What Will Make the Fashion Industry Greener?

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CC BY 2.0. Robert Sheie

High-tech fabrics and lab-grown silks and leathers can help, but we also need a societal mental shift in the way we view the acquisition of clothing.

British MPs have launched an inquiry into the fashion industry to determine the full extent of its environmental impact. The inquiry will consider things like resource use, water footprint, and carbon impact throughout clothing's full life cycle, in order to reestablish the industry as both "thriving and sustainable."

Those are ambitious words to describe an industry that's currently the second most polluting one in the world. It is said that if fashion were a country, it would be the fourth biggest polluter on Earth. Achieving sustainability is a very big and very challenging goal.

Lucy Siegle, ethical fashion correspondent for The Guardian, has some thoughts on what could make the industry cleaner and greener. She published a list this past weekend that features a mix of slow fashion, natural fabrics, and high-tech solutions. Some noteworthy picks from that list:

1) New and alternative fabrics

There is a whole world of natural fabrics waiting to be developed, made from banana plant stems and 'fruit leathers.' Siegle writes,

"The Spanish brand Piñatex has already brought [such] fabrics to market; a square metre of pineapple leather uses 480 waste pineapple leaves and is half the cost of traditional cow leather (and, its proponents claim, comes at a fraction of the environmental cost of raising livestock)."

Seigle also touches on the versatility of yeast to grow ethical, eco-friendly alternatives to leather and silk. One company doing this is Modern Meadow, which we profiled on TreeHugger last summer. Modern Meadow designs the DNA of yeast to produce collagen. As one spokesman explained over email, "We then ferment the yeast, much like you would brew beer, to grow billions of collagen-producing cells. We purify this collagen and assemble it into unique material structures. We tan and finish our materials in a similar but lighter way to leather." Meanwhile, Bolt Theads is experimenting with using yeast to grow silk.

2) A greater appreciation for high-quality natural fibers

Wearing wool, silk, cashmere, and organic cotton will be viewed as a luxurious treat. These pieces will be purchased with the intent of keeping for prolonged periods of time, a kind of investment; they will be cared for attentively, protected, and handed down to subsequent generations. The fact that they do not shed plastic microfibres when washed will be a matter of importance, as will the way in which they are produced.

"A new appraisal of naturals will favour regenerative wool growing: keeping sustainable sized flocks of sheep and goats on grassland, it is claimed, helps to sequester carbon, restore watersheds and benefit wildlife habitats."

3) New forms of ownership

Clothing rental services will likely become more popular, as people seek to update their wardrobes in more affordable, innovative ways. Choosing refurbished or upcycled clothing will be more common, as demonstrated by the increased numbers of retailers accepting their own clothes back for resale at reduced prices. As clothes become more valued and expensive, their owners will prioritize repairs over replacement and learn important maintenance skills, i.e. mending.

There are some critics who think the technological solutions are largely pointless, that the fashion industry is too far gone to be saved by these relatively tiny efforts. They argue that we need to rethink our relationship to shopping and clothes in general, that no amount of greenwashing or fancy tech innovation is going to solve the problem we currently face. We need to cure ourselves, somehow, of the irrational need to shop, to collect more articles of clothing than we need, to buy things that do not fit right or complement our bodies, simply because the novelty appeals.

I think we need both influences in our lives. Seigle's solutions are fascinating and hopeful; the more consumers demand quality and eco-friendly fabrics, the more clothing manufacturers will adopt them. At the same time, though, consumption must be curbed. We need to make do with what we have, make it last, and fight against the urge to buy new, even if it has all the eco-friendly, ethical certifications one could dream of.