into a new rendition, I got into a conversation with her about my book. Kate’s profound take on fashion was deeply rooted in faith.  She was speaking my language.

Tobi, “Do you believe that your talents are G-d given?” 

Kate McGuire, “Absolutely and what a relief!  My belief is that there is a constant flow of inspiration and know-how available at all times, if one stays connected; it is my biggest thrill, knowing that the loving source is bigger than me and can never be switched off.  It is deeply empowering and energizing.”

Tobi, “Does each conversion speak to you spiritually?  Is there Genesis moment of creation that happens with each piece?”

Kate McGuire, “To me, all things on earth are comprised of energy and clothes are so precious as they sit directly on our skin.  They are the closest thing physically to us during our waking hours.  The clothes I convert talk to me.  My dressmaker in London will confirm this because she started to witness it over time, tuned in herself.  I begin the conversion process by putting the garment on in front of a mirror and asking myself what clothes I see hidden inside.  As the ideas start to flow, I move the garment around to see what it would potentially look like in the various forms it could take to see if one lights me up.  And yes, there is always a Genesis moment of creation, a sartorial epiphany.  My dressmakers and I chat about the incredible thrill of conversion.  It is a spiritual experience because it’s pure creativity in action.”

Tobi, “How do you think sustainability, recycling and upcycling have their roots in faith?” 

Kate McGuire, “I believe the issue of climate change is one we will eventually solve.  This is what human beings have done throughout the course of history, work together to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable, dire situations.  In the drive to find necessary solutions, new heights of creativity are reached.  In our drive to create a sustainable fashion industry, we must completely rethink every moment of a garment’s existence, from supply chain to end-of-life.  In my view, the fashion landscape will look radically different in 10 years.  It will be fueled with much more unique, original fashion, created by many more home-designers and makers, using the billions of clothes already in existence.  Consumers will automatically consider conversion as an alternative to buying new when seeking fabulous new sustainable clothes.  It’s my life’s mission to prove you can have your sustainable high-fashion cake and eat it.”

The question is does this new environmentally friendly craze in the fashion industry have a basis in Judaism?  The Torah (Bible) addressed this issue a long time ago with the commandment of bal tashchist, being a sin to waste or destroy.  “Waste not” has long been a basic Jewish ethic involving the physical and spiritual worlds.  Forbidding wasteful acts has a direct effect on our lives and our planet, each of which are G-d’s creations.  

The terrible sin of waste starts with G-d’s specific instructions on destroying trees during wartime occupation.  When laying siege to a city, we are commanded not to destroy fruit-bearing trees.  “You must not destroy its trees.  You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.  Are trees of the field to remove before you enter the besieged city?  Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” Devorim (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).  The general prohibition against needless destruction, derived from the verse Maimonides (Rambam) explains that a Jew is forbidden to “smash household goods, tear clothes, demolish a building, stop up a spring, or destroy articles of food.” (Mishna Torah law of kings 6:10).  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888, Germany) explains in strong language that lo tashchit, “do not destroy,” is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position which G-d has given them as masters of the world and its matter through capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.” 

I also explored a beautiful example of recycling from the Bais Hamikdash (Holy Temple).  In the Mishnah (Tractate Sukkah 5:3) there is a description of Simchas Beis Hashoeva (celebration during The Feast of Weeks) a celebration in which tall menorot (candelabras) were lit that illuminated every courtyard in Jerusalem.  The candlelight was so intense that a woman would have been able to see well enough to sort her wheat grains.  The wicks for these flames were made from the worn-out garments of linen of the Kohanim (priests) who served in the Holy Temple.  

A similar account is found in the Ten Plagues and their interesting and personal sensitivities.  The plagues of blood and lice were given over to Aaron (Moses elder brother) only.  For Moses to have issued the plagues over the water and dust would have been highly disrespectful since the water protected him as an infant in the basket, and the dust helped him when he killed and buried the Egyptian slave master.  Moses had a debt of gratitude and was beholden toward the dust and the water for their effect on his life. Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk learned an important lesson of gratitude from Moshe’s backseat approach to the plagues of lice and blood.

It is obvious by the Torah’s (Bible’s) handling of waste that we learn how holy everything really is.  From a fruit tree to a scrap of linen belonging to the Kohen, all aspects of respecting an object are clear.  It might be too much to ask us to behave like Moses, who was indebted to the waters of the Nile and the earth particles of Egypt, to pay homage to the great earth that nourishes us.  Understanding that each act of repurposing, recycling, or reimagining is really a sign of gratitude to Hashem (G-d) for creating and sustaining us.  

The next time you toss your old shoes or finish your water bottle at the gym, or box up old clothes, remember to recycle them correctly because you just might just be wearing it next season.