A key step in making fashion sustainable is to abandon the current throwaway culture. Stephen Short speaks to fashion powerhouses including Prada, Stella McCartney, Nike and H&M who are leading the way in the future of sustainable fashion.
TEXT: Stephen Short
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
“Our industry needs bold action at the start of this new decade,” Chairman and CEO of Kering, Francois-Henri Pinault told employees in January, outlining his company’s commitment to more sustainable practices. “Transparency and open collaboration are critical if we are to effectively address our challenges to decarbonise our companies.” As of 2018, Kering had almost 35,000 employees and revenues of 13.7 billion euros.
Fashion has gone beyond the tipping point, quite literally. In her latest book Fashionopolis (September, 2019), Dana Thomas outlines some more than shocking statistics; 73 per cent of the world’s clothing eventually ends up in landfills; in the last 20 years, Americans have doubled the amount of clothes they throw away, from seven million to 14 million tons; that’s 80 pounds per person per year. And the European Union disposes of 5.8 million tons of apparel and textiles each year.
Shoppers buy five times more clothing now than they did in 1980. In 2018, that averaged 68 garments per year, just over one per week. As a whole, global citizens acquire 80 billion apparel items annually. The world’s population will exceed 8.5 billion by 2030, and almost 10 billion by 2050, and global garment production will increase by 81 per cent, continuing to depend on finite planetary resources. Futhermore, fashion production already accounts for 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 20 per cent of industrial water pollution, according to the United Nations in Geneva and the World Bank.
Just 20 years ago most fashion companies only produced two collections a year. A decade later that number had increased to five, and today some brands offer 24 or more a year. Clothes, rather than being cherished objects full of creativity and craftsmanship, are now often regarded as throwaway products with ever shorter life cycles.
The Ellen McArthur Foundation in New York estimates that simply using each item of clothing twice as long could cut the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by half—an extraordinary figure. A key step in making fashion sustainable is to abandon the current throwaway culture, not an insurmountable task considering that the phenomenon is only a couple of decades old.
Increasingly, the world is now looking to the fashion industry to harness its power of imagination and creativity to find new ways to produce and consume fashion. There are promising signs. The second-hand market for fashion has grown 21 times faster than the retail apparel market over the past three years and more companies are navigating alternative resale and aftercare channels. Post-consumer textile recycling has started to receive investment; however, it is not yet operating at scale. Many designers still lack access to knowledge on how to design for a circular fashion system. While some of these results are encouraging, further industry collaboration is required to turn the tide. But if upcoming trends are anything to go by, fashion’s future is changing fast and much of it for the better.
Witness H&M’s new initiatives for this season; Vegea™, an innovative vegan material partly made from the by-products of winemaking, in which discarded grape skins, stalks and seeds are turned into a beautiful leather alternative; Circulose®, a natural recycled material made from used textiles; Renu™, a high-quality recycled closed-loop polyester; Econyl, a regenerated nylon made from discarded fishing nets; Undyed organic cotton—a recyclable and reusable fabric made from 100% organic cotton; coffee waste from H&M’s Shanghai production office has been turned into dye; and left-over fabrics from previous collections have been used for the brand’s new Conscious Exclusive collection which debuts in selected stores and hm.com on 26 March. “Embracing a circular approach to fashion allows us to transform the unsustainable patterns of production, consumption and trade in the industry,” says Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability.
In H&M’s mission to use 100 per cent recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 and becoming climate-positive across its value chain by 2040, the Swedish giant has surprising collaborations; it researches textile recycling via its collaboration with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, and with re:newcell, a company whose technology has the potential to use pre-and post-consumer textile waste that would otherwise end up in landfills.
Nike this spring will release Space Hippie shoe, an exploratory footwear collection constructed from what Nike calls its own “space junk,” i.e. scrap material from factory floors that the company transforms in design. The line comes in four models, and every material, from shoe to packaging, was chosen for its environmental impact.
Nike says the footwear carries its lowest carbon footprint scores ever. “Space Hippie presents itself as an artifact from the future. It’s avant-garde; it’s rebelliously optimistic,” says John Hoke, Nike Chief Design Officer. “Space Hippie is also an idea. It’s is about figuring out how to make the most with the least material, the least energy and the least carbon.”
As such, the uppers on Space Hippie comprise recycled plastic water bottles, T-shirts and yarn scraps, and the cushioning consists of factory scraps from the production of Nike’s Vaporfly 4%. Its trash for your feet, in effect, proof that trash can take on another life when correctly repurposed.
“The future for product will be circular,” says Seanna Hannah, Nike’s vice-president of sustainable innovation. “We must think about the entire process: how we design it, how we make it, how we use it, how we reuse it and how we cut out waste at every step. These are the fundamentals of a circular mindset that inform best practices.”
If harnessing the power of plants is the way to a sustainable future, Reebok’s one step ahead with its Forever Floatride Glow, which uses a cushioned midsole made from sustainably grown castor beans, a eucalyptus tree upper, and a natural rubber outsole from sustainably sourced real rubber trees rather than petroleum-based rubber. The shoes will launch in the autumn of this year.
And Cariuma from Brazil’s IBI sneaker has a lightweight sole made from sugar cane, and insole from sustainable cork. Quirkiest of all, the uppers comprise bamboo, and recycled plastic bottles.
Cruelty-free Stella McCartney’s latest shoes for the Adidas Stan Smith range are made in vegan-friendly leather, while her summer 2020 campaign—her most sustainability-friendly to date—celebrates the power of plants and their constant renewal. Some 90 per cent of the cotton in her summer collection is organic and grown with no toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers—organic cotton consumes 70 per cent less water than conventional cotton and maintains soil health. “Fashion doesn’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability,” says McCartney. And 78 per cent of the collection comes from sustainably sourced materials including recycled polyester, regenerated cashmere, sustainable viscose, responsible and traceable wook, ECONYL regenerated nylon, solvent free PU, gold-certified wool yarns and Eco-Atler Nappa.
French swimwear brand Vilebrequin men’s shorts are made of 100 per cent recycled yarn; the label uses plastic caught by Mediterranean fishermen and recalibrates it with other recycled textiles into a new fabric.
And then there’s Prada and its Re-Nylon collections, consisting of bags and totes made using recycled nylon, a result of its partnership with textile yarn producer Aquafil. Regenerated nylon yarn, or Econyl, is made by recycling discarded plastic from global landfill sites and oceans. According to Prada, every 10,000 tons of Econyl created, equates to 70,000 barrels of petroleum saved, and a 57,100-ton reduction in CO2 emissions.
“I’m very excited to announce the launch of the Prada Re-Nylon collection,” says Lorenzo Bertelli, Prada Group’s head of marketing. “Our ultimate goal will be to convert all Prada virgin nylon into Re-Nylon by the end of 2021. This collection will allow us to create products without using new resources.”
Prada also just announced it will partner with UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (the world’s foremost authority on ocean science) and create a programme dedicated to sustainability and the circular economy for a network of global secondary schools around the world over a four-month period – from Feb to May 2020. The goal is to educate and raise awareness among the new generation about adopting more responsible and mindful behaviour towards the ocean and its resources, promoting an attitude of sustainable consumption in line with the United Nations 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It will be financed through a portion of the proceeds from the Prada Re-Nylon capsule collection sales.
And so say all of us. ‘Less is more’ is fashion’s new mantra, and circularity makes next-gen industry and consumer sense. Sustainability is the coolest creative—and most innovative —look on the block.
Stephen Short is the co-founder and editor of ISBN-Magazine and the current Managing Editor of Prestige.