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Can science solve unsustainable fashion?

18 December 2019
Vogue’s sustainability editor was at International House in September to give the annual Walter Westman lecture. Clare Press began discussing the fashion industry’s environmental impacts by quoting not illustrious scholars from the science world, but two literary greats.

“Fashion continues to conjure images of frivolity in the collective imagination. It's easily dismissed as purely concerned with surface,” she said. “What comes to mind when you think of it? Perhaps it’s that Oscar Wilde quote: ‘Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.’ I personally prefer Virginia Woolf’s take: ‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.’ But to Woolf I would add, clothes also change the physical world, and mostly not for the better.”

Press argued that while science played a role in the evolution of the fashion industry’s current unsustainable model, it is also key to potential solutions.

“I'll be unpacking my industry's negative impacts on the planet. I’ll be arguing that science helped get us into this predicament, and ask what it can do to help get us out of it. But first I'd like to ask you a question,” she said. “Who here thinks this has got nothing to do with them? Who here thinks, ‘fashion’s not my thing. I'm not part of that problem. My interests lie elsewhere…’? Raise your hand if you're a nudist.” Silence. “Come on!”

No hands were raised.

“Maybe you’re a secret nudist?” Press joked. “Maybe at the weekend? Well, I think we can agree that no one in this room right now is naked. Thank you for that! But if you buy any new clothes at all, whether from Kmart, Zara or Gucci, you are part of the fashion supply chain.”

She noted that when referring to some of the more alarming statistics around fashion waste - that, for example, the equivalent of 1 garbage truckload of textiles enters landfill or is incinerated every second: “I'm including it all, from socks and jocks and swimsuits, to school uniforms and men’s workwear. I'm also talking about textiles more broadly – it might not even be clothes. The conversation extends to sheets, napkins and curtains.”

Press acknowledged the global fashion industry’s value, not least as a significant employer. “It is also,” she added, “a cultural mirror and influencer, and it can be an absolute joy. But when it comes to the environment, it can be horribly wasteful and polluting.” Put simply: we have too many clothes.

Between 2000 and 2015 global clothing production approximately doubled. In 15 years, it grew from 50 billion to more than 100 billion garments per annum. Meanwhile, clothing utilisation (the amount of wear we get out of our clothes) has decreased by a global average of 36%. Each year, Australians consume 27kg of textiles and clothing per capita, and discard 23kg. We are among the highest consumers of textiles and clothing in the world. “Essentially, we are buying clothes to throw away,” said Press.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an estimated USD $500 billion value is lost each year due to clothing that’s barely worn and rarely recycled. “We don't have the systems in place to deal with all this fashion waste,” said Press, pointing out that kerbside textile collection was unlikely to be introduced any time soon.

“In 2015, less than 1% of used clothing was recycled into new clothing. And when I say that, I'm talking mostly about material-to-material recycling – which turns used clothes into new yarn on an industrial level. Less than 1%. It’s a disaster. So, what is being done to fix it?”

She cited the recent G7 Summit that took place in Biarritz in August as cause for hope. There, French President Emmanuel Macron and Kering’s CEO François-Henri Pinault announced a 'fashion pact', designed to bring some of the biggest players together to tackle the issues.

In February, however, a damning report from the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the House of Commons zeroed in on the fashion waste issue in particular. It made 18 recommendations, including the introduction of a 1p tax per garment sold (with the cost borne by producers, not shoppers) to fund better recycling programs. The British government rejected the recommendations.

“Change is not happening fast enough,” said Press. “The situation is dire…If current consumption levels continue, the global fashion industry could account for one quarter of the world’s carbon budget.” 

Press said the fact that most (around 70%) of our clothes are made from polyester doesn’t help; the material is non-biodegradable and derived from petroleum. It is also a major contributor to microplastic pollution. “Every time you wash your synthetic clothes,” said Press, “thousands of tiny plastic fibres wash down the drain.”

If you buy any new clothes at all, whether from Kmart, Zara or Gucci, you are part of the fashion supply chain.
Presenter speaking into microphone

Before the Industrial Revolution, an abundance of fine clothes in extravagant materials was the preserve of those at the very top of the social tree. Marie Antoinette, for example, had 18 new pairs of kid gloves delivered every day in a basket topped with two yards of silk taffeta. Excess is not new. Access to it, however, is new, said Press.

Factories allowed the cheap production of clothes to happen at scale. Engineers invented weaving and spinning machines. But silk was still expensive. Could scientists not develop a more affordable silk that ordinary folk could enjoy? They could.

Press told the story of Hilaire Bernigaud, Comte de Chardonnet, who discovered his alternative silk by accident. Apparently, he knocked over a bottle of nitrocellulose in a photography darkroom. “Being lazy, he didn't clear it up. He ducked out, and when he came back it had congealed, the evaporated liquid leaving behind a sticky residue of long thin fibres,” explained Press. ‘Chardonnet silk’ debuted at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Two years later, he opened the first commercial artificial silk factory in France - but it wasn't to be. Early viscose was a highly flammable material, and Chardonnet’s factory burned down.

Said Press: “It was not until the 1920s that others figured out how to produce viscose in industrial quantities under safer conditions. I say safer because the chemicals and solvents used remained highly toxic, and OH&S wasn’t always the foreman’s highest concern. I don’t have the time and space to go into the story of the invention of nylon here, but its development changed the face of fashion forever. Synthetic fibres continue to dominate today. 

“Remember those 100 billion garments?” said Press. New generation materials and artificial intelligence (AI) might provide the solutions. “Scientists and fashion designers are beginning to work together in new ways on more sustainable materials, and onharnessing the power of big data to get us out of some of the wicked holes we find ourselves in.”

She pointed to the Californian biotech company Bolt Threads and its Spidersilk yarn, which mimics the proteins used in spiderwebs to generate a strong, biodegradable artificial silk made from yeast, sugars and water. They’re also producing a vegan leather alternative from mycelium.

“Eco fibre innovation is important,” says Press. “If we increase material-to-material recycling as well, we might begin to kick our landfill habit. But if we're not careful, we could be employing all these exciting new technologies but still be overproducing and underusing clothes.”

AI to the rescue? Big data could allow brands to design out waste by offering mass customisation - made-to-order on demand. “I think that’s a thrilling idea, and we’re already starting to see the beginnings of it,” said Press. “But I’m not going to end on that because it's not half as much fun as this: What if we dressed, not our physical selves, but our avatars? 

“Any gamers in the room?” she asked. “Gamers already live in a virtual world. Perhaps we all do, when you consider how much time we spend online. I suspect the ‘golden age’ of this stuff is going to come when the Internet of Things reaches the point at which we are all hyper-connected without having to click on a physical device. And yet, fashion designers are already stepping into the digital realm.

“Scandinavian fashion brand Carlings launched a purely digital collection last year. It was ground breaking for its accessibility as well as its form. A high-fashion garment off the runway might cost you a few hundred dollars, maybe even a few thousand. These pieces started at $11. Not that you could touch them. After purchasing an outfit, customers were invited to upload a picture of themselves for the Carlings’ design team to 'fit' the garments perfectly to their virtual self. Fantastic for Instagram. And fantastic for the environment! For this was a collection completely without negative environmental impacts. The garments required no wool, no silk, no polyester, no leather - no physical materials at all. We might call them zero impact, but for the power taken to keep the servers going. And the number of social media likes. Would you wear a Carlings look? You tell me.”

Clare Press presents the Wardrobe Crisis podcast on sustainable fashion.