In my last post, I promised that in this one I would finish off the background analysis of my “HANDCRAFTING – PACIFIC REFLECTIONS” (F – W ’07 – ’08) collection, share the last pieces of that collection and write about the philosophy of sustainable fashion. For those who haven’t read the previous posts UPDATING MY PORTFOLIO PAGE and UPDATING MY PORTFOLIO PAGE 2, I would suggest taking a look at them, so that you can have a complete idea of the project and understand how this collection is relevant to sustainable fashion.
When I first came across the idea of sustainability, I started reading articles and interviews by professionals who have been working on this idea for years. In today’s post, I share some very interesting points that they raise in these pieces. Even though some of the interviews are not very recent, they provide a simple and concise analysis of sustainability which I find very helpful. I feel that the kind of “interview puzzle” which I’m presenting here is the best way to illustrate the idea of sustainability and understand the broad spectrum of social, ecological and political issues involved. I am including a wide range of links, in case you want to do some further research of your own.
The diamond pattern pieces that I am sharing with you here close the “confession trilogy” of blog posts that explored my attempts to fashion what was at the time (’07-’08) an alternative and refreshing way of weaving such a pattern. In order to explore weaving art’s potential, I got stuck on the idea of weaving a simulation of a diamond pattern on some fancy clothing. After countless hours of experimentation with wide strips of silk, jersey and leather, and incorporating embroidery as well, my persistence finally paid off.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF SUSTAINABLE FASHION
The philosophy of viable or sustainable fashion is based on a project to completely reshape the fashion industry in order to make it more transparent. The idea basically emerged when the problems created by climate change came to the fore in the sphere of global politics. Concerns about carbon emissions, water contamination, waste and deforestation are some of the main issues that sustainability addresses. Sustainable practices approach things with a more ethical and transparent outlook, seeking out solutions with the least possible impact on the environment. In addition, ethical approaches also shed light on a variety of other serious issues that the fashion industry has long overlooked. Animal cruelty, unacceptable working conditions, poverty wages and gender equality are just a few of these problems. These issues have now started being examined thoroughly, cultivating the grounds for this project of radical restructuring.
As Professor José Teunissen, Dean of Design and Technology at the London College of Fashion explained to Dezeen in 2018: “It’s a fundamental rethinking of what fashion is…We know that the fashion system is very much in transition… We all know that it’s very polluting. Consumers are becoming more and more aware that clothes are made in bad working conditions…The pace of manufacturing has intensified because fast fashion brands have to produce new collections every six weeks…There are no real trends anymore. It’s just a push market where people just try and launch things in the market. It’s very wasteful.”
Professor José Teunissen was the curator for the inaugural State of Fashion 2018: Searching for the New Luxury, which explored how fashion can become more sustainable through the introduction of new techniques and innovative technologies. Teunessen’s exhibition revolved around a manifesto, which tried to define what fashion’s new luxury might be. Eight hashtags accompanied the project descriptions: #imagination #agency, #essential, #tech, #care, #reuse, #fairness and #no waste.
RESHAPING FASHION DESIGN
According to Amy Powney, creative director of the fashion brand Mother of Pearl, it’s only possible to create ethical fashion if you pay attention to all elements of the business in order to make it as sustainable as possible. The east London based brand has a comprehensive sustainability policy on its website which seeks to answer questions such as: “If you’re using a fabric what does that mean, at growing stage, at spinning stage, at weaving stage? Once it’s in a garment what is its lifespan? Where’s it going to end up afterwards?… It has to be about social responsibility.”
Initially, as she said in Dezeen, the whole team worked to answer these questions as “investigators and diggers and researchers,” persisting until they found the information they needed. They discovered that there were a huge number of steps before raw materials got to agents, so the brand decided to bypass the agents and go directly to the source to try and piece the puzzle together. At a bare minimum, the supply chain includes farmers, cotton pickers, weavers, spinners, scourers and finishers. The brand has traced every step over a three year period. “You just start trying to work it all out, then you start meeting companies and suppliers and the more you dig, often some suppliers do know what’s going on, it’s just that no-one’s ever asked them those questions before…It’s a mindset. You have to completely change the way you think about everything. It becomes a filtration process in your brain.”
Mother of Pearl uses organic cotton, wool and silk that is Global Organic Textile Standard-certified. They only buy wool from growers that they don’t use the practice of mulesing, a process of removing the sheep’s skin without anaesthetic. As far as the throwaway nature of the fashion industry is concerned, Powney suggests that high-street retailers should dedicate half their stores to core basics, with additional saleable seasonal pieces. Mother of Pearl follows this model, and additionally, has reduced fabric waste in production by making their pattern-cutting tighter.
SLOWING FAST FASHION DOWN
Marci Zaroff, author of ECOrenaissance: A Lifestyle Guide for a Stylish, Sexy & Sustainable World and an eco-lifestyle entrepreneur who coined the term “eco fashion” told Parade.com in 2019 that fast fashion has really only taken off in a big way in the past 5 to 10 years. “When I started working in fashion, there were four seasons a year. Materials were higher quality and derived from nature,” she says. “But now, fashion has sped up and there are 52 seasons a year. We need to come back to quality, design, materials, and manufacturing methods as an imperative, not a choice.”
In Μay 2020, Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele announced in his personal diary, Notes from the Silence, that Gucci will be abandoning the traditional fashion rota of staging five shows per year under the seasonal labels of cruise, pre-fall, spring-summer and fall-winter. In explaining the decision, Michele reflected on the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry and the part his brand has played in it, and explained his decision to stop reproducing the same cycle.
For the brand ATID, company policy doesn’t follow seasons or calendars. ATID is the creation of Alexander Taylor Studio, a design and innovation consultancy based in London. It is a platform through which the studio presents its latest concepts and products. ATID pieces are exclusive and limited in number by their very nature. This is because they may be made from leftover material from a partner factory, knitted in a new bio-yarn only available in a limited quantity or handcrafted in collaboration with their partner atelier in Paris. The company proposes radical collaboration with its partners, seeking out the best possible quality in manufacturing and introducing new products only when they are fully ready. Compromise is a luxury that no longer exists which is why ATID collaborates only with those whose values it shares:“it is our duty to live consciously and accept our individual and collective responsibilities. Our minds are infinite, but the resources contained within our environment are not.”
ENDING ANIMAL CRUELTY
In 2018, London became the first of the main fashion weeks to drop animal fur from its shows after the British Fashion Council (BFC) said that none of the designers participating in the official schedule would be using it. According to The Guardian, many high-profile fashion businesses have distanced themselves from the animal product. In 2017, Gucci, Michael Kors and Versace were among the international fashion houses to ban fur. Asos updated its animal welfare policy last June to ban the use of feathers, silk, cashmere and mohair, in addition to fur, which it had already prohibited. Very recently, Designer brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have finally banned the use of exotic animal leather; decades after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urged their parent company, PVH Corp., to stop killing animals for luxury products. PETA celebrated this victory with a campaign showcasing the clothing brands owned by PVH which also include Van Heusen, IZOD, Arrow, Warner’s, Olga, True & Co., and Geoffrey Beene. (Fashionating world)
Textiles such as MuSkin, leather from mushrooms and Piñatex, leather from pine cones, to mention but a few, don’t only follow cruelty-free standards, but additionally, as they are made from food by-products, reduce waste and help farming communities to grow. Moreover, Peace silk, also know as ahimsa silk, is an alternative to silk that is produced without harming silk worms. Rather than boiling the pupa in their cocoons, they are left to hatch before the threads are turned into silk. This inflates the cost of non violent silk to about twice that of regular silk, but as Mr. Rajaiah, the Indian pioneer of this method, says: “the higher price is nothing compared to the lives of thousands of moths that are spared.” (See Margherita Stancati’s article: Taking the Violence Out of Silk).
In addition, Qmonos, a synthetic spider silk, has recently been developed through the fusion of spider silk genes and microbes. The fibre is said to be five times stronger than steel, making it the toughest fibre in nature which, while being very lightweight, is more flexible than nylon and entirely biodegradable. Like Qmonos, the company’s Microsilk is manmade and designed to mimic spider silk. It can also be sustainably produced on a large scale. It’s incredibly strong and durable – like Qmonos – and was first released to the public via a limited edition knit tie collection (livekindly). Stella McCartney, a proponent of vegan fashion, has been collaborating with the company since 2017.
According to ATID, “It has been mentioned that the global fashion industry could exist at current levels of production for 7 years and we would still have enough material in the world to service it without making any new material. In excess of 250 tonnes of deadstock textile pass through Hong Kong every day destined for landfill or incineration. In the UK alone we generate over 1 million tonnes of textile waste per year, of which 300,000 tonnes is destined for landfill or is incinerated.”
Freitag is a company that was founded by the Freitag brothers in 1993. Its first product was a messenger bag made from used truck tarpaulins, car seat belts and discarded bicycle inner tubes. The company’s motto is RIP, which stands for “Recycle Individual Products”(Dezeen). Freitag’s research into materials has also led it to take part in projects like Rossana Orlandi’s initiative to create “guiltless plastic” and to create its own compostable fabric, which is called F-ABRIC, using flax linen, hemp and modal.
Another product, ECONYL,is based on the recycling and replacement of virgin nylon in our everyday products and clothes. This fibre, created by the Italian firm Aquafil, uses synthetic waste such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from the ocean, then recycles and regenerates them into a new nylon yarn that is of exactly the same quality as nylon (Good on you).
DESIGNING NEW PRODUCTS, DESIGNING NEW WASTE
Entitled “Rethinking Materials”, the final session during the Design Museum’s takeover of the Virtual Design Festival highlights the problems around synthetic clothing and discusses the importance of redesigning materials and production systems to create more sustainable alternatives. Marta Giralt’s project, the outcome of a year-long residency at the Design Museum, focuses on how graphene could be combined with biomaterials and natural fibres to make these materials more durable while still retaining their ability to decompose.
According to Good on you, TENCEL® is a light cellulose fabric, which means that it is created by dissolving wood pulp. The fibre is produced by Austrian company Lenzing AG. It’s been growing in popularity recently, as it is said to be 50% more absorbent than cotton and requires less energy and water to produce. Plus the chemicals used to produce the fibre are managed in a closed-loop system which means the solvent is recycled, thereby reducing dangerous waste.
Another company, Vollebak has made a hoodie from eucalyptus and beech using a closed-loop production process, where over 99 per cent of the water and solvent used to turn the pulp into fibre was recycled and reused. According to Vollebak co-founder Steve Tidball, making biodegradable clothing is not a challenge. “What’s hard is making something that biodegrades very quickly, leaves no trace of its existence, and uses as little energy to create in the first place as possible…On the Higg MSI scoring system, which measures the impact of producing a kilogram of fibre – taking into account fossil resource depletion, water scarcity, eutrophication and global warming – this fabric scores 10 against cotton’s score of 60.”
Last but not least, an interdisciplinary team of students from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art came together to find a way to tackle the global over consumption of freshwater. This led them to the idea of using salt-tolerant plants, and following promising results from early tests, they are now planning to launch a start-up named Salty Co to bring their textile products to market. “For a long time now you have been able to buy organic, vegan and natural textiles,” said Ellis-Brown (Dezeen)…More recently we’re also seeing the introduction of carbon neutrality as a standard. Now we’re looking to what tomorrow’s sustainable standard will be – freshwater-free fabrics.”
SUPPORTING LOCAL COMMUNITIES AND CRAFTSMANSHIP
Viable fashion does not only imply focus on innovative technologies but also, a new model that supports small, local communities. A great case in point is the project ‘Conscious Contemporary Craft: Connecting Communities.’ This is a collaborative project that involves the Zegna Foundation working together with a youth rehabilitation community in San Patrignano, and the London College of Fashion (LCF) working with a women’s prison in England. San Patrignano, located in Northern Italy, is a recovery community that rehabilitates youth through therapy. Hand weaving is one of the main activities in the community.
Since 2013, the Zegna Foundation has been supporting the workshop in order to promote craftsmanship, to support community development and to modernise artisanal techniques to meet fashion market expectations. Meanwhile, LCF coordinates Making for Change, their fashion training and manufacturing unit within HMP Downview women’s prison in England. The project aims to equip inmates with professional skills and qualifications within a supportive environment.
Handmade with Love by Vivienne Westwood is another example of a collaborative project. It works with communities in Kenya and supports local traditional craftsmanship.
EDUCATING THE FASHION INDUSTRY AND CONSUMERS
On the 24th of April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed. More than 1,100 people died and another 2,500 were injured, making it the deadliest clothing factory disaster in history. That’s when Fashion Revolution was born. Fashion Revolution is based in the UK and is a not for profit Community Interest Company. It campaigns for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry through research, education, collaboration and advocacy. Their vision is a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit.
Additionally, Remake, a “for women by women” movement, hosts programs affiliated with specific colleges to take young fashion designers to garment factories… “If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it. So much of the issue within the fashion industry starts at the design phase,” says Ayesha Barenblat, the founder and CEO of Remake…“A simple last-minute design change could mean garment workers working a 10 to 12 hour day instead of an 8 hour day, and [what if] there aren’t street lights on [their] walk home and [they’re] worried about gender-based violence.”She also adds that “every time we buy something we are voting for the type of world that we want… We often hear from incredible Black entrepreneurs and creatives about how they don’t get a break, so we need customer power to uplift these Black designers and Black-owned businesses.”
In 2018, the British Fashion Council made an official statement in which it announced that “The British Fashion Council supports the creativity of designers and keeps an open dialogue with the industry, from designers to media, retailers, business leaders, government and global brands while encouraging designers to make ethical choices when it comes to their selection of materials and supply chain.” This was definitely a very positive step in favour of restructuring fashion.
Another encouraging example is Fashion For Good which is an interactive museum in Amsterdam that aims to teach visitors about innovations in the fashion and textiles industry. Fashion for Good’s displays were designed to change people’s buying habits by demonstrating the wasteful practises of the fashion industry, as well as showing them how they could have an impact themselves.
ENDING MODERN SLAVERY: FAIRNESS AND SAFETY
Sustainability and environmental global policies have triggered a domino effect in the fashion market. Thankfully, and almost inevitably, even more major mainstream brands are getting involved in this process, such as ZARA and H&M. Without doubt, this is very positive and promising news. Let’s hope, however, that these companies don’t continue to sweep serious labour issues under the carpet!
Remake, which I mentioned above, was founded in 2016 to redefine the fashion sphere and community, seeking to better society’s fashion consumption and change the way fashion designers and businesses associate with the garment industry. As Ayesha Barenblat has said “If you have an energy-efficient supply chain or water-saving processes, those are good for a business’s bottom line, but paying people more is always going to cost you money…This is an industry that has historically been racist and exclusionary… It has been built on the backs of Black and brown women without any of that wealth trickling down…We cannot talk about the planet in a vacuum… Bangladesh just had a huge flood; we have had droughts in Pakistan. The same people that are on the front lines of fashion’s bad behaviour are also on the front lines when it comes to becoming climate refugees or dealing with the whiplash of environmental degradation. We have to be centring many of the environmental impacts on people first.”
My final example is Fairtrade which works with farmers who’ve formed small producer organizations, as well as contract production organizations in the process of forming independent cooperatives. Fairtrade works with farmers to stop or reduce the use of agrochemicals and supports them to adapt to changing climate patterns. Fairtrade cotton fields in West Africa and in India are rain-fed, reducing the region’s water footprint when compared with production in other countries. Fairtrade Standards further require the protection of farmers’ health and safety, and ban genetically modified cotton seeds. A large percentage of Fairtrade cotton is also organic certified. Fairtrade’s goal is also to address the unsafe and unfair labour conditions in cotton processing and textile factories. In 2016, it introduced the new Fairtrade Textile Standard and Programme to reach people at all stages of the textile production chain – from seed cotton to finished garments.