The glitz and glamour of the catwalk has long masked the fashion industry’s poor carbon footprint.
In its race for fast fashion, 85 per cent of clothing is disposed of every year.
The sector is responsible for 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than shipping and aviation combined – and pressure to find sustainable solutions is mounting.
It’s doubtful, however, that many expected answers to lie in the sun-soaked pineapple plantations of the Philippines.
But it was in these fields that Dr Carmen Hijosa came up with the novel idea of using the leftover leaves as an alternative to leather, and created Pinatex.
The eight stages of Pinatex production - in pictures
After industrial processing, the leaves are turned into a mesh textile, which is similar to leather and is used to make clothing, shoes and bags.
“It doesn’t use water, land or fertilisers,” Dr Hijosa told The National.
“It has similar characteristics to leather. For example, it is water resistant, it’s breathable, light and strong.
“The pineapple leaf fibre has been used for centuries for hand-woven garments in the Philippines. I realised this could be a base for an alternative to leather, and I looked into the technology and I found people who could help me.
“We are using the waste leaves that would either be left to rot or burnt.”
She had been working as a consultant in the leather industry, and after witnessing the atrocious conditions of workers in the Philippines’ tanneries, she vowed to never work with leather again.
Dr Hijosa, who was shortlisted for the 2021 European Inventor Award, looked for other options. She had heard of it being used to make ceremonial shirts, Barong Tagalogs, and began her research.
Now, more than 3,000 brands in more than 80 countries use her Pinatex creation, including high-street names such as Hugo Boss and H&M.
“We are unique in that we are using plant based waste from agriculture,” she said.
“It is really a driver for change, for a change in the system that is already there, and at the same time it gives employment to really poor people. It’s giving an opportunity for our planet to regenerate.
“There is a willingness to change and we see it when we work with our clients like Hugo Boss and H&M. They are really trying to do as much as they can. Fast fashion is very complex and hard to tackle but we are a light at the end of the tunnel and a blueprint for how things can be done.”
Firing up green fashion
Dr Hijosa is not the only one pioneering change in the industry. Fashion brand Elvis & Kresse is using London Fire Brigade’s old hoses, which had previously gone to landfill, to create designer bags and belts.
“I fell in love with Duraline hoses the moment I saw them, in 2005, piled up on a rooftop at a fire station in Croydon, awaiting an imminent and undignified death in landfill,” Kresse Wesling told The National.
“Fire hoses are decommissioned for one of two reasons. They either reach the 25-year end of their health and safety life or they are too damaged to repair.
“We weren’t entrepreneurs in search of an idea, we didn’t set out to make luxury accessories. We simply wanted to save the hose.
“Elvis learnt to sew. We started with a simple range of belts and grew slowly from there.
“We have rescued all of London’s decommissioned hoses since 2005, and have donated 50 per cent of the profits to the Fire Fighters Charity.
“For over a decade, none of London’s fire hoses has gone to landfill and over 200 tonnes of material has been reclaimed. So these hoses are still working hard, long after their first life.”
The business has also signed a five-year deal with Burberry to use 120 tonnes of its leather off-cuts to create luxury items.
Primark has recently pledged to make all its clothing more sustainable by 2030, and to make clothes that can be “recyclable by design” by 2027.
Its chief executive, Paul Marchant, called for the industry to do more as it announced it would work with suppliers to halve carbon emissions throughout its supply chain.
“We don’t have all the answers and we know we can’t do it alone,” he said.
“We’re committed to work in partnership with the industry to drive real change at scale.
“Our ambition is to offer customers the affordable prices they know and love us for, but with products that are made in a way that is better for the planet and the people who make them,” he said.
“We know that’s what our customers, and our colleagues, want and expect from us.”
Last month, luxury French fashion brand Saint Laurent announced it would stop using fur from next year.
Recent research in the Netherlands found that the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production of one kilogram of mink fur was at least five times that of the highest-scoring textile, wool. This was in large part owing to the production of the animals’ feed, emissions from their faeces and the processing of their pelts.
The clothing sector is worth £32 billion ($43.41bn) to the UK economy annually and every year, about a million tonnes of clothes are thrown away.
British researchers are developing a way of manufacturing textiles from household waste such as food scraps and kitchen roll.
Teams at Cranfield University and the University of York have been using bacteria to break the waste products down into cellulose and then dissolve it using solvents with a low environmental impact. The end product is then spun into fibres.
“The world’s clothing industry is responsible for 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – more than flights and shipping – and 20 per cent of all wastewater,” Dr Sameer Rahatekar, research lecturer at Cranfield University, said.
“Our work with colleagues at the University of York offers a low environmental impact solution that could transform how we make textiles and reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfill.”
The research uses less aggressive solvents which will have a significantly lower environmental impact compared with those used to produce rayon.
“This process is the result of work we have done over the last 10 years,” Dr Alexandra Lanot, of the University of York, said.
“My hope is that soon we will be able to wear clothes derived from waste instead.”
Fashion designer Stella McCartney is set to put the industry’s environmental legacy under the spotlight when she addresses delegates at Cop26 to raise awareness of the “damage” that has “gone under the radar”.
She is set to call for action to put the sector on a more sustainable footing.