Every few months, you see stories highlighting brands – spanning categories including apparel, footwear, beauty and luxury – that are working to reverse the negative impact that the fashion industry has on the environment. Not only does this reflect the myriad ways in which companies are now thinking about the planet, but it also gives you, the reader and shopper, more options to choose from to become more sartorially savvy.
How fashion damages the environment
Over the past decade, the apparel industry has grown by 5.5 per cent a year to $2.4 trillion (Dh8.4tn), propelled by a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the "new", at once driven by millennials, Gen Z and the opening up of Asian markets. However, this comes at a huge ecological price.
A survey by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the textile industry dumps 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere per year, to create 80 billion new items, of which 11.5 billion kilograms are thrown away after being worn only once. In 2017, 235 million items of clothing were dumped in landfill sites in the UK alone, while in Sweden, a power plant outside Stockholm has been burning unwanted H&M stock to help power 150,000 homes.
Clearly this is unsustainable, in terms of precious resources (water and fossil fuels) and because huge landfills now mar every landscape. As organic matter in these heaps rots, methane and carbon dioxide are formed, leaching into ground water and an already overburdened atmosphere. Even if kept contained in the landfill, methane poses a risk of exploding at concentrations as low as 5 per cent.
One way to cut down the risk of eco damage is to reduce the quantity of clothes being discarded, a view backed by the Dubai founders of Riot, an online platform that resells designer clothes and bags. Founders Maya Talih and Tima Hamadeh believe that the best way to minimise fashion’s overall carbon and resources footprint is to extend a garment’s life cycle. Rather than throwing away unwanted pieces, they say, it is better to sell them on to someone else, thus sending less to refill, and reducing the resources, water, energy et al needed for new manufacturing.
“Saying ‘I have a closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear’ is no longer acceptable given the state of the planet. We realised that we were ‘hoarding’ luxury designer [and] there were thousands of dollars’ worth of assets lying around in our closet,” Talih and Hamadeh explain. “The realisation that we could monetise our pre-loved items got us researching, and we discovered just how real and frightening the pollution threat by the fashion industry is.
“Thankfully, consumers are becoming more aware. They hold the power to make a change. If you are looking for a way to be sustainable and make a difference without jeopardising your style, then circular fashion is the easiest option for you. It is also, arguably, the most sustainable.”
And, according to the ThredUp 2018 Resale report, prolonging the life of clothing by only two years reduces its carbon, water and waste footprint by an eye-opening 73 per cent.
Polo Ralph Lauren
Cycling fashion aside, some brands are going down the recycling route. Polo Ralph Lauren, for example, has reinvented one of its key products to be eco-friendly. Entitled Earth Polo, the new version of its famous collared shirt has the same cut and feel of the classic, but is now made entirely from cloth spun from recycled plastic bottles.
Each shirt repurposes 12 plastic bottles, helping the company reach its ambitious aim of removing and reusing 170 million plastic bottles from landfill and the oceans by 2025. To achieve this, the brand has joined forces with Thread, a company working to solve the dual problems of plastic pollution and crippling poverty. Founded in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, Thread pays people to collect discarded plastic choking water supplies and the coastline, providing a reliable income for affected families.
The reclaimed plastic is sold to companies that crush and extrude it into fine yarn, which in turn is sold to Ralph Lauren among others. Each Earth Polo shirt costs about $90, and buyers can be confident that the money is helping support an industry that not only has the potential to help millions of people worldwide, but also repurposes tonnes of plastic. With global plastic bottle consumption set to hit half a trillion by 2021, this could not come at a better time.
Joseph and Alexander
Another company using plastic yarn is childrenswear label Joseph and Alexander. Set up by Alana Sorokin in response to a fruitless search for eco-friendly clothes for her sons, it now makes swimwear from 100 per cent recycled ocean plastic, which is sold in reusable cotton bags. Even the bold patterns that the brand is known for are achieved using eco-friendly printing inks, made from linseed, soy, and natural resins, rather than the standard recipe of titanium dioxides, hydrocarbons, acrylic polymer emulsions and volatile solvents.
To help spread its message, Joseph & Alexander has tied up with Emirates Airline to produce the Emirates Landing collection, a limited-edition run of airplane-patterned environmentally conscious shorts.
High-street retailor Cos is making the shift to include less damaging fabrics such as cupro, which is made using leftover linter fibres from the cotton harvest. Until recently, this was considered waste and discarded with the rest of the plant; however, now these small threads are gaining value as a second crop, doubling water efficiency. A second fabric Cos uses is called tensel, which is made from fast-growing cellulose wood pulp. The company has also pledged to use organic cotton, which is not treated using pesticides, fertilisers and other chemicals.
Cotton is on the priority list for denim company Wrangler, too, which has pledged to use 100 per cent sustainable cotton – and 100 per cent renewable energy – by 2025. Cotton is notoriously water-intensive crop, needing 1,000 litres to grow just one kilo. Dying it the famous indigo blue is also thirsty work, with the same cloth redyed multiple times. To reduce water use, Wrangler has teamed up with the Fibre and Biopolymer Research Institute at Texas Tech University to create a process that uses foam rather than water. With normal dye baths requiring 1,500 litres of water per 100 yards of cloth, the foam method needs only 13 litres, and, according to Wrangler, even gives better results. The first Indigood collection launched in June, offering jeans, jackets and shirts for men and women.
The Dutch specialist dye company DyeCoo has also reengineered its dying process, eliminating the use of water completely. Traditional methods require petrochemical-based dyes to be added to thousands of litres of water, in a wasteful process that has hardly changed since the pharaohs. As most of the chemicals remain in the water after the cloth is dyed, trillions of litres of chemically tainted water is then dumped down drains, and back into the environment worldwide every year. DyeCoo’s new method, however, uses reclaimed carbon dioxide gas. This is heated and pressurised until it becomes supercritical, meaning it changes form to become neither liquid nor gas. Crucially, it retains the properties of both, so can pass through solids like a gas, and dissolve materials like a liquid. When pure pigment dye is added, it is carried deep into the fibres of the cloth in a process so efficient that only 2 per cent dye is wasted. The cloth emerges completely dry (removing the need for industrial dryers), while the CO2 is reclaimed and reused, creating a perfect closed-loop system.
At the highest end of the industry, Salvatore Ferragamo has a longstanding reputation for sustainability. During the Second World War, the Italian fashion house patented the use of many leather alternatives, including cork, raffia, and even glass. More recently, to coincide with Earth Day 2017, Ferragamo became the first-ever company to use fabric made from citrus fruit. This year, it opened an exhibition entitled Sustainable Thinking, at its museum in Florence, inviting artists, fashion designers and textile yarn manufacturers to show how fashion and nature can work in harmony.
The exhibition opens with the first shoe to incorporate sustainable cork, created by founding designer Salvatore Ferragamo himself in 1940. It also displays a pair of over-the-knee boots made by Andrea Verdura, made entirely from recycled fishing net. Fashion designer Romina Cardillo shows a man’s suit crafted from reclaimed cotton and kombucha, a fabric made using fermented black tea, sugar and microorganisms, while Tiziano Guardini selects ahimsa (non-violent) silk for a bias-cut green gown. What makes this silk different is that not a single silkworm was killed to produce it (normally 3,000 worms are killed for every pound of thread).
Sustainable Thinking at Museo Salvatore Ferragamo is ongoing until March 8, 2020, and is a good introduction to eco-conscious luxury brands.
Of course, individually, these industry innovations will not reverse ecological damage overnight nor undo years of consumer bad behaviour. However, they are all proof that creative thinking can produce workable long-term solutions. As customers, all we have to do is support them, and invest our money in fashion that may be expensive, but doesn’t cost the Earth.