For a True War on Waste, the Fashion Industry Must Spend More on Research

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by Mark Liu

The rise of fast fashion in Australia means 6000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. The ABC’s War On Waste visualised this statistic by piling a giant mound of clothing waste in the middle of the city. So what to do about it?

A scene from the ABC’s War on Waste. ABC

Sustainable fashion experts advocate abstaining from buying fast fashion, promoting clothing swaps and repairing old clothing. Others suggest buying organic and ethically-sourced clothes or designing clothing using zero waste techniques. The hope is that greater transparency in supply chains will lead to an end to sweatshops and unsustainable fashion practices.

These are admirable initiatives, but they only reduce wastage or delay garments from ending up in landfill. They do not address the fact that the scale of fast fashion is so massive it can easily eclipse other sustainability initiatives. Nor do they address the wastefulness of existing technologies and the urgent need to research new ones.

Even if we could magically stop the global production of all garments, we would still need new, green technology to clean up the waste we have already created. There are long-term strategies for green technologies such as electric cars, but where are the major companies and research institutes developing the next generation of sustainable fashion technologies? The development of new synthetic biology technologies may be the key.

From catwalk to research

I would like to share my journey from zero waste fashion design pioneer to trans-disciplinary fashion researcher to highlight the challenges faced by sustainable fashion and the need for more research.

Ten years ago, I presented my “Zero-Waste” Fashion collection at London Fashion Week. I and other sustainable designers at the time took the waste streams of other industries such as scrap materials and leftover fabric and created our collections from them. I was selected for “Estethica”, a new initiative created by sustainable fashion gurus Orsola De Castro, Filippo Ricci and Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council. Sustainable fashion was shown on London catwalks next to luxury fashion – a revolutionary step for the time.

I pioneered a way of creating tailored, high fashion garments so that all the pieces of a garment fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle and no waste was created. Conventional pattern cutting creates about 15% wastage of material, even if the pattern has been optimised by a computer. I wanted to systemically change the way clothing was made.

To design a garment with zero waste requires new patternmaking techniques, based on advanced mathematics. Author provided

But the problem with zero-waste design is that it is very difficult to create. It requires a skilled designer to simultaneously imagine the garment as a 3D item and a flat pattern, while trying to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw. It is easy to make an unfitted or baggy garment, but creating something that looks good and fits the body was a real challenge.

Even after all these years, most contemporary zero-waste fashion is still not tailored to the body. I practised this technique for years to master it. It required breaking all the rules of conventional pattern-making and creating new techniques based on advanced mathematics.

These were exciting times. Our fabrics were organic, we made everything locally and ensured everyone was paid an ethical wage. The press loved our story. But problems started to emerge when it came to sales. We had to sell more expensive garments, using a smaller range of fabrics – our materials and labour costs were higher than those of companies that produced overseas. Often fashion buyers would say they loved what we did, but after looking at the price tag would politely take their business elsewhere.

As a sustainable fashion designer, my impact was limited. It was also impossible to teach zero-waste fashion design without explaining how advanced mathematics applied to it. It was time to try a new approach, so I decided to apply science and maths to traditional fashion techniques.

My PhD research explored the underlying geometry of fashion pattern-making. Combining fashion with science allowed the traditional techniques and artistry of making garments to be explained and communicated to scientist and engineers.

Consumers have embraced fast fashion. Shutterstock

In the meantime, fast fashion companies rapidly expanded, with Zara, Topshop and H&M reaching Australia by 2011. They produced massive amounts of cheap products making low margins on each garment. Consumers quickly became addicted to the instant gratification of this retail experience. The size and scale of their production produced hundreds of tonnes of garments every day.

The limits of fashion technology

Fast fashion companies such as H&M have developed recycling initiatives in which consumers can exchange old clothing for discount vouchers. This is supposed to prevent clothing from going to landfill, instead recycling it into new clothing.

However, there are those who are sceptical of H&M’s recycling process. In 2016, investigative journalist Lucy Siegle crunched the numbers and concluded that “it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste”. This, she said, was the amount of clothing they produce in about 48 hours.

A 2016 H&M sustainability report reveals that only 0.7% of their clothes are actually made from recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials. In the report, H&M acknowledges :

Today, this is not possible because the technology for recycling is limited. For this reason, the share of recycled materials in our products is still relatively small.

In fact, their 2016 annual report states that more research is needed:

if a greater proportion of recycled fibres is to be added to the garments without compromising quality, and also to be able to separate fibres contained in mixed materials.

Sustainable technologies strive for a “circular economy”, in which materials can be infinitely recycled. Yet this technology is only in its infancy and needs much more research funding. H&M’s Global Change Award funds five start-up companies with a total of 1 million Euros for new solutions. Contrast this with the millions required by the most basic Silicon Valley start-ups or billions for major green technology companies such as Tesla or SolarCity. There is a dire need for disruptive new fashion technology.

Many of the promising new technologies require getting bacteria or fungi to grow or biodegrade the fabrics for us – this is a shift to researching the fundamental technologies behind fashion items.

For example, it takes 2700L of water and over 120 days to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt. However, in nature, bacteria such as “acetobacter xylinum” can grow a sheet of cellulose in hours. Clothing grown from bacteria has been pioneered by Dr Suzanne Lee. If a breakthrough can be made so that commercially grown cotton can be grown from bacteria, it may be possible to replace cotton fields with more efficient bacteria vats.

But why just stick with cotton? Fabrics can be generated from milk, seaweed, crab shells, banana waste or coconut waste. Companies such as Ecovate can feed fabric fibres to mushroom spore called mycelium to create bioplastics or biodegradable packaging for companies such as Dell. Adidas has 3D printed a biodegradable shoe from spider silk developed by AM silk.

Although I began my journey as a fashion designer, a new generation of materials and technologies has pulled me from the catwalk into the science lab. To address these complex issues, collaboration between designers, scientist, engineers and business people has become essential.

To clean up the past and address the waste problems of the future, further investment in fashion technology is urgently needed.

*This story first appeared on The Conversation

Selling better, not more: can Patagonia shake up Australia’s clothing industry?

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Sustainability pioneer Rick Ridgeway on how the company plans to expand in Australia without compromising its values and why critics of ‘that’ ad are wrong

Patagonia’s organic cotton fields in Texas. Photograph: Tim Davis/PR

In January, Rose Marcario, chief executive of sustainable outdoor clothing chain Patagonia wrote an open letter to Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, making clear Patagonia’s (and 17 other businesses’) opposition to the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal in Queensland.

Marcario argued that the dredging scheme – which is yet to be given the go–ahead – could “fundamentally damage a region of internationally significant ecological significance”, namely the Great Barrier Reef marine park.

It’s part of an increasing interest Patagonia has taken in Australia. It’s opened five local stores in the past six years, tripled Earth Tax funding to Australian environmental projects in the last 12 months, and pledged to give more grants to “help save a reef that’s not only important to Australians, but to everyone everywhere”.

Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s vice president of environmental initiatives and co-founder of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition , was in Melbourne recently for a business event. He says environmental protection is not just an integral part of the company’s ethics, but also of its business model.

“As we grow our business in Australia, we’ll also be scaling, at the same rate, our philanthropic duties to the country and to its environmental protection. But we want to organically grow our business here in a way that doesn’t require us to compromise our core values and our mission.

“We’ll never expand just to boost sales if it causes environmental harm.”

Rick Ridgeway, VP of environmental affairs for Patagonia and founder of sustainable apparel coalition 

Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway: ‘We’re not hypocrites. The apparel industry has a very large footprint, but we’re in the business of giving our customers products that have as small a footprint as possible.’ Photograph: Amy Kumler/Supplied

Balancing the two is no easy task. The company was criticised by many in the apparel industry in 2011 when it ran the now-famous Don’t buy this jacket advert, highlighting all the resources used to make its best-selling jacket. When sales went up after this advert was published, some businesses started calling the company hypocritical.

Ridgeway emphatically refutes this claim, saying: “We wanted to stop people in their tracks so that they would pause and read the copy in the ad – which explained that the jacket takes 135 litres of water to make, produces 20 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions, and two-thirds of its own weight would be left behind as waste. We were showing that no matter how much we try to make a jacket with ‘no unnecessary harm’ – which is our mission – it still creates a lot of harm to the planet.

“What we were really saying wasn’t so much ‘don’t buy this jacket’, it was ‘don’t buy it if you don’t need it’ and be aware of the impacts of the things you buy.

“So, we’re not hypocrites. The apparel industry has a very large footprint, but we’re in the business of giving our customers products that have as small a footprint as possible, but that are also durable as possible.”

Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket ad
Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This Jacket ad got the industry talking – and customers purchasing. Photograph: PR

To minimise the environmental footprint of the company’s expansion into Australia, Patagonia is now making “serious plans” to bring its Worn Wear take-back scheme (which offers US customers the chance to donate, repair or recycle their old Patagonia clothing) to Australia.

Environmental sustainability should not be the only focus of an ethical business, Ridgeway says, suggesting that social responsibility – in terms of working with local and indigenous communities – should be considered too. Patagonia also has a sustainable, locally sourced food business, which he hopes to bring to Australia.

The Australian apparel industry has tentatively welcomed news of these plans. Kiri Delly, chief executive of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA), says: “It’s great that they’re looking at things from a local perspective – we fully support that. And it might help push local businesses to realise the importance of sustainability in their supply chains.

“We’re all for not selling more, but selling better, and making sure that people understand that making a piece of clothing has a whole other side to it. Having the Worn Wear scheme here will help raise the bar and ensure that everyone thinks about what happens to their clothes after they have finished with them.”

She added: “This is only going to create more positive competition.”

Sustainable Apparel Coalition could come to Australia

To stimulate “positive competition” and boost the sustainability of Australia’s clothing industry, Ridgeway is investigating an Australian caucus of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

The coalition’s tools for boosting sustainability are already available in Australia (the Australian government is a member), and include life cycle assessments for material choices, sustainability tips for supply chain management, and “ultimately help provide a footprinting tool for finished products”.

But Ridgeway believes that there is a need to now regionalise the experience to encourage Australian apparel and footwear companies to become members.

“About 40% of the entire global apparel and footwear industry are members of the coalition, and are all working together to reduce their environmental impact and improve social labour outcomes.

“But, as far as I am aware, there are no Australian companies listed as members. So we’re hoping to bring it to Australia to get more Australian companies aware of the opportunities that the coalition provides them.”

These opportunities, he says, largely lie in the fact that the coalition provides a standardised measurement for sustainability across the global clothing industry, and can demonstrate, “where you’re at on a global scale, and where you need to apply your resources if you’re going to catch up with the industry on a global level, in terms of sustainability”.

*This story first appeared on The Guardian.