Why sustainable fabrics are a pipedream for small and independent designers

Little by little, the fashion world is starting to embrace sustainability, with more being said about the impact of fashion on the planet and what can be done to address it. This is a start, but the industry has still a long way to go. I was pleased to see Eva Kruse, the chief executive of Global Fashion Agenda give a thought provoking talk at VOICES, the Business of Fashion's annual gathering on the impact and role of fashion on sustainability. VOICES is a big event in the fashion calendar with the big thinkers and the who's who of the fashion world coming together to exchange ideas and opinions about the most important topics facing fashion today.

 

More recently, Emma Watson decided to use her press tour of her recent film Beauty and the Beast to showcase what is possible with sustainable fashion, fabrics and beauty.

Emma Watson Sustainable Fashion

Emma Watson Sustaianble Fashion

Equally, Livia Firth through her Eco-Age consultancy is supporting and advocating for greater sustainability practices in global supply chains. She established the Green Carpet Challenge a platform where glamour and sustainability come together to raise awareness about ethics, sustainability and social welfare through fashion. Many well-known designers have taken part to name a few, including Stella McCartney, Kalvin Kelin, Roksanda Illincic, Christopher Kane and Erdem.
We need high profile figures such as Emma, Eva and Livia to provoke us and raise awareness of the topic of sustainability but unfortunately, as I have learned from my own experience, the industry is in the main still operating under the business as usual model.
When I decided to set up my own womenswear label with sustainability at the core of its philosophy, one of my goals was to use, where possible, sustainable fabrics. My goal was that alongside the environmental and social stories my collections are telling, I would also source fabrics with a low environmental and social footprint. Its a simple concept, but I soon realised that on the fabric front, execution would prove to be very difficult. I have come up against three hurdles - choice, scale and cost.
The range of sustainable fabrics has grown of the years and more mills are innovating with new yarns and going beyond organic cotton. At the recent 6th Future Fabrics Expo, I spotted jellyfish leather which is still in development and not commercially available, but has the potential to offer a viable alternative to cow leather.

     

    According to Yurii Kasao the creator of jellyfish leather, "This project explores future applications of jellyfish, a resource becoming increasingly abundant due to over fishing and climate change. In 2009, huge numbers of Nomura’s jellyfish caused a serious problem for the Japanese fishing industry when masses overloaded the fishermen’s gear and equipment. In Asian countries, jellyfish are eaten as food, but jellyfish popularity can not compare to their overabundance. Dumping jellyfish as waste I see as a huge misuse of resources. The Jellyfish Leather can be cut, sewn and remoulded like cow leather. All the materials which are used for this leather production are organic and therefore biodegradable."
    Another material which is already commercially available comes from orange fibre, a bi-product of waste citrus peel from the food manufacturing industry.
    Orange Fibre sustainable fabric

    The custom dress worn by Emma Watson and designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere for Louis Vuitton was made from Newlife recycled polyester originating from used plastic bottles. Comparing it to the production of conventional polyester fabric, Newlife uses 60% less energy, emits 32% less carbon emissions and uses 94% less water.

    Emma Watson sustainable fashion

    So what are my options? To source from European mills which are expected to operate to EU environmental standards, some of the highest in the world, check their environmental credentials, ask for their environmental policies and establish whether any of their processes are certified to standards such as GOTS or Oeko-Tex. These certifications and standards ensure a level of environmental and social responsibility across the textile supply chain starting from fibre production all the way to processing and manufacturing. I was also recently enthused to hear from a textile agent that over the last 6 months, there has been a pick up in queries for sustainable fabrics from clients. I hope this trend continues and it gets more mills to be thinking about sustainable textile innovation and making sustainability a business as usual practice. We also need major fabric fairs such as Premier Vision in Paris to start making sustainability a more prominent and regular feature of their shows - something I did not see when I attended in February this year.

    Other options available to me are end of roll fabrics that otherwise would end up in landfill. This too has limitations as you are at the mercy of what is available and it may not always fit with the vision for your designs or colour palette. Nonetheless it is still a viable option that addresses the scale problem for me.
    Currently it seems I am stuck in a catch 22 situation but I'm not easily deterred. Wherever I can, I will aim to source sustainably and responsibly and understand the origin of the fabrics and processes that end up being used for my collections, continuing to keep my ear close to the ground for opportunities that will make sustainable fabrics more accessible to me.

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