Sustainability is one of the reigning buzzwords of the decade, along with Trump and Brexit. All three of these words, if you’re a sane human being with a conscience, when discussed, cause the entire audience to either let out a great sigh, roll their eyes, or speak as though they’ve lost a loved one, “just awful”. Like over-saturated headlines, you begin to build up resilience against them. We’re now numb to Trump’s latest Twitter tirade, Brexit is sleep-inducing drug with side effects including headaches, loss of memory and tingling fingers.
Sustainability? It’s an urban legend we engage with to up our likeability factor, but beyond our reusable water bottles and coffee cups we’re about as clued up with sustainability as we are with Brexit. To bust the myth, the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of sustainability is: “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time” or, “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.”
photographed by DIANE BETTIES styled by ALTON HETARIKI
The emphasis here is time and, according to UN experts, we have precisely 11 years until irreversible damage is done to our planet and we decline rapidly. This is pretty bleak stuff, something you’d expect in an apocalyptic blockbuster starring Tom Cruise rather than Vogue. So, what exactly has fashion got to do with it?
More than you’d think. The UK alone has a fashion industry that’s worth an astounding £28 billion, and therefore emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as the transport industry – that’s more than 1.2 billion tonnes of nasty greenhouse gases a year. These big numbers on a mass scale might be hard to get your head around, but picture this, every time you pop a wash on at home, you are also popping 700,000 fibres into your water system, into our rivers, seas and bellies of our fish (but rest assured, this can be avoided by purchasing a GuppyBag washbag, provided by most sustainable brands.)
To quote William Blake’s poem Jerusalem, “and did those feet in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green”, let’s keep the verse this way, not “walk upon England’s bottle blue.” Where did it all go wrong exactly?
Do your parents or grandparents ever reminisce over how back in their day they had just one jumper, one smart outfit, one pair of jeans etc? It sounds unfathomable but it’s true, “before ready to wear clothes were made for individuals, it was made well and to last” laments Eco Lux label, JPL Atelier, founder and designer Juliana Ponce de Léon. Juliana has learnt from her previous experience at various high-end brands about the perils of luxury fashion and their all too relaxed attitude towards waste.
Waste equals dead stock, which has a knock-on effect of deflating the value of designer’s clothes. To avoid this, many brands ‘go into destruction’ which quite literally means burning or destroying what they’ve made. To ensure she doesn’t have to take this desperate and quite frankly diabolical path, Juliana has chosen to design made-to-order clothes only, harking back to life before our parents’ generation, but minus the wait time – her clothes can swiftly slot into your wardrobe in a mere week’s time.
Waste isn’t only the responsibility of the high-end fashion labels though as the biggest offender is the high street. Whilst, admittedly, the entire sustainable movement can appear rather bougie and middle-class on the surface, with brands like Goop and Daylesford dressing up climate change with designer price tags, but there is a reason why the UK shops more per year than any other European nation, contributing to the astounding 235 items of clothing that end up homeless and harmful in landfills every year. The reason for this boom is due to our ever expanding middle-class which is, pardon the pun, quite literally bursting at the seams, both in population size and resource use.
Juliana at JPL believes that “the biggest problem with the high street is the mass production and the insane take on trends that only last three weeks. I don’t know how a high street brand can go to sleep at night knowing that a 14-year-old has made those cheap clothes on a 15-hour shift and got paid nothing.” However, a number of high street behemoths have clearly had one too many sleepless nights and have woken up from their nightmare. Adidas have announced that they will only use recycled polyester in all shoes and clothing by 2024 and Inditex (the clothing giant responsible for probably your entire wardrobe including: Zara, Pull and Bear, Massimo Dutti, Uterque, Bershka, Stradivarius and more) have promised to eliminate their use of plastic bags by 2020 and to fully eliminate single use plastic by 2023. By 2025, Inditex will finally put their limitless cash (the Co-founder, Amanico Ortega is currently ranked fourth in the Forbes rich list of 2019) to good use by only sourcing organic, sustainable and recycled cotton, polyester and linen.
Money is king for these brands and if they use sustainability as a business opportunity then the future is looking much brighter, much faster. British MPs also blame fast fashion “as a major contributor to greenhouse gases, water pollution, air pollution and overuse of water” and therefore wish fast fashion
brands, namely JD Sports, Sports Direct, Boohoo and Amazon, to be held accountable by paying a penny per garment “to fund a £35 million annual recycling system.”
Yet the Green campaign argue this isn't enough. Everyone likes to point fingers but, ultimately, it's a group effort and a group solution. French President, Emmanuel Macron recognises that one brand cannot defeat climate change without the help of another. With that in mind, he has hired Francois-Henri Pinault, the chairman and CEO of Kering, the wardrobe you wish you had with names like Gucci, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen amongst others, to create a "coalition of fashion brands to set ambitious sustainability targets together."
Leading British designer Bethany Williams has made a surprising coalition herself for her current collection titled `Breadline.' Williams has exchanged fresh fruit and vegetables from Tesco for waste items from food banks users' households in order to create her multi-faceted modern silhouettes. Not only is "every one of our garments 100% sustainable and made in the UK, even down to the buttons, which are hand crafted in the Lake District from our collaborators own tree plantings", but Bethany goes one step further by giving 30% of profits directly back to Vauxhall food bank.
Juliana at JPL has discovered even more innovative ways of sourcing sustainable fabric. She prefers using bamboo silk but also recognises that "the biggest hurdle is finding luxury sustainable fabrics because the market is so new. The more media support there is, the easier it becomes as the consumer becomes more aware and buys into it more."
And whilst the media are now taking a more supportive role, mainly due to supply and demand as more customers are buying into sustainable products, they haven't always been the best guides. We have all succumbed to the 'green sheen' of greenwashing, a deceptive environmental marketing tool that corporate companies use to pull the wool over our eyes. Greenwashing uses attractive vocabulary such as: organic, vegan, cruelty free, natural, chemical free, to lure us in when really, it's just a pack of lies. Without a certificate verification, these words are meaningless, instead look out for EcoAge, G.O.T.S, Oeko Tex and Sedex.
Perhaps as a result of the murky waters, contemporary eco-friendly fashion designers are valuing total honesty in their designs, and, importantly, offering the customer choice and greater understanding. In 2018, British rising star Amy Powney, the Partner and Artistic Director of Mother of Pearl, launched her 'No Frills' collection, a wholly sustainable line that is "created with the mindset of field-to-finished garment, tracing our supply chain. We have created an online filter, which tags each garment with its sustainable attributes, showing you what we have managed to achieve for each individual piece."
In offering "individualised product information", Mother of Pearl is a brand we can truly trust, offering "a transparent supply chain, organic natural materials, social responsibility, respect for animals, a low carbon footprint and great quality." This may appear on the surface as all too idyllic and not very business savvy, when in fact it's the opposite. It not only costs less to create clothes this way, but sales have also doubled since `No Frills' launched — take note high street brands, sustainability is an enormous business opportunity.
Juliana at JPL Atelier has taken a similar interest in transparency on "an exciting new project at the moment, one not that dissimilar to what Uber Eats does. When you make an order, you're notified about every step of the way, where it's being made, who's making it, what the fabric's made of, when it's on its way to you. We want to link the whole supply chain and inform the consumer more."
Education is arguably the foundation of knowledge, the more we — the consumer — learn, the more we can help save our planet, and the sustainable designers are the most conscientious classmates of all. Collectively they are spreading the word and practising what they preach. Amy Powney's studio, for example, is an environmentally friendly temple, running off green energy and it's even a plastic-free zone, where vegetarian lunches are provided for all staff on site, and they can even go to the bathroom guilt-free by using recyclable loo roll, aptly named 'Who gives a crap.' These green ingredients aren't only applied to fashion workspaces but the average Joe Bloggs at home can easily subscribe to this sustainable lifestyle too.
Amy Powney has delved further into our home through her collaboration with BBC Earth, where she created "a short film to promote the three call to actions so everyone can do their part and together we can make the big difference to stop climate change: consider your purchase and love your choice, buy quality and consume less, recycle and repurpose."
Juliana at JPL has done the maths and worked out that by making her brand made-to-order, she has reduced the negative impact on our planet by 98%, and her designs will last forever. The proof is in the meticulous detail, "I even use French seams which no one uses anymore, which gives it a cleanest, beautiful finish and is less likely to snag. If I'm going to make something, I want the quality to be the best. Having worked in all the couture houses in Paris, I want to replicate that level of detail."
Elliss Solomon launched her tongue-in-cheek, printed separates back in June 2016 after studying Womenswear Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins. She always assumed that having a factory in her building was the greenest option but then discovered a family run factory in Slovenia where they prioritise good workers' rights (including a fair wage, paid expenses, 24 days holiday a year, paid sick days and statutory one year maternity leave) and strict recycling laws. "All threads and off cuts are recycled into mattress stuffing and insulation. Even though you can have a local factory, it's not always the most efficient option."
And efficiency is what Elliss is all about, they only use organic cotton, hemp and bamboo in her designs before printing in the Netherlands using G.O.T.S. certified non-toxic dyes. But before devolving into a terminology heavy diatribe, fashion is ultimately supposed to be fun and is essentially about the aesthetic, and the looks from these brands are beautiful, regardless of their sustainable values. Elliss's clean cut shapes were influenced by her internship at Alexander Wang and her sense of fun stemmed from another intern-ship at Lanvin in Paris. These are seriously talented designers who also take the planet seriously and are now forcing the fashion world to sit them up. With an eye on the future, Juliana at JPL "would love to now reach out to actual luxury fashion magazines. Not just for a sustainable shoot, but for a normal editorial and it's just an added bonus that the shirt is made out of recycled water bottles! The goal is for the whole industry to normalize sustainability."
Much as we moan and belittle millennials and the younger generations, they are the ones making this shift to a brighter, better future, as ultimately, they are the ones who are going to have to live with it. Juliana is full of admiration, "our generation have closed down so many industries in such a short period of time which is amazing, and hopefully this will be another. The change in mindset from when I started my brand four years ago to now is enormous, I'm really proud of our generation." Before millennials found their voice, up-and-coming desig ners were advised "not to market designs as sustainable, only luxury which I found really frustrating" says Juliana.
Elliss had a similar experience at university, "to do a sustainable collection when I was in my final year at Central Saint Martins was sort of frowned upon and now that perspective has completely turned on its head. People didn't want to associate with sustainability, so I tried to disguise this by changing the title to 'unconscious clothing.' They're just beautiful clothes and it being sustainable is sort of in the background, so the 'unconscious consumer' would still want to buy it." Elliss's slyly sustainable approach draws parallel with Vanessa Friedman's, Fashion Director of The New York Times, suggestion "What if we set aside `sustainability' and instead say 'responsibility?' It's a fair ask and lowers the barriers to entry."
To adopt Friedman's term, living a more 'responsible' life is a more rewarding one, and something that we can call get onboard with. So often we are scare-mongered by the devastating results of climate change. For some, this aggressive approach works, but for others, it only encourages them to turn a blind eye to it. Award winning British designer, Christopher Raeburn's ground-breaking brand, lives by three simple principles which we can all abide by, RAEmade / RAEduced / RAEcyled.
Whilst the essence of fashion may be built upon driving customers to need the newest and latest thing, Christopher has proved that we can have best of both worlds. By adding longevity to our wardrobe, we are answering Clare Farrell's, a member of the climate group Extinction Rebellion, conundrum "We need a change in inindset. Kids buy clothes, wear them a few times and get rid of them . How do we tackle that? It's the nature of consumer capitalism and it's a very big problem for us all."
As Juliana states, "the thing is we are always going to need to be dressed" we just need to choose wisely and carefully, whether that be upcycling an existing outfit, buying vintage or from a charity shop, and if we do buy new then from a brand who cares. We care about where our food is from, our sugar content, what skincare products we use, so why should our wardrobe be exempt from this? It's human nature to always want something new but if we slow down our general consumption, we simultaneously slow down climate change. Fashion is a key player in this change, and designers are stepping up to the challenge. Christopher Raeburn also sees his "role as a designer is to disrupt. Sustainability isn't a trend, it's an opportunity to fundamentally change our industry." Quite frankly, even if it is a trend that doesn't make it any less valid, people follow trends blindly and boldly, so really go for this one, and wear it proudly.
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