Can green fashion help to curb climate change?

By Rhona Wells

Green fashion, saving the planet one mushroom, one algae,one plastic bottle at a time.

22 AUGUST 2021: From making algae-sequin dresses, dyeing clothes with bacteria to planting trackable pigments in cotton, making airline uniforms from plastic bottles, an emerging tide of technological innovations offers the fashion industry a chance to clean up its woeful environmental record.

Change is urgently needed, since the industry consumes 93 billion cubic metres of water per year, dumps 500,000 tonnes of plastic microfibres into the ocean, and accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The growing demands for change have generated ingenious responses, such as New York designer Charlotte McCurdy’s seaweed raincoat.The shimmering algae-plastic she concocted in a lab made for a striking (and carbon-free) garment, even more so when she teamed up with fashion designer Phillip Lim to make a sequin dress.They are unlikely to show up in department stores. She sees them more as a way to demonstrate that de-carbonised clothes are possible.She wants to plant the seed of an idea.Taking climate change seriously, she is aiming to form an innovation and outreach hub.

Others, like Dutch designers Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar of Living Colour, are finding ways to reduce the toxic chemicals and intensive water consumption of dyeing clothes.They have found an unlikely ally in bacteria. Certain micro-organisms release natural pigments as they multiply and by deploying them on fabric, they dye clothes in striking colours and patterns.The research is published freely online and the pair have no interest in mass-production.Luchtman, who previously worked in fast-fashion, saw “up close the negative impact of that industry in terms of exploiting people and ecological problems” and is determined to stay small-scale.

Others, however, hope such ideas can infiltrate big business. Californian start-up Bolt Threads recently teamed with Adidas, Lululemon, Kering and Stella McCartney to build production facilities for Mylo, a leather made from mushroom roots. McCartney displayed her first Mylo collection in March, and Adidas has promised a Mylo sneaker by the end of the year.

Some experts are sceptical that such initiatives can lead to large-scale transformation.“Maybe some of these things will get a foothold in the industry, but the bar is very high for new approaches,” warns Mark Sumner, a sustainability expert at the University of Leeds School of Design.“It’s an incredibly diverse industry with thousands of factories and operators all doing different things. It’s not like the car industry where you only have to convince six or seven major companies to try something new.”

Sumner sees the biggest impact coming from improving rather than replacing the existing systems and says pressure from consumers and NGOs means this is already happening.“Among responsible brands and retailers, this has genuinely moved away from being a fad. They are now considering sustainability as a business imperative.”

Not that there are any right or wrong answers. The sustainability movement’s strength comes from many actors pulling in the same direction.“Many different strategies need to run together,” said Celine Semaan, founder of the Slow Factory Foundation which supports multiple social and environmental justice initiatives around fashion, including McCurdy’s algae-sequin dress.“Technology won’t resolve the issues on its own. It needs policy, culture, ethics.”

One area many see as a priority, however, is transparency, and here technology has a clear role to play.Such is the complexity of supply chains that “many companies have no idea where their garments are made, where fabrics come from, who provides their raw materials,” said Delphine Williot, policy coordinator for Fashion Revolution, a campaign group.

Recent uproar over reports that cotton from China’s Xinjiang region was picked by forced labour was compounded by the difficulty of knowing where this cotton ended up. Beijing denies the allegations.

Fibretrace, which won a sustainability award from Drapers magazine this year, offers a possible solution.It implants an indestructible bioluminescent pigment into threads. Any resulting garment can then be scanned like a barcode to find its origins.According to Andrew Olah, Fibretrace’s sales director“You can’t find the environmental impact of anything unless you know where it was made.” Combined with data sites like SourceMap and Open Apparel Registry that give companies unprecedented clarity on their supply chains, it has become increasingly hard to plead ignorance.

“When you don’t share your supply chain, you either do it because you’re hiding something or you’re stupid.There’s a lot of work to do,but I’m very optimistic.”

2020, albeit being a rough year, has forced the world into a state of pause, where industries and individuals alike were afforded an opportunity to look inwards and meditate on the effects of humanity’s actions on the environment. Faced with the jarring realities of the consequences resulting from our carbon footprints, industries globally are now striving to lead the way to a more sustainable future. The pioneering force behind this wave of sustainability within the fashion industry in the region is the world’s first sustainable fashion council: The Middle East Fashion Council (MEFC).

Announcing its commitment to sustainable practices within the industry, MEFC is set on implementing the 17 sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. Among the UN goals is the fight for gender equality in the fashion industry, progress towards more responsible consumption and production, and the improvement of the quality of education.

In a report published in 2018 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), it was calculated that the fashion industry is responsible for almost ten per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. The rise of fast fashion has contributed to the industry’s pollution statistics, with brands releasing a larger number of collections per year – the pieces from which are eventually dumped back into the environment once the trend has passed.

MEFC’s sustainable programme and initiatives tackle the issue at a grassroot level by championing sustainable production processes and reshaping educational programmes to include environmentally friendly practices. The council plans to also implement these ideologies within governments and the regional fashion scene.

The innovators behind a more sustainable MEFC are founder of the council Simon Rubel Lo Gatto and recent members to the board Faris Saeed, founder of The Sustainable City, and Nayla Al Khaja.

As part of its agenda, MEFC aims to highlight regional designers that practice sustainability as well as propel local fashion creatives to the international fashion stage, thus implementing diversity in the industry. The non-profit has teamed up with the British Fashion Council, Fédération Française de la Couture, Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, and Council of Fashion Designers of America to propagate this change towards sustainability.

As part of its activities in 2021, MEFC gave its seal of approval and support for the Middle East Fashion Week.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” This is the reminder literally sewn into the fabric of Dubai’s new sustainable loungewear brand on the block. The dawning of the age of athleisurewear has given rise to a number of brands who have reassessed their priorities and responsibility to the planet while purveying palette-pleasing tonal sweats for stylishly staying safe in the new normal.

Joining them now is TWAN which stands for Together We Are Nature, and sets itself apart from the rest with this striking series of unretouched images. Born in Dubai, TWAN is the brainchild of husband and wife duo Mohammad and Khadija, and was founded during the Great Isolation of  2020 from the desire to give back to the planet.In addition to planting 10 trees with every 100% organic cotton T-shirt, hoodie, sweatshirt and pair of sweatpants or shorts sold, TWAN only uses certified eco-friendly materials from fabric sourcing to manufacturing to packaging – so labels are made from recycled materials and packaging is plant-based and biodegradable with no toxic residues or micro-plastics.

Building on its ethos of sustainability, slow fashion, reduced waste and transparency also lie at the core of TWAN’s fashion manifesto. “We believe that the eco-friendliest clothes are the ones that you wear a lot that’s why we practice attention to details and concentrate on creating pieces that are long lasting and seasonless,” explain Mohammad and Khadija. In order to reduce waste, production runs are limited and fabric offcuts are given a second life.

On the important matter of ethical fashion, they add, “We are convinced that customers deserve to know how their clothes are made, by whom, where and in what conditions. That’s why we put transparency at the heart of everything we do.”

Eco friendly fashion comes in many shapes and forms and is a growing worldwide trend.

German designer Emilie Burfeind has developed a sock sneaker with a mushroom mycelium sole and a knitted upper made from canine hair that was shed while grooming and would otherwise have been discarded.The Sneature trainer consists of only three bio-based, renewable materials, allowing it to be either taken apart and recycled or industrially composted at the end of its life.In comparison, traditional trainers are generally made from around eight to 12 components such as nylon fabric and ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam – many of which are petroleum-based and would survive in landfills for up to 1,000 years.

Vietnamese designer Uyen Tran has developed a flexible bio-material called Tômtex, a leather alternative made from food waste that can be embossed with a variety of patterns to replicate  animal leathers.The name tôm, meaning shrimp, references the discarded seafood shells that are mixed with coffee grounds to create the textile.According to Tran, the biodegradable material is durable while remaining soft enough to be hand-stitched or machine-sewn.The process doesn’t require heat, therefore it saves more energy and reduces carbon footprint.Every year, up to eight million tonnes of waste seafood shells and 18 million tonnes of waste coffee grounds are generated by the global food and drinks industry.

British airline easyJet has unveiled new pilot and cabin crew uniforms made from recycled plastic bottles. Each uniform will be made using 45 recycled plastic bottles, and the campaign could translate into the budget airline reusing up to half a million bottles each year, preventing them from ending up in the ocean or in landfills.The world’s first carbon-free airline’s new staff wardrobe is also made from renewable energy sources and has a 75% lower carbon footprint than traditional polyester.

For all of these laudable initiatives to have a real impact, many different strategies need to run together; technology won’t resolve the issues on its own. It needs policy, culture, ethics and a real long-term commitment from industry and governments to protect the planet from further climate change.