Sustainable Textiles

27 Jun 2020
Sustainable Textiles

It’s not groundbreaking news that the fashion industry is the second biggest polluter on earth, its fundamental frameworks have been questioned for years. As buzzwords like “sustainable”,  “eco-friendly” and “conscious” saturate our feeds, it’s clear that businesses are moving towards responsible business practices, but it's become evident that the industry as a whole needs to work together to tackle the issue at hand. It is pertinent to condition the business culture to balance purpose with profits and value sustainability as an obligation, not a greenwashing technique. Businesses need to examine their supply chains and consider transitioning towards less damaging modes of operating–fabric dyeing itself accounts for 20% of water waste globally, garment production guzzles water, sheds microplastic back into our oceans, and emits more carbon than international flights and waterway shipments combined. Perhaps most alarmingly, the industry generates an estimated 150 billion garments annually, piling up in storage warehouses—only for 80% to inevitably meet their fate in landfills or incinerated. Overproduced garments can be attributed to consumers’ current maximalist mindset of ‘more is better’, and brands bear the responsibility to look for creative solutions which focus on preventing instead of decreasing damaging practices.

Kelp yarn, pineapple leaf fibres, algae fabric, textile fungi and bacteria-grown leather may sound like bizarre concoctions of the future, but today, they are viable eco-friendly solutions for fashion production. Rapid technological developments have brought fundamental changes to the usage of raw material in the fashion industry. Leading fashion houses globally have joined the new material revolution as part of a growing commitment to sustainability, paving the way for fashion innovation by focusing on fabric substitutes which deliver both ethically, functionally and of course, aesthetically. Arguably, big fashion houses hold an upper hand in radical experimentation, as they have the margins to pour capital into research and development. In 2018, Chanel announced a strategy to focus research on developing materials and leather generated by agri-food industries, beginning with an investment into eco silk start-up, Evolved by Nature. The same year, Gucci became the first brand to use Econyl, a 100% recycled nylon yarn made from regenerated fishing nets, fabric scraps and industrial plastic. Prada also re-issued some of its most iconic products with Econyl, and announced plans to substitute all existing nylon products with recycled material by late 2021. Burberry followed suit, and unveiled the Econyl Capsule, as part of their commitment to creating a more sustainable future for fashion. Such developments are steps in the right direction, and hold immense promise for the future of fashion. In the near future, we expect to see a rise in collaborations between start-ups, manufacturers and fashion brands, whether it's reengineering classic pieces or creating new pieces inspired by innovative materials.

With that being said, it doesn't detract from the young, progressive designers who experiment with alternative solutions to approaching fashion-conscious processes. Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing at the end of its life cycle, and factories often hoard unwanted, deadstock fabrics—there is a sea of opportunity in what is deemed as fashion waste, and Sami Miro has singlehandedly crafted a brand from reconstructing fashion’s scraps. Each piece from Sami Miro Vintage is made from rolls of deadstock fabric and vintage denim, sourced from warehouses around Los Angeles. Pushing eco-conscious boundaries is the foundation of the brand, and its first collection exudes that narrative. EcoTerror—named after the environmental movement in the 60s’, debuted at ComplexCon in 2018, presented alongside an art installation which pushed environmental issues into the spotlight. More recently, Miro has collaborated with streetwear star Heron Preston to create Natural Disaster, a 35 piece collection which continues to draw attention to ongoing environmental issues. If there were any preconceptions that vintage can't be luxurious, Miro dispels those ideas with her eponymous brand. An it-girl in her own right, Miro has made a name for herself in the fashion world as the queen of vintage. Only a month into brand development, Miro was sought out by Selena Gomez to design her tour wardrobe, and her designs are often seen on the likes of Hailey Baldwin and Bella Hadid.

Another relatively new player in the market—Alyx, has established itself as a force in the fashion industry in just five short years. Matthew Williams’ vision has earned his brand a cult-following of fashion fanatics. But beyond Alyx's tactical chest rigs and industrial belt buckles, and perhaps less commonly acknowledged amidst the blur of the brands success, is its blueprint, which has been grounded on sustainability from the get-go. Alyx designs are crafted from recycled materials and fishing nets, garments are wrapped in biodegradable packaging. Leather goods are manufactured with DriTan— a waterless dyeing process and a revolutionary alternative to traditional synthetic fabric dyeing methods, which consume an overwhelming magnitude of energy (an estimated five trillion litres of water is used around the world each year just to dye fabric). Williams has impressively taken a first hand approach to his operations, investigating everything from his supply chains to sourcing his own fabrics in order to instill concrete changes. At a sustainability panel, Williams shared the reasoning behind his proactive outlook, “I wanted to go deep and have relationships with the suppliers so I could start from the beginning of the design process with the right information. It’s so easy to compromise and use the thing that’s in stock.” He adds, “By the way, there is no stock-sustainable-fabric company. I have to make [fabric] from scratch, which is only possible because I’m the owner. If I’m a designer working for a big company then it just doesn’t happen. These rules and ways of doing business that we bind ourselves by need to change.”

Williams’ honourable pledge towards sustainability doesn’t just end there, he is actively pushing for full supply chain transparency through partnerships with Avery Dennison, a leading global manufacturer which specialises in radio-frequency identification, and Evrythng, a software company which manages digital identity data to create a blockchain-powered programme. Williams debuted his SS19 collection with scannable QR codes on each product's hang tags, displaying every step of the production process, from raw materials to the finished product—in other words, 100% full transparency.  There are no shortcuts to success and that is evident in the case of Williams, his passionate approach and earnest honesty is apparent in his collections, Alyx represents fashion beyond consumption, it showcases clothing which aims to have a greater social purpose to the world.

As Professor Dilys Williams says in her Kering sustainability course, every item in our closet derives from nature— mediated by human creativity and engineering. Designers take responsibility for the ergonomics, fit and viability of their collections, but beyond that, there is a deeper responsibility to ensure operations do not contribute towards additional environmental destruction. Shifting towards fully responsible operations will require integrating responsible practices into core business infrastructures, dismantling the industry’s growth-focused business models and redefining what success looks like. Cultural change is not easy and admittedly, the industry has struggled to adapt in the past, for years, many have turned a blind eye towards melting polar caps and sinking cities, but recent impassioned developments towards sustainable fashion have demonstrated a united front and an overall unanimous commitment to a better practice within the industry. These exciting new solutions all point towards a greener future and amplifies the creative minds behind the movement, every commitment, big or small, inspires the industry as a whole— and most importantly, draws attention to fashion should and can be.

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