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(Re)defining sustainability: Rethinking the industry ‘workhorse’ resources

By Vivian Hendriksz


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Once seen as a niche part of the fashion industry, being eco-conscious has rapidly become one of the hottest 'topics' of our time. From luxury fashion houses to fast-fashion retailers, and everything in between - more and more fashion companies are responding to mounting consumer interest and 'going green.' However, in spite of all the efforts being made the fact remains that the global fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting and damaging industry in the world after oil. “The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives," proclaimed Safia Minney MBE, founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand People Tree in the documentary 'The True Cost'. So we ask, what does it mean to be sustainable within the fashion industry? In the fourth episode of a new series looking at sustainability and the fashion industry, FashionUnited looks at resources such as cotton, leather and lyocell, and how the industry uses them and looks into new ways of rethinking the resources we use.

"Materials matter the most"

“Materials matter the most,” stressed Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator at Nike during her keynote speech last month at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. “The final product is only as good as the materials and methods.” Although Nike has been hailed as one of the leaders in terms of innovation and sustainability over the past years - it’s Flyknit sneakers for example produce 60 percent less waste during production than normal cut and sew shoes - there is still plenty of room for improvement. “60 percent of pollution from sneakers comes from the manufacturing and processing of materials.” Although many would assume that the fashion industry is plagued by an energy crisis, it is really the materials and resources used to create the fashion and footwear we crave and demand that are causing the most harm to the environment. That is why Jones, and many other industry experts, believe it high time the industry “wakes up and disrupts its work horses” of cotton, silk, wool and polyester and invests in the innovation of new, low impact materials.

“There are a whole lot of people having having the wrong conversation at the moment, they are talking about scarcity, when they should be focusing on abundance,” believes Lewis Perkins, president of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The scarcity of resources such as wool, cotton, and leather will only create more problems for the industry as the world’s population continues to increase - at the moment each person on the planet is said to be using resources from approximately 1.6 planets - far more than it can or the industry can give back. However, the most vital resource and the most problematic one of all for the fashion industry at the moment remains cotton, whose nickname is white gold. Cotton remains a central resource in nearly all of the industry’s sectors, from denim to jersey and is often cited as one of the most water and labour intensive crops to grow.

Fashion industry should focus on "abundance" of resources

At the moment it accounts for 32 percent of all fibers used across the globe. It is grown in at least 80 countries around the world, taking up 2.5 percent of the world’s farmable land. But with close to a third of the world’s arable land has already been lost due to soil erosion and pollution from the unprecedented amount of chemicals and pesticides used to grow normal cotton and other crops, the urgency to end the industry’s dependence on cotton in thrown into sharp relief. But what of its sister, organic cotton? Between 10 to 13 percent of the global cotton supply can be classified as more sustainable cotton. Non-profit organizations like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) make it easier for farmers and cotton producers to grow more sustainable cotton by incorporating six principles, including crop protection, water, soil health and fibre quality, to reduce the usages of water, chemicals and pesticides whilst boosting the yield and profitability of cotton production and protecting the workers rights. The BCI also works with companies like H&M and Nike to supply them with organic cotton, and aims to license five million organic cotton farmers by 2020, accounting for 30 percent of the global cotton production.

However, although many fashion retailers and brands proudly share the news of their organic, or bio cotton collection, most of the top companies have yet to make the switch. Less than a fifth of the world’s organic cotton supply is actually being used as more sustainable cotton in products, with the rest being sold as conventional due to lack of demand from top brands and companies according to an independent study from Pesticide Action Network (PAN) UK, Solidaridad and WWF. From a list of 37 international companies, only 8 were highlighted to make a significant difference with their organic cotton usage and moved out of the red zone in the ranking research conducted by Rank a Brand, one of Europe’s largest brand-comparison sites on sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Swedish furniture giant Ikea tops the ranking, with a score of 12 points out of a maximum of 19.5 points, followed by fashion retailers C&A, with 9 points, H&M, with 9 points and sportswear firms Adidas, with 7.75 points and Nike, with 6.5 points.

The problems with cotton

Kering was the only luxury conglomerate included in the 8, with a total score of 3 points, which suggests that luxury companies are not always more sustainable when it comes to resources than mass market retailers, in spite of having more control over their supply chains. “Ikea, C&A and H&M are showing how cotton sustainability is good for business but many top companies are failing to deliver,” commented Richard Holland, Director, Market Transformation, WWF. “Sourcing more sustainable cotton has never been easier so there is no excuse for companies not to offer more responsible products to customers.” However, the answer to the industry’s resources issue is not so easily solved by making the switch to more sustainable resources like organic cotton. With the world’s growing population, predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050, the UN’s Food and Agriculture organization states the planet will need to produce 50 percent more food. These people will also need clothes to wear, which again underlines the need to create new materials.vWhich is part of the reason why fast fashion retailer H&M launched its annual Global Change Award this year.

Sourcing more sustainable cotton has never been easier so there is no excuse for companies not to offer more responsible products to customers.

Richard Holland, Director, Market Transformation, WWF

The competition, initiated by its non-profit H&M Conscious Foundation, was designed to encourage and challenge designers, creators and developers to think of up new ways of creating a circular fashion system. In February, Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden awarded the first five winners of the competition, who divided 1 million euro grant between them to develop their projects. One of the winners was Tjeerd Veenhoven, who aims to utilise a naturally occurring resource currently in abundance to make textile fiber for the fashion industry - algae. Why algae? Because, it consists of 70 percent cellulose, which makes it a good fiber to use in the production of textiles and is currently found in most rivers and oceans due to the imbalance in most environments. Veenhoven has been testing different types of algae, but has found that the floating variety tends to contain the highest level of cellulose and is the easiest to harvest by hand, similar to cotton collecting. Veenhoven compares his future algae textile to that of lyocell, more commonly known as under the brand name tencel, a form of rayon which consists of cellulose fibre made from dissolving bleached wood pulp using dry jet-wet spinning.

Using algae to create textiles

Although it is more expensive to produce than cotton or viscose rayon, it is seen as a more eco-friendly textile and is used throughout the fashion industry in denim, chinos and underwear. It is also blended with other fibres such as silk, linen and cotton. Even though Veenhoven’s algae initiative is still in the developmental phase, with the 150,000 euro grant from the Global Change Award, Veenhoven aims create a production process which will allow him to create a non-woven fabric from algae, similar to lyocell using as little chemicals as possible in the process. In this sense he hopes to give “fashion designers around the world a new fabric to work with.” Veenhoven is of course, not alone in his pursuit. Materia, the global network of innovative materials, actively encourages joint innovation between companies and innovators to create more beautiful, sustainable and high quality materials. It lists over 2,600 materials such as liquid wood, bamboo, fruit leather, bone marble, coffee grounds and fish leather, from a wide range of suppliers for interest parties to get in touch with and allows users the freedom to search for materials based on their properties.

Nevertheless, when it comes to rethinking resources, the luxury industry tends to have a slight upper hand here over their fast fashion counterparts, as they have more access and control over supply chains. For example, Chanel, Kering, Prada, LVMH and Hermes all own their own tanneries and leather specialists, which in turn allows more room for resource innovation. Kering owns a materials lab in Novera, in Northern Italy, which is part textile library and part innovation hub where researchers and technicians come together to invent more sustainable materials. However, although leather remains a vital and even covet material for most luxury fashion houses, even more so when it is an exotic skin, leather is also one of the most damaging resources used by the fashion industry. The majority of the world’s greenhouse gasses come from the raising of livestock for meat and leather industries. Both Kering and LVMH are investing in less harmful tanning techniques, such vegetable dyeing and chromium-free tanning.

The problems with leather

However, considering that leather goods makes up a significant part of their sales, perhaps these luxury giants should be investing in developing more sustainable and alternative resources. In addition to causing significant damage to the environment there is also the ethical aspect linked to leather production. NGOs such as PETA, Four Paws and Humane Society have revealed in undercover exposes countless cases of animal cruelty and abuse at fur, sheep, cattle, rabbit, crocodile and ostrich farms. “Animal-derived material is a very emotional topic,” said Stefanie Maurice from Made By, a non profit organization which works together with brand and retailers to diminish risk in their supply chains in an interview with Dansk. “I believe this will be the next major hurdle for our industry to overcome.” Although brands are working with suppliers to eliminate practices such as live-plucking of birds, animals being skinned alive and inhumane slaughtering, these issues continue to occur.

But it is not just animals who suffer for leather - workers in tanneries in India and Bangladesh are subjected to working with dangerous, and potentially deadly chemicals on a daily basis, which has both a detrimental effect on their health and the environment. Kanpur, India is a prime example of the harmful effect tannery chemicals and wastewater can have on the environment and its ecosystems. In 2013, it was cited as the world’s largest exporter of leather. Over the years farmland in the area has been poisoned as approximately 80 percent of the wastewater used in the tanning process was dumped straight into Kanpur’s main water source the River Ganges, untreated. The water turned blue, contaminated by chromium III, lead, formaldehyde and arsenic, which seeped into the soil and air and leading to an outbreak of diseases amongst the people who live in the region, including skin discolouration and asthma. Although some will argue that leather continues to be the by product of the meat industry and should be used, is it not time that luxury and mass market fashion houses invested in the development of a sustainable, non-cruelty and animal free alternative, which is also economically viable?

The future of leather: fruit, vegetable and lab grown leather?

Currently the majority of leather substitutes are seen as sub-par to the real deal and materials such as PVC manufacturing process is said to be more harmful than real leather, so much so that Kering is set to remove all PVC from its products by the end of the year. Luxury fashion labels such as Stella McCartney and Shrimps have become famous for this non-leather and no-fur stances respectively, highlighting the possibility of successful blend of sustainability, luxury and desirability. McCartney luxury fashion house has gone on to become so successful that it is now the subject of a Harvard Business School study. The British fashion house use of Eco Alter Nappa, a leather substitute derived from polyester, polyurethane and a coating made from 50 percent vegetable oil, is seen an outstanding alternative to real leather. The designer also does not use any animal or fish derived glue in her products. Shrimps, founded by Hannah Weiland, faux fur is said to consist of a “real-feeling modacrylic blend” and no polyester, although the designer has been reluctant to share the exact formula of her faux fur to date.

However there its a host of leather alternatives popping up on the market, which are not derived from polyester or plastic. With the rise of fruit leather, such as pineapple leather - made from the fibres of pineapple leaves, which are a by-product of the fruit’s harvest, fish leather, crafted from the skin of salmon fish and also a by-product as well as fungus leather, there is an increasing number of alternatives to be used aside from more traditional types of leather. Perhaps the most controversial and potentially beneficial leather of all remains bio-grown leather, leather which is genetically grown in a lab. Modern Meadows, a Brooklyn-based biotech startup aims to fulfill the planet’s demand for both meat and leather, in a way that does not destroy the planet or animals in the process. The pros of growing leather in a lab would see the resources needed to sustain the planet's 60 billion livestock, such as water, land, chemicals and energy, dramatically cut whilst saving the lives of all these animals. It would also cut down on waste from the leather industry, as the exact size of the needed leather products could be grown. However, there is a catch to bio-grown leather. Although its title would suggest that no animals would be harmed or used in the making of this leather, at the moment scientific research is still depended on the use of animal stem cells to grow the skin cells in the lab.

In addition, until more industries, such as the fashion industry, begin to invest in companies like Modern Meadows, the cost of lab grown leather will remain much higher than normal leather. But, with time and the right resources, more and more tech start-ups like Modern Meadow will offer affordable solutions for the industry's resource problems and as the planet’s arable land continued to dwindle the future of lab grown leather, shoes and shirts is closer than you think.

Stay tuned for part V of the series, out June 23rd

Modern Meadow
Organic Cotton
redefining sustainability