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(Re)defining sustainability - Does technology hold the key?

By Vivian Hendriksz

Jun 24, 2016

Once seen as a niche part of the fashion industry, being eco-conscious has rapidly become one of the hottest 'topics' of our time. From luxury fashion houses to fast-fashion retailers, and everything in between - more and more fashion companies are responding to mounting consumer interest and 'going green.' However, in spite of all the efforts being made the fact remains that the global fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting and damaging industry in the world after oil. “The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives," proclaimed Safia Minney MBE, founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand People Tree in the documentary 'The True Cost'. So we ask, what does it mean to be sustainable within the fashion industry? In the fifth episode of a new series looking at sustainability and the fashion industry, FashionUnited looks new technologies and innovations currently available and asks if they hold the key to safeguarding the future of the fashion industry.

The potential of 3D ‘Printing’

One of the most mentioned, and often rapidly dismissed, technological tools which holds the potential the radically transform the fashion industry and how consumers consumer fashion is 3D printing. Although the technology itself has been around since the 1980s and designers have long had access to 2D and 3D computer design tools, 3D printing or manufacturing was rarely seen as part of the future of the fashion industry due to the limitations in 3D printing tools as well as soft materials. However, in recent years there has been significant innovation regarding the types of materials used by 3D printers, making it possible to print flexible shapes like dresses.

United Nude x @levelshoedistrict Stay tuned for more... #UnitedNude #LevelAtelier #3Dprinting #VFDE

A video posted by United Nude (@unitednude) on

But what is 3D printing? Usually defined as the transformation of three dimensional digital models into physical objects through a process which involved the progressive layering of raw materials such as polymers and resins by a mechanised printers, it also encompasses digital knitting, weaving, layering and spraying of materials into a final 3D form. Although it is still not possible to print a complete garment, many designers have been dabbling with 3D printed apparel and footwear. One of the well know designers to experiment with 3D printing remains Iris Van Herpen. Her futuristic, haute couture designs have always pushed the boundaries of how fashion can be made and from what. Over the years she has collaborated with numerous designers, architects and technological companies to produce 3D printed garments and footwear, working Rem D. Koolhaas, the founder of United Nude to create the first shoe which can be printed at home using a Cube 3D Printer.

A photo posted by United Nude (@unitednude) on

“We have been using 3D printing for the product development of our shoes ever since our first shoes, dating back to 2001," said Koolhaas in an interview with Dazeen. "Since then we have seen a massive evolution in 3D printing." So why is 3D printing seen as such a radical game charge? “3D and digital printing is huge opportunity because product can be printed with less fabric waste,” explains Edward Gribbin, industry veteran and President of global apparel business expert Alvanon to FashionUnited. Imagine a world where everyone has a 3D printer at home, where consumers can just download the garment design of their choice and have a new outfit within hours, made with virtually no waste, and minimum use of energy and carbon emissions, made in the comfort of their own home (no more shipping from factories to warehouses and stores is another added bonus!). Or one where giant machines in factories print the each design directly onto fabric, making sure every single millimeter is accounted for. Although this technological is still some years away from becoming a reality in the fashion industry, (think about things like zippers and buttons for example,) other advancements have also help cut down on material and fabric waste in factories.

"We have seen a massive evolution in 3D printing"

“Electronic cutting, laser cutting applications have become more sophisticated over the years, so you can ‘print’ fabric and cut it into pieces, so that there is nearly no waste at all in a marker today - a great advancement forward,” added Gribbin. There are other ways 3D printing can also be used to benefit fashion retailers outside of the manufacturing end. “Another thing we do not typically think about is that a company usually has a product development cycle of 12 to 20 months - the average being 16 months,” continued Gribbin. “Right now a lot of companies are starting their collections for spring/summer 2018. It will take them 3 to 4 months to develop the creative and strategic pages to decide what they want.” Afterwards the companies will begin putting packages together and negotiating deals with agents and sourcing offices before requesting product prototypes from them, during which another 4 months are likely to pass. “Then the big dance starts when the products come in.”

According to Gribbin most fashion companies only have a 30 percent adoption rate concerning the prototypes. “Typical retailers and brands will reject or modify about 70 percent of what they see.” These modifications rounds can go on for another 4 to 5 months, with companies getting 4, 5, 6 different iterations of a single garment before they are satisfied and ready to move on to production. “It is the most unsustainable part of the product development process in my mind,” stressed Gribbin. “It is just unnecessary. We have this ego in the industry that merchants and designers think about retail and fashion like it is art. When no consumer product is depicted that way. It is part art, but it’s mostly science behind the scenes.” Using 3D technology to print samples directly in an atelier or office in the future could cut down on a lot of materials, waste, fossil fuels to move the product, human resources as well as time.

Another positive benefit offered by 3D printing is the possibilities offered by the new materials created to use with the technological. It is no secret that the industry has become over reliant on limited resources to create its main materials such as cotton, leather and wool. Over the past few years the rise of three dimensional printing has encouraged the development of new materials which are not based on these resources and can easily be dismantled and in turn recycled.

The emergence of new materials and finishing processes

From lab grown leather, to fungus and algae fabrics and shoes made from recycled plastic, a slew of new materials are currently emerging from within the industry which can disrupt the way designers thinks and work with materials. Although plastic has widely been seen a something of a design failure within the fashion industry, several companies such as Adidas, Nike and G-Star are working together with organizations such as Parley for the Ocean to find new ways to repurpose unwanted plastic and work it into something new. For example, Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Ocean to create a new product out of illegally fishing nets which were taken out of the oceans by the Sea Shepherd.

“We had 200 million tonnes of plastic - we needed to create a way to reuse,” said James Carnes, Vice President of Strategy Creation and Lead for Open Source at Adidas, during the breakout session 'Will Technology save Fashion?’ at the Copenhagen Summit last month. Together with designer Alexander Taylor, the sportswear brand create a line of sneakers which were made using Adidas existing manufacturing processes but saw the synthetic fibers replaced with recycled Parley ocean plastic. “A designer can be the agitator and the agent for change. He must be entrepreneurial in spirit, seeking out collaborators to reach amazing solutions which outperform and offer truly viable alternatives to current methods,” said Taylor of the collaboration. Although the first line of the sneaker is limited to 50 pairs, Adidas is said to be working on a larger collection of footwear made with recycled materials, slated to launch sometime in September.

Other new materials posed to hit the market over the next few years stem from a more biological starting point. For example, Modern Meadows, a Brooklyn-based biotech startup seeks to satisfy the planet’s need for both meat and leather in a sustainable way which does not cause harm to the environment or animals. The startup is currently experimenting with growing biologically engineered skin in labs, which can be grown to precise sizes, thickness and colour, eliminating any waste and use of toxics and chemicals to treat the leather making it much more sustainable than its traditional counterpart. In addition to growing bovine leather, the technology can also be used to grow exotic animal skin such as alligator, python and ostrich.

A photo posted by Doug Bierend (@dougbierend) on

'Biological' materials to change the way designer work and think with materials

Although some may argue that the technology involved means it would remain much more costly to use leather grown in labs, as the amount of farmable land in the world continues to diminish it will only become more expensive to feed the animals needed for the leather industry. In addition, as the technology used for growing skin continues to evolve the cheaper it is likely to become in the future. However, at the moment the technology has yet to be fined tuned, as many of the cells grow at different rates, and the leather itself is said to be a bit stiffer than traditional leather. The technological process involved in growing the leather itself also raises questions concerning morality and ethics, as it is still depended on use stem cells taken from animal foetuses to grow the leather.

Another interesting biomaterial currently underdevelopment is fungal mycelium, which is made from fungi, which filaments can be ‘knitted’ together to create a thick and dense material that bears resemblance to cowhide. Belgian designer Kristel Peters has been experimenting with the material and used it to create footwear. Much like bioengineered leather, it can be manipulated to grow to exact sizes and even shapes, eliminating waste and is also biodegradable. “I’m attracted by tactile materials and materials turned out of waste. I love the idea that people recognize a material, but that they can’t define what it is or where it comes from, for example, mushroom leather, my favorite due to its tactile character,” said Peters in an interview with Ecoterre.

“It surprised me how you can easily shape this material like leather but it misses the strength property.” The designer, who has worked with the likes of Dries van Noten and Bottega Veneta prefers to work with vegetable and bio-based materials such as hemp, bark and fungal mycelium. “They are interesting because you can find and grow them locally, they have a low impact, and some are even self-sustaining,” she added. “It is our responsibility as designers to show the world the existence of these new materials, to make, and use it in an attractive way in order to convince and shift to the direction of sustainable consuming.”

“It is our responsibility as designers to show the world the existence of these new materials"

Further innovations concerning fabric finishing processes, such as those used in the denim sector, also show promise for more sustainable denim. Levi’s pioneered its own waterless process which saw the company eliminated as much water usage as possible from its denim finishing process. For example, Levi’s removed all water from its stone washes and combined multiple wet cycle processes at the same time, to save as much as 96 percent of water usage for certain denim styles without damaging the quality of the material.

“The whole idea of waterless denim, which not only Levi’s has pioneered but other companies like VF have picked up on and been as quick to market with other sustainable solutions for denim, is great,” said Gribbin. “Denim is one of the least sustainable products on the planet and without jumping off the cliff they are saying that they are going to continue to sell denim, that’s our business, but we are going to find a better way to do it. It’s a step in the right direction as you are not going to convince billions of people to stop wearing jeans.”

A photo posted by Levi's (@levis_ar) on

It is clear technology offer plenty of room for innovation in the fashion industry, but does it hold to key to securing the future of the industry? “We have all the technology we need to be eco-innovative. Everything is there,” stressed Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Ocean at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “However, the question about us being able to use it is the story here.” Other industry experts agree with Gutsch and echoed his opinion. “Most of the things we need are there - we just need to work together. The culture of collaboration is what will make the big difference,” said Carnes. “We need to embed this thinking into our culture.”

Photo 1: Materia, Colorette, By DLW Flooring

Photo 2: Bio leather, By Airman 1st Class Jason Couillard, via Wikimedia Commons