Eco-friendly, ethical and sustainable fashion is finally on the industry's agenda - and for many brands and designers, this has been a year of awakening. But, as Tamsin Blanchard argues, we all have our part to play in making fashion truly circular.
Fashion is finally waking up to sustainability – but the lexicon surrounding eco-friendly and ethical fashion is fraught with inaccuracies. In ‘Get Your Greens’, an ongoing series launched to coincide with Earth Day 2019, Vogue explores how the industry is advancing towards a greener future.
Business as usual costs the earth.” That was the slogan hand-painted across one of the many colourful banners carried by the Extinction Rebellion protestors gathering at Marble Arch on Monday morning last week. A few days earlier, XR had staged a fashion show at Oxford Circus, while my local branch of Traid changed its window display, dressing the mannequins as XR protestors. Fashion is a mirror of our times. And no – right now on Planet Fashion, it’s really not business as usual.
As the world contemplates Earth Day 2019, and many in the industry prepare to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes in remembrance of the 1,138 garment workers who were killed when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed on 24 April 2013, this is a week in which to reflect on how the fashion industry is dealing with the undeniably negative impact it has on both people and planet – and to work together to find solutions.
“What we need to do is make it clear how fair and decent work and environmental protection are intrinsically interconnected,” says Carry Somers, founder of Fashion Revolution, the global campaign for a more transparent fashion industry. “At the moment, human rights abuses, gender inequality and environmental degradation all remain rife within the fashion industry, and positive change is more urgently needed than ever to tackle climate change and create a more equitable future for everybody working within the fashion supply chains.”
The challenges can seem insurmountable. Global textile production emits 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
But a lot has changed over the last twelve months. The Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has become a spokesperson of a generation who are impatient for change and will not compromise on their ethics – whether that means going vegan or swapping their clothes rather than buying them new. In December, while Thunberg was telling the world’s leaders at COP24 in Poland that “you are never too small to make a difference”, Stella McCartney was launching the UN Sustainable Fashion Industry Charter for Climate.
To mark Earth Day, Fashion Revolution announced that it too is declaring a climate emergency and has signed the charter. Other signatories include Burberry, Gap, H&M, Kering, Levi’s and Inditex, all of whom have pledged to a series of industry-wide commitments, including a target of 30 per cent greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2030.
For many brands and designers as well as consumers, this has been a year of awakening. The V&A’s "Fashioned From Nature" exhibition opened the eyes of its visitors to some of the stark realities of the fashion industry, from how thirsty cotton is, to the hidden horrors of microfibres. It also highlighted some of the most innovative solutions, from spider silk and leather made from discarded grape skins to fabrics grown from bacteria. H&M’s current Conscious Collection has a leather jacket and cowboy shoes made using Piñatex, a leather-like material that is made from the leaves that are normally discarded in the production of pineapples.
Other positive fashion initiatives over the past twelve months have included Mother of Pearl’s No Frills collection,Allbirds’s shoes made from eucalyptus plants, the ongoing success of Veja’s Fairtrade trainers (the look of which is being copied by the high street – which, of course, totally misses the point that they are made in a way that is fair and transparent), and niche start-ups like OAR Basics, set up by the designer Kim Trager, who is on a mission to make a perfectly crafted white T-shirt from organic cotton using renewable energy, fairly-paid labour and a transparent supply chain. Meanwhile the Wellthread x Outerknown collection at Levi's is piloting products which use 40 per cent ‘cottonised’ hemp, which means it’s been engineered to be softer to the touch, and includes jackets with detachable hardware to make them more easily recyclable.
“The plan is simple,” says designer Phoebe English. “We must now look at design as a solution-based, problem-solving strategy." English has been incorporating waste materials from previous collections into her new work, and offers her clothes for rental with Higher Studio.
Last July, Burberry admitted to burning £28m worth of luxury product, but it soon became clear that the practice was commonplace among the industry. While brands need to look at their own issues around over production, there are solutions in the pipeline to help deal with pre-consumer waste. Burberry is working with Elvis & Kresse, which rescues some of the nine tonnes of leather waste the brand is producing each month to make leather accessories using a modular patchwork system that means they are endlessly repairable and recyclable.
“Circular design” has become the big buzzword. It means the entire lifecycle of the product must be thought about at the design and sourcing stage. “The problem is that the brands all need to understand how to make recyclable goods, and whilst this is not impossible, the massive lack of technical infrastructure means that the circles have big breaks in them,” says Rebecca Earley, Professor of Sustainable Fashion Textile Design at University of the Arts London.
But help is at hand. In April, Earley was in Stockholm to moderate a summit for the 2019 Global Change Award, an annual prize worth €1m donated by the H&M Foundation to promote innovation in the fashion industry. The winner of the top €300,000 award was The Loop Scoop, a digital tool by the Berlin-based start-up circular.fashion aimed at providing designers with everything they need to create closed-loop, circular fashion.
All good stuff – but it can sound a little too theoretical. When summer is coming, sustainability is often not top of most people’s priorities when they’re thinking about new season shopping lists. To help spread the word, luxury resale website Vestiaire Collective has produced ‘Buy, Sell, Share, Care’, a practical guide to circular fashion, with tips on how to make better use of the clothes we have by the models and sustainability advocates Arizona Muse and Margherita Missoni.
“Circularity means not putting an end to the things you use,” says Missoni. “In the last few years fashion has woken up, we’ve become aware of how aggressive the industry is and the impact our actions have, both individually and as institutions. But there is a lot more to do.”
Article by Tamsin Blanchard for Vogue