The Environmental Impact of Fashion
When considering which industries do harm to our environment fashion doesn’t seem like it would be high on that list, but it’s actually a major contributor to global pollution. The fashion industry is currently responsible for between 8-10% of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined- and it’s share of emissions is anticipated to rise to as high as 25% by 2050.
While the carbon footprint is certainly a problem (one that can be greatly mitigated by on-demand manufacturing from a partner like PlatformE) an even greater concern is material waste and pollution. At present more than 85% of textiles go to landfills each year, the equivalent of one garbage truck being dumped each second.
Even when clothing isn’t being thrown away it can still do tremendous damage due to the type of materials used today. Approximately 60% of materials used by the fashion industry are derived from plastic. Plastic is notorious for taking centuries to decompose, but there are also less obvious drawbacks. Washing clothing made from plastic releases plastic microfibers which are then flushed into the water supply and eventually the rivers and oceans. Micro means small, so no big deal, right? Not exactly. 500,000 tons of plastic microfibers are released into the ocean each year from washing clothes – the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles.
Needless to say, it’s critical that the fashion industry tackle these issues as soon as possible or risk irreparable harm to our ecosystem. Nobody wants to be all dressed up with nowhere (that isn’t polluted) to go.
Sustainable Materials to the Rescue
Fortunately, the industry has already begun taking steps to discover and develop the sustainable materials we’ll need in the production model of the future. Using innovative techniques we’ll soon be able to transition fashion away from harmful materials that take ages to decompose and instead produce beautiful luxury clothing from unexpected sources with minimal environmental impact.
Forward-thinking business and fashion labels have already begun to blaze the trail, so let’s take a look at a few of the possibilities:
From Hippie to Hip
Mentioning hemp as an alternative fabric probably brings to mind crunchy hippie-style fashion, or even worse, a burlap sack. It’s time to refresh our understanding of this incredible fiber, as it is being rediscovered and deployed by fashion labels for a wide variety of purposes. Thanks to refined processes, today’s hemp is similar to linen in feel and breathability. It’s also 2.5 times stronger than synthetic fibers and is naturally antibacterial. In addition, when synthetic fibers are washed they shed microplastics, when hemp clothing is washed the microfibers which it sheds are completely biodegradable.
Hemp is also able to be grown in a more sustainable manner than your average cash crop. Hemp grows vigorously without any need for pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Its roots extend more than a meter deep into the ground, anchoring and protecting soil from runoff while preserving topsoil and subsoil structure. At present hemp is generally associated with outdoor lifestyle brands such as Patagonia, but the untapped potential for sustainable luxury fashion is enormous.
Go Bananas for Sustainability
Bananatex is a material most notably used by the Swiss backpack brand QWSTION. It’s a durable, waterproof fabric that is perfect for both luxury and casual bags. Its made purely from Abacá banana plant stalks that can regrow within one year and requires no chemical treatments, making it exceptionally environmentally friendly. It may seem like an unusual source, but banana fibers actually perform better than bamboo and ramie fibers.
Bold Thread’s mycelium-based leather alternative, Mylo, is created from mushrooms. Ganni, the Copenhagen-based fashion brand, have already rolled out a limited-edition wallet and saddle bag utilizing this impressive material. They’ve also set an ambitious goal of cutting virgin leather from their production process by 2023. And they’re not alone. Labels such as Stella McCartney and Lululemon have also been incorporating Mylo into their collections.
Italian company Orange Fiber has developed a method to turn the country’s citrus biproducts or ‘pastazzo’ (an estimated 700,000 tons per year) into a silk-like cellulose yarn. Italian luxury house Salvatore Ferragamo became the first major label to integrate Orange Fiber fabric into its selection with the first capsule collection launching on Earth Day 2017. The material has also been utilized by more mainstream brands such as H&M, which chose Orange Fiber as its material for an off-the-shoulder boho-style top in its 2019 collection.
The humble pineapple may seem like an unlikely source for luxury fashion materials, but it’s surprisingly suited to the task. Piñatex, created by Ananas Anam, is a vegan leather alternative derived from the 52% of pineapple material that is discarded as waste. Cleverly repurposing these natural fibers results in a sustainable alternative to leather that’s both environmentally friendly and cruelty free. It’s also elegant enough to produce gowns that can walk the runway at the Met Gala, as seen in 2017.
The Potential of Algae
Clothing made from algae seems a bit crazy, but it might be just crazy enough to work. Enter Kanye West, whose Yeezy brand dropped the first prototype of a runner crafted in part from this unlikely source. In 2021 the brand took the concept a step further, in West’s words ‘from seed to sole’, made from a blend of EVA and harvested algae. While this is certainly the most cutting-edge material in this post it has intriguing potential. In theory a shirt composed of algae could remove carbon from the atmosphere and produce the same amount of oxygen as a small tree. At the moment designers such as Scarlett Yang and Rachel McCurdy are pushing the envelope with algae in hopes of creating an environmentally friendly miracle fabric.
The Future of Fashion Depends on Sustainable Materials
Fashion’s sustainability problem is significant, but not insurmountable. Ensuring a future for the industry will require clever innovations to reduce both its carbon footprint and the amount of waste it produces. At present it feels strange to imagine a world where your luxury trousers are sourced from fungi, fruit or algae. But decades from now it may seem equally unusual, and also very foolish, to our descendants that we wore clothing that took centuries to decompose while polluting our air and water along the way.
Brands that embrace sustainable materials will be ahead of the curve in a world where resource constraints are beginning to tighten. It’s not just a matter of material necessity, it also makes good business sense. An innovative approach to sourcing materials along with other environmentally conscious practices such as on-demand manufacturing (with a little help from PlatformE) will help your brand stride confidently into an environmentally conscious future with the tools it needs to thrive.