A new future fashion system is on my mind: user focused, forward striving and positive for our planet. As leader of one of the largest research programs in the world on sustainable fashion; Mistra Future Fashion, I’m blessed to dedicate my time to efforts for sustainable fashion development. Climate change is the biggest threat to mankind and the overall mindset across the globe needs to rapidly change. A new mindset that will allow us, with help of technology and science based data, to get the chance to advance, without running out of time.
Changing the system is an immense and complex must. Fashion is big business, with a global turnover of USD 1.3 billion and 300 million employees it is the 7th largest industry in the world. However, it has emissions equal to more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It also has a devastating environmental impact due to its heavy water and chemical usage. It is an extreme industry when it comes to waste of resources, tons of textile waste ends up in landfill or incinerators every year. Our global consumption has doubled in the last 15 years and the length of time a garment is used has massively decreased.
A transformation has slowly started, but it takes time and it still only includes a minority of participants. Front-running brands such as H&M, Filippa K, C&A, NIKE, Patagonia, Kering amongst others, have set bold targets for renewable energy, circularity and a reduction of chemical usage. Changing a system also requires engagement by other stakeholders such as politicians, recyclers, technology developers, producers and consumers. The system today lacks policies that promote circularity, sustainable substitutes, recycling technology and business incentives etc. There are many supporting initiatives like Cradle-to-Cradle, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Higg Index to name a few, and governmental pushes by the United Nations, European Union and others, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. This is an overall improvement, but more participants globally drastically need to wake up and take part.
What does a new system look like? What type of mindset do we need?
Since 2011 these are the types of questions that Mistra Future Fashion devotes its time and money to -nearly EUR11.5M. Redesigning a system begins through understanding the lifecycle of a product. Life-cycle assessments (LCA) tell us that 70% of a garment’s environmental footprint lies in the production process; from refining the fibre to manufacturing the garment (steps such as dyeing, weaving, sewing, finishing etc.). Historical lack of available data meant that analyses have been tough to perform, leading to incomplete generalisations and myths. To address this, our researcher Dr Sandra Roos at SwereaIVF spent 5 years on a more comprehensive LCA of fashion, which, for the first time, includes the chemical impact of the industry. Besides gaining a greater understanding, the data can support thousands of practitioners in their decision making via global LCA databases. However, not all designers use databases, nor are they aware of LCA. Simpler guiding tools can thus help educate designers of the importance of LCA, and as a result, the impact
of their design choices. They can also be used as hands-on working tools.
New definitions of ’fast’ and ’slow’ fashion are needed.
Almost 90% of decisions for a garment’s footprint lie in the design phase, which is why aspects beyond ’look & cost’ need to be included. ’Intended usage’ is at the centre point.
Our team at University of the Arts London explores ’speed’ in relation to materials and product use. For example — Slow fashion; how services like repair, re-selling, re-design, sharing can activate garments to their full usage potential. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum- in fast fashion; the concept ’ultra fast forward’ tests fast lifecycles in a sustainable way. Could bio-based materials like paper textiles (that feel and act like fabric) play a relevant role, allowing fast sustainable production and consumption? — With the number of uses limited to 3 no washing and then safe disposal in a recycling system? Perhaps this is not relevant for all types of products, but for certain usage needs. One example would be the classic ’Friday party top’.
LCA highlights the high energy usage of the production steps today. Ongoing advancements of technology will address these high energy usages, as well as smarter alternatives. For example, our study by SwereaIVF showed that by exchanging traditional cutting techniques for an ultrasound technique, microplastic shedding from fabrics could be minimised. Other new alternatives will bring production options closer to the customer, like digital printing and smart redesign. With Chalmers we explore on-off dyeing in-store via digital printing, which would allow customers to be active in the process. This could inspire new business models for new consumer offerings, like designer patterns for sale vs. ready-to-wear products, enabling production ’made on demand.’
Our consumer studies conducted by Copenhagen Business School confirms that doing ’good’ is a motivator for sustainable fashion. But consumers argue that sustainable alternatives are hard to find. They need to grasp the role of new business models, like clothing libraries, leasing, and pre-owned sales. Perhaps they would explore the options more if they knew the value of their everyday choices. By using a t-shirt 3 times longer we would, on average, minimise its footprint by 68%. And annually, USD 460 billion is lost globally by throwing away clothes that could still be worn. The key lies in understanding the underlying stimuli of consumption. Our latest survey across 4 countries revealed the relevance of trend-oriented consumers for new business models. This group of consumers purchase frequently, as the newness factor is part of their need for self-expression. However, materialism was surprisingly not found as a key motivator. This opens up the possibility to fulfil this need via sharing.
New business services could enable an exchange of ownership to access.
Compelling narratives can showcase the added value with new business models and can change the mindset around owning vs. sharing. Consumer segmentation based on habits of fashion consumption and sustainability can guide through smarter and sophisticated communication design. The market shift to online means that a whole new palette of possibilities for different user experiences and product/service accessibility becomes available. For example, for pre-owned items (second hand) the product exposure, storage and geographical borders are suddenly very different vs. real life. The online sites Vestiaire Collective.com and RealReal.com, two large international platforms, allow global fashionistas to meet, explore fashion and sell garments, regardless of season or location. These companies focus their business around commission sales and their authenticity services. To contribute to this gentle nudging of consumers, Stella McCartney has signed a deal with RealReal.com, proactively encouraging customers to hand in Stella McCartney garments for resale.
Every year approximately 100 million tonnes of fibres are produced. The need to find alternative sustainable sources is an urgent issue. New fibre sources, as well as new processes, using bio based products such as bamboo, milk protein or forests, or even plastic from the ocean, have received significant interest lately as potential alternatives.
Nevertheless, a system change requires substitutes for large volumes globally, which unfortunately none of the new materials or other existing materials cur- rently have. Perhaps new sources of fibres in combination with better utilisation of textile waste could be a potential future solution? Today’s textile-to-textile recycling holds complex challenges but promising recycling processes are on the way. Sweden is at the forefront, with ’re:newcell’, a cotton recycling process, and our ’blend Re: wind’ process, made by Chalmers, RISE and forest company Södra, which recycles cotton and polyester blends. Globally there are a few promising processes, targeting different fibres and mixes, and we are hopeful that within a 10 year time frame textile recycling will have fundamentally changed.