Sewing a sustainable fashion industry

rethink sustainability

Sewing a sustainable fashion industry

Chemists Akshay Sethi and Moby Ahmed think they’re onto something. The co-founders of Los Angeles-based startup, Ambercycle, have developed a way of creating new polyester fabric from old clothes, saving tonnes from landfill and creating sustainable fashion.

The pair are working in a large playing field to - every year the United States alone throws away 11 million tons of clothe.1 About 85% of that finds its way to landfills2 or is simply incinerated. It illustrates how the fashion industry is a leading offender in the climate crisis. It contributes to 10% of global carbon emissions3, more than all international flights combined. In addition, micro plastics from clothing also pollute oceans.

The fashion industry is a leading offender in the climate crisis… it contributes to 10% of global carbon emissions, more than all international flights combined.

Fast fashion exacerbates the problem. Preying on consumer appetites for the latest looks at the lowest prices; fast fashion chases the cheapest production costs around the globe. As the sweatshop building collapse in Bangladesh showed, this segment of the fashion industry often has little regard for labour rights or environmental pollution.

Equally worrying, the fast fashion industry is expected to grow after weathering the COVID-19 dip. The global market will hit $38.21 billion in 20234. The industry's business-as-usual approach is simply unsustainable if we are to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We need a shift to a circular model with an emphasis on minimising waste, using fewer resources, increasing recycling, and reusing and repairing.

We need a shift to a circular model with an emphasis on minimising waste, using fewer resources, increasing recycling, and reusing and repairing

So what does this look like for retailers, shoppers and the industry as a whole?

 

A patchwork of sustainability initiatives

A range of new industry standards from non-profit organisations and institutions are encouraging change.

The United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion acts as a liaison between the UN and fashion businesses to promote sustainability goals. Its initiatives include public outreach to increase awareness of sustainable fashion and encouraging technological solutions to combat the environmental challenges the fashion industry faces.

In addition, sector-specific initiatives abound. The cotton industry is a heavy polluter, contributing to 24% of all insecticide use. Certification programmes like the Better Cotton Initiative encourage producers toward more sustainable practices. Those who comply with the initiative use water responsibly and limit use of pesticides.

Such standards and initiatives also work on moving consumer minds toward sustainability. The UK-based Love Your Clothes recommends ways of hanging onto clothes for longer by mending or upcycling them.

Customer-driven sustainability efforts

Upcycling clothes is just one of many approaches customers are adopting as they too, driven by economics and an eye on the environment, are looking to steer away from the wasteful practices of fast fashion.

Upcycling clothes is just one of many approaches customers are adopting as they…are looking to steer away from the wasteful practices of fast fashion

They're adopting the principles of slow fashion that call for clothes that last instead of being thrown away with the next season's cycle. Capsule wardrobes comprising a few select pieces that can be used for longer are gaining traction. Such an approach emphasises the circular principles of using fewer resources in the first place.

Consumers who want the latest glam but might not want to buy entire wardrobes either for economic or environmental reasons can also rent outfits from companies like Rent the Runway. Such companies enable customers to access a larger selection of clothes while minimising personal discards. However, while such an idea might help customers limit the number of clothes they buy and throw out, they might still contribute to carbon emissions from shipping the rentals back and forth.

Consumers who want the latest glam but might not want to buy entire wardrobes either for economic or environmental reasons can also rent outfits from companies like Rent the Runway.

While reuse and recycling is nothing new, consumers have a new way of doing it. Companies like Thred Up are using the economics of scale that the web delivers to encourage customers to buy and sell clothes from a common online marketplace.

 

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Fashion retailers driving the conversation

Recognising the call for sustainability, retailers are also embracing more eco-conscious practices.

Denim is a known culprit in contributing to pollution because its weathering and acid wash process uses a lot of chemicals. Between cotton production, bleaching and chemical washes, it takes 1,800 gallons of water5 to produce a single pair of jeans. But the industry is beginning to adopt lower-impact technology such as lasers that produce a weathered look instead of chemicals and sand-blasting.

Companies like MUD are working on producing jeans with less water and have eliminated all toxic chemical use. They have also implemented a take-back scheme that encourages recycling. For its part, Lee Jeans launched a fully biodegradable denim collection in March. The collection does not have any metal rivets and is made with linen-cotton yarns. After the buttons are removed, the clothes can biodegrade completely.

Biocouture meanwhile uses natural products as raw materials so clothes can be processed and disposed of with minimal disruption to the environment. Developed in Finland, a process called Ioncell hopes to convert wood pulp and paper products into fibers for clothes. The project grabbed the spotlight when the First Lady of Finland wore an evening gown made from these fibers to a state dinner. Other equally impressive biocouture endeavors include the Italian Orange Fibre, which creates fibres from citrus rinds and other waste left over from juicing.

Bioinspired fabrics such as Bolt Technology's Microsilk, an artificial silk that has less of an impact during its manufacturing process than traditional materials, are also showing promise as they have many of the positive properties of silk such as high strength and softness.

 

Fashioning a sustainable future

While the fashion industry has been a significant contributor to the climate crisis, there are hopeful signs that the tide is turning.

The Green Carpet Fashion Awards distributed during Fall Fashion Week every year, show an increasing awareness of fashion's large environmental footprint and highlight practical efforts to address the issue.

The Green Carpet Fashion Awards distributed during Fall Fashion Week every year, show an increasing awareness of fashion's large environmental footprint and highlight practical efforts to address the issue.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that sustainable solutions will need to emphasise a circular approach to all aspects of the supply chain, including production and distribution and final disposal.

While many green concepts in fashion are looking for ways to scale profitably, they're still glimmers of hope in an industry that needs momentum on every front to meet sustainability standards. Nevertheless eco or sustainable fashion is the wave of the future as technology will address material processes and use and consumers attitudes inexorably shift toward a more green consumption model.

1https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/books/review/how-fast-fashion-is-destroying-the-planet.html  
2Idem
3https://www.unece.org/info/media/news/forestry-and-timber/2018/fashion-is-an-environmental-and-social-emergency-but-can-also-drive-progress-towards-the-sustainable-development-goals/doc.html
4https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/06/09/2045523/0/en/Global-Fast-Fashion-Market-Report-2020-to-2030-COVID-19-Growth-and-Change.html
5https://www.marieclaire.com/fashion/a27046417/denim-water/

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