A Regenerative Future for Fashion
In recent years those working in the fashion industry have felt a gathering surge of interest in sustainability. As the new decade dawned, we felt that the “tipping point” had finally arrived in both global citizen action and fashion industry realization. Covid forced us to pause, and activists around the world called for a reset as voices began challenging the status quo. These calls have intensified for social and environmental justice and an end to the racist colonial economic structures that permeate our society and industries, of which the polluting fashion and textiles industries play a hugely significant role.
The global fashion and textiles industries generate $1.5 trillion in global revenue per annum, employing approximately 60 million people worldwide, according to the Global Fashion Agenda Pulse Report 2018. The emissions generated by the activities of the fashion industry largely contribute to climate change. According to the UN, the sector is responsible for 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Set in a greater context, that’s more than the aviation and maritime shipping industries combined, making fashion the second-largest polluting industry in the world.. As such, it has a responsibility to change.
"...a quarter of the fashion industry's resources are wasted as fabric and garment leftovers. In fact, three-fifths of all clothing produced is landfilled or incinerated globally every year -- amounting to around $500 billion worth of textile waste."
Channel: How your clothes are worse for climate change than flying, September 24, 2019.
Growing consumer awareness of the climate crisis, informed by media reports and undeniable scientific data, has galvanized a groundswell of environmental activists, mobilizing rapidly into effective organizations. These activities have spotlighted the devastating human and ecological cost of the broken economic model that the fashion and textiles industries’ activities are predicated upon.
Our current fashion system currently operates on a rapidly escalating TAKE-MAKE-WASTE linear system, fuelled by the demands of fast fashion. It is responsible for resource depletion, polluting ecosystems, social inequalities, and mountains of waste. According to research undertaken by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a quarter of the fashion industry’s resources are wasted as fabric and garment leftovers. In fact, three-fifths of all clothing produced is landfilled or incinerated globally within a year -- amounting to around $500 billion worth of textile waste.
"...the world population will exceed 8.5 billion people by 2030. Global garment production will increase by 81% and depend on finite planetary resources, such as land and fresh water."
Netflix: Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj - The Ugly Truth Of Fast Fashion, November 25, 2019.
NowThis: One Small Step - How To Recycle Your Old Clothes, May 25, 2019.
According to recent forecasts, the world population will exceed 8.5 billion people by 2030. Global garment production will increase by 81% and depend on finite planetary resources, such as land and fresh water. This is why the transformation to responsible practices and regenerative systems that repair damage to ecosystems and a circular fashion system must accelerate rapidly.
Why Materials Matter
From a sustainability perspective, materials really do matter -- and not only in the way they represent the beginning of the design journey, embody tactile promise, or express the creativity and substance of new fashion products.
"For polyester, estimates suggest that substituting one metric ton of virgin polyester with its recyclable counterpart can reduce toxic substances by up to 90%, energy consumption by 60% and emissions by up to 40%."
Research conducted by Nike in the development of their Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), and that of luxury brand conglomerate the Kering Group, shows that up to 95% of a fashion product’s impact can be attributed to the material choice alone. The largest share of emissions and pollution impacts from fashion products stem from within the supply chain, where the raw material is processed, and where the weaving, knitting, dyeing, etc. takes place -- mostly beyond the direct control of a fashion brand or retailer.
Future Fabrics Expo: Embedding Innovation in the Fashion Supply Chain, July 3, 2020.
Our global dependency upon oil is reflected in the materials and textiles we clothe ourselves with. Two-thirds of our current global textile fiber demand is made up of petrochemical-based materials, and a quarter of that demand is taken up by cotton. Our unbalanced reliance on the synthetic group of fibers derived from petroleum and the dominance of intensively-farmed cotton has led to comparatively little material diversity in textile markets for over a century. Spikes in oil and cotton prices, climate warnings, water stress and pollution alerts have all contributed to an awakening that our raw materials, methods of production and processing have to be changed.
"If raw materials are sourced from regenerative and restorative farming systems, the fashion industry can contribute towards mitigating the climate crisis and deliver benefits for nature and people."
The Global Fashion Agenda estimated in their Pulse Report 2019 that replacing conventional cotton with its organic alternative can save 62% of the primary energy demand. For polyester, estimates suggest that substituting one metric ton of virgin polyester with its recyclable counterpart can reduce toxic substances by up to 90%, energy consumption by 60% and emissions by up to 40%.
In regard to sustainability impacts, the most powerful and positive outcomes for change can come from the provenance of the fiber itself. If raw materials are sourced from regenerative and restorative farming systems, the fashion industry can contribute towards mitigating the climate crisis and deliver benefits for nature and people. Regeneration International estimates that 25% of the need for climate action to remain within 1.5°C can be met through nature-based solutions, such as regenerative agriculture.
Ingenious and sustainable use of alternative plant fibers can contribute to this much-needed material diversity, and the regenerative systems they are grown within can provide effective carbon sinks and havens for biodiversity above and below ground, leveraging the power of plants to keep carbon in the soil and increasing the capacity of soils to hold water.
In order to meet the ambitious targets set by world leaders at the Leaders Summit on Climate organized by the White House to coincide with Earth Day, and in the lead-up to COP26 conference in November, scientific consensus states that we urgently need to decouple from our dependency on fossil fuels, both as a raw material and as an energy source, and look to regenerative nature based solutions to tackle our most pressing issues.
"...fashion products can be crafted from materials which are not reliant on fossil fuels, are from renewable and safe resources, and can contribute positively to people and planet if produced responsibly."
Regenerative by Design
A radical shift in thinking is needed by creatives and industry professionals, who now need to think in terms of systems design, and not only focus on aesthetic appeal and rapidly cycling trends. Regenerative design is a process-oriented whole systems approach to design. The term "regenerative" describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials. Regenerative design uses whole systems thinking to create resilient and equitable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature.
With creativity in its DNA, fashion is also a cultural barometer, persuasive communicator, and can be a powerful vehicle for change by influencing citizens to change their lifestyles more broadly. There are promising signs in emerging solutions: fashion products can be crafted from materials which are not reliant on fossil fuels, are from renewable and safe resources, and can contribute positively to people and planet if produced responsibly.
BBC: Recycling fashion - The town turning waste into clothes, December 16, 2020.
The Sustainable Angle's 9th Future Fabrics Expo 2020.
The Future Fabrics Expo
The Sustainable Angle is a non-profit organization that initiates and supports projects with a focus on sustainability in Fashion and Textiles and related industries. For the past 10 Years, the organization has been showcasing thousands of textiles in its annual Future Fabrics Expo, where solutions in textiles that have been sustainably and responsibly produced are presented to fashion professionals. Solutions include regenerative farming practices can draw down CO2 emissions feature initiatives that reclaim value locked into waste to create circular systems, and innovations in the fields of biosynthetics and biofabricated materials. Recent years have seen a surge in exciting new material developments in the biofabricated category, attracting investment. This group of materials uses living cells and microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast and mycelium to produce photosynthesizing dyes or to grow "leather" from the root structure of fungi for example.
"We need to actively engage in responsible choices that contribute to positive impacts, repair, restore and regenerate resources, and draw down atmospheric CO2 emissions to address the impending climate crisis."
The Sustainable Angle and its Future Fabrics Expo connects the industry to the innovations and solutions that point to a new and more diverse material landscape that will be part of the new materials revolution -- one that prioritizes working in harmony with nature, fair labour conditions for workers, respecting precious planetary resources and reframing "waste" as a valuable resource. These innovations exemplify a broad scope of new material possibilities, and demonstrate that there are potential solutions available to drive much-needed change.
Jamieson & Smith: Alex James - Slowing Down Fast Fashion, September 27, 2020.
We all need to urgently rethink our relationship with the resources that provide our material needs, and action environmental commitments, by going beyond reducing emissions and not just sustaining in terms of the impact on our planet. We need to actively engage in responsible choices that contribute to positive impacts, repair, restore and regenerate resources, and draw down atmospheric CO2 emissions to address the impending climate crisis.
With awareness and understanding of the impacts of our choices comes the impetus to act responsibly. We look forward to the emergence and flourishing of a new materials landscape, and the birth of responsible systems and new models for the future of fashion.