Fashion / Green-to-Glam Ideas from A to Z / Z

Zero Impact Fashion: Is It Possible?

It is hard to believe but we’ve come to the last letter in the A to Z green-to-glam ideas challenge. Over the past six months, we have covered trends and textiles, lifestyle and luxury, pioneers and pundits, as well as the trials and tribulations of sustainable fashion. The final article in this series, dedicated to letter Z, asks the big question: is it possible for the fashion industry to be less obsessed with zero sizes and more concerned about zero impacts?

To start with, let’s remind ourselves of some key facts about today’s fashion industry and consumers:

  • around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide
  • 15% of textiles on average is discarded as waste during production
  • ethically made clothes make up 1% of the overall $1 trillion global fashion industry
  • 1,129 people lost their lives in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in April 2013
  • recycling cotton saves 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of cotton
  • about 60% of the energy used in the life cycle of a cotton T-shirt happens after purchase through washing and drying at high temperatures
  • we wear about 10% of our wardrobe
  • an average European sends 15 kilos of textiles (equivalent to 15 pairs of jeans) per year to landfill

Clearly, we must do better.

Yes, we can find organic, fair trade, locally made and other kinds of environmentally and socially responsible clothes on the high street  and online. This is great, but one is still somewhat forced to make a choice between eco and ethical, and often between style and sustainability. Can we have it all when it comes to sustainable fashion?

dress mannequin

I have decided to dream big and to design (in my head for now) my perfect and very nearly zero-impact dress. Here it is:

  • In terms of style, the dress must be versatile so as to be worn in different ways.
  • The fabric should be made from renewable materials with no chemicals and minimum water used.
  • The dress will have been cut from a pattern that minimizes waste.
  • My perfect dress was colored using vegetable dyes; with no formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals used (the former is routinely used to give new clothes that special wrinkle-free look). It also has a funky print, which I can refresh at will thanks to the machine washable ink.
  • The dress was made-to-measure by skilled workers who are earning a fair wage, working in a safe environment, and getting the same benefits as the ones we often take for granted, such as paid maternity leave.
  • In terms of care, the dress can be washed at 30 degrees Celsius and hung to dry. Thanks to its breathable material, it remains odor-free much longer than conventional fabrics, which means fewer washings and greater saving on water and energy. Or perhaps I’ll just be able to put my dress in the freezer to refresh it.
  • Finally, after I have worn my dress until it’s threadbare, I bring it to a clothes upcycling depot, where it will be transformed into something else.

And so begins another life cycle of my dress.

Sounds utopian? In fact, most groundbreaking technologies mentioned above already exist.

  • French ‘positive fashion’ brand EKYOG has launched a collection of transformer garments, which can be worn as a dress, a snood or a shrug. It is made out of modal, which is among the top eco-fabrics available today.
  • Lenzing, the same company that produces modal, has also invented TENCEL®, a sustainable fibre produced from beechwood pulp through a solvent spinning process that reclaims over 99% of chemicals used. It also has superior properties such controlling moisture, repelling bacteria, and being soft and silky to the touch.
  • Refinity, a Dutch fashion consultancy, has developed  a unique fabric ink that allows wearers to remove designs and re-apply them any time.
  • But what about freezing instead of washing one’s clothes? Indeed, this has been suggested by no other than the iconic jeans brand Levi’s.
  • And while to my knowledge an upcycling fashion depot does not yet exist  (sustainable entrepreneurs take note!), several companies, notably H&M, have launched old clothes recycling schemes, while others – From Somewhere is a hallmark example – are creating high-end fashion from textile waste.
  • Finally, several designers are working towards the goal of zero waste in the fashion industry. Among those featured at the Yield: Making Fashion Without Making Waste exhibition in New Zealand a couple of years ago was Timo Rissanen, a New York-based designer, who summed up the challenge as follows: “I basically had to learn to design again.”

As we come to the end of the green-to-glam ideas alphabet, my answer to the central question of whether fashion can be a force for good in the world is a tentative yes. But it is up to us to support the visionary researchers, designers and entrepreneurs who are striving for excellence and sustainability in fashion. The future of the fashion industry is what we make of it. The choice is ours.

Ze end.

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