In 2050 there will be 9.8 billion people on this planet. Resources are scarce enough now but imagine what effect a near four billion extra consumers will have. There’s depleting food, fresh water, medicine, coal and oil resources to think about. And it doesn’t help to have a fashion industry in the background churning out a seemingly endless supply of non-recyclable, non-compostable clothing to a human race that – according to one report – consumes 400 per cent more clothes than they did 20 years ago. The world really isn’t crying out for another 20 quid high street jumper.
In 2016, one-quarter of British clothes were sent to the landfill rather than being recycled. A small portion of that which is recycled goes into making a new item of clothing depending on how it was designed at birth; others simply can’t. Some will end up worn by another person. A majority is shipped to factories in the third world where it is collated into mongrel rags used in all manner of odd objects from mops to housing insulation.
Raw, virgin materials like cotton and wool are becoming scarce just like all the other resources. These are the fabrics that can be recycled and decomposed. When fashion designers and brands start to think about how their clothing will continue after the customer has left it, they’re creating a sustaining structure where we can continue to use these materials.
For many, this remains the basis of what sustainable fashion means, a circular product that is designed to continue past its use-by date. But we haven’t even got started on the fact that the industry is the second biggest polluter in the world, after oil, a massive consumer of water and a source of terrifying plastic waste.
It doesn’t help that the issue is one full of contradictions. Take recycled polyester for example. Recycled equals good, yes, but recycled polyester sheds micro fibres, that can escape into the ocean and enter, then harm, the food chain, which equals not good at all.
For the average dedicated follower of fashion, it’s a head-scratcher, but it doesn’t mean the end is nigh for taking care of your appearance. Quite the opposite, in fact. We’ve long preferred lasting style over fleeting fashion and making conscious choices with your wardrobe is always a good look. It also means buying less, which means spending less. But consumers can’t do it alone.
As the industry wakes up to the issue and begins attempts to tackle it, one thing that is becoming apparent is that there is not one catch-all solution. As well as changes in how we all shop and dispose of clothes, we need smart new materials, clever ways of returning and recycling old threads, and less harmful ways of creating new ones.
“There’s now so much that’s been written about it and so much confusion about the term in the market,” says fashion designer Christopher Raeburn. “For me, it comes down to an ethical responsibility we all have around the way we are designing, consuming and considering our fashion.”
Here we talk to eight industry figures leading the charge on the issue, offering their own insights into just how we – that’s all of us – can make fashion sustainable.
‘Buy Garments Made From A Single Material’
Christopher Raeburn, Designer And Creative Director Of Timberland
If I think about the last ten years of my business, there’s actually a lot that has happened in materials, manufacturing and particularly in the cost of recycled polyester and nylon, which were considerably more expensive and difficult to get hold of when I started. Now we’re actually getting to a point where they’re pretty close in price versus virgin materials. That change has been primarily driven through sportswear and outerwear companies that really care about their manufacturing which is also allowing smaller brands and designers to access that material.
The biggest issue we still have in the way we are manufacturing though is through blended fabrics. A lot of garments are still made this way, and usually it’s polyester-cotton being put together when there isn’t actually the capability to break those two fibres down again.
If we’re trying to future-proof ourselves, the best thing we can do is make garments that are only one material. You can recycle these materials, and then natural fabrics like cotton and wool can be decomposed as well. When we’re designing clothes, we have to consider the whole garment and not just the primary material while minimising things like polyester labels and plastic buttons. If we can get to the point where garments are being made and planned for their end of life, then there’s definitely an opportunity as technology catches up to be in a position where we can break them back down and make them into something else again.
I work with a lot of university students and young designers, and this responsible design is very embedded in how they are thinking. The important thing here is not to stand on your soapbox and tell people what to do, but if you can lead the conversation through good design then you’ll hopefully inspire and encourage others to your way of thinking.
‘Realise That Sustainability Is Not A Trend’
Orsola De Castro, Co-Founder Of Fashion Revolution
We are hard-wired to a life of sustainability. We have been doing it for billions of years. It’s excess that is the trend – a massive experiment of hyper-consumerism, mass production and depleting resources – gone wrong over the last 30 years. We only have to call ‘sustainability’ a trend because in fashion terms we’re so shallow that it’s the only way we can understand when something is urgent. We need to make fashion intelligent again in order to tackle these big issues. This is about survival and human extinction.
Fashion has spoken of cultural needs like this several times before. If we start from the French revolution with people wearing a thin red ribbon around their neck to symbolise the guillotine down to suffragettes shortening skirts. We use it as an internal communicator for what we want to say. We just haven’t recently because we’ve been speaking of our shallowness, our power to purchase, our decadence and how we humans somehow reign supreme.
I do believe fashion will be redressing this balance. It is an industry that has a high potential to lead, through its influence and how it encompasses so many other industries from agriculture to communications.
The UK government has now commissioned a public inquiry on the impact of the fashion industry which we gave evidence and advice towards. In France, there is potential legislation banning brands from incinerating its old stock and having to donate it instead. We’re beginning to see where the government can intervene, and of course governments should intervene. The onus is firmly on governments and brands for change.
Brands are pretty much saying, while there isn’t demand then I’m not going to implement changes whereas we have to implement changes to increase demand. Consumers are to a certain extent the victim. Although we are all powerful with our wallet – we can only buy – which is not the solution to our problems.
Towards consumers, I genuinely feel this isn’t the time to say, “This is the solution, this is how we do it, this is what should be done.” This is the time to be curious and discover what works individually otherwise we won’t keep it up. We need to find something that we actively commit to for the rest of our lives.
‘Make Sure Your Old Clothes Live Again’
Elin Larsson, Sustainability Director At Filippa K
Fashion, whether it is supposed to be slow or fast, expensive or cheap, is basically all made the same way. We are using the same kind of materials and the same kind of production processes. It even takes the same amount of hands. Of course, it makes sense to talk about slow fashion because you want to extend the life of the clothing, and fast fashion is something that lives for a short time that we know to be completely unsustainable.
What really is a mind shift though is if you think about the speeds from the beginning and optimise each decision within that products cycle. Can you then make both of them sustainable? From the beginning you have to decide whether the product is going to have a short life or a long life and whether it is going to be a part of the technical cycle, meaning it will be recycled over and over again, or part of the biological cycle so it can be composed and go back into nature?
We explored this concept at Filippa K with pieces of clothing that are designed to be worn once and then decomposed and other pieces that are made to be worn for decades. I think we’re a couple of years away from the industry bringing these ideas into production on a mass scale. You need to start preparing for it though. We have a collection system so customers can return Filippa K clothes they don’t need any more. The main purpose is to extend life so we can sell it again and the things that are too worn out to be sold they can be recycled. You need to get these systems in place to encourage customers to start these behaviour patterns now and then wait for the infrastructure to build around it.
‘Choose Wisely And Look After Your Jeans’
Adriana Galijasevic, Denim And Sustainability Expert At G-Star RAW
In the denim market right now, tri-fibre blends which offer stretch with good recovery are dominating. These fabric constructions are very complex to recycle because it is difficult to separate and re-use multiple fibre components. Some chemical recycling technologies are out there, but they are still not optimised to handle the waste which was never designed to be re-used in the first place.
Powder indigo is another big issue in denim production. It’s been 25 years since the first liquid indigo was introduced, yet more than 50 per cent of world denim production, mostly from China, still runs on environmentally damaging powder indigo. The denim industry needs to work harder on scaling the good practices that are already available. We saw from the worldwide sandblasting ban of 2013 that this can be done.
We as one brand can’t change the industry alone. This is why, when we developed the first Cradle to Cradle Gold Certified™ (the only certification in the world designed for a circular product economy) denim fabric, we made an open access to the actual fabric for other brands. This also allowed us to share the hydrosulphite-free indigo technology in the fabric with other mills so they can adopt positive dyeing practices in their own productions. When it comes to sustainable innovations, alone they are not enough. To have a positive impact – education, collaboration, adaptation, scaling and acceleration are imperative.
Studies show that the biggest impact [on a pair of jeans’ sustainability] happens at the cotton crop growing stage as well as customer use stage, so it’s important to choose responsibly sourced fibres and to know how to take care of your jeans.
‘Buy Into Smart New Materials’
Bhavesh Naik, Senior Director (Product, Innovation And Sourcing) For Napapijri
The textile industry is exploring several ways to reduce its environmental impacts along the entire chain and our 3D printing Ze-Knit technology is just one of them, creating a demand-supply model where every item is made to order, eliminating unnecessary waste. Elsewhere, new technologies in the cultivation of natural fibres could offer an ongoing monitoring of the soil and crops while recommending targeted interventions that could allow growers to reduce the amount of water and chemicals used.
There are also several methods aimed at transforming cotton fields into carbon sinks, natural reservoirs that take and store CO2 from the atmosphere. Moving along the chain, you have new technologies that offer more sustainable dying methods that require less amount of water and chemicals compared to traditional ones. Wrangler, for example, has adopted a dyeing process that reduces water consumption in some of its jeans by 99 per cent by using foam instead of water.
Ultimately to reduce the environmental impact of fashion we need to really understand the life cycle of a product, from sourcing the materials at the beginning to the disposal of the product at the very end.
‘Extend The Life Of Your Clothes’
Lulu O’Connor, Founder Of Clothes Doctor
I used to buy a lot of beautiful clothes, but over time it got to a point where my wardrobe was out of control. Items that I used to love were squashed at the back due to minor damage or being slightly the wrong fit. I began to investigate ways to bring these back to life as I hate throwing things away, and I realised that most people, myself included, were unaware of the huge possibilities for sustaining and renewing the most treasured pieces in your wardrobe.
Often all it takes is a cashmere treatment and de-pilling, and your favourite jumper looks as good as new, or an invisible darn to a bespoke suit and the problem is solved. In this day and age when the enormous scale of fashion pollution and waste is a terrifying problem, looking after our clothes and making them last a year or two longer is a small and satisfying change we can all make.
‘Buy Rubbish – Literally’
Fredrik Ekström, Director Of The Eco Initiative At Tretorn
Fashion is one of our most polluted, unsustainable industries however it is also almost impossible as a brand to be 100 per cent sustainable. We will always leave a footprint, so we need to find a way of changing how we interact with nature and be inspired by its ecosystem. Most of Tretorn’s raw material doesn’t grow naturally on a bush where you can go out and harvest it in a natural way, so we needed to start looking upon ‘unnatural’ resources as ‘semi-natural resources’.
If we can’t find it growing naturally, how can we find it in nature? We started to look upon the problem with dumped fishing nets in the ocean and whether we could naturally harvest them and give it a second life as high-quality rainwear. From that, we saw how it’s possible to look upon waste as a resource and dare to step out of the box of who is a sourcing supplier and where your raw material comes from.
‘Ask Where Your Clothes Were Really Made’
Flora Davidson, Co-Founder Of Supplycompass
There’s a sort of hypocrisy when people say, “We have to make locally to lower our carbon footprint” – because then they go and order fabrics from China and trims from South Korea. In the end, you have to assess every component in a product to think about the carbon footprint.
Now, it’s not realistic to think all supply chains are going to come back to the UK. What we can be making in the UK we will, and there will be a role for UK manufacturing, but we will also continue working around the world. Most of our factories are based in India, which is one of the biggest producers of organic cotton. Our approach is to find a fantastic mill which is close to one of our factories. When a brand is looking for a specific fabric, we’ll know that it can be located from that local mill at the beginning. It’s just about working out the best country for the best product and creating new networks that can link them up.
With high street retailers, what I’m observing is the need for more collaboration on the sustainability issue between people within an organisation. So the design team is fitting separately to their sustainability team, for example, and they’re not all talking about the same thing. Some brands might have two different teams ordering the same fabric, but they’re not aware of the other order so they’re shipping it at two different times rather than waiting a week and sharing the same shipping. Sustainability shouldn’t be a separate team. Every single person who is making a decision needs to have their sustainability hat on.