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?
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.
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.
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
Packing for a fortnight trip I carefully edited to what was essential. I calculated the number of days and the luggage allowance permitted by the airline. But, what would I carry if I had to go for a journey that could last a few months? And what if it this journey was on foot!
The Rabaris of the semi desert region of Kutch, West India, believing they are divinely designated to take care of the camel, migrate seasonally, looking for green pasture. The men of the Rabari community wear an upper garment kediyun (pl. kediya), always white. Regional garments including the kediyun were traditionally made by the women of the family. “Where would you find a tailor in the jungle?” commented Harkuben Rabari. So, it was essential to carry the knowledge and the skills, while making distant journeys. The women learnt the art of making the garments by observing the elders.
With my background in fashion, the dramatic cut of the kediyun had fascinated me. So for my masters research I found apprenticeships under three different makers of kediyun. I learned that long ago men of many ethnic communities of Kutch wore kediya. A few decades ago almost all the women in the local Rabari and Ahir communities could stitch the garment, however only a few could cut it. Cutting involved the understanding of body proportions, taking measurements and cutting the actual fabric. The approach in cutting was zero wastage. Everything was economically used. Understanding the fabric quality in relation to body and stitching is also integral to the process. When regional hand weaving became unaffordable and mill cloth replaced it, the women adapted the cut to fit the width of the mill cloth.
Religious and spiritual beliefs too are central to the making of the kediyun. According to a local tailor, hand stitching is not the same as machine. “With hand stitching your thoughts get stitched with the cloth too.” One day during my apprenticeship, I was told that in honour of Shetla mata, a goddess who has the power to cure or bring small-pox, activities which involved knotting, such as combing of hair or knotting the thread end for stitching, could not take place. It is believed that the Goddess could get stuck in the knot, bringing disease to a child in the family.
Even wearing a kediyun has cultural implications. The first time I wore a kediyun that I had stitched, I didn’t know how to wear it, particularly how to tie the garment. So I discovered how the garment brings two people together in an intimate way. The wearer is brought close to the person who ties the strings, as they stand close, facing each other. This relation is “equal”, as opposed to the feeling of hierarchy when a person stands behind a wearer, assisting him to wear a (Western) jacket.
After the earthquake of 2001 in Kutch, communities’ lifestyles and relationships with the environment saw a drastic shift, at a faster pace than ever before. Industries were introduced in the rural region with the dream of economic growth, often ignoring the local culture. According to Lakhabhai Rabari, “men from our village used to leave for work wearing a kediyun. On reaching the gate of the factory, they would change to pants and shirt as they were told that traditional clothes were not practical. This continued for a few months, after which the most of the men stopped wearing the kediyun altogether.” Kediya for special purposes such as weddings were adorned with embroidery in traditional styles that were distinctive of communities, as were the specific cuts of the garment. Traditionally one style of kediyun worn by the groom was made by his first cousin: the garment became a way of introducing her to the community. Among the young generation, the kediyun is now reduced to ritual wear.
One Rabari women complained that she used to stitch all her family’s clothes—juldi, kediyun, ghaghari. But her daughter in-law does not even know how to stitch a basic ghaghari (skirt); she purchases a readymade version. Machine made ready to wear kediya manufactured in Ahmedabad are available at selected local shops. A few tailors too make copies of the kediyun. However, the approach does not combine the traditional wisdom of the material culture.
Jamanben Ahir, one of the last makers of the kediyun who still continues making and even repairing, was proud to have me as a pupil. Although Jamanaben’s husband wears a kediyun, her son has never worn one. Her daughter, who uses a sewing machine, had previously never recognised her mother’s knowledge. She became curious and started to observe her mother teaching me.
Most of the Rabaris don’t have camels anymore; there are only a few exceptions of families who still migrate with their herds. What these communities do carry is the knowledge, skills and most important concepts of sustainability, slow fashion, well made objects and of style—an approach that could open new ways of thinking if applied in mainstream fashion design education.
Based in Ahmedabad, India, LOkesh Ghai is a textile artist, researcher and academician working with traditional craft practice. His work has featured at the V&A Museum of Childhood, London; Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire; Gallery of Costume, Manchester and Ahmedabad International Art Festival. He has been visiting lecturer at numerous institutions both in India and the UK including the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar, Royal College of Art, London and Somaiya Kala Vidya, Kutch, India’s premier design institute for traditional craft communities. Recently LOkesh showcased his work as part of India Street in Scotland; the show was a runner up for the most sustainable design practice award in the Edinburgh International Art festival. Currently he is working with the Warli tribes of folk artists as part of Re:imagine India, towards the 70th year of Indian independence.
*This story first appeared on Garland
Red and black tunic, from Sartorial…for working exclusively with pure vegetable dyes. Madder root was used to obtain the red colour, lime-resist kiryana for the splash of black, and indigo dye for the blue. The pure handloom silk was attained from weavers in Bengaluru, and the buttons from scrap indigo fabric.
Ikat black kurta, grey churidar, both by Madhu Jain…for promoting indigenous forms of textile weaving and design, and giving a boost to ikat in the Indian market. The entire Uzbek-inspired collection was created by merging Indian ikat with that from Uzbekistan, to create a new weave that incorporates the sensibilities of both regions.
Gypsy loafers, from Gush…for encouraging the slowly dying skill of footwear karigari. The heel of the shoes has been hand-carved by skilled artisans, who use lightweight waste wood and minimal to almost no machinery, to make sure they get the fit, shape and slope right. The tassels and embroidery are also done by hand. In spite of being a time-consuming process, the brand believes in manual handcrafting to ensure quality over quantity.
Yellow flared tunic, from Kalki Design Studio…for creating home-grown natural dyes, developed from plants or flowers grown in the studio’s backyard. The yellow colour was developed from myrobalan or kadukkai flower and the red from myrobalan, alum and madder. A botanist helps to find sources from which to obtain the desired colour.
Khadi layered dress (worn as jacket), from Crow…for creating a contemporary khadi-only collection that uses no dyes. The fabric was intentionally left unbleached so as to retain the rawness of the material, which is completely handcrafted. Use of the charkha reduces the consumption of electricity by machines. The leftover fabric is also used to make shopping bags or passed on to the artisans to make pillow covers.
Rabari throw (worn as skirt inside), from Aish…for choosing to work with handloom and handwoven fabrics for every collection, thereby supporting the crafts communities and weavers throughout the year.The label believes in creating collections that are classic and not limited to a particular season. This scarf is made from handloom Bengal cotton, with hand embroidery and mirror-work from artisans in Kutch.
Ikat clutch, from Sonica Kapur Design…for training nearly extinct artisan communities in design and production skills necessary for them to survive in the international marketplace. Ikat motifs are made by weavers in the villages of Pochampally in Andhra Pradesh where weaving is a generational skill; women prepare the yarn, men execute the weaving and the elders are involved in simpler tasks like yarn spinning on the charkha. This accessory combines traditional ikat motif with chrome-free leather that has been processed in wet white tanneries using chemical-free processes.
Beige anti-fit tunic, from Bias…for adopting slow fashion which concentrates on the quality and longevity of the garment. Made from handloom cotton khadi, sourced from Khadi Gram Udyog in New Delhi, the fabrics used to make this trend-free collection are 100 per cent biodegradable. The fabric can be spun again into fibres
at the end of the garment’s life.
Khadi and kala cotton jumpsuit, from 11.11 / eleven eleven…for creating links between farmers, weavers, vegetable dyeing and block printing traditions, while consolidating roots in the luxury space. Kala cotton is one of the purest and oldest forms of non-genetically modified cotton.
Beryl blue scarf, from No Nasties…for being a 100 per cent organic and fair-trade brand. The scarf has been made in a sustainable factory certified by SA8000, using completely organic cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and 100 per cent fair-trade cotton certified by Fairtrade India. In addition, factory offcuts from excess fabric were used to guarantee zero wastage.
Neck-piece made with natural materials like jute, shell and bone beads, by Jamini Ahluwalia.
Striped shirt, by Anita Dongre, for Grassroot…for collaborating with a network of trusted NGOs to provide a life of dignity and economic independence to artisans. The collection was made with 100 per cent cotton voile that was handwoven by women weavers belonging to SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association )Trade Facilitation Centre, with a view to provide a platform to showcase their craftsmanship.
Cotton silk double border sari, by Suchismita Dasgupta, for Nextiles…for providing a platform to any art and textile professional, who works with the vision of developing and promoting Indian textiles. A contemporary version of the Pachhapaar sari, this was especially handwoven by the weavers in Nadia, a district in West Bengal. The brand focuses on liaising with the weavers directly without involving middlemen.
Ikat jacket, from Sonica Kapur Design.
Foot accessory made from scrap fabrics woven together with a jute thread, by Paromita Banerjee.
Natural biodegradable linen pants, from Eka…for constantly working with handloom clusters, thereby helping families over generations, and for comfortably opting to not be in the mainstream market while offering a brand that supports an alternate fashion movement. The brand never uses fabrics that are off the rack. Instead, it has developed a strategy which works months in advance to deliver end results, choosing not to be threatened by the world of fast fashion.
Hand accessory made from scrap fabrics woven together with a jute thread, by Paromita Banerjee.
Merino wool and silk top, from Akaaro…for drawing attention to handlooms on a global scale. Akaaro is one of the first brands to weave their own fabric, a pioneering idea that quickly gained momentum in the industry. The top has been handwoven together with fabrics that are created in designer Gaurav Jai Gupta’s own weaving studio in Gurgaon.
Blue tunic (worn inside), off-white tunic with pleat detail, both by Vibhuti Behl, for Roha…for consciously creating a collection made from kala cotton, khadi sourced exclusively from Khamir, and naturally-dyed Ajrakh prints from Kutch. Since its inception, the label has been associated with Khamir, an organisation that works to strengthen and promote the rich artisanal traditions of the Kutch district.
Woollen bag, from Péro…for modernising the idea of upcycling in every collection. The bag is made from wool waste from the previous seasons, where the wool is cut into knit panels equivalent to the size of the bag, in order to avoid the accumulation of further scrap.
Maroon organic cotton dress, from Upasana…for creating the local organic brand Paruthi to support India’s organic farming community. Upasana has been working with the organic cotton farmers as part of the Kapas project. Paruthi in Tamil means ‘cotton’. It is the result of a sustainable business collaborative that is striving to protect and promote the fragile cotton communities of Tamil Nadu.
Wide-legged kalidar pant, by Paromita Banerjee…for emphasising the feel of ‘handmade’ and catering to global aesthetics with a local approach rooted in the handloom culture. Made from Malkha khadi with a kalidar detail of kalamkari block print, the weaving of this khadi skips the spinning mills with the yarn coming directly to the weaver right from the primary producers, the farmers. Kalamkari as a technique follows a natural process of printing which is beneficial to the village industry.
Black-and-white top, made with 100 per cent organic cotton; mirror-work jacket, made from 100 per cent handloom Khamir cotton and handloom Bengal silk lining, with manual mirror work done by a cluster of craftswomen in Gujarat. Both from Aish.
Tucked away in the industrial neighbourhood of Byculla in Mumbai, the property, designed by Studio Mumbai Architects, was the ideal setting for the eco-conscious premise of this feature. Located in a former tobacco warehouse, a leafy compound connects seven units that make a case for urban living as it should be. Each unit is punctured by a central courtyard, allowing foliage, sunlight and natural ventilation to flow through. The underlying philosophy of working with nature rather than against it and repurposing available resources, with an emphasis on local materials and expertise harnessed in close collaboration with skilled craftsmen, support a nuanced approach to contemporary sustainable architecture.
Photographed by Anushka Menon. Styling by Shweta Navandar. Assisted by Anuradha Gandhi. Make-Up and Hair by Avni Rambhia. Model Courtesy: Gabriella Demetriades, Toabh Talents. Location Courtesy: 561/63, N. M. Joshi Marg, Mumbai
*This story first appeared on The Verve