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?
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.
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.
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.
Millennial consumers have started to question how their clothes are made but consumers of all ages need to do more to tackle fashion labor abuses, according to a British lawmaker and sustainable fashion campaigner. Baroness Lola Young said young people are increasingly engaged with political and economic issues and willing to fight on social causes – and labor abuses in the garment industry were no exception.
Young said harnessing this energy was vital to revolutionize the fashion industry which has come under pressure since more than 1,100 workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. “A lot of young people are very concerned about a whole range of social justice issues and therefore are quite willing to go into the fray when they know what is going on,” said Young, who founded an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion.
She further states that transforming consumer behavior in the West and changing the model of the “throwaway disposable society” is an important way to tackle labor abuses, particularly in the fast fashion sector.
Many big fashion brands have been criticized for failing to improve the conditions for workers in their global supply chains – from poor health and safety standards and long working hours to low pay and bans on forming trade unions.
The Way Forward
According to Young, while young people could often not afford more expensive clothing, she hoped exchange ventures at retailers such as Sweden’s H&M – where customers return old clothes for recycling in return for vouchers – could show a new way forward. She said they are also getting more engaged even as many have concerns over a period of global instability.
“Paradoxically, what feels like current political volatility has made some people sit up and think: ‘What are we doing here? We’ve got to take more control over what’s happening in this world and fight some of these injustices much more openly,'” Young said in an interview. She said different sectors of the fashion industry – from fast fashion to haute couture – had different challenges and will have to take different approaches to the problems.
Yet Young added that fully addressing the issues surrounding the supply chain was a “big ask” for the industry as “we need to look again fundamentally at how the garment industry works.” She further noted, “You really need to look at your business models because they’re not delivering this ethical industry that many of us would like to see.”
Young said that while Western awareness of the issues has grown recently, many people still do not think about where their clothes come from until their attention is drawn by a large-scale event such as the Rana Plaza disaster. Young said one of most effective ways to tackle the problems would be to support organizations working on the ground to implement an effective monitoring system that would empower workers and enable them to fight for better conditions.
She emphasized the urgency of tackling these issues. “Time is running out in relation to the environment, time is running in terms of the dreadful impact that it’s having on various communities and individuals around the world. So you’ve got to get on and do something really really quickly,” she said.
Much like Wall Street funnels aspiring fashion designers, who spend several years in finance building their skills and amassing funds before starting a business, there’s an emerging trend of lawyers and human rights advocates making the switch to fashion.
Here’s a look at three stories.
From social good to affordable menswear
At 14 years old, Jason Grullón. and his mother, who sold fabric in the Dominican Republic, went on a shopping trip while in America. He had his eyes on a pair of Lucky jeans, having long been enticed by the interesting styles, which were unlike anything he had seen at home. But the jeans were pricey, and when he asked his mother for the pants, she turned to him and said, “I can’t buy you jeans that only cost seven dollars to make.”
The moment stuck with him, even when he went to Germany to pursue a law degree, with the intention to use it to support social impact programs back home in Latin America. Near the end of his schooling, he went on a tour of emerging startups in Berlin, when something clicked: He wanted to create a company embedded in social good, and he wanted that company to specialize in affordable menswear.
With this concept in mind, he founded Virtu, a menswear company focused on sustainable production.
Finding justice in fashion
Rebecca Ballard, founder of Maven Women, went straight to law school after completing her undergraduate degree. “You don’t always know what you want to do with your life, but I was interested in law because of social justice,” she said. “Law is and can be an amazing tool for justice in this country. And it really helps with understanding people, the way they work and their logic.”
Ballard worked at a number of nonprofits in Washington, D.C. doing advocacy work before she moved to Asia to practice litigation. In Hong Kong, she cut her teeth in nonprofit management and law, before returning to the states to do pro bono work on modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Being a lawyer, she realized, required a particular type of wardrobe. This suit-laden uniform was not only unattainable for many women, but it was also lacking in sustainable options — which led her to think about creating her own.
She ran the idea by her then-boyfriend, now-husband, who was an analyst at McKinsey. Relying on his business mind and her legal background, she started Maven Women.
“There was this idea that if people are going to be interested in socially conscious apparel, it will be hippie-inspired,” Ballard said. “If that’s the world you live in, that’s fantastic. But we need more options. I was trying to create something for the women who work in more traditional fields like law.”
Ballard said she uses the skills she gained as a lawyer every day on the job. It has helped her with the basics — like being punctual and thorough — plus her background writing law reviews has driven her to write for sustainable journals about her experience working in the fashion industry.
Likewise, Grullón said his law sensibility allows him to be savvy in making business decisions that avoid any trouble in the long run, especially when working across international barriers.
“We as lawyers have a very different approach to problems,” he said. “We don’t over-stress, we’re solution-oriented — that’s key for a startup, because when you’re building a company, it’s going to be full of issues.”
An intimate look at the supply chain
Maxine Bedat, founder of Zady, spent the years before founding her fashion company doing human rights law in international war crimes tribunals. During these work trips she was able to visit markets and witness clothing being made, an experience that changed the way she thought about fashion production.
“I got to see how clothing and products were sold and marketed,” she said during a panel at SXSW. “It gave me the experience to see how things were actually made and the sources of those things, and I fell in love with that.”
Working in human rights law allowed Bedat the opportunity to see new parts of the world and learn perspectives from community members along the way. That helped serve as a foundation for Zady, which the company describes as “a lifestyle destination for conscious consumers.” It operates on a concept called The New Standard, which focuses on the eco-friendly sourcing of materials like cotton, linen, wool and alpaca.
Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co., a sustainable fabric sourcing company, typically visits the communities where her company’s fabrics are made once a quarter, most recently taking a trip to South Africa. Piece & Co. had recently placed an order of fabric from a group of garment makers for 1,500 yards of fabric, which allowed the market to hire several more workers. “That’s the gold standard for us: to provide steady work so that women can plan for their futures and stop working hand-to-mouth,” she said.
While Wright does not have a law degree (she graduated from business school at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign), she worked at a nonprofit that provides micro-finance loans to aspiring artisans prior to starting Piece & Co., an experience that helped her better understand how to make grassroots change. However, her impact at the nonprofit felt nominal, and she wanted to find a way to better improve the lives of impoverished communities.
“I felt like, if I was going to make a difference, I needed to lead with the fashion industry, working from the ground up in the developing world,” she said. “At the end of the day, there are so many people who want to do right, that want to source better. They needed a way to do that.”
Helping support a value-driven culture
One of the largest barriers for sustainable fashion companies is getting consumers to wrap their heads around a higher price point. Ballard said that if they have a better understanding of how supply chains operate, and knew the stories of the people making their clothes, they would be increasingly discerning with their selections and willing to spend more.
“We have a completely warped idea about what clothes should cost in this country,” Ballard said. “There’s no way you can buy a new pair of pants for 10 dollars without hurting someone. If you’re paying that for brand new materials, they’re almost certainly going to be synthetic from sweatshops.”
Pair this with the fact that, according to a Nielsen study, 75 percent of millennials would be willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, and there is a solid case for demand.
“Young people are really driven by their values,” Bedat said. “I don’t want that to run counter to their purchasing decisions. We want to be comfortable and stylish and perceived the right way, so you don’t want to have to sacrifice one or the other.
Grullón uses this concept to inspire shoppers, operating on three main tenets of social impact: better salary, traceability, and a 50/50 business model, in which the company reinvests half of its profits into long-term development projects in the communities of its partners.
“The idea was always to have a connection to how a product’s made and how that’s impacting the person’s life,” he said.
Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment
It is not a brand synonymous with style, but WWF, the world’s biggest conservation organisation, is teaming up with a London-based online fashion community to produce what it claims will be the world’s first 100% sustainable clothing range.
Big-name stores including Selfridges and Harrods are being lined up to sell the range in the UK, but WWF wants to make this a global project. It is determined to prove to the fashion industry that it is possible to design and produce clothes with zero impact on the environment.
“It’s hugely challenging,” says Alfredo Orobio, founder of the online community AwaytoMars that is working with WWF. “Everything from the buttons, zippers, labels, tags and packaging to the fabric and production process itself – all of it has to be sustainable.”
Orobio was approached at the end of last year. The project was attracted by the way his crowdsourcing platform allows anyone, from anywhere in the world, to have a hand in making clothes. Participants in the community upload their design ideas and the best ones will be chosen for the final collection, which is code-named “The New Normal Project”. It will be overseen by the Nordic Fashion Week Organisation, based in Finland. All profits from the venture will go to WWF.
The clothes will use a newly designed cotton fibre, from a Finnish startup called Infinited Fiber, that can be recycled an infinite number of times and which won’t, in theory, wear out. But this project goes way beyond the fabric, Orobio says. In a detailed 150-page document, WWF has stipulated “all the things we can’t do”.
“So it’s about finding the right suppliers, for example, and not using any pigments, only natural colour,” he says. “The whole of the production process has to be sustainable, even the lights and energy. The seamstresses must be paid a living wage, all the packaging will be recyclable, the trimmings, the labels, the tags.”
All of that is expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, which is one of the main reasons that sustainable fashion has yet to take off. But Orobio believes the bigger barrier is the lack of consumer buy-in and the fact that most shoppers are unaware of how polluting the industry is – fashion and textiles, says bestselling US designer Eileen Fisher, are second only to the oil industry as the biggest polluters on the planet.
It is not just the energy-intensive process of making the garments, the reality is that most of the clothes we wear end up in landfill. According to a recent Greenpeace report, the average European consumer now buys 60% more clothing items a year and keeps them for half as long as 15 years ago.
Synthetic fibres are one of the biggest problems. Manufacturing polyester, for example, which is already present in 60% of clothing, produces almost three times more carbon dioxide than organic cotton, and it can take decades to degrade – as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres. And around 21 million tons of polyester was used in clothing last year, up 157% from 2000.
“Cheap fast fashion is a huge obstacle to a more sustainable industry,” says Tom Cridland, who started his own green fashion brand three years ago with a £6,000 government startup loan. “Theoretically, a 100% sustainable fashion collection is not impossible but we need more brands to promote buying less but buying better.”
Cridland’s unique selling point is the 30-year guarantee he attaches to his T-shirts, jackets and trousers. The notion that we can buy an item of clothing and keep it for much longer is taking off, he says, with sales now over £1m a year.
Karinna Nobbs, a lecturer at London College of Fashion, thinks WWF’s involvement could make some difference, but ultimately sustainable fashion needs big-name front-runners to make it more of an industry norm.
“If that doesn’t happen, I think we’re truly in danger of ruining the planet,” she says.
Some big-name designers are already putting sustainability at the forefront of their brands. At a recent speech on sustainability at London College of Fashion Stella McCartney declared that her industry was “getting away with murder” yet even her latest collection is only 53% sustainable.
One of the key barriers to consumer take-up is that the expense involved in turning every part of the life cycle of a garment green means the cost of sustainable clothing is out of the reach of most. Current prices at AwayToMars, for example, range from £50 for a T-shirt to £390 for a wool jacket. Cridland’s signature 30-year jacket costs £190 while a T-shirt is £35.
Of course Cridland and the sustainable fashion movement argue that you end up spending more in the long term with a fast-fashion route, but others say that is part of the attraction – the ability to buy clothes and discard them when fashions or fancies change.
Fashion lecturer Nobbs believes the industry is close to a tipping point. “Prices will normalise – they will have to as more brands get involved in sustainable clothing,” she says.
Orobio agrees that price is an issue but says he is undaunted. “My main goal is to be affordable – I don’t want to exclude the people who design for us,” he says. He believes that people will want WWF collection pieces because they will be “buying a piece with a huge story. It’s very different form buying something from Zara that was just copied”.
His online community will start having their say on the new WWF project from next month, and the aim will be to come up with six to 10 different looks. The prototype of the collection will be shown at the Helsinki Fashion Week in July.
Global fashion retailer C&A’s charitable arm, C&A Foundation has launched a global initiative aimed at helping brands, retailers and manufacturers find more innovative and sustainable ways of producing fashion.
‘Fashion for Good’ is a joint-industry initiative involving Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDH, and Sustainable Trade Initiative. The initiative offers practical action in the form of support, funding and roadmaps, and by fostering a sector-wide collaboration rather than competition and aims to enable innovation and widespread adoption of “good fashion practice”.
With an innovation hub in Amsterdam, a start-up accelerator in Silicon Valley, California, and a global network of ‘change makers’, Fashion for Good re-imagines how fashion is designed, made, worn and reused so that people, companies and the planet can all thrive. By mobilizing around a collective innovation and investment agenda, we will spark and scale technologies and business models that have the potential to change the sector profoundly. And by openly sharing what we learn, we will guide the fashion industry toward a future in which brands, suppliers, communities and our planet can all thrive. Fashion for Good will launch its first hub in Amsterdam on March 30.
It may be mentioned here that the new initiative is part of C&A Foundation’s wider efforts to drive the transition to circular fashion by nurturing and scaling solutions that can change the way clothes are made, used, and reused.
Inditex, world’s leading fashion group which operates over 7,000 stores in 88 markets and owns brands like Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, Zara Home and Uterqüe, has invested more than Euro 7 million on sustainability front over the last five years.
The Group has invested in expansion, scaling and modernization of logistics platforms and design centres to boost efficiency and energy saving measures. The start-up of highly-advanced “multi-shuttle” areas at the Bershka platform in Tordera, Barcelona, and at the Arteixo distribution centre (A Coruña) make dispatch time management more efficient and precise and double the speed.
Another area was research and development work focused on store applications for sustainable technology, such as paper saving mobile payments and efficiency technology RFID. Last year, it completed the deployment of RFID technology across its entire Zara store base and has embarked on the process of rolling this technology out in its Massimo Dutti and Uterqüe stores. Other brands like Pull&Bear, with Stradivarius, Bershka and Oysho will follow in 2018. Besides, the number of eco-efficient stores worldwide reached 4,519 in 2016 delivering water savings of 40% and energy savings of 20%.
Furthermore, it also introduced mobile payments in 15 markets in total since it started to roll-out in Spain, the UK, US, Italy and France. Using the online apps of each of Inditex’s eight retail concepts or using a Group app called InWallet facilitate the environmentally responsible replacement of hard-copy receipts with e-receipts. Online orders placed in Spain with any of the Group’s brands have no longer generated hard copy receipts since March 2017 thanks to the e-receipt system named “Paperless”. Zara is also already using this system in the US and the UK.
The Green to Pack project at Zara alone save 22,000 trees and the emission of 1,680 tonnes of carbon every year. In addition to this, it also introduced clothing containers for used-garments in all Zara stores in Spain, Portugal, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland for recycling into new fabrics.
The research and development of more sustainable fabrics is also increasing. Last September Zara launched the second edit ion of its Join Life collection made of Refibra™ fibres. Developed by Austria’s Lenzing Group, Refibra™ fibre are made of pulp from cotton scraps and from sustainably-managed forests.