Fashionably sustainable or sustainable fashion?

Immi Marsh

The latest trend to sweep the planet is here. Sustainability has become the new a la mode as brands parade around their latest eco-initiatives like they’re going out of fashion, with new victors stepping forward into the green limelight to claim the approval of an increasingly concerned world. The fashion industry indulged COP26 in a glut of commitments in Glasgow last month, but the commitment-action gap, as ever, remains large and unconvincing. Environmental pledges are often salves to the problem, not solutions to the cause, and no matter how elaborate and impressive they may sound, many are ignoring the uncomfortable, proverbial elephant in the room; quite simply, that they are producing too many clothes for the world to sustain.

As a watchful, younger audience demands more, brands stand to lose future customers if they don’t act now. But who is striving to be fashionably sustainable, and who are the real unsung heroes out to save the world?

 

 

Unravelling the over-production problem

Naturally, the majority of established fashion brands have a greater, more complex legacy of damage to unravel than the new kids on the block, whose business models have been born of an era of environmental wokeness. But in lack of experience, comes an unexpected naivety and perspective that made slow-fashion Swedish menswear label Asket, approach things differently.

Fast fashion chases ephemeral trends, but the Asket boys exist to challenge this, where timeless classics are the order of the day. Founders August Bard Bringéus and Jakob Dworsky make only a single, permanent collection of 32 high-quality products, pioneering an end to fast fashion by breaking the overproduction-overconsumption cycle once and for all. The brand will only ever improve existing designs, crafting their business around the design mantra: eliminate what doesn’t add value, invest in what does.

But unlike most fashion brands, Asket aren’t striving for sustainability, nor are they claiming to be, either. In fact, they quash the reality of this quite quickly, rendering most of the sustainability claims made by the rest of the industry null, when they state the unsettling truth: that sustainable fashion isn’t possible. Every garment has a cost, an impact on the planet. Genuine innovation faces this truth head on, and instead, Asket choose full garment transparency – a refreshingly honest approach to planet-friendly fashion, that refuses to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with false promises or feel-good marketing charades.

Asket's Impact Receipt / image courtesy of Asket

The brand’s Impact Receipt details every confronting ounce of CO2, water and energy used in a garment’s creation, as well as the origins and true cost of making our clothes. It will no doubt be a rude awakening to some, but Asket gives customers the knowledge needed to encourage a mindset shift to buy less, but better. Long live longevity.

 On the other end of the spectrum, we have Swedish fast fashion afficionado H&M. A brand that has long battled an unsold clothing problem, who are now investing €5.8 million in a shiny new, high-tech piece of machinery that they hope can transform garment longevity in other ways: circularity. And credit where credit’s due, it’s something that the brand have been working on for some time now. Back in 2013, H&M became the first fashion retailer with a global garment collecting program, before they took the next step with their garment recycling system Loop which launched in their Stockholm store. A piece of in-store recycling technology that’s simultaneously cool, good for the environment, and green ploy to lure eco-conscious customers.

But despite their recycling efforts, in April 2020 the brand was sat on top of a pretty hefty £3.4 billion pile of unsold clothes, and back in 2017, littering the headlines was the news that H&M was burning unusable clothes in place of coal at a Swedish power plant in the hometown of its first store in Vasteras. Troublesome headlines that, of course, no amount of recycling can fix overnight.

Loop has now levelled up though, and on the scene is the Green Machine, developed over four years between the H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, a recycling machine which can separate and recycle 1.5 tonnes of polyester and cotton-blended clothing per day. Whilst still in pilot phase, the duo plan to commercialise the machinery and licence the reclaimed polyester, which, if it takes off, could be a huge step for an industry so reliant on virgin polyester.

 

H&M Green Machine / image courtesy of H&M Foundation

H&M Green Machine / image courtesy of H&M Foundation

However, the Green Machine might not quite have the hulk-like, sustainable superpowers that its name might suggest. The reclaimed polyester may well ease the industry’s overreliance on virgin polyester, but it still remains problematic under its new guise, continuing the cycle of shedding harmful fibres when washed. Brands might not like it, but to reduce climate emissions, they must put down the cheap fossil-fuel textiles, step cautiously away and never look back.

It certainly begs the question, is H&M too fixated on incentivising disposal, rather than producing fewer, higher-quality clothes for longevity like the critics say? If they can achieve both, offering a recycling solution for their clothes when it’s genuinely needed, they might just be onto something. But first, if they want to affect any real change, they should begin unravelling the burden of their unsold clothes in pursuit of creating less.

It’s a material world, needing change

Whilst H&M are untangling their fibres as landfills invariably mount higher, fashion label Christy Dawn are transforming their brand at the root. Like Asket, the Californian brand realised to simply sustain was no longer enough, so the company began investing in a radical regenerative farming programme in Erode, India - an ancient practice that replenishes the earth from which we grow and harvest cotton.

Working directly with farmers and artisans, they are healing the legacy of frayed supply-chains, by nourishing relationships and giving farmers the financial independence they deserve, in turn, increasing biodiversity and giving the ground a chance to continue growing for years to come. By design, their garments are timeless and built to last, using either regenerative cotton or deadstock fabrics, but a willingness to pay more to invest in this type of agriculture, needs to be there in the first place.

Christy Dawn's Land Stewardship Programme / image courtesy of Christy Dawn

Christy Dawn's Land Stewardship Programme / image courtesy of Christy Dawn

Quality, enduring fashion of course comes under many guises, and despite the anomalies like Christy Dawn, the rest of the fashion industry still battles an ongoing material problem – from water consumption, to microfibre pollution and the on-going debate around leather’s climate footprint. Vegan alternatives to leather however, such as Mycelium, are finally being touted as an industry gamechanger for the planet, as plant-based engineering has become more sophisticated.

 Hermès, a brand synonymous with sophisticated, traditional luxury and premium leather goods has recently revealed its plans to make fungi fashion chic, with the launch of its first vegan bag made out of mushrooms. Created in partnership with MycoWorks, Hermès is the first major luxury house to be publicly experimenting with mushroom-based leather alternatives – it has to be said, a big step for traditional luxury whose history has been wrapped up in the indulgence of leathers and furs.

But as owners of the iconic Birkin bag, which has long held high cult-level kudos in the fashion world as a glowing beacon of wealth, its name gets dragged through the murky mud when the truth is unearthed about how some of these bags come to be. News of the French fashion house’ unethical crocodile farms have found their way into the rallying arms of animal rights activists such as PETA over the past year, who have rightly challenged the ethics of the brand. And so Hermès moves into Mycelium doesn’t smell of that nostalgic fragrance of fresh leather, but instead, like a tactic to satisfy the growing demand for leather alternatives - and all they represent. The fashion house remains resolute that it will not be replacing its traditional leather, leaving an almost humorous paradox in the air. It certainly poses the question, what would Hermès Impact Receipt look like for one saltwater crocodile Birkin bag?

Hermès might be the first major luxury brand to be stepping into Mycelium, but it’s also behind the times - the likes of Chanel, Mulberry, and Victoria Beckham have already shed exotic animal skins from their collections. If Hermès want to remain relevant, with mushrooms or without, they need to explore how their brand heritage can translate into the new eco era, croc-free.

Hermès x MycoWorks / image courtesy of MycoWorks

The price of a clean conscience  

As brands graduate to garment longevity, material innovation, regenerative farming practices, and paying workers a fair living wage, naturally, climate-considered clothing comes at a price.

It’s a price that’s often a deterrent, where cost reigns supreme given the choice, but only to a world so acclimatised with the cheapness of fast fashion. One such queen of fast fashion, Primark, is determined to break down this barrier, to make affordable, sustainable fashion for the masses. The brand’s miraculous pledge to make all of its clothes from recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030 is certainly an ambitious commitment - a brand that in Birmingham, home to Primark’s biggest store in the world, has played host to Extinction Rebellion protesters on its doorstep akin to uninvited party guests ruining all the fun.

As the biggest clothing retailer by value in the UK, Primark has phenomenal sway in ushering in real change. Could they be the pioneer that finally achieves that elusive industry panacea: to make sustainable fashion available to all? Perhaps. But as we all know, that panacea has been so hard to achieve up until now because unfortunately, you do indeed get what you pay for. And as Asket says, it technically isn't even possible.

So as Primark edges along the sustainability seesaw towards its 2030 goals – paying its global supply chain a fair living wage - in this most delicate of balancing acts, the biggest challenge will be to maintain their price-points without tipping the scale.

 

Primark's Sustainable Cotton Programme / image courtesy of Primark

Achievable? Time will tell – and like many others, they’ve bought themselves the gift of time - but with the vast majority of high-street clothing brands also ironing out their far-off future targets, Primark faces stiff competition.

On the one hand, we have Primark, determined to do the inconceivable, on the other, we have French environmental footwear brand Veja who spend five to seven times the normal going rate to make their trainers, as they embrace the true cost of a healthy and reciprocal supply-chain.

When founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion visited a Chinese garment factory in 2005 and saw the living conditions of the workers, they knew globalisation had gone wrong. Despite neither having any design experience, the Veja brand was born out of a desire to do things differently. And a breath of fresh, unpolluted air it is. Every step of the process is highly considered - buying both their organic cotton and Amazonian rubber at twice the market price, as well as pre-financing their cotton harvests, means that they not only support their suppliers, but aim to enhance the economic value of the Amazon in order to protect it. A mutually beneficial move for farmers, forest and the future of the planet.

As challengers of the status quo, they kiss goodbye to advertising, marketing, brand ambassadors and billboards, based on the simple observation: that 70% of the cost of a normal big sneaker brand is related to advertising. By shifting their cash to where it matters, they are able to have an impact on the world by investing in environmental integrity. Honesty and genuine goodness oozes out of every element of the brand, and for this, we applaud you Veja.

 

Veja's Porto Alegre plant / image courtesy of Veja

Brands like Veja, Asket and Christy Dawn might not take the easiest route - shouldering higher costs, taking the time to get to know their suppliers and farmers on a personal level, and refusing to follow fleeting trends, but taking the untrodden path is where the magic happens, as it paves new ways to a better planet. 

The next few years will be critical for brands to not just show up, but fundamentally reality check their business models, practices, and ethics – as things heat up, the gap between the genuine do-gooders and the players merely playing the game will no doubt widen.

But this is not the practice run, this is it. The world is watching.

 

 

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10 min08 Dec 21