Sustainable Fashion: Reduce, Reuse, Exchange

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I thought a couple of days after the weekend launch of Blue Planet II — a documentary I’ve yet to watch – might be an apt time to discuss efforts to make the fusion industry more sustainable, and less wasteful. The initial Blue Planet did much to alter public opinion towards waste – particularly the plastics problem .So I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Introduction to Sustainable Fashion

First off, I recommend  a long-read in Anthropocene, Keeping Clothes Out of the Garbage – particularly for readers new to the sustainable fashion beat. This article begins with some history – how in the last sixty years or so, we’ve come to gorge on cheap, shoddy, disposable clothing imports – rather than quality, locally-sourced  products that last. Fashion’s waste problem  incorporates many different elements, beginning at the production stage, and extending through the many carbon-spewing activities that transport clothes to customers. Within my lifetime, the US once had a sizeable textile and apparel industry — 1 out of 8 jobs when JFK became President, IIRC, was in these sectors. Now, alas, these items are made elsewhere and imported.

One thing I found disturbing was the environmental impact the clothing industry will have by 2025  if 80% of emerging markets attain Western per capita consumption levels.

Figure 1

Source: Anthropocene, Keeping Clothes Out of the Garbage.

The article also includes lots of interesting detail on industry efforts to reduce fashion  waste. I think I’m reasonably familiar with this topic, and the article introduced me to many things I didn’t know. Not to mention,  it’s also well-written. So, if you’re looking for an for a good introduction to fashion and sustainability,  start here. And if you already know something about this area, I think this piece is also well worth your time.

Clothes From Waste

The second phenomenon I wanted to discuss is another Blue Planet Effect: creating clothes from discarded plastic. a described in a recent Guardian article, Trawling for trash: the brands turning plastic pollution into fashion:

Brands including Gucci, Stella McCartney and Adidas are increasingly partnering with organisations such as Parley for the Oceans – which raises awareness of the destructive effect of ocean plastics – and sourcing materials regenerated from companies such as Aquafil, the textile manufacturer that transforms ocean waste into sustainable materials such as Econyl.

Last month, 4,000kg of discarded fishing nets were recovered from waters off the coast of Sicily by Healthy Seas, a joint-venture by non-governmental businesses, before being sent to a recycling plant in Slovenia. It is there that Aquafil spins it into sustainable material for use by the fashion industry.

Richard Malone, a former Central Saint Martins fashion student and now rising star in the designer world, is a leading adopter of Aquafil’s materials. His most recent collection for London fashion week, available early next year, featured outfits made from Econyl and was praised by Vogue as “changing all the conversations about who buys and why”.

“The fishing nets were extremely exciting,” Malone said. “Tonnes are discarded in our oceans every year and [Aquafil’s process] create an eco-nylon yarn that can be broken back to yarn again and again and reused, as well as create really beautiful, functional fabrics like sportswear and washable jerseys.”

The growing trend for recycling ocean waste and turning it into fashion is, according to the Future Laboratory researcher Rachael Stott, “a definite Blue Planet effect”.

These efforts are interesting, to be sure, but given the volume of plastics discarded each year, I wonder whether they are more than mere feel-good gimmicks, that only reuse a very small part of what goes into the oceans each year. According to the Guardian:

At Moshi Moshi Mind, the Danish fashion brand that opened its first UK store last month, the star of the season is a £255 winter coat that looks and feels like a traditional down padded coat yet is made entirely from plastic bottles retrieved from the sea. “The fabric is very fine and that has its own [design] challenges, but the idea is to learn and get better with time as we believe this is a long-term strategy,” said the label’s owner, Jenny Egsten-Ericson.

Stella McCartney – a long-term champion of sustainability in fashion – is going one step further and encouraging people not to buy new clothes at all, but to exchange, recycle, and repurpose existing garments, as discussed further in this TreeHugger piece, How Stella McCartney is encouraging people not to buy new clothes but instead to embrace the circular economy:

Maybe one of the most efficacious changes would be to eliminate fast fashion. But in the meantime, here’s another idea: Embrace a circular economy by buying second-hand clothes – which is where Stella McCartney and resale consigner The RealReal come into the picture.

McCartney and The RealReal have had a partnership to drive consumers to participate in a circular economy through consignment – a partnership that has proven so successful that they have just announced they will be extending it through 2019. For those unfamiliar with The RealReal, it’s the beloved-by-many online consignment site (with brick and mortar stores in New York and Los Angeles) where customers can sell and buy previously owned high-end apparel. The offerings are vast, everything is authenticated, and the process of both selling and buying really could not be easier.

The partnership provides incentives to help keep Stella McCartney items out of landfills by giving them a second life through resale. The partnership has yielded great results year over year, with The RealReal consignors of Stella McCartney items increasing by 65 percent and the number of Stella McCartney items consigned increasing by 74 percent.

MIT Fashion Show

Finally, I wanted to close by featuring a fashion show recently held at MIT, to transform trash into fashion, as The Tech reported in One designer’s trash is another’s treasure:

With the fashion industry leaving one of the largest global footprints in the world, UA Sustainability seeks to raise awareness for environmental issues in its student body. And what better way than a fashion show? Last Friday, the seventh annual Trashion Show took place in Walker Memorial. It was organized and hosted by UA Sustainability to promote waste reduction and sustainability on the runway. The show featured the creative styles of 17 designers, and 19 models strutted down Morss Hall wearing trash and various plastics, metals, paper, and recyclable materials not usually associated with high couture.

Sam Magee, Jessica Rosencrantz ’05, and Professor John Fernandez were judging to decide the top three designs and the “Next Top Model.” Rosencrantz ’05 was an  undergraduate at MIT, majoring in biology and architecture, co-founded Nervous System, and is now working as a designer and artist. Sam Magee is manager of the student arts programs including the Arts Scholars, the Creative Arts Competition, the MIT START Studio, and the Grad Arts Forum. “It’s always a blast to judge this,” Magee said during the show. Finally, Fernandez is a professor in the Department of Architecture and Director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative. He discussed plans to highlight some of the Trashion Show designs during Earth Day Week.

The elegant black mermaid dress (“Curtain Call”) was stunning, resembling a well-fitting dress despite being made from a reused trash bag, curtain, zipper, and snaps. I wasn’t alone in my opinion; the design won the Audience Choice Award that night.

Takes me back to my undergrad years – peak Punk period – when women wore black trash bags, but not for ‘sustainable’ reasons.

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    1. Cal2

      Great idea. Doesn’t have to be just clothing either.
      Second hand stores, in order of preference for efficiency, delivering services, low prices, nice people are (In California at least):

      Salvation Army, the best.

      ARC, Association for Retarded Citizens.

      Goodwill, way down the list as they dump most of what’s donated, charge high prices and are obnoxious.

      “Us Again”, and “Clothing and Shoes” boxes placed in shopping centers are for profit and both are owned by a Scandinavian billionaire. At best, your clothes get sent to Africa, destroying their local clothing economy and harming authentic local charities like Salvation Army. Their real mission is to create rags and seat filler out of your perfectly good clothing, with profits offset by sending T-shirts to Africa.

      1. Eclair

        Cal2, I agree with you evaluation of second hand stores. However, if there is a Goodwill Outlet in your area, try it out. Soft goods are brought out in rolling bins the size of a Smartcar, and you dive in and sort through shirts, pants, towels, curtains, duvets, pillows, etc. Pricing is by the pound.

        When we lived in Denver, a friend and I would go a couple of times a year and spend a morning sorting through the bins. Some of my greatest purchases: a full-length new goose-down robe, a down jacket with hood, a very smart black wool dressy winter jacket, innumerable towels, cloth napkins (we don’t use paper ones), table cloths (some of which I use as fabric for clothing), wool blankets, wool sweaters.

        My rule is to buy only ‘natural’ fabrics, which is sometimes bent, slightly.

        Check the internet for an outlet in your area.

        1. wilroncanada

          Frenchy’s is a term used in much of the Maritimes for all second-hand clothinng stores. Edwin Theriault, actually born and brought up in Somerville Mass. wanted to move back to his family’s original home in western Nova Scotia, and began a second hand clothing business, starting with just one bale of clothing from the US. Known as Guy’s Frenchy’s, it has become a generic term. There are Guy’s Frenchy’s stores throughout the Maritimes. We shopped at many when we lived there. I once bought a 3/4 length leather coat for $10 in Yarmouth, while my daughter was working there as a journalist.

    2. JTMcPhee

      When I was living about the now-sold sailboat, each of the marinas we paid exorbitant rents the use of a small rectanglular prism of water and some usually poorly maintained docks and facilities had an “exchange area,” whether a table or just a spot on the dock where people could leave unused stuff and pick up what they needed. Of course that self-selected community of people probably displays a much greater degree of comity and community than say an anomic, atomized coop or building or apartment complex.

      There’s something similar in my neighborhood — people leave stuff by the curb, and the “pickers” will work the useful things over and disappear them, and what is left is collected for mostly landfilling by the municipality. This avoids trips to the Salvation Army or that also for-profit thing called “Goodwill Industries,” though you don’t get a receipt for your “donation” to the communal bloodstream for this practice. Something like this happens on all the college/university campuses I’ve seen, at end of term — or on military bases, when reassignments happen. Though the military types, going by eyeball estimates, are more likely to stick their “stuff” in a storage locker, those that are not high enough to garner military payment for shipment of their stuff to the new assignment. Storage “facilities,” i read, are still a “growth industry” (sic, as to “industry,” of course).

      Infilling and adaptation. Good, maybe not on a big enough scale of course — 7.7 billion, and GROWING!

  1. marieann

    I have never been much of a fashionista, perhaps a wee bit before I had kids…..but getting a baby into the back seat of a car wearing a mini skirt was the day I ditched all my mini skirts. I’m a bit biased against fashion in general I have always done my own thing.

    I do not see the point of making clothes from trash/plastic, to me it is a publicity stunt. I do understand how the well the designers have to work to come up with a wearable and showy outfit so good for them.However the best way to deal with plastic bottles would be to ban them completely

    Wouldn’t it be better to gather up a load of rejects from a thrift store and remake those into showy outfits, or even better show how to remake them for the average citizen.

    Those mini skirts of mine were remade into jackets, bags ,cat beds etc.

  2. Foomarks

    I agree with your skepticism about reusing plastics as fibers. The problem with “Trashion” and recycled polyster fibers is that once the garment is passed its use/fashion, it’s very likely going to end up in the ocean again. Even during a plastic garments lifetime when it is washed, breaks down into microfibers which end up back in the water system, which I think is even more insidiuous.

    IMO, most day-to-day apparel should only be made with natural fibers that can break down into safer parts for animals and the environment. I think there is a use for recycled plastics, but it really shouldn’t be applied for short term uses like fashion.

    1. SimonGirty

      Yep! Almost apologetic over NOT being able to afford “waxed” ventile cotton, silk/ hemp/ vicuna blends to survive my job. I remember when smart folks could buy up old British-colonial military garb online, for sane prices (still never worked like the US manufactured Patagonia, Marmot, etc. wet-gas by-products?) Going from Edmonton to Porto Ordaz broke me of opinionated fashion sense. Linsey-woolsey works just fine. Found a hemp-yak wool sweater on EBay. Moths ate it. An 800 fill goose-down, embroidered silk anorak a Hui friend brought over in ’84 almost got us mugged. Buy what you can, when you can. You meet the best folks, while seeking bargains?

  3. Phacops

    I wonder whether or not people can discern the difference between quality clothing and throwaways or even care. Some of my favorite items are decades old and still going strong. Still have some pre-1995 polartech from Malden Mills. As necessary, I’ll get things repaired and have gone through several zippers on leather boots and jackets. But, fortunately there is a shop in town that will repair leather goods.

    Thinking about leather goods, all mine are American made by Schott or Fox Creek Leather and the quality is exceptional. Compared to the hard, thin, leather with poor zippers and marginal thread of asian leather goods, for $100 more I get something that never goes out of fashion, is a pleasure to wear, and will last a lifetime.

  4. Rosario

    I asked my mom to teach me how to use the sewing machine about 2 years ago. I’ve been patching pants and jackets ever since. Once I got past the shame of wearing patched clothes (no matter how pitiful the patch job) it has been great.

    My pants get pretty beat up with my work (holes in the bum, crotch, knees, etc.). A well placed patch has allowed me to get an extra year or so out of pants that seemed too far gone. I’d like to hone the skill a bit more. Maybe do quality work, then no one would even notice ;)

    1. Anon

      Good for you, Rosario!

      I learned to use a sewing machine while making a Kelty sleeping bag from a kit around the age of twelve. Mother had a fancy machine ( a fine piece of rosewood furniture with numerous drawers and shelves) since she made military dress clothing during WWII. It is a skill I’ve continued to apply in various ways: custom suit repair, recreational vehicle curtains, even some sail repair for the Cal 25 (boat). It’s becoming a lost skill.

      1. Cal2

        Lap the edges of your patches, fold the edge over and sew it down, before you apply them to pants turned inside out. You may have to hand sew them because getting all that material under the sewing machine foot is a pain.

        Crotches, the first part of even the best pants to get holes.

    2. Harold

      I can’t get the patches to work, though I love the idea. The fabric often tears at the edges of the patch. Part of the problem is that the fabrics used now are made of short fibers, or something, and don’t resist tearing.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    Hand-me-down or second hand clothes have shown that they at least lasted long enough to be handed-down or put up for resale in a resale place. That shows a bit of longer-lastingness for those who target the longer-lasting to buy and use.

    I read somewhere but don’t remember where that re-made plastic fiber from plastic waste can be dangerous or hazardous to the skin it is worn against. It seems like a chance well worth not taking. If one buys strictly animal or plant-based fiber clothing and uses it to give-away or re-sale or final unwearability, it can then be decayed all the way down to water, carbon dioxide, some nitrogen ( if wool or leather) and traces of other simple chemicals; thereby going “circular” through re-entering the carbon/oxygen/water/nitrogen cycles from which the plant or animal extracted the chemo-components of the fiber-to-be to begin with.

    Somewhat analogous to my use of garden twine. When I am done with the particular lengths of it which held my plants up, I put it in my garden paths or on the soil so it can decay back into carbon dioxide and water and enter the carbon/oxygen/water cycles from which the sisal plants who made my sisal twine to begin with gathered the carbon dioxide and water to make into carbohydrate and then cellulose fibers which the twine company then made into twine. That circular cycle will continue as long as the sun rains down enough energy upon the earth to keep the cycle flywheel spinning.

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