The bizarre fabrics that fashion is betting on
Like many teenagers, Sarah King used to buy a new outfit every few weeks to try and keep up with the latest trends.
“When I was 16 or 17 I would buy a new outfit for a party and on every payday, stocking up on new outfits based on was trendy and popular, or what celebrities or my friends were wearing,” she says.
Now with a sustainable fashion course under her belt, the 26-year-old digital marketing executive and vegan fashion blogger is part of a growing movement turning its back on disposable products.
In its sights is the growing waste and sustainability crisis prompted by the fashion industry.
In the UK, consumers buy twice as many new clothes as they did a decade ago. It’s far more than any other European countries.
Britons discard a million tonnes of unwanted textiles a year, with almost a third incinerated or going to landfill.
On top of often poor labour conditions for garment workers, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the world’s waste water, and 10% of carbon emissions.
Global climate protest movement Extinction Rebellion is asking for people not to buy any new clothes for a year as part of a “fashion boycott”
Turning to nature
So how can fashion lovers like Sarah get their fix in a way that has minimal impact on the environment?
A new crop of innovative bio materials may offer part of the solution, replacing wasteful textiles like cotton and leather,
While leather is a by-product of the meat industry, much of the hide is discarded, and large amounts of water and unpleasant chemicals are often used in its production. Meanwhile, faux leather alternatives often take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
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Another is mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms – a “wonder material” that is being used to create food, packaging and textiles.
As mushrooms are plentiful and don’t need much looking after, the material can be grown into a fixed shape within a few days.
Bolt Threads uses mycelium to create its Mylo “leather,” which has been incorporated into designs by Stella McCartney. She has also used its vegan “silk”, which is created by bioengineering yeast.
“I’ve noticed that consumers are now much more interested in seeking out a sustainable alternative,” says Jamie Bainbridge, Bolt Threads’ head of product development.
“The current alternatives to leather, like polyurethane, are very inexpensive. But they are often petroleum-based which, like raising livestock, isn’t great for the environment.”
As with many innovations, the biggest challenge Mylo faces is affordability – unlike PVC it costs a similar amount to real leather.
It also remains to be seen if production can be scaled up to a point where it can hit High Street shelves.
Like leather cotton is very resource-intensive with about 15,000 litres of water required to make one pair of jeans.
As 40% of the world’s clothing is made using cotton, finding an eco-friendly alternative is one of the main focuses for sustainable textile developers.
Tencel, also known as Lyocell, is one alternative that’s been around for decades on the fringes of fashion.
It is made by extracting cellulose fibre from trees and its manufacture is thought to use 95% less water than cotton processing.
Very similar to cotton in feel, it forms a component of many High Street clothing items.
Austria’s Lenzing Group says it is seeing “strong demand” for the fibre and is building the world’s biggest Lyocell plant in Thailand.
“This expansion underscores Lenzing’s commitment to improve the ecological footprint of the global textile industry,” says chief executive Stefan Doboczky.
However, most manufacturers are likely to continue to use cotton as it remains cheaper.
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Dr Richard Blackburn, a sustainable materials expert from Leeds School of Design, is a big fan of Tencel. He believes this extraction method could be extended to other high cellulose plant by-products like stalks, stems and leaves, to create different types of sustainable fibre.
But he adds that consumers need to act sustainably in every area of their lives.
“It’s about trade-offs and there is no simple answer. It’s not a case of, ‘if we switched to one fabric all our environmental concerns would disappear’.”
Buying better, buying less
While buying ethically is important, most in the sustainability field agree that consumers also need to buy fewer, higher quality items.
“I don’t think you should consider buying any item of clothing unless you commit to 30 wears. Unless you can do that you’re not even starting to be sustainable. You are creating a waste problem,” says Dr Blackburn.
In recent years, shoppers have viewed clothes “as a disposable item” thanks to cheap prices and clever brand positioning, says Kate Elliot, sustainability expert at Rathbone Greenbank Investments.
But she believes they are now falling out of love with “buying an item of clothing, wearing it and then ending up chucking it in a bin”.
“There have been issues around fast fashion for decades, but people have become much more aware of the environmental and social costs.”
Blogger Sarah only bought seven items of clothing last year, combined with rentals for special events. She agrees a shift in perception is key to helping consumers change their ways.
“It’s difficult, because you can get anything you want with fast fashion at the click of a button. Buying ethically takes more time, but it lasts, and I think that’s what true fashion is.”
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