The future of fashion includes seaweed coats, mushroom shoes
From tailoring dresses with seaweed sequins, to dyeing clothes with bacteria, to planting traceable pigments in cotton, an emerging tide of technological innovation offers the fashion industry a chance to clean up its sad environmental assessment.
Change is urgently needed as the industry consumes 93 billion cubic meters of water per year, dumps 500,000 tonnes of plastic microfibers into the ocean and accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
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Growing demands for change have generated ingenious responses, like New York designer Charlotte McCurdy’s seaweed raincoat.
The shimmering seaweed plastic she concocted in a lab made a striking (and carbon-free) piece of clothing, even more so when she teamed up with fashion designer Phillip Lim to create a sequined dress.
They are unlikely to appear in department stores. She sees them more as a way to demonstrate that low-carbon clothing is possible.
“I’m not trying to monetize it. I just want to plant a seed,” she told AFP.
“Hardware development is so slow and it’s so hard to compete with mobile phone apps for funding. Frankly, I take climate change seriously and I don’t have the time, ”said McCurdy, who is now focused on creating a center for innovation and awareness.
Others, like Dutch designers Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar of Living Color, are finding ways to reduce toxic chemicals and intensive water consumption from dyeing clothes.
They found an unlikely ally in bacteria.
Some microorganisms release natural pigments as they multiply and, by deploying them on the fabric, they dye clothes with striking colors and patterns.
The research is published online for free, and the pair have no interest in mass production.
Luchtman, who previously worked in fast fashion, saw “the negative impact of this industry in terms of human exploitation and environmental issues” up close and is determined to keep it small.
Others, however, hope such ideas can infiltrate big business.
California start-up Bolt Threads recently partnered with Adidas, Lululemon, Kering and Stella McCartney to build production facilities for Mylo, a leather made from mushroom roots.
McCartney presented its first Mylo collection in March and Adidas has promised a Mylo sneaker by the end of the year.
Some experts doubt that such initiatives can lead to large-scale transformation.
“Maybe some of these things will take hold in the industry, but the bar is very high for new approaches,” warns Mark Sumner, a sustainability expert at the School of Design at the University of Leeds. .
“It’s an incredibly diverse industry with thousands of factories and operators all doing different things. It’s not like the auto industry where you just have to convince six or seven big companies to try something. again.”
Sumner sees the biggest impact coming from improving rather than replacing existing systems and says pressure from consumers and NGOs means this is already happening.
“Among responsible brands and retailers, this has really moved away from fashion. They now see sustainability as a business imperative,” he told AFP.
Not that there are right or wrong answers. The strength of the sustainable development movement comes from many actors pulling in the same direction.
“There are many different strategies that need to work together,” said Celine Semaan, founder of the Slow Factory Foundation, which supports several social and environmental justice initiatives around fashion, including McCurdy’s seaweed sequin dress.
“Technology alone will not solve problems. It needs politics, culture and ethics,” Semaan said.
One area that many see as a priority, however, is transparency, and here technology has a clear role to play.
The complexity of supply chains is such that “many companies have no idea where their clothes are made, where the fabrics come from, who supplies their raw materials,” said Delphine Williot, Fashion Policy Coordinator. Revolution, a campaign group.
The recent outcry over reports that cotton from China’s Xinjiang region was plucked by forced labor has been compounded by the difficulty of knowing where that cotton ended up. Beijing denies the allegations.
Fibretrace, which this year won a sustainability award from Drapers magazine, offers a possible solution.
It implants an indestructible bioluminescent pigment in the threads. Any resulting garment can then be scanned like a barcode to find its origins.
“You can’t find the environmental impact of anything if you don’t know where it was made,” Andrew Olah, commercial director of Fibretrace, told AFP.
Combined with data sites like SourceMap and the Open Apparel Registry that give businesses unprecedented clarity on their supply chains, it’s increasingly difficult to argue ignorance.
“When you don’t share your supply chain, you do it because you’re either hiding something or you’re stupid,” Olah said.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” he added. “But I am very optimistic.”