The fashion industry is in an upbeat mood, because the sustainability hype of recent years has set a lot in motion. Production techniques and materials are constantly being improved, and consumers are also showing a new awareness, for example through initiatives such as “Fashion Revolution”.
Of course, there are also well-developed greenwashing strategies, which more or less merely (r)buy their own conscience. But along the entire supply chain, more and more innovations are taking root that are truly making a difference.
A new generation of designers
“I firmly believe that a paradigm shift is imminent in the fashion industry,” says Professor Karin-Simone Fuhs. She is the founder and director of the Ecosign Academy for Design in Cologne.
Since 1994, she has been teaching her students that sustainability is a complex system in which everything belongs together: including the choice of materials and workmanship, the development of models and target-group-oriented product lines that lead to longer usage cycles through value, for example. “The topic has become increasingly mainstream. My impression is that a new way of thinking needs to be initiated.
The old throwaway mentality needs to be reconsidered, this can lead to a more creative approach to more durable products that avoid the use of aggressive chemicals and establish humane standards in production.”In their view, fashion continues to be an experience as well, but with an awareness of alternative materials and more individualized products.
Hemp, pineapple, algae
The range of materials is becoming increasingly creative: On the one hand, there is a trend towards more sustainable, plant-based fibers – for example, from hemp, bamboo or wood – all of which can be grown with less water and pesticides.
And on the other hand, materials made from exotic ingredients such as citrus fibers, pineapple leaves, algae, soy or coffee are finding increasing use. Often these are made from by-products of agriculture or the food industry. One example is the first test garment made from so-called nullarbor fiber (Latin: “nullus arbor,” meaning “no tree”).
“This is a sustainable alternative to rayon and cotton,” explains David Tyler, professor of fashion technology at the Institute of Fashion at the Manchester Metropolitan University. “Here, microbe-based fermentation is used to convert biomass waste from the beer, wine and liquid food industries into microbial cellulose.” Well then, cheers!
Everything has an end – or does it?
In addition to quite pragmatic things like the optimization of textile machines and the recycling of contaminated wastewater, there are currently quite a few considerations for dealing with so-called pre-consumer waste.
“These are waste fibers, waste yarns and waste materials generated during production. It is often possible to recycle this waste back into the supply chain, leading to waste reduction and cost reduction,” explains Professor Tyler. But all finished textiles also eventually reach the stage where they are unwanted and discarded. Some are burned to generate thermal energy, and the rest are landfilled. “To change this, investment is being made in a circular economy of textiles.
The vision is to avoid waste and turn it into resources for a new industrial round,” says the expert. The circular economy is a much-discussed alternative to the linear economy and is partly promoted by the EU. “However, waste is not magically transformed into useful materials. There are costs involved and financing these costs is the big challenge for the future.”
Sharing is caring
Tim Brown, co-founder and co-CEO of Allbirds, sees a different but no less important approach to a better fashion world in collaboration across the industry.
“We need to use open source technologies and share our ideas with each other.”Allbirds launched a more sustainable EVA material made from sugar cane for its sneakers in 2018 and made it available to all. The result: this year, more than 20 companies will use this alternative SweetFoamTM in their products, eliminating the need for plastic.
The advantage of sugar cane is that it is a fully renewable resource that grows quickly, sequestering carbon in the process. “We recently decided to label all of our products with a carbon footprint so that everyone can see how much our sneakers, socks and underwear emit. We hope carbon labeling will become as natural to consumers as calorie counts on food packaging.”
When will sustainability become the new normal?
Despite the euphoria, it’s clear we’re only at the beginning of the journey. “In terms of sustainability, there is a lot of talk. Supply chains, however, can only introduce small, incremental innovations. And at the end of the day, there’s still profit, which inhibits change.”
Professor Tyler doesn’t sound hopeless, though. For an effective turnaround, however, he thinks legislative demands make perfect sense. “We have a long way to go before sustainability is the new norm. It is likely that a regulatory EPR will be necessary by then.”And by this “extended producer responsibility,” he means a strategy that makes the producer of a product responsible for its entire life, especially for its take-back, recycling and ultimate disposal.
August Bard Bringéus, co-founder of Asket, also hopes for more producer responsibility: “Significant change can only be achieved through legislative reform. I definitely support disclosure and reporting of one’s negative environmental footprint. Currently we pay nothing for the damage we do to our environment, but holding industry accountable would create much needed change.”
“Buy less, choose well, make it last”
Here’s how tomorrow’s fashion is transforming into a holistic statement. Vivienne Westwood’s famous quote is more relevant than ever and shows that we, as consumers, may be held just as accountable. Ultimately, we cast a vote with each purchase.
“Before I used to pick up a mystery novel, I preferred to pick up the phone and call a major fashion label to find out exactly where the product I had chosen came from,” reveals Professor Karin-Simone Fuhs.
“I believe that no stone should be left unturned to ensure fairer conditions, and every step, no matter how small, can make a difference. So when it will actually be is probably up to each of us.”