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Trends – we love them. But the cyclical nature of the fashion industry means its carbon footprint could do with a reheel. A new generation of designers is waking up to the alternatives, sparking a style revolution
The eco-chic breakthroughs set to star in your wardrobe.
BEHIND OIL PRODUCTION, THE FASHION INDUSTRY IS THE WORLD’S SECOND-BIGGEST GENERATOR OF POLLUTION. The facts are sobering, and affect almost every facet of the clothing we wear, from single items of clothing (making one pair of jeans guzzles, on average, 3,500 litres of water) to the materials we use (regular cotton production accounts for a quarter of the world’s pesticide use) to the packaging (just 15 per cent of the 8 billion plastic coathangers produced yearly will be recycled – the rest are sent to landfill, where they’ll take up to 1,000 years to break down). The fashion industry is also the world’s second-biggest polluter of water, and accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. And none of this takes into account the devastating effect of fashion waste, as our landfills become clogged with our discarded clothing. That lunchtime dress purchase seems like a good idea at the time, but impulse shopping, say experts, creates a throwaway culture where the average Australian tosses 27 kilograms of clothing every single year. Fashion is beautiful, but the industry can be cruel.
What’s clear is that things need to change – and thankfully, they are. “Fashion, [and] in particular luxury fashion, is innovative by its very nature. And today, it’s a given that innovation has to be responsible,” says Hélène Sarfati-leduc, a consultant at Le French Bureau, a resource centre for the eco-fashion sector. “Designers don’t feel impaired by restrictions; it stimulates their creativity.” She points to houses like Hermès, which has a “Petit H” collection made from discarded materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, Parisian designer Sakina M’SA, which uses the extras from top couture houses, and Canadian label Harricana By Mariouche, which recycles vintage furs. As sustainability moves from being a buzzword to being a true imperative of our times, it’s incredible to see the innovations and changes being made by leading labels across the world.
Plastic is an environmental disaster, but designers are figuring out increasingly clever ways to upcycle the material into clothing and accessories. In 2011, Yves Saint Laurent released the Muse Two Artisanal bag, produced by women in Burkina Faso from woven material made of cotton and recycled plastic bags. Today, designers and industry figures are taking things a step further, using cutting-edge technology to design new textile fibres that upcycle plastic litter, often taken from the ocean floor. Madrid-based Ecoalf sells jackets, T-shirts, bags and shoes made of Seaqual, a polyester fibre made entirely of plastic waste collected from the ocean. Nonprofit Parley for the Oceans has teamed up with both adidas and G-star to create items made from recycled plastic. And designers from major brands like Triumph and Levi’s are using Econyl, a fibre created using regenerated nylon waste.
FASHION LOVES FOOD
In Australia alone, a fifth of your grocery shopping ends up in the bin – that’s about 5 million tonnes of food waste sent to landfill every year. To reverse this alarming pattern, designers are tapping into the potential power of discarded food.
One pioneer in the field is the Taiwanese company Singtex, which makes a yarn made from used coffee beans, without added chemicals. The yarn, called S.café, has excellent hermetic, anti-odour and anti-uv properties, and is ultra-quick-drying, meaning it’s perfect for athleisure wear. The company now counts Asics, Timberland and Eider among its clients.
Researchers have also done promising work with creating apparel from agricultural and food industry by-products. Two Italian companies have recently been successful with biomass recycling. Orange Fiber is the brainchild of Adriana Santanocito, who was raised in southern Italy, in a region
ORGANIC COTTON REPRESENTS LESS THAN
1% OF THE WORLD’S ANNUAL COTTON CROP
500,000 TONNES OF LEATHER AND TEXTILES END UP IN AUSTRALIAN LANDFILL SITES EACH YEAR
that produces thousands of tonnes of citrus fruit each year. She wondered if the remnants of citrus production – skins, piths and so on – could be used to make something else, and it turned out they could. Orange Fiber is a soft, durable fabric made of citrus by-products which were previously destined for landfill. “We're not only using raw materials that otherwise would have been garbage, we are also making a commitment to social sustainability, which includes ensuring our suppliers practice good behaviour and workers receive fair pay,” she explains. In 2017, Orange Fiber began working with Salvatore Ferragamo on a capsule collection. Elsewhere in Italy, Vegea's “wine leather” is a high-tech, sustainable, plant-based fabric with a similar softness and consistency to leather. This material is made using grape seeds, stems and skins, by-products of the wine-making process. “This biomass has fabulous properties,” explains Valentina Longobardo, Vegea's co-founder. “It is highly adaptable, rich in oils, and, once dried, it lasts several years.” The start-up is in the thick of its growth phase and is currently researching other types of biomass, including rice and coffee.
When it comes to sustainable, high-tech fashion, 3D printing could be just what the sector needs. Imagine wanting a piece of clothing… and then simply printing it. That could very well be where fashion is heading, say 3D printing experts. The benefits are boundless: items can be produced at home or in stores, eliminating transport. There's no waste and used materials can be recycled. Plus, production is on demand, so there's no need for storage. While the use of 3D printing for fashion is still fairly limited (printed materials are still too stiff to be used for anything other than accessories, ornamental lace and shoes), experts predict that over the next 30 years, this new technology promises a wave of wardrobe possibilities.
When it comes to laboratory ingenuity, the best is yet to come. The surge in biotech's influence on fashion means we're starting to see breakthroughs that seem straight out of science fiction. One example is Bolt Threads' synthetic spider silk, a protein fibre made by biochemists using genetically modified yeast that ferments sugars. The result is biodegradable, vegan, extremely resistant, and, in the words of Stella Mccartney, “incredibly exciting”. She's so committed to the silk, she recently announced a long-term partnership with Bolt Threads.