Sustainability in fashion

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April 03, 2016 12:08 AM

Soon, we will have clothes cleaned by mere sunlight. We already have biodegradable clothes and accessories. Eco-friendly is clearly the new mantra in the fashion industry.

IF NEW research is to be believed, we could soon be able to wash our clothes with sunlight. At least that’s what was proposed recently by a team of scientists from RMIT University, Australia. The report, published in the journal, Advanced Materials Interfaces, this month, says these scientists have developed a low-cost, efficient way to grow nano-structures on textiles that can degrade organic matter when exposed to light. Simply put, these nano-enhanced clothes can clean themselves of stains and grime if put under a light bulb or the sun, putting an end to the use of detergents and soaps—which harm the environment—plus lots of water wastage. What you get are clothes that are environmentally-friendly, with no carbon footprint. However, there’s still more work to be done to bring the concept out of the lab, as per the scientists.

Even as we wait for that to happen, sustainability is a concept that seems to be quite in fashion. Literally. Several apparel brands are coming up with sustainable collections made with minimal harm to the environment—‘sustainable fashion’ refers to products created keeping in mind their environmental and social impact, including carbon footprint. The sustainability efforts being employed by these brands range from using green raw materials like vegetable tanned leather, organic cotton and hemp, recycled glass and plastic, handwoven fabrics and natural dyes to providing a platform and livelihood to local artisans and communities.

Take, for instance, Hennes & Mauritz (H&M). The Swedish multinational retail clothing company recently unveiled a Conscious Exclusive collection made entirely from sustainable materials, including organic silk and hemp; recycled linen and glass; Tencel, a fabric made from sustainably-grown wood fibre; and Denimite, a material made out of recycled worn-out denims. “The H&M Conscious Exclusive collection is aimed towards a more sustainable future of fashion. We are, in fact, the first fashion company to use Denimite in a collection. We have also used recycled glass for embellishments that have been hand-embroidered on to the dresses,” says Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative adviser, H&M, about the collection, which will be launched on April 7 and will be available in 180 stores worldwide.

In March, during the Amazon India Fashion Week, Mumbai-based fashion designer Anita Dongre presented the Earth Song collection, which is devoted to sustainable fashion, under her brand Grassroot. The collection features handwoven fabrics like matka and Tussar silks, hand-block printing, hand embroidery, etc, all using natural dyes and made by artisans. “The craft industry is dying everyday and some of our best artisans and craftsmen are giving up on their craft. Sustaining the craft is of paramount importance. This is slow fashion and is completely dependent on the artisans, as it’s all hand-done… we are not in a position to plan huge numbers or turn it around as per what the consumer wants,” says Dongre.

Then there is apparel brand Marks & Spencer (M&S). For many years now, M&S—in conjunction with Better Cotton Initiative (a not-for-profit organisation that works with farmers across the globe to grow cotton in a sustainable way) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world’s largest conservation organisation—has been working with farmers in India to develop ways of producing cotton that use less water and fewer pesticides. “In a world of finite resources and pressing social and environmental challenges, ensuring that the clothing we sell is sustainable is not only the right thing to do, it makes business sense too. As one of our key raw materials, our aim is to ensure that, by 2020, 70% of the cotton we obtain should be from sustainable sources,” says Venu Nair, managing director, Marks & Spencer Reliance India.

What’s surprising is that, as concepts, ‘sustainability’ and ‘fashion’ generally don’t go hand in hand. Sustainability is slow and works on the principles of reducing, reusing and recycling. Fashion, on the other hand, is fast and about frantic consumption, changing every season. So what prompts sustainable fashion? “The need for sustainable fashion arises in order to adapt to the shift brought about by climate change, resource scarcity, economic conditions and ever-evolving consumer behaviour,” says Harkirat Singh, managing director, footwear and apparel brand Woodland. “It is not enough for Woodland to make the absolute best boots, shoes or clothing. Everything we do or sell has an impact on the communities in which we live and work. While it is essential that Woodland create profit for its shareholders, it is just as essential that we create value for our communities.”

Woodland, as part of its CSR initiative Proplanet, has launched products such as sandals made from vegetable tanned leather and biodegradable shoes that are sturdy, durable and aesthetically designed. “The raw materials used are free of any harmful substances. The outer sole and heel are made of crêpe rubber (natural raw rubber) and the upper part is made of vegetable tanned leather, which is also used in the lining of the shoe,” says Singh about the biodegradable shoes.

While one can’t deny the environmental benefits, what’s also true is that sustainable fashion poses many challenges. “The real challenge, for me, was to create an accessory line without using animal hide. Being a vegan, I was clearly focused on finding an alternative solution. After years of research and trials, we have managed an accessory line using dhurries to create bags,” says Dongre.

For Woodland’s Singh, recycling petroleum-based fibres can prove tricky. “Various fibres that comprise clothing make reprocessing and recycling a challenge. Some materials such as cotton and linen can be composted, but petroleum-based fibres such as polyester have little chance of reuse, making the process much more complex,” he says.

But even with all the challenges, the industry agrees that sustainable fashion is the future. “Sustainability is the only way forward,” says Anna Gedda, head of sustainability, H&M. “And we want to lead the way towards a more sustainable fashion future, changing the way fashion is made and enjoyed. Everyone should have access to clothing that is fashionable, affordable, as well as sustainable.”

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