In June, I was very lucky to attend a course on Sustainable Fashion Textiles at London College of Fashion, run by Amanda Johnston from “The Sustainable Angle” and her associates.
Our team of students was international and vibrant, with participants from the fashion and textile industries who were all keen to find out more about sustainable textiles. Of course, in my teaching, my students have had to look at sustainability and together we have acquired quite a bit of knowledge on this subject (we watched “True Cost of Fashion” and “Home”, we looked at fast fashion, Patagonia and luxury brands). At this short course my hope was to find out new things and develop new thoughts and indeed, it had some great surprises for me in store, such as fish leather, mushroom leather and a fabric made out of pineapple!
Amanda and her colleague Christina Tiran taught an engaging and inspiring day, speaking about the fashion industry, which according to some statistics is the second most polluting industry in the world, right after the oil industry. With consumers demanding lots of cheap fashion items, producers growing and sourcing not sustainably and designers ignoring the cradle-to-cradle approach when creating, it is no wonder that we cause a great misery to our planet. In fact, when Amanda asked us to brainstorm about what Sustainability means, I came up with the following thoughts:
To consider the state of the world which we leave for our children;
To return to a time when there was harmony with nature, pre-Industrial Revolution;
Treating nature, animals and humans in a dignified manner.
And although these are just my thoughts, as we learned, Greenpeace also suggested to move away from mass-production and consumption but embrace and respect each material individually. When I lived in Japan, I also learned this material lesson, as the Japanese culture has an ancient tradition of cherishing things, repairing and restoring them and not wasting them. For this, there is even a unique word: “mottainai” – litterally meaning “do not waste” or “too good too waste.” I love this concept and I feel that we should all embrace it in our lives.
Since The Sustainable Angle features the Future Fabrics Expo, an expo which helps to show, promote and communicate “textiles with a lower environmental impact to designers, buyers, press and global organisations, in a setting that is designed and curated to introduce textiles for the future with a lower environmental impact” – our class got to experience the innovative textiles and closely inspect them. This was very exciting and I want to share just a selection of incredible sustainable textiles with you below. Interestingly, most of them come from sources which are edible and so they are mostly bi-products of the food industry. It is not new to wear what we eat, as historically leather, fur and some plant fibres were part of people’s food.
Here are my top 8 favourites and perhaps some of the most exotic ones I have ever come across – to wear or to eat!
1. Apple Fabric
2. Mushroom Fabric
3. Plastic Trash gets a new life
4. Pineapple Fabric
5. Tree Fabric
6. Salmon Skin
7. Ostrich Leg Leather
8. Pirarucu Fish Skin
And here is my absolute favourite: The Pirarucu fish, that lives in the Amazon region and can grow to nearly 3 metres (10 feet) and a weight of 220 kg (485 pounds) – according to Britannica. It is a carnivorous fish with a bony tongue and surfaces to breathe air. This fish is traditionally eaten by indigenous people and they are the only ones who are permitted to kill it.
However, if it becomes popular as a skin, my thoughts are that the fishing will need to be controlled to prevent overfishing. In fact, as recent as 2014, a study found that the fish was depleted at more than 90% of the sites examined and well-managed or unfished in only 7%. (Castello et. Al, 2014 and Gough, 2014). So again, whoever produces skins for commercial reasons has the big responsibility of ensuring the continuity of this species. Nova Kaeru is one of those companies.
What’s great about these fabric samples is how the labels are designed: Not only do they tell you the regular information of fabric composition/ weight/ size or price, it also gives you insights into the company that produces them as well as how the textile meets ecological and sustainable prerogatives. That is an innovation and should be available on all textiles! Apart from these exotic samples, there is also linen, cotton, wool, Alpaca, viscose and the rest of the textile gang.
Sadly though, this is only a fraction of the efforts that we should put into preserving biodiversity, respecting all living things on our planet and changing the fashion industry which is far from being sustainable nor circular in any way.
As the Business of Fashion recently explained in an article entitled “Circularity: Sustainable Fashion’s Holy Grail or Greenwashing?” quoting Maxine Bédat, co-founder of sustainable fashion brand Zady:
“Circularity is three things: keeping resources in use for as long as possible, getting the most value from those resources while in use, and, finally, recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life. We can’t forget the first two components of this concept.”
But Kirsten Brodde, a campaigner for “Detox My Fashion” at Greenpeace has a more critical approach:
“The current discourse about circularity depicts a society that can continue to make, buy and discard as much fashion as it likes. We need to stop thinking about growth and speed and start thinking about extending the lifespan of clothing to slow down and limit our excessive wasting of precious natural resources.”
This is a point well made and so pertinent to the fashion industry and those giants who cause grief to the planet. As soon as a company is listed on the stock exchange, as soon as it has to achieve profits every quarter, every year and pay dividends to its investors, you are in a viscous circle. You can’t slow down and ignore profit, as investors will turn away, sell shares cheaply and put the company’s health at stake. Equally, if you keep feeding the “machine” like Seymour fed his Audrey II, you are bound to engage in unsustainable practices.
Perhaps you want to explore more on this topic? If so, there are a few good websites, books and fairs to start with:
Check out The Sustainable Angle and their Future Fabric Expo, have a look at the Fashion Revolution or the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which was set up by Patagonia, as well as Good on You. You might also like to get your hands on the international bestseller “Cradle to Cradle” by Michael Braungart and William McDonough or the Handbook of Sustainable Luxury Textiles and Fashion by Gardetti and Muthu.
And if you can travel to Berlin, why not visit the Ethical Fashion Show in July? It’s a fashion event entirely dedicated to sustainable brands. At the University of the Arts, we have a Centre for Sustainable Fashion, which you can visit here.
As I close this blog post, I want to ask you: Have you ever worked with sustainable fabrics?
Have you recently seen anything in the shops that was made of either organic, bio or recycled materials? How do you recycle your clothes or decrease your environmental impact? Have you encountered a fabric made out of a food?
And how can we improve the industry and educate consumers?
Feel free to share your thoughts and contribute to the discussion!