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(Re)defining sustainability - The future of responsible fashion

By Vivian Hendriksz


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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 sixth, and final episode of a new series looking at sustainability and the fashion industry, FashionUnited looks at where the industry can be in the future. Should fashion companies and suppliers waiting for the government to impose rules and regulations for them to work more sustainably, or should they take it upon themselves to make the changes now?

"Each year we are using resources from 7 earth’s - We need to only take from the earth what it can give back"

Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Public Engagement at Patagonia

It is clear that the linear systems currently used by the fashion industry need to be replaced. In world with an increasing population, an industry which is focused on creating more and more, and selling more and more is no longer be justifiable without the proper infrastructure. “Each year we are using resources from 7 earth’s,” said Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Public Engagement at Patagonia during his moving speech at this year Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “We need to only take from the earth what it can give back and accommodate business models for the reduction of global compound production.” Circular fashion systems, which see the industry “workhorse” resources such as cotton, wool and leather reused time and time again in never ending product lifecycle are just one of the many possibilities.

However, in this case this system also needs to go hand in hand with how fashion is made. Designers need the freedom to rethink design from the very beginning in a more responsible way, which includes creating garments that are designed to be easily taken apart and recycled or made from new materials, such as algae or fungi fabrics. 3D printing is another alternative which could disrupt the entire fashion industry. But, in order for circular economies or 3D printed dresses to become a reality, investments will need to be made in future technologies to make it cheaper and easier to recycle clothing and footwear or grown new materials in labs.

Collaboration and transparency key to the future of sustainability

For example, denim brand Levi’s recently created a pair of its 511 jeans using new, patent-pending recycling technology. Together with textile tech-start up Evrnu, the brand was able to convert consumer cotton waste, equal to 5 unwanted t-shirts into quality, renewable fibres, using 98 percent less water than virgin cotton. But, imagine if they shared this technology with other brands, like Kings of Indigo, or G-Star and collectively created a new process for making jeans which use 100 percent less water and harmful chemicals? One such initiative, the Roadmap to Rational Denim, saw Lenzing, Achroma, Achroma, global colour and specialty chemicals company, Garmon Chemicals, an R&D platform for fashion innovation and Tejidos Royo, Spanish textile manufacturer, come together to produce denim garments which are made from the most efficient use of resources, in particular water, at every single stage of production, ensuring the finished product is as rationally made as possible. Such collaborations are key to securing the responsible future of the fashion industry.

Transparency is also key as fashion companies need to start working hand in hand with their suppliers, their manufacturers, farmers and each other to incorporate the best product lifecycle management and corporate social responsibility policies. Advancements made in cutting down on water, chemical and waste usage or innovations water treatment and C02 emissions should be shared among companies whenever and however possible. One recent “historical” initiative sees over 75 fashion companies, trade organisations, unions and local government in the Netherlands come together to sign a covenant for sustainable clothing and textiles. The “milestone” agreement aims to tackle several issues within the fashion industry, including sustainability, animal-cruelty, fair wages, discrimination, child labour, forced labour, and more. Together, over the next coming years the 55 fashion companies who signed the binding agreement will take on a list of goals each year and with support from the government and trade organisations do their best to achieve them. Although it is the first of many such international corporate social responsibility agreements formed and signed, some wonder how much change such a covenant can bring and the dedication of some of the brands which signed.

"[Brands] need to put sustainability first on their agenda, as being sustainable does not happen by itself"

Tony Tonnaer, founder of Kings of Indigo

“I am strongly in favor of any initiative in the field of sustainability taken within the fashion industry,” said Tony Tonnaer, founder of Kings of Indigo, Europe’s number one sustainable denim brand. “But it is a challenge to keep developing within this area and the brands which signed this covenant need to be aware of this. They need to put sustainability first on their agenda, as being sustainable does not happen by itself.” However, others are positive that the covenant can bring around much needed change. “I believe it will take time for the textile industry to change,” said Mark Wijne, child's right expert from Unicef, the Netherlands. “The chain of production is so complex and so difficult to check on that it will take a lot of effort to be cleared. But the effort of the brands and theirs suppliers is extremely important. There is no mass production of 100 percent fair and sustainable clothes at this moment, however this will only become available if the factories, and their suppliers, get the message. It may take up to 5 years to substantially improve the circumstances along the chain. But we believe there will be already improvements in the first years.”

Consumers also play a vital role in the future of responsible fashion. Although the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which saw over 1,130 garment workers killed, was an eye opening event, not enough awareness or change within the industry has happened since then. Fashion companies, governments and non-profit trade organizations need to come together to help educate consumers on the importance knowing where their clothing comes from, how to recycling unwanted clothing and to actively ask themselves if they really need it. The four R’s, Reuse, Repair, Recycle and Reduce are key concepts the fashion industry can embrace and use to tell this story to consumers as well as sustainability and ethical fashion will only become the norm if it accessible and easy to grasp and an appealing concept for all.

Consumer awareness and 4 R's are the stepping stones to sustainability

“We want to raise consumer awareness so they see all clothing as a resource and requisition recycled clothing,” pointed out Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s Sustainability Expert, during its Conscious Exclusive collection launch. Initiatives like H&M’s Global Recycling Week and Global Change Award, or it’s Conscious collections, are all strong concepts on their own, but need to become the normal way of working and producing fashion, rather than just one off projects. In addition, by only working sustainably in certain areas of the company, such initiatives are rapidly labelled as “greenwashing” marketing tactics to convince consumers that they are more sustainable than they really are.

Therefore, in order to truly redefine sustainability within the industry, companies need to think broader than just their business models and collaboration and look deeper into their understanding of what constitutes a successful brand. But how? During the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, over 100 students from around the globe came together to discuss their ideas for a sustainable future and together they wrote their 7 demands for the fashion industry to reach by 2030. These demands, which are based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed on during the COP21 talks that occurred in Paris last December.

Their demands included empowering garment workers, paying them living wages, safe and equal working conditions, the education of consumers, ensuring the fashion industry is no longer the second most polluting industry. But most important of all, they demanded that the industry redefine success as more than monetary value or gain and reverse all chances of being profitability when unsustainable. Only then can sustainability become the industry’s new norm. And there is no time like the present for the industry to start making the changes so desperately needed to make responsible fashion the standard for all.

Photos source: H&M, G-Star Raw, Filippa K, Fashion Revolution, the True Cost: Facebook. Materia, Colorette, By DLW Flooring Photo credit: C-Jason Childs – Jimbaran Bay

Copenhagen Fashion Summit
redefining sustainability