2017 finished up as the warmest year globally on record, and extreme storms in the forms of hurricanes, nor’easters, droughts, and fires came at a non-stop pace. According to a 2016 Yale study, 69 percent of Americans believe man made global warming is occurring, causing major environmental impacts that will harm future generations. In response, an increasing number of individuals and companies alike are looking to help mend the climate crisis. The fashion industry is learning to rework some of its most ingrained practices in an effort to make quality clothing sustainable for tomorrow’s consumer and planetary needs.
No longer will we only look to Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and People Tree for responsibility in fashion. 75 percent of companies we spoke to last year want to push their brands towards environmental responsibility, less waste, and overall more sustainable collections, with the starting point for many being the addition of organic or recycled-fiber fabrics. True innovation in the fashion industry will require us to rethink the majority of our production practices.
Let’s take a look at the prevailing and ascending techniques fashion designers and manufacturers are embracing to help reverse some of the damage. These are the six most systems-thinking practices companies can implement in their paths forward. The time is now. Your customers and our world will thank you!
Just ten years ago, Janine Benyus introduced us to the biomimicry movement, an approach to fabrics that celebrates the imperfections in weaving, dyeing, and finishing as an emulation of nature. Every blade of grass and patch of bark is unique and different; the culmination of these idiosyncrasies makes nature breathtaking both from a distance and up close. The biomimicry movement urges us not to reject and discard fabrics that fail to meet our incredibly specific demands of coloration and texture. New and innovative biomimetic textiles came to the forefront in 2017 with biofabricated leathers, spider silks, and self-healing textiles. Appreciating nature’s designs and processes will lead us to a fashion industry that puts the planet first.
Innovators to research: Modern Meadow and Stomatex
2. Circular Fashion
The antidote to the classic make-take-waste model, circular fashion abides by the circular-economy model, meaning all waste generated from the production, distribution, and consumption of one product becomes the raw ingredients of a new one. Often seen illustrated as a circle, figure 8, or butterfly, production is visualized as a closed loop—never linear. No more throw-away materials. Everything is considered irreplaceable and matter recycles continually, mindfully designed free of chemicals and engineered for disassembly. Companies should avoid hazardous materials, dyes, or finishes and select fabrics that are not blended with synthetics to facilitate reprocessing at the post-consumer stage. Third-party certifiers such as Cradle to Cradle and Global Organic Textile Standard can guarantee sustainable materials, and brands should consider take-back or repair products to maximize longevity and true circularity.
Innovators to research: Climatex, Fabscrap, and Fashionpositive.org
3. Clean Energy
As engineers make clean energy more suitable for larger industries, fashion designers have no excuse not to hop on the bandwagon. Decreasing costs, technological improvements, and global-government incentives mean solar is as sure as the rising sun.
Solar is projected to be the go-to power source for new projects developed between 2017 and 2022. This past July, Morgan Stanley stated that solar and other renewables are becoming the most inexpensive forms of energy, and coal consumption will continue to decline. Mostly everyone is now aware that burning oil and coal for energy is the greatest contributor to our dangerously high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Customers are now demanding products that promise not to contribute to this climate crisis.
Metawear’s new solar-powered sewing and printing factory here in the U.S. is a great option for those seeking a solar factory. Google is working to support carbon-neutral brands that are purchasing carbon offsets, like Mighty Good Undies and Earth Positive Apparel.
For those who source globally, pay attention to the rising number of factories in China, India, or Myanmar that are installing solar for their cutting, sewing, and pressing lines. Though a slower rise in the U.S., other countries are setting big goals. India recently announced a goal of establishing 30 times more solar-powered factories by 2020.
Innovators to research: MetaWear and Murugan Textiles
4. Full Transparency
No one wants to feel ashamed for the products they produce or purchase. Full transparency means making customers aware of who made their clothing and what environmental impacts accompany its production. Life-cycle assessments provide truth and clarity for customers rightly wary of producers. Customers are shocked by the numbers: 1,600 gallons of water needed to cultivate the cotton for just one pair of jeans.
More and more, buyers are voting with their wallets. Sustainable and transparent brands that demonstrate that 1) they measure their impacts, and 2) they are making changes based on those measurements, are winning out. Brands can calculate how much water, energy, and trees have been saved by their sustainable efforts, demonstrate how they are reducing their CO2 emissions through shipping, and create spotlights of the sewers in their fair-trade factories. The details aren’t lost on consumers—in fact, buyers are paying close attention.
Innovators to research: Zady and Reformation
5. Water Awareness
Full transparency is meaningless unless a brand’s practices actually reduce water usage and CO2 emissions. As the world population continues to increase, the amount of available water simply does not. Nor can the waters polluted by mass manufacturing be replaced. There is only one solution as we move forward: reduce or eliminate fashion’s water usage. Zero waste fashion, which does not squander water, is no small feat considering how water-intensive it is to grow cotton and dye fabrics. Luckily, water awareness is increasing, companies are innovating, and solutions are forthcoming. Selecting fabrics, dyeing, and washing techniques that recycle water, using laser technology to create stone and sand-washing effects, digital waterless printing, and recycled-cotton-fiber fabrics are up trending solutions, as are wastewater recycling, rainwater dyeing, and better water management practices—across the entire supply chain.
Earth’s water is irreplaceable and fashion has used and abused quite a bit of it in our history. It’s only becoming easier to implement water-aware practices, so why not start right now?
Innovators to research: Jeanologia and Colorzen.
6. Mindfulness and Storytelling
Short and fast supply chains, digitization, and on-demand clothing bring us instant fashion gratification. Many consumers find themselves needing a break from the constant omnichannel marketing barrage, but on the design side, mindfulness is experiencing a slower rise. The time is now to incorporate mindfulness into your company culture and share this story with your customers.
The companies marketing their mindful and slow approaches to design as well as their loving attention to detail on social media are excelling. Customers want to connect with the process by purchasing from brands that allow them to be part of the journey taken by their sweater and jeans, not just the endpoint.
Being mindful of every design and production decision, and remembering that fashion is an art and a craft are ways to help your customers connect with your brand. Explaining the processes that go into crafting a garment from concept through delivery is a story that is key to customer engagement. Discuss the fabric and trims you select and where they came from. Tell your customer why you chose them and who made them. Describe how you achieved that perfect garment drape and fit and what inspired your design detailing. Shoppers are paying close attention to these details, and are looking for more than the same styles that have nothing to offer other than a marked-down price tag.
Appreciate the craftsmanship of creating clothes for human bodies. Show off the uniqueness of each garment and its story, and customers will take note of the quality, art, ethics, and longevity, all of which our industry desperately needs at the moment.
Innovators to research: Style Saint, Tradlands, and Krochet Kids
These six sustainable fashion movements will transform your line into a top-notch, earth-friendly company. Start assessing, measuring, researching, and implementing sustainable strategies and processes into everything you do from sketching, sourcing, cutting, and shipping. Then, celebrate your initiatives by marketing them on hang tags, labels, and Instagram pages. Let the world know your company is concerned about more than profit. Let everyone know you’re part of the solution—not the problem. In turn, your bottom line will increase. After a cutthroat year of store closings with many more forecasted and already announced for 2018, passion and responsibility may just be the secret ingredients for success: modern, forward-thinking and, fresh. All that fashion should be.
Founder, Fashiondex, Inc.
Adjunct Faculty, LIM College