It is no secret that the fashion industry is a major polluter — it currently generates 92 million tonnes of waste. However, the trends are changing — currently, 45% of consumers see an environmentally responsible reputation as a primary motivator for making a purchase, and an increasing number of fashion companies are pushing for more sustainability, be it through choosing more environmentally friendly materials and practices, or opting for greenwashing to get the customers’ attention.

Grėtė Švėgždaitė, a new generation Lithuania-based designer, aims to be a part of the change within the industry which often still employs unethical labor practices and can be harmful to the environment. Her luxury sleepwear brand GRETES focuses on every detail in the production-to-consumer process: starting from fabrics and ending with recycled package boxes, and uses sustainable Naia fabric derived from pine and eucalyptus pulp sourced from sustainably managed forests.

Breaking through in the fashion industry with sustainable materials

Ms. Švėgždaitė believes that even though it’s a positive development to see so many brands strive to be seen as sustainable, not many are totally honest about their sustainability practices. “I strive to follow green practices whenever possible,” said the designer. “However, I still know that, for example, by delivering packages by air and using traditional materials for things like buttons and labels I cannot claim complete sustainability. I am honest about that and what can be done at this point, and my goal is to do the best possible. On the other hand, I know brands that only claim to be sustainable, while they do nothing about it — as there is no industry regulation about this at the moment.”

According to Ms. Švėgždaitė, companies often try to appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. “For example, brands often use many different fabrics for a single garment, and only one of them is recycled, yet they still call the whole product sustainable. It’s a deceiving marketing tactic,” she added.

For the designer personally, her path in fashion is that of constant discovery and transformation: even if it means a radical change in her profile of work, going from silk to a more sustainable Naia fabric, and shifting from hair accessories to sleepwear.

“In the beginning, I launched a brand of silk accessories, which gained traction — I was even invited to the New York Fashion Week — and I naturally thought of delving deeper into the fashion industry. After completing a course on circular fashion at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, I realized the way silk is derived is incompatible with my values — it requires boiling live silkworms still in their cocoons, the industry often uses child labor, many chemicals, and wastes huge amounts of energy and water,” Ms. Švėgždaitė explained.

“I decided to find a fabric that was less harmful to the environment but had all the qualities of silk, meaning it had to be non-allergenic and breathable. I understood how much effort it would take to be sustainable, and while I still haven’t fully achieved that, I am always trying to minimize harm. After about a year of work, I had a Naia fabric from Italy in my hands, which ideally fit my standards of quality,” she explained.

The Naia fabric has several advantages over silk in regards to sustainability — it does not contain any hazardous chemicals for humans or nature, has lower tree-to-fiber carbon and water footprint, and is fully biodegradable. While some impact on the environment is still made, Ms. Švėgždaitė is constantly communicating with innovators, factories, attending exhibitions, and trying to find the most environmentally and human friendly material on the market.

GRETES has now expanded from silk accessories into a full sleepwear clothing line made from the innovative cellulosic fiber.

“While GRETES is still on its way to becoming a 100% sustainable brand, I do not believe that living things should be harmed to produce an inanimate object. I am strongly against the greenwashing the companies resort to in order to create a marketable image. Therefore, I am constantly exploring how to reduce environmental harm by learning about alternative materials and practices,” the designer noted.

Leaving it all for a dive into fashion

Although the fashion business is competitive, it is also continually evolving and changing, and many new faces, passionate about change and new practices, are joining the ranks of more established designers. 

“When I started studying law, I joined several liberal political organizations and eventually found myself working in the field,” Ms. Švėgždaitė said. “I spent around 10 years of my career working in politics, and then in advertising. However, sewing was my real passion. It eventually got me deeply involved in the whole fashion and textile industry, where a new world opened up to me. Even if I am not a professional designer, I think I can relate to women like myself and their needs — many modern women are longing for comfortable, easy-to-wear, yet luxurious garments produced as sustainably as possible.”

Besides the changing consumer needs, the success of such young designers as Ms. Švėgždaitė is also marked by more chances to explore entrepreneurial ideas due to the rise of online shopping during the pandemic, an increased flow of clients to online marketplaces like Etsy, and more opportunities for young designers to reach wider audiences through social media. 

“The organizers of the New York Fashion Week Startup Brands event had contacted me independently after noticing my accessory work on Instagram,” says the designer. “After auditioning, I was able to showcase my pieces to a global audience in New York, which was a big impulse for me to keep doing what I am doing. It felt like I was on the right path.” Ms. Švėgždaitė concluded.