Slow fashion changes gear

26th April, 2010 by Anonymous

For the past twenty years, we’ve lived in a time of fast fashion – cheap, disposable and deeply unsustainable. Now that’s all set to change – even if the clothes look much the same. Trish Lorenz and Martin Wright peer down the catwalks of the future.

When Captain Kirk asks Scotty to beam him up, when Luke Skywalker battles Darth Vader, or the family get together in 1950s cult cartoon The Jetsons, the clothes the protagonists are wearing look very little like the fashions we see on our streets today. Film makers of past generations regularly envisaged a 21st century with a penchant for silver and white and a preference for skin tight, all-in-one body suits.

But now we’re here, the future of fashion is looking both more prosaic and more radical. More prosaic because there’s little sign of a revolution in aesthetics (Lady Gaga aside, silver lamé body suits have yet to storm the high street). The clothes we wear in two or three decades’ time will probably appear a lot like those of today. But it’s looking more radical because a combination of new technologies, environmental crises and rapidly shifting cultural norms are promising to transform the fashion industry beyond recognition.

For now, we live in an era of fast fashion. Prices have plummeted, and clothing has become virtually disposable. T-shirts specially made for everything from hen nights to corporate jollies are worn once or twice and discarded. Why keep something you don’t like when you can buy a less garish replacement for £1.99? At that price, it’s hardly worth washing. Consumers in the UK alone – many of them still in their teens – buy four times as many clothes as they did in 1990. Clothes are more affordable, and less sustainable, than ever before, and much of the mainstream clothing industry is predicated on fast fashion stretching into the future. But now there’s growing evidence that this era is coming to an end – and that, one way or another, fashion is set on a more sustainable course, although the route it takes there could be a winding, bumpy one.

For a start, there are signs that the rampant consumerism which has characterised the last 20 years is itself going out of vogue. The recession has played its part, of course. Citing the dramatic decline in retail spend, Martin Giles of The Economist writes: “The recession has sparked a profound shift in shoppers’ psychology.” Consumers have “responded with an emphatic ‘no’ when asked if they want to consume more. There has been a backlash against bling”. And it’s no crunch-induced blip, he argues. Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion, agrees. “We’re seeing real fatigue among consumers around the idea of having more and more stuff. There’s a drive to entice us to buy, but people are bored with [their purchases] almost before they get them home. [We’ve reached] a point where the cycle has become monotonous.”

As new becomes less novel, so it’s starting to lose its appeal. Some see evidence of a flight from quantity and bling to quality and ethics. “People are starting to question what they are buying”, says Anthony Waller, of ethical fashion retailer People Tree. The company’s grown by 20% in the past year, despite the crunch, and other ethical brands are booming, too. It’s a trend which hasn’t gone unnoticed by textile exporters. Convinced of the size of the potential market, India recently set a target of $1 billion worth of organic cotton product sales by 2012.

The ripples have even reached the dubious shores of Miss England. At the semi-finals of last year’s competition, contestants had to abandon the traditional swimwear/ evening dress style in favour of an eco-conscious category. With Ethical Fashion Forum director Elizabeth Laskar on the judging panel, contenders sashayed past in dresses made from everything from discarded magazines and milk bottle tops to parachute silk.

Mainstream retailers are responding. Take Marks & Spencer. Over 5% of its clothing sales are now from organic or fair trade sources: still a small proportion, but growing fast from a standing start three years ago. M&S’s Krishan Hundal insists it’s customer-driven. “They are [becoming] much more interested in the materials used in clothing. And in the future I think we will see that those materials have to be sustainable, and traceable, right through to the packaging.”

Consumer pressure may not always be the main driver. As climate and resource concerns intensify, the future of the industry will also be shaped by factors such as ever-tighter trade agreements, environmental regulation and labelling standards. Increased pressure on water and land for food and/or fuel could see textile crops the subject of civil tension, even wars… Working out possible scenarios for the future – and what they might mean for the prospect of genuinely sustainable fashion – is at the heart of the project Fashion Futures, a collaboration between Levi Strauss & Co. and Forum for the Future. Smart businesses need to be prepared for the full range of possibilities – from a world of local, low-carbon clothing to one where carbon capture and storage and open markets unlock a fast-paced, high-tech market [see panel, ‘It’s 2025. What world are you wearing?’].

In one scenario flagged up by Forum, the clothing industry of 2025 could have responded to environmentally aware consumers by digitally tagging every item. So when you go into a shop for a pair of jeans, you’ll start off by checking where, how and by whom they were made, simply by scanning the tag with your mobile. Any queries? You click onto the in-store cam and talk directly to the producer.

Outdoor clothing specialist Patagonia is already heading in that direction. Its web-based ‘Footprint Chronicles’ gives a snapshot of the origins and make-up of selected products: you can, for example, click on information about the workplace in Hanoi in which your puffa jacket is sewn – or the Japanese factory which makes its recycled polyester fabric.

Woollen sportswear maker Icebreaker has gone a step further: each of its merino wool sweaters incorporates a (wait for it…) ‘Baacode’. Type it in to the website and you can trace your wool back to an individual farm – though not, as yet, to an individual sheep.

Concern over ethical sourcing is one thing, but if sustainability is really to catch on the catwalk, then it needs to look cool rather than quirky – even if its market is ‘green aware’. Unlike their peers of a generation ago, today’s environmentalists are less inclined to wear their virtue on their badly-cut, slightly smelly hemp sleeve. Designers such as Tristan Gribbin and Marion McKee have latched onto this market: their SUST label (as in sustainable, and ‘sussed’) combines organic cotton with chic modernity. New York-based Luke McCann, Timothy Schmidtke and Robert Lido came up with the Japanese phrase ‘Mottainai’ – ‘what a waste’ – for their menswear label, bristling with both style and impeccable organic credentials.

It’s a beguiling vision: the nation’s youth turning away from dirt cheap towards clean and green. But sceptics might well argue that for every sussed shopper checking the ethical creds of their threads, there are a dozen more piling into Primark for a brace of cheapie jeans and tops. So, is sustainable fashion condemned always to be stuck in the niche? Not necessarily. A world where resources such as water and soil are being stretched to the limit, where climate change is kicking in with a vengeance, simply won’t be able to support a constant tide of ultracheap clothes.

In their place will be clothes designed to last, and to weather tough times. And we’re not talking chunky knits and organic cotton. These consume valuable reserves of land and water. In this scenario, manmade fabrics have come to the fore, providing personalised, high-tech style. Synthetic fibres that are less carbon- and water-intensive are woven into immensely durable and stain-resistant garments, guaranteed to keep out any weather while holding their shape and freshness for days of constant wear. The only thing natural about them is the way they use biomimicry to respond to sudden changes in the weather: expanding to trap heat in the cold, or fluffing up to fend off the rain.

Technology is already creeping in to clothes today. German designer WarmX (above right) makes a range of ‘electric wear’ that includes tiny silver fibres woven into the fabric with small rechargeable batteries to keep the wearer warm. Philips is experimenting with Lumalive, a light-emitting textile. Beneath the fabric are LED lights that don’t compromise the softness of the cloth, so it’s still comfortable to wear. The lights can spell out messages, blend in with a colour scheme, or simply convey the wearer’s mood. And Philips is now working on ‘emotional sensing’ – a technique where the garment itself would read and project the emotional state of its owner. Another chance to wear your heart on your sleeve…

Then there’s clothing for people who really don’t want to be seen at all. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico are working on a new camouflage system using a nanotech-based ‘chameleon suit’. This would automatically take on the hues of the surrounding environment, allowing a soldier to literally blend into the background.

It’s a far cry from the cheap t-shirt – though whether in practice such high-tech clothing will actually prove more sustainable is a moot point. More promising, perhaps, is the Biocouture project – a collaboration between designers at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and CelluComp, a Scottish ‘sustainable biotech’ company. It’s experimenting with ‘growing’ clothing from bacterial cellulose – a more or less renewable resource. In theory, the production methods could require far less energy and resources than cotton clothes. The ultimate aim, says Biocouture, “is to grow a dress in a vat”.

And if you think all of this is a bit too much of a technological cornucopia to be true, you’re not alone. There’s another all too plausible future where sustainability isn’t delivered by design but imposed by circumstance. It’s a future where we’ve conspicuously failed to tackle climate change, where energy and water shortages are widespread and severe, and resource costs spiralling. Prices have shot up, and new clothes are fast becoming unaffordable for everyday wear. There are no cool techno-fixes in sight to get us out of the mess. But where technological innovation is failing in 2025, alternatives are positively thriving.

Creative recycling is rampant. Companies are developing ranges of remade clothing, and clothing co-operatives are on the rise, with people clubbing together and buying collectively to save costs. Clothesswapping is routine, and high-tech ‘clothing libraries’ are springing up to meet demand. These not only help give people clothes they couldn’t otherwise afford; they help foster a sense of community.

Some initiatives around today already imbue that. Take ‘Swishing’ – the clothes-swap party scheme which has spread rapidly across the UK. Its founder, Lucy Shea, CEO of sustainable communications consultancy Futerra, says it’s “creating communities based on common interest rather than geography. Swishing works because of the social aspect of it. The growth in social media like Facebook and Twitter has helped too; people use them to arrange parties and broker broader social networks. We’ve seen a 600% growth on our website over the past four years.”

Meanwhile, the industry is starting to pick up on the potential for recycling. In Brazil, the Super Cool Market encourages customers to trade in their own clothes as part exchange for new (or other second-hand) ones. In Britain, Junky Styling deconstructs and redesigns charity shop pieces, while From Somewhere creates new clothes from factory waste (such as end-of-roll materials, swatches and off-cuts). Dilys Williams believes it’s a key trend. “A lot more could be done to adapt existing items, to help consumers experience fashion in different ways than simply by buying something new”, she says.

Mainstream retailers are also seeing the commercial possibilities in reuse. Nike’s Trash Talk basketball trainer is produced from manufacturing waste. The upper is waste leather (real and synthetic) from the factory floor; the mid-sole uses scrap foam. The Bottletop project reuses ring pulls, bottle tops and other waste items to create bags and accessories, training up local craftsmen in Brazil and elsewhere.

Dorothy Maxwell, lead of the Sustainable Clothing Roadmap on behalf of the UK Environment Department (Defra), thinks this is a crucial part of the future. “Reducing consumption is part of the issue, but it’s not the only solution. Investing in closedloop systems that enable us to reuse and recycle is important too”, says Maxwell, who is also Technical Director at Global View Sustainability Services. And she concludes: “We have to accept that consumers like shopping and want to buy.”

For now at least, that much is clear. But as fast fashion fades, it’s just possible that our obsession with shopping may fade with it. As Martin Giles says: “Many people no longer seem consumed by the desire to consume”. And if that shift survives the next retail boom, there is no shortage of other, much more sustainable, models – from swishing parties to high-tech clothes libraries – waiting to satisfy our endless appetite for remodelling ourselves.

Research: Anna May Shamoon

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