The A‑Z of sustainable fashion
From need-to-know designers, to groundbreaking innovation, your handy guide to sartorial sustainability starts here.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that fashion is one of the major culprits in the climate change crisis. Over eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the clothing and footwear industries, while their CO₂ emissions are predicted to increase by more than 60 per cent by 2030. It’s time to act – and fast. And so, without further ado, we’ve compiled a handy guide to sartorial sustainability, giving you the heads-up on some of the most important designers, fashion houses, initiatives and innovations driving fashion towards a more conscious future.
Natural materials are on the rise, from Piñatex, a leather-like material made from pineapple leaves, to Corozo, a sustainable alternative to polyester crafted from Tagua Palm nuts. And then there’s algae, that surprisingly versatile group of aquatic organisms, which have been transformed into all sorts of materials in recent years – notably fabric. Champions of algae-derived fibre include Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven, with their Global Change Award-winning AlgaeFabrics, as well as material developers AlgiKnit and Algalife.
British menswear designer Bethany Williams is paving the way for conscious design. All of her streetwear-inclined garments are made from recycled, organic or handmade materials (think: nylon hoodies made from leftover festival tents); she collaborates with different charities each season to draw attention to (and help fund) their work; and she promotes ethical production, collaborating with the likes of the Manx Workshop for the Disabled and LCF’s Making for Change initiative, which trains women inmates and ex-prisoners as industrial machinists. Last year she received the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design – all before turning 30.
Last year was the year that big fashion players got serious about offsetting their carbon emissions – Gabriella Hearst kickstarted events by staging the first carbon-neutral runway show last New York fashion week, with Burberry promptly following suit. Then Gucci stepped up and declared itself entirely carbon neutral – supply chain, shows and all. Shortly afterwards, Gucci’s parent group Kering announced that it would now be offsetting 100 per cent of its carbon emissions. Of course, brands should also be looking to reduce their carbon footprint, rather than merely offsetting it, but carbon neutrality is a huge step in the right direction.
Or more specifically the American fashion journalist’s book, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Released in September of last year, Dana Thomas’ book is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the grave extent of fashion’s impact on the planet and discover the designers, brands and innovators crusading for a more sustainable future.
It takes an indefatigable spirit to make a real change in the world, and Ellen MacArthur – once the fastest person to sail the globe – has got what it takes. The British dame’s eponymous charity, founded in 2009, is now a global thought leader on circular economy. To quote Stella McCartney, the three key principles for a circular business model are: “designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems” – and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has become the go-to partner for fashion brands looking to achieve this.
Fashion Revolution was founded by Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh in 2013 – a tragedy that killed 1,138 people. Today, it’s the world’s biggest fashion activism movement, fighting for systemic reform within the industry, with a specific focus on supply chain transparency. Every April, FR hosts Fashion Revolution Week, a dedicated week of events and initiatives, alongside the wide-reaching #whomademyclothes social media campaign, to further spotlight their cause.
Good on You alleviates buyer’s remorse at the click of a button. Available as a website and app, its one to five star rating system allows shoppers to view the impact of any given brand on people, animals and the planet before they invest. It also showcases the work of upcoming sustainable designers, while offering smart guides on conscious fashion – goodness all round.
The premise of couture – to supply only upon demand, and at the highest standards and prices – means that it’s already the most sustainable strand of the fashion industry. But that doesn’t always mean that couturiers’ making methods are environmentally responsible. Leading the way in sustainable – and breathtakingly sculptural – haute couture is Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen, a pioneer of 3D printing construction methods, who regularly collaborates with architects and scientists to develop new fabrics that are as visually extraordinary as they are ecologically mindful.
Instagram is one of the best ways to tune into the sustainable fashion community. There are countless follow-worthy accounts out there, but some of our favourite include: @ajabarber and Céline Semaan (@celinecelines) – both writers and activists – for insightful updates and musings on the climate crisis; @future__dust for a covetable curation of environmentally conscious finds by former fashion editor Alec Leach; @vestiaireco for all your secondhand designer fashion needs; @fash_rev co-founder @carrysomers, who’s soon to embark on global expedition to expose the ill effects of single use plastics and toxins on the oceans; and model-cum-environmentalist @arizonamuse, who’s just started a new hashtag initiative, #AWearNess, to rank the sustainability of her wardrobe and encourage others to do the same.
It takes about 1,500 litres of water to produce a single pair of jeans – which makes it particularly important to shop secondhand or from eco-conscious denim designers when investing in a new pair. You can’t go wrong with Levi’s – one of the leaders in sustainable denim, thanks to its pioneering production methods and innovative upcycling schemes. Tap E.L.V. Denim, Boyish Jeans and Jeanerica for other enviable, responsibly rendered offerings.
Switzerland-born, Paris-based designer Kevin Germanier began using upcycled materials out of financial necessity, creating toile from bed sheets while studying at Central Saint Martins. Soon, however, he embraced upcycling as his modus operandi, garnering attention for his fabulously luxurious designs that value ethics and aesthetics in equal measure. (Kristen Stewart, Björk and Lady Gaga have all sported Germanier’s disco chic garms to show-stopping effect.)
The latest winner of the Global Change Award, The Loop Scoop is a digital system geared at “providing designers with knowledge and tools on how to design with recyclable intent”. It specifies how a given garment’s choice of material, cut and production affects the planet, saving the findings for future access by consumers to inform them how best to reuse or recycle their clothes. It’s an excellent supplement to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s HIGG index, which allows brands and retailers to evaluate their own environmental and social performance – and will soon also allow buyers to view its findings.
Perhaps most identifiable by the small crescent moons that pepper her signature sportswear, former LVMH prize-winner Marine Serre is setting new standards when it comes to mindful fashion. From her frequent upcycling (think: scarf dresses and bags made from repurposed gym balls) to her ethically produced take on antique processes (moire taffeta drapery and baroque printed silks), her romantic brand of futurism allows wearers to feel good about themselves inside and out.
The New Standard Institute was founded last year by Maxine Bédat (the brains behind sustainable e‑commerce platform Zady). Its goals are tripartite: to eliminate greenwashing (the false pretence of sustainable practices among brands); to help companies re-evaluate their production methods and implement environmentally friendly changes; and to garner the support of fashion’s key players to make such changes de rigeur across the board.
At last year’s U.N. Climate summit, Swarovski announced its new sustainability fellowship programme One X One, in collaboration with the UN Office for Partnerships and Slow Factory Foundation. Part fellowship, part accelerator, One X One is designed “to empower designers, scientists, companies and researchers with a focus on sustainable practices”. The scheme’s first participants include Telfar Clemens, Phillip Lim and Mara Hoffman, who have each been matched with a scientific advisor to help them in their quest towards ecological innovation.
Last year saw the Italian powerhouse join the ranks of sustainable trailblazers with the launch of Prada Re-Nylon – a collaboration with Aquafil to create their signature nylon fabric using only ocean plastics and waste materials. This followed the announcement of its five-year sustainability term loan with Crédit Agricole Group, which “allows for the brand’s loan interest rates to be adjusted annually if certain sustainability targets are achieved,” to quote Vogue’s Annachiara Biondi. This self-incentivising drive towards better practice is the first of its kind in the luxury industry, and will likely inspire other big houses to do the same – bravissimo!
Richard Quinn has been delighting fashion lovers and environmental activists alike ever since the launch of his eponymous brand in 2016. A master of extravagant craftsmanship and daring printwork, he was awarded an MA scholarship to Central Saint Martins by sustainability pioneer Stella McCartney (see S), going on to win the H&M Design Award upon graduating and investing his prize money in a digital printing workshop. This allows Quinn to produce his eye-catching fabrics in exact quantities, dramatically minimising waste, all the while using 70 per cent less water and 80 per cent less energy than traditional production methods.
Another Richard specialising in eco-friendly sartorial excellence is Richard Malone, known for his virtuosic tailoring, sculptural silhouettes and innovative use of ethically made fabrics. For his organic, naturally dyed cotton jacquard, for instance, he works with a community of female weavers in southern India, skilled in ancient looming techniques. His double faced satins are the handiwork of sustainably-minded Italian fabric house Taroni, while he is a steadfast champion of Econyl, a regenerative nylon composition that can be endlessly recycled.
Stella McCartney is one of sustainable fashion’s longest standing champions. An ardent animal rights and climate change activist, and the sustainability advisor to LVMH, she is unerring in her mission to alert others to her cause (take her SS20 show, where she swapped traditional show notes for sustainability fact sheets). The collection was McCartney’s most eco-conscious yet, boasting looks made from organic cotton, recycled polyester, sustainable viscose and traceable wool, as well 100 per cent organic or upcycled denim. The luxurious faux furs, meanwhile, were made from Koba, a bio-based material derived from corn mixed with recycled polyester.
Resale and rental are two of the most powerful answers to reducing fashion’s carbon impact. Leading the way in terms of the former is thredUP, the world’s largest online thrift store, which has recently released a handy “fashion footprint calculator” to help buyers evaluate the “dirtiness” of their closets. Etsy, eBay, Depop and Vestiaire Collective have similarly enabled shoppers to source pre-loved pieces with ease, while companies like Rent the Runway are facilitating the rental of designer clothing, removing the guilt – both financial and environmental – of investing in a wear-it-once-to-a-wedding outfit.
As attested by many of the designers above, repurposing existing garments and fabrics into desirable modern pieces is on the rise. For further proof see Amsterdam-based designer Duran Lantink, who has been turning heads with his avant garde, cut-and paste aesthetic, conjuring fabulous new pieces from fashion deadstock; or Fashion East graduate Caitlin Price, who takes vintage clothing and gives it a contemporary, sportswear-inspired spin, selling the upcycled garments via her sustainable platform, 3am Eternal.
With all this talk of clothing it’s easy to overlook footwear’s role in the climate crisis – and especially sneakers, almost all of which are made from plastic components that are impossible to recycle. Looking to ameliorate the situation is French sneaker brand Veja, founded by Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion. Veja’s low-impact trainers are made of organic cotton, wild rubber from the Amazon, vegetable-tanned leather and recycled plastic bottles. The brand proudly spends zero money on advertising, instead investing in the discovery of new ecological materials and production methods, and supporting social projects.
Waste is one of the fashion industry’s biggest disgraces – in 2017, it was reported that one garbage-truck-load of waste is burnt or dumped into landfill every second. Burberry came under particular scrutiny for its excessive waste production and has since paired with raw material rescue company Elvis & Kresse to reappropriate its leather offcuts and transform them into accessories using a modular patchwork system that allows for infinite reparation and recyclability. Meanwhile, designers like Bethany Williams and Chopova Lowena – who use discarded fabrics (including Bulgarian aprons and handkerchiefs), as well as found buttons and trinkets for their trademark pleated skirts – are proving that trash can look tremendous in the right hands.
Since founding in October 2018, environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion have been garnering increased media attention for their non-violent, purposefully disruptive protests to highlight the climate change emergency across the globe. At the close of London Fashion Week last September, they hosted a memorable funeral procession, replete with two black coffins marked “RIP LFW 1983 – 2019” and “Our Future”, calling for a re-evaluation of the industry’s seasonal demand for new clothing. And until this happens, we’ll likely be seeing more of them.
Yes, you – because to make a real difference, we all have to do our part and this decade requires that we all make drastic changes to the ways we shop and dress. So kickstart your year as you mean to go on by downloading Good for You and thredUp’s fashion footprint calculator, supporting sustainable brands and ditching fast fashion fixes, and shopping secondhand (or renting) where possible.
The search for an eco-friendly leather alternative that doesn’t cost a fortune to manufacture has been arduous and – up until now – largely fruitless. But the good news is that a bio-fabricated leather is currently in development, courtesy of New Jersey startup Modern Meadow, under the name Zoa. In the words of writer Alden Wicker, Zoa is made by bio-engineering yeast “to spit out collagen, which is then moulded into a material that is imprinted, tanned and dyed to create a completely animal-free material” with all the properties of luxury leather and a similar price tag. It’s unlikely to be available for some years yet, but Zoa is one of the many examples of bio-engineering brilliance helping to redefine fashion’s future.