It's nothing personal

Custom fashion: Are handmade, personalized clothes good for the planet?

As “sustainable” pieces become more accessible and (desirable), the question is what happens once a person no longer wants an item made specifically for them.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09: Jeffrey Prada wearing white jeans with spray paint and white t-sh...
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There’s nothing more appealing to a consumer than a product made explicitly for them.

Whether pieces cater towards a person’s measurements, style, or color preferences, they provide a sense of individuality and creativity to the wearer — and in the fashion industry, those characteristics are some of the most valuable, and profitable.

Custom items have long been the domain of luxury fashion. Tailored suits, made-to-order dresses, and even perfectly sized shoes were limited to those who could afford them, and knew where to get them. But as the pandemic fueled DIY trends — offering business opportunities to those who could crochet, bead, sew, or knit — ordering custom clothing became as easy as opening an app.

A quick search for “customs” on Depop uploads hundreds of thousands of listings for personalized jewelry, shoes, and apparel.Depop

Made-to-order crochet pieces from brand Memorial Day have been embraced by Kylie Jenner, Rihanna, and Bella Hadid, while personalized beaded necklaces from Ian Charms have received love from Emma Chamberlain, Joe Jonas, and Dua Lipa. The influence of these celebrities, alongside the growing accessibility of custom pieces, has created an influx of demand for one-of-a-kind items. To Gen Z especially, made-to-order pieces seem to hold more value than exclusive sneakers or luxury handbags: Customs are made just for you, and no one else.

The good outweighs the bad.”

Yet the specificity of made-to-order items makes it harder for them to appeal to someone other than who they were created for. The market for a nameplate necklace is limited to people sharing your name, while a custom crochet mini skirt has to interest someone with your measurements and style. Although made-to-order pieces have been praised for their sustainability — as they’re made one by one and offer consumers their ideal fit, increasing an item’s wear — how sustainable are custom items once they’re not wanted by the people they were designed for?

Personal. For someone else.

“The good outweighs the bad,” says Sara Anne Leeds, founder of Rhymes with Orange, a sustainability blog and secondhand market. While she admits that custom pieces may be harder to re-home, their environmental impact is far less than recognizable brands with more resale value: “It’s more sustainable to be buying a one-off piece than buying a massive haul… where pieces were most likely produced with bad working conditions and create excessive amounts of waste,” she says. Textile waste and energy usage are dramatically cut down because each garment is produced to order, Leeds adds.

The biggest, and most problematic, exception to this is corporate branding.

Made-to-order items also have more thought involved in their purchasing process — not only are you specifying how you want the item to fit and look, you’re spending considerably more on it than a fast fashion piece, Leeds adds. “There has to be an actual layer of consideration [before purchasing],” she says, as opposed to manically clicking buy on $6 mass-produced pieces. Buying a custom item typically requires communication with another human, too — a pesky detail fast fashion sites and curbside pickups have eliminated — meaning people are actively talking to creators on Instagram, Etsy, and Depop, and finalizing their designs.

Bella Hadid
Ella Emhoff
Kylie Jenner

But after potentially waiting weeks for their made-to-order piece to arrive, what happens if the consumer doesn’t want their item anymore? In most cases, there are no returns on custom and handmade items, and unless the piece is made by a notable artist (perhaps one worn by Bella Hadid or Rihanna), there’s little resale value in the product.

“[Buyers] want to appreciate the artistry the first time around when they buy the item,” says Leeds, noting that most don’t barter on handmade goods. “But when [a buyer] resells the item, there’s less value attached because they personally didn’t make the item.” To anyone shopping resale sites, or perusing a thrift store, the product’s value is surface-level.

Banning Branding

Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Graphics, or screen-printed customs, are a bit different, says Leeds. Unlike crochet skirts and beaded necklaces, iconographic pieces transcend trends — and are appealing to a larger demographic. Whether worn ironically, like kitschy event tees, or worn purposefully, like rising brand OGBFF’s “No one actually likes aperol spritz” shirt, graphics apply to anyone that likes its messaging. The biggest, and most problematic, exception to this is corporate branding.

While labels like Supreme and Off-White have made names for themselves by plastering their signatures everywhere, local corporations don’t hold the same appeal. Walking into a thrift store’s T-shirt sections guarantees you’ll find rows of graphics promoting businesses, 5K runs, and miscellaneous promotions that have no meaning to anyone outside of the group that created them. Unless something is recognizable, or vintage — interesting collectors — branded goods will most likely end up in a landfill.

Leeds points to a recent New York Times feature, dubbed “The Cotton Tote Crisis.” Much like the article explains, she says she has too many cotton totes, emblazoned with company logos or ambiguous patterns. While tote bags were created as a sustainable, reusable alternative to plastic bags, there are far too many circulating for them to be considered eco-friendly anymore, Leeds claims.

Most tees seen at Goodwill Bins — the last destination before clothes are sent off to the landfill — are company T-shirts. San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Similarly, branded hats, tees, and yes, tote bags are polluting the planet. The demographic for the items is far more limited than even that of a crochet skirt, and custom manufacturers have begun to realize that: In its sustainability efforts, Patagonia announced it would no longer add corporate logos to its beloved fleece sweatshirts and vests. “Adding an additional non-removable logo reduces the lifespan of a garment, often by a lot, for trivial reasons,” the brand said in its announcement.

Buying one-off customs is much more sustainable than a group order of company tees, argues Leeds. And as people continue to buy custom-made clothing — the number of consumers will only increase, she says — the resale market for one-of-a-kind items will grow too. Whether custom artists become recognizable names or handmade items spike in demand, the future of fashion is personalized. “There are so many meanings to custom,” says Leeds; and that meaning is subject to change as bigger companies turn to smaller, more specialized production.

Still, producing anything at all — even if items are ethically created or handmade — is less sustainable than sourcing from the billions of garments that frequent thrift stores, vintage retailers, and ultimately, landfills. Now, are you really going to keep that personalized piece forever, or will it only add to the pile?