Fashion, in its nature, isn’t logical. Before things are broken or unusable we move onto consuming the next item all under the umbrella of ‘fashion’. It’s a huge, global business which basically comes down to us buying more things than we need and, also, new things before our existing things are redundant or can no longer fulfil their purpose.
It’s also very creative and what makes us human beings.
Left - Northern European fields full of flax
It’s therefore not in the fashion business’ interest to get us, as consumers, to buy or use less. So, what we’ve seen over the latest few years is many retailers using the term ‘sustainable’ to give our consumption the gloss of being better or even good for the environment while continuing to encourage us to buy even larger amounts.
It’s difficult for retailers and brands to tell us to buy less or not at all. They want us to feel good while we are shopping, but can ‘fashion’ ever be sustainable and what does ‘sustainable’ even mean?
Bruce Montgomery, Course leader BA hons Fashion UCA Epsom/Menswear Consultant, says, “While it’s a mammoth task, fashion needs to become sustainable. The industry is over producing, this is leading to excessive consumption with 300,000 tons of clothing being dumped on landfill either by both retailers and consumers rather than recycled. Patagonia’s don’t buy this jacket campaign and Stella McCartney’s fashion campaign shot with models lying in landfill tried to raise awareness to the problem, but much more industry commitment is needed.”
“Brands have understood its positive to be seen as ‘sustainable’. This has led to many jumping on the marketing bandwagon without any commitment and just greenwashing the surface of the topic. The word unfortunately is in danger of being watered down in the same way the word ‘luxury’ is now applied to fast fashion products. Why should consumers believe brands when they discover there is no substance behind a brand’s sustainable stance or strategy?” says Montgomery.
Niche brands with stringent green credentials are really trying to separate themselves from the mainstream ‘sustainable’ bandwagon. Swedish, independent outdoor clothing brand, Houdini, aims to “become fully circular in sustainability - and setting the standard for sustainable fashion and its mission towards ‘impact positive’ status”. Ninety one percent of their product is made from recycled, recyclable, renewable, biodegradable or Bluesign - it eliminates harmful substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process and sets and controls standards for an environmentally friendly and safe production - certified fabrics.
Eva Karlsson, CEO, Houdini Sportswear, says, "We find ‘sustainability’ not only a boring phrase, but an underwhelming ambition. To be sustainable should be seen as the bare minimum for an organisation’s social and environmental impact. Imagine a world where businesses set out to have a positive impact on the planet, and customers demanded it.”
Can fashion ever be ‘sustainable’? “With the knowledge and available technologies of today fashion (as in apparel) could and should be way closer to sustainable than what is currently the case. The trouble is best technologies and best practices are seldom implemented by retailers and brands, or some are implemented for one specific product or product group rather than for the big bulk. This is true not only for environmental factors, but for social and ethical factors as well.” says Karlsson.
“There are numerous reasons for this. Lack of guts and willpower to change, lack of knowledge, lack of time in an ever speedier fast fashion market. On the systemic level hinders are built into the system – buyers and sustainability managers are often working in their separate silos, the pricing structures of today work against the transition to sustainable business practices and regulations are poor.” she says.
Is the future buying differently then? The Victoria & Albert Museum recently held an exhibition entitled ‘Fashioned From Nature’ looking at the materials and inspiration the fashion industry has taken from nature. It was sponsored by CELC, The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp and they used the exhibition to highlight and promote this natural fibre - linen.
Marie-Emmanuelle Belzung, Director, CELC, The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp, says, “Not many people know – almost nobody – that three countries in Europe are the worldwide leader in flax production: France, Belgium and the Netherlands. More than 80 per cent of worldwide production comes from these three. And the quality from here is far superior to elsewhere, because the climate and conditions are perfect, and the knowledge and expertise are far superior. So, linen production is very local – you can see the fields from the Eurostar.”
Right - Flax - linen - grows naturally with no irrigation
“And there is no irrigation – no water needed, no GMO, no waste, no poison going into the water system, which is vital when you consider the demand for water in the future. Plus, linen is a good local employer: it takes five times more labour than wheat, because flax is a very technical crop. More technical than corn or wheat or other agricultural products that might occupy the fields. Then, the process of transferring the plant to the fibre is purely mechanical, involving no chemistry. Linen is natural, and entirely sustainable.” says Belzung.
Compared to cotton, which uses enormous amounts of pesticides and water, linen is a local European crop and is underused in fashion with many associating it with seasonal summer shirts and suits.
“Linen’s continued popularity is thanks to innovation. In the last ten years, linen the textile has enjoyed two major innovations. Knitted fabric has developed thanks to innovation on the yarn. Knitted linen overturns one stereotype: it is linen that does not wrinkle. Second is washed linen, which gives the fabric some pep and so seduces a new generation of consumers. Makes linen soft and chic.” says Belzung.
“In our special project with Chelsea College of Arts the concept of linen as a sports fabric – natural moisture management, naturally hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial – was one of the strongest ideas. Of course, blending anything with petro-chemicals diminishes the sustainability argument. Flax fibres are also being combined with eco-plastics to create, for example, car interiors, speakers and sporting equipment such as skis.” she says.
Linen is a perfect example of how consumers can swap one fabric for another. If consumers have a choice between a white cotton shirt and a white linen shirt, with this knowledge, they can make a more educated decision with less environmental impact.
Montgomery says, “We are consuming more cotton than we are growing, so materials like flax will need to be used more by designers in the future. An education programme will be needed because, while brands continue to use cotton, consumers will buy it instead of alternatives such as flax because they are familiar with it. The Copenhagen Sustainable Fashion Summit has been very successful in getting high profile leaders from academia and industry together to discuss sustainability, but it is still only covering the converted. The loop from producer to consumer needs to be joined up.”
Right - Raw linen on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum Exhibition ‘Fashioned From Nature’
“We need the whole industry to understand that sustainability needs to be applied to all aspects of the fashion business. Starting from yarns to fabric, manufacture, producing less through better range planning, making more locally, as well as recycling. Technology is being used to resolve the issue and their are new developments coming through such as polymer recycling, but this will take time. A lot more can be done in the short term simply by every brand making a sustainable commitment. The Kering group for example have been very pro active in enforcing their sustainable strategy across the group, while the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is researching new ways to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a better future through a circular economy.” he says.
“If the industry would let go of business as usual and decide on making the transition without compromise it could do so today. With emerging technology it could reach even further, becoming truly sustainable, restorative and even regenerative.” says Karlsson.
I don’t think it’s realistic to ask people to buy less. It’s even more patronising to ask people with less money not to buy cheaper clothes. We need people to buy differently while we wait for technology and economics to close the circle on fashion items.
In the future, I can see us recycling our clothes like we do with other recyclables. Putting them into piles according to their fibre make up. This will satisfy the speed of fashion and also the in-built disposabiltiy.
Things need to go around and around and around. It’s not enough for something to be made out of plastic bottles once. It, itself, needs to be recyclable and then into something else and then something else. We need to close the loop. That is sustainable.