The slow fashion movement is changing the way the world does business. It has less to do with seasonal trends and pegs its heartstrings on saving the planet one fashion purchase at a time. From luxury fashion brands like Stella McCartney and Gucci to surfing champion Kelly Slater’s Outerknown, the desire to slow down and take a mindful approach to consumerism has put a spotlight on the eco-age like never before.
The fashion industry is the world’s second greatest polluter after oil—it’s a frightening reality that’s stopped catwalks in mid-strut and forced some heavyweights in the business to rethink their strategy.
The fashion business is a complicated one of supply and demand, where everything from raw materials to clothing construction, shipping to the disposal of the garment, has a huge impact on the environment. It’s now forcing those in the business to rethink current models to factor in a greener policy move.
Trying to track fashion’s carbon footprint is hard, but the nasty side effects speak volumes. From toxic dyes used to manufacture clothing to water pollution, pesticides used in cotton farming to the slaughter of animals all in the name of fur, fashion has eco- warriors up in arms.
The slow fashion movement is shining a light on all the cold hard facts that come with fast fashion—that it takes up to 10,000 litres of water to make one pair of denim jeans, is responsible for low wages for farmers, and for mass labour exploitation. The vicious cycle of exploitation is endless, from humans to the environment, and it’s urging consumers to vote with their purchases the next time they shop.
Global plastic waste is yet another part of the problem—not just in the fashion world—but globally across many sectors of business. According to Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, who spoke at Voices, The Business of Fashion’s annual gathering of big thinkers in the UK, it’s been more than 100 years since it was invented, but the use of the material has accelerated.
A recent global study by US academics found that humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, a figure projected to reach 34 billion by 2050. Most of it has ended up in landfill or oceans.
Within fashion, plastic is also on the rise, says Lincoln Sarnoff. “By 2030, 70 percent of all fabric fibres are projected to be from plastics. Today, the industry is shedding nearly 200,000 tonnes into the ocean,” she says.
While all the statistics are overwhelming, there are small steps consumers can adopt to help rectify the growing problem. While global leaders and the fashion industry’s biggest names have the mightiest powers to make the greatest change of all, the next time you go shopping can be just as empowering.
Garments made of polyester and nylon are the worst environmental offenders. Consider organic cotton, linen and hemp, which are pushing greener pastures to the forefront of fashion.
Helping paint the sartorial world a brighter shade of green are organisations like Eco-Age, started by Livia Firth, who aims to educate the industry and consumers about the need to be mindful when it comes to consumption.
It’s about knowing what you’re buying, learning more about the designers you wear and how fast fashion impacts landfill.
Eco-Age believes the key to fashion freedom is about educating consumers that more is not necessarily better.
“With consumers becoming increasingly aware of the impact that fast fashion has on our planet and its inhabitants, many of us are feeling more inspired than ever about using our wardrobes as our arsenal for living better,” says Eco-Age publicist Rupert Esdaile. “In fact, we don’t have another option, we have to make a change before we run out of time.”
Esdaile says some luxury fashion brands like Stella McCartney and Gucci are leading the way by using vegan leathers, organic cotton and saying no to fur. It’s these small steps making a world of difference.
“When we talk about sustainability in fashion we like to talk about the handprint of fashion,” explains Esdaile. “We often talk of the ecological footprint of the fashion we produce, but a narrow focus on environmental accounting ignores some of the other facets inherent in truly sustainable supply chains. By talking about the handprint of fashion we also include the decent livelihoods, community cohesion and cultural value that is abundant in Italy’s artisan-driven supply chains.”
There are certainly many brave faces doing their bit for global change. World champion surfer Slater teamed with his designer friend John Moore to launch Outerknown—where everything from seeds to suppliers is carefully curated to give back to Mother Earth.
“It’s about creating a fashion line that’s wearable and ethical,” says Slater of the brand’s purpose. “If we can do more to shine a light on this conversation that the fashion industry needs to change the way it makes clothing, then Outerknown is our way of saying it’s entirely possible.”
Slow fashion is a hot topic in the media right now. Those doing it well always recycle garments, upcycle where they can, and buy brands that are transparent in the way their product finds its way onto a shelf. There are brands like Tome and G-Star Raw opting for sustainable fabrics, while in Australia Jac+Jack and Bassike are spinning sartorial stories with an environmental pledge too.
Creating sustainable fashion needn’t be the headache many designers think it is either. According to Bassike co-owner Mary Lou Ryan, creating a sustainable unisex jersey T-shirt collection made perfect business and ethical sense. The label is proof that change can occur at any level of the business model.
"Our philosophy has been about best practice and using organic and sustainable cotton in our jersey collections from the very beginning," says Ryan. “This was our way of contributing to the overall ethical manufacturing process of our business."
In Singapore, Vincent Ooi launched his ethical brand, Source Collections, in October 2017. He not only fills the gap in sustainable and local fashion in the marketplace, but says he was inspired to do so by the label Honest By by Bruno Pieters, who opted for a 100 percent transparency policy with his brand.
Ooi, who lived in Hong Kong for eight years before moving to Singapore, wanted to create a capsule that offered premium basics at a reasonable price point.
“While doing planning and research for my brand, it made me realise how the garment industry is actually one of the most polluting,” says Ooi. “Hence, I hope to play a part to help minimise the impact our products have on the planet. Coming from a manufacturing background, I’ve always been fascinated about the people and processes that go on behind the scenes in the factory. I wanted to connect these stories to the people, hence we have pages on our website about the factory, where the products are being made, the people who make them and about their daily lives. We also decided to share the true cost of each item so that people will know the type of quality they are paying for.”
Australian journalist Clare Press, who has just written a new book Rise & Resist, says there are plenty of global brands doing their bit to help change the world.
“Outerknown, by Kelly Slater and John Moore, is championing sustainable materials and supply chain transparency,” says Press. “Christopher Raeburn is the London designer who pioneered upcycling, starting with vintage army surplus gear including maps, which used to be printed on silk, parachutes, old flak jackets and tents. While not strictly a menswear brand, Patagonia is the ultimate. Their Footprint Chronicles led the way on supply chain transparency and there are many examples of the company’s sustainable ‘firsts’—from switching to organic cotton to using recycled poly and the 1% For the Planet Initiative.”
Then there’s London-born and Wales- based brand Howies, which has been making ethical men’s sports since the mid- 1990s. It creates sweatshirts, T-shirts and jeans from organic cotton and found ways to use natural fabrics as alternatives to petrochemical-derived ones.
Press says women continue to drive fashion consumption, but the menswear market has also grown in recent years.
“According to The Business of Fashion, menswear growth in the luxury sector, now embracing upscale streetwear, is outpacing womenswear, while spending has decreased across the board. We’re buying more clothes than ever before, but spending less on them.”
She refers to an article published in Bloomberg titled The Death of Clothing as a further example.
"In 1977, clothing accounted for 6.2 percent of US household spending, according to government statistics. Four decades later, it's plummeted to half that," says Press. "[But] don’t make the mistake of thinking men aren’t up for a fast fashion fix just because the industry has traditionally focused on women. Boohoo, for example, launched its first menswear offering in 2016 [BoohooMan]. I just hopped on the site to find USD8 T-shirts, shorts from USD10, shirts from USD20. 'From skinny jeans to drop arm rugby shirts and dragon prints, we’ve got everything you need to nail the streetwear trend like a pro', they say. Okay, but what I say is: remember, someone always pays the price for too cheap. I don’t see how anyone could argue that this cheap clobber is carefully made and designed to treasure."
In October 2017, Italian fashion house Gucci declared it would no longer use fur in its seasonal collection. It’s a small step for a historic house to steer a new sustainable vision on the catwalk.
Its CEO Marco Bizzarri also announced that Gucci would join the Fur Free Alliance. Via a statement he said: “We have decided to take a further step forward by abolishing the use of fur from animals that are specifically killed for their fur.”
Bizzari admits consumer pressure and expectations inspired the change. “Attitudes have changed towards fur, and as a material, it no longer reflects the values that we hold,” he says.
What’s more, Gucci has stopped using kangaroo fur since early 2017 to make its famous fur-lined loafers, replacing it with lambswool instead.
In the luxury house’s pledge, Gucci acknowledged that ‘most of the world’s production of fur comes from intensive livestock farming where there may be a risk of inappropriate animal treatment, despite efforts to control compliance with animal welfare principles and environmental impact’.
Other luxury brands that have banned fur and joined the alliance include Michael Kors, Hugo Boss, Armani, Coach, DKNY and Donna Karan.
The more luxury fashion houses that join the sustainability conversation, the more likely the slow fashion movement will gain momentum. Whether it’s designers like Ooi or big names like Ricardo Tisci at Burberry, consumers want to make educated choices at the cashier.
“Modern luxury means being socially and environmentally responsible. This belief is core to us at Burberry,” explains Burberry CEO Marco Gobbetti.
"Consumers want to buy responsibly more than ever now," says Slater. "They are thinking about the environment and the impact on our planet and luxury brands are responding to that. It’s about time."
At Eco-Age, since launching a new digital platform in October last year, traffic has increased by 200 percent almost immediately—proving an audience demand for environmental fashion news.
"The ultimate rule should always be: will I wear it at least 30 times," says Esdaile. “While shopping look out for items made of biodegradable materials such as wool, organic or recycled cotton, linen or Tencel and check your labels. Items that are made 100 percent of one material, like 100 percent silk or 100 percent polyester, are much easier to recycle once you’re finished with them as most recycling facilities are unable to recycle blended fibres—which means they generally end up in a landfill when they are no longer loved."
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