Sustainability is reaching for the limelight at the latest edition of Première Vision, which opened Wednesday, as the trade show’s environmentally responsible fabrics section, Smart Square, doubles in size and widens its scope.
The expansion of Smart Square and the growing profile of sustainability follows several harrowing reports on the damage fashion can inflict on the Earth, particularly in its use of plastic products and emissions, and increasingly successful efforts to reduce this.
“For the first time, we welcome a new generation of responsible innovations and alternative materials, all readily available in the market,” Chantal Malingrey, director of marketing and development for Première Vision, told WWD. Smart Square has grown to more than 10,700 square feet, she said. In addition to the 32 exhibitors in the space, the fashion team has identified 164 exhibitors from all sectors, including fabric, leather, clothing and yarns, for inclusion in the Smart Trail of eco-friendly innovations, Malingrey added.
During the show, 28 leading fashion industry, innovation and sustainable experts are due to make presentations.
As for future talking points, they are many and wide-ranging, Malingrey said, ensuring that sustainability would be a challenge and a focus for a long time to come: “Transparency, traceability, water use, toxic presence, Co2 emissions,” she told WWD. “And this is not just related to a product but also to the company’s whole approach to production.”
Responsible fashion has been a buzzword for some time now, but the past year has been a bit of a watershed, said Giusy Bettoni, sustainability consultant for Première Vision. Highlighting one issue that has not been widely discussed until more recently, Bettoni said that efforts to remove petroleum products from the fashion supply chain were given renewed vigor by the worldwide disgust generated by Sir David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet 2″ documentary, which graphically evidenced the harm done to ocean life by plastic — something she refers to as “the tragedy.”
After the final episode of “Blue Planet 2” was broadcast at the end of 2017, there were public calls for action against plastic and its products, and fashion has been no exception as the realization grows that clothes and accessories are riddled with plastic and petroleum-based man-made fibers.
“The ‘tragedy’ has helped people take more care,” Bettoni said. “People are 1,000 percent more aware and attentive when they choose raw materials….There is huge pressure to reduce plastic…you will notice the difference at trade shows…and beyond.”
Plastic can be found most obviously in accessories, but synthetic fibers such as acrylic, nylon, polyester and spandex also are petroleum-based, while the making of fabrics is riddled with chemicals and petroleum, as is the process of assembling and finishing a garment. Nearly 65 percent of fiber used last year in apparel worldwide was synthetic, often made with oil, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“Just hearing the word ‘petroleum products’ sounds wrong,” said Livia Firth, whose Eco-Age consultancy helps brands green up. “Imagine the environmental impact in producing them and in disposing them…when we throw away clothes — which we do at an unprecedented rate — we are dumping…petroleum.”
Numerous bodies and institutions have been documenting just how much, including Greenpeace, which wants to “Detox Fashion” of hazardous chemicals, and the British Parliament. Member of Parliament Mary Creagh leads the parliamentary audit into fashion and sustainability and said, “Every time we put on a wash, thousands of plastic fibers wash down the drain and into the oceans.”
Each year, clothes release the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles via those plastic “microfibers” that cannot be filtered during sewage treatment, said Francois Souchet, who runs the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, designed to reduce waste and chemicals in the garment and textile industry. “Every year 342 million barrels of oil are used to create clothes globally. The first thing you do is transform oil into fiber, and this generates a lot of carbon emissions,” he told WWD. Turning this yarn into a garment produces more carbon emissions, making the carbon footprint of fashion equivalent to that of shipping and all commercial airline flights combined.
The growing knowledge has been encouraging designers and manufacturers to embrace change. Brands such as Burberry, Gap and eco-conscious designer Stella McCartney have recently been revealed as partners for the Make Fashion Circular initiative.
“Five years ago sustainable fashion was just Birkenstocks, but it’s all so much more fashionable now,” said Claire Spencer-Churchill, owner of the women’s wear distribution company Claret Showroom, who founded the European resortwear show Splash. “I think in terms of brands we are seeing it — they are making a much more concerted effort in terms of tracing supplies down to every detail.”
Swimwear, with its stretchy, quick-drying, water-resistant fabrics, and Lycra-filled sportswear, which has been on the ascendant since the ath-leisure revolution, are big users of synthetic fibers, making it especially important that the sector addresses the issue of their sustainability.
Visitors to the latest edition of Splash this past summer were impressed that exhibitors opened their pitch with references to ethics and sustainability. These included Florita beachwear, a Brazilian brand that makes bikinis using Amni Soul Eco polyamide yarn, billed as biodegradable in three years. Also chasing the green zeitgeist is loungewear and lingerie label Skin Worldwide, which is concentrating on expanding its organic cotton content. “We feel that the garments touching our skin should be just that: natural. Putting plastics against our skin can’t be good for us, for our environment. People are starting to understand the micro and macro consequences of our shopping choices,” said Miriam Neustadt, the company’s sales executive.
Unsurprisingly, given its link to the oceans through its surfer origins, the 15-year-old British brand Finisterre has been a committed anti-plastic label for some time, using merino wool, organic cotton and innovative eco-fabrics. Finisterre product manager Deborah Luffman said the brand’s ethos is finally catching on thanks to the “Attenborough” effect. “Customers are now beginning to push the agenda.”
Finisterre is working on innovations including using the natural lanolin found in wool to help reduce manmade fibers and chlorine finishes in knitwear and jersey, Luffman said. Future plans include natural biological dyes and waterless dyeing.
“Ten years ago you couldn’t get recycled polyester, but now its one of the really great innovations in fabric,” Finisterre founder Tom Kay said. “Nylon is a really bad fabric — we didn’t work with nylon at all, but now we use nylon made from recycled fishnets and carpets,” he claimed.
This is Econyl, a product from the Italian synthetic fabric and carpetmaker Aquafil, which sends divers to salvage abandoned fishing nets across the world and recycles the nylon from them using a green, temperature-based process.
“Nylon is one of the best-performing plastic fibers. We produce something that is exactly the same as the product produced from oil — we give the designers no limitation at all,” said Giulio Bonazzi, chief executive officer of Aquafil.
Econyl is being used by brands as diverse as Gucci, Speedo and H&M, with demand growing constantly. “We are growing our Econyl by double digits every year….The first quarter of this year more than 38 percent of our output was from Econyl….The target for the end of next year is 60 percent and we need to reach 100 percent as soon as possible after that,” Bonazzi said.
The next big thing for the sector is biosynthetics — fabrics made of sugars, biomass and plants. Econyl has launched a process to produce bionylon from plant-based raw materials.
Another Italian innovation is Orange Fiber, a company that uses the fiber from oranges — waste from the Italian orange juice industry — to make a silk-like fabric. Last year Salvatore Ferragamo became the first brand to use it in a capsule collection. Encouraged by the certification system Oeko-Tex, the fast developing technologies are making it possible to use fabrics made of anything from algae to castor oil beans.
Mainstream mills across the world are adding eco textiles to their stables, from the Turkish mill Ipeker’s vegan fabric using the waste products from cotton growing to India’s Reliance Mills, which has produced the recycled Recron Green fabric. The charity Parley for the Oceans is collaborating with brands such as Adidas and Stella McCartney, and most recently Spanish designer Adolfo Correa, to create footwear, swimwear and shirts with recycled ocean plastic.
Catching the vogue for wacky green fabrics, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Fashioned From Nature” exhibition, which showcased centuries-old garments made from pineapple husks and beetle wing cases, also included examples of modern-day sustainable clothes. There is leather made from mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms; silk made from cellulose from plants and fabrics made from unbleached wood pulp, the skin of silk cocoons or fish skin.
Some items were by big names such as Calvin Klein and Nike. But while there were several niche labels, many big brands were conspicuous by their absence, or had highlighted rare sustainable items from among a huge output that was not, leading to accusations that some were guilty of insincere “greenwashing” to “confuse the customer and keep behaving badly while pretending they are doing something good,” said Firth. “The impacts of these capsule collections are nothing compared to the devastating impacts of their businesses.”
Organic cotton, for instance, is regularly mentioned, yet only a tiny portion of the world’s cotton production is organic; the rest is the result of production that is water and pesticide intensive. In terms of new fabrics, fashion is still at an early stage. Few innovations are currently produced to scale and there isn’t yet enough useful research on which fabrics are the most damaging – fast-shedding fleeces aside. Producing this research is one of the challenges sustainability experts face.
The recent furor over the revelation that Burberry had burned more than 90 million pounds worth of clothes and other products over the past five years to safeguard its brand image (it has since said it will stop), and that other labels such as H&M — a vocal sustainability advocate — did the same has also dampened excitement surrounding fashion’s renewed eco-conscience.
There is also the elephant in the room — however innovative some brands may be, the dominant fast fashion culture means that overbuying and throwaway fashion are promoted and with it, environmental damage is done. So, campaigners say, there is a need for a complete overhaul of shopping and fashion. Anything else is just kicking the can down the road.
But, as the focus of Première Vision shows, at least the concept of sustainability is becoming a mainstream issue, rather than a specialty one.