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Fashioned from Nature — Can Sustainable Fashion and the Environment Coexist?


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Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable Fashion is high on the agenda when it comes to addressing industries that have a harmful impact on our environment.

In May 2018 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London launched their world class Fashioned from Nature exhibition:

From stunning botanical embroidery to earrings made from birds of paradise, the relationship between nature and fashion is complex and often controversial. This exhibition will take you on a journey through centuries of fashion that have drawn inspiration from, and plundered the natural world – through to the contemporary innovators who are directly addressing the issues caused by the industry.

Spanning 400 years, since the early dawn of the fashion industry in the 1600s, the exhibition aims to explore both the inspiration and resources of the natural world, including the countless numbers of wild animals that were destroyed in the pursuit of trends as a consequence of the fashion industry whilst seeking to identify the sustainable approaches that are being explored, which are key to the industry’s survival.

The exhibition raises our awareness of the impact that fashion has, and continues to have to this day on the natural world and raises important questions about whether or not the current fashion industry and its demands can coexist with the natural world, without degrading it.

This show traces the evolution of natural materials used in fashion; fibres such as silk, wool and flax as well as the wildlife that sometimes comprised fashion garments. From the beautiful feathers of Birds of Paradise to to the sheen of a Beetle’s body the fashion industry has not typically shown restraint when it comes to the use of wildlife for new materials.

Against this timeline the low hum of our environmental impact gradually grows into a loud roar as climate change takes root and we can observe the massive environmental impacts.

The natural, supposedly more eco-friendly materials, such as cotton, are brought into question with the exhibit highlighting the devastating impact of the cotton industry on the Aral Sea in Russia.

This is a sobering look at the impact of fashion on our natural world but a timely reminder that fast and disposable fashion does have consequences that reach far beyond our wardrobes. On display are items such as the now famous Calvin Klein dress made from recycled plastic bottles and worn by Emma Watson at the 2016 Met Gala whilst Designers with Environmentalist priorities, such as Vivienne Westwood, are also speaking out  to bring the topic of sustainable fashion up the public list priorities.

And the reason why sustainable fashion should be at the very top of our agendas are varied. Clothing accounts for more of the emissions we produce than all flights and shipping combined. The ripple out effect of our burgeoning fashion industry in the West has been a whole new industry of second hand clothing that has traditionally been shipped to Asia and Africa.

…But after decades of receiving second hand clothes these countries are in some cases, and not surprisingly, now deciding that they no longer want these cast-offs.

Asia countries have developed sophisticated fashion industries that have caught up with the Western World in recent decades, but with this development at breakneck speed they have encountered all of the challenges that we are experiencing today.

India has one of the most diverse fashion and clothing industries in the world and yet it’s cities also rank amongst the world’s most highly polluted.

A culture of fast-fashion, where clothes are used and disposed of after only as few uses, has meant that the second hand fashion industry has become completely clogged. There is now clothing recycling bins on every street corner, ubiquitous and usually bursting at the seams with old shoes, coats, clothing and everything else that people in developed Western economies have decided they no longer need. 

Consumers also no longer repair their clothing as very often it is usually cheaper and more convenient for them to simply buy a replacement. And in this kind of scenario it can be difficult to see how companies might adapt to a sustainable world of fashion without impacting their bottom line.

Greenpeace has published an innovative Detox campaign emphasising the need for an effective use of a relatively new concept called circularity.

“Circularity” is being promoted as the latest solution to the environmental problems of our wasteful society, particularly by the fashion industry and policy makers.

The concept of circularity is not new. Stella McCartney has long been at the forefront of sustainable fashion and has dedicated her brand to its full implementation.

We believe that the future of fashion is circular – it will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love never end up as waste.

And Greenpeace argues:

there needs to be a radical transformation through slowing the flow of materials and implementing long- term waste prevention solutions which would design out the waste altogether.

And they’re not the only ones — in June 2018 MPs in the UK launched a new inquiry into the UK fashion industry’s and its devastating environmental impact.The inquiry will aim to investigate the carbon, resource use and water footprint of clothing throughout its life cycle, as well as the options for recycling.

Governments around the world are waking up to the fact that an unrestrained fashion industry represents serious threats to the natural environment and our home as well as the pollution and CO2 emissions that are a unpleasant, waste byproduct of the fashion industry. Most people are probably not aware, understandably so, that everytime we wash our clothes, thousands of plastic fibres can be washed down our drains and ultimately into the oceans where they can have a damaging effect on marine life.

Going Green with Sustainable Fashion

Which is why some of the major fashion brands, including H&M, ASOS, Zara and 64 more have signed up to a commitment to ‘go green’ by 2020.

Brought into focus by the Global Fashion Agenda this commitment signs companies up to the following immediate action points in order to help facilitate the fashion industry’s transition to a sustainable future. They are:

  • Action point 1: Implementing design strategies for cyclability
  • Action point 2: Increasing the volume of used garments collected
  • Action point 3: Increasing the volume of used garments resold
  • Action point 4: Increasing the share of garments made from recycled post-consumer textile fibres

This groundbreaking initiative allows fashion companies to work within a framework whilst setting their own targets.  

The urgency of this initiative is highlighted by the commitment to work towards an ambitious timelined goal of 2020. This underlines the importance of a fast implementation in order to mitigate some of the harmful impacts that the fashion industry is having on the environment and it also pushes back against concerns that the initiative is simply a box ticking exercise created in order to placate consumers and environmentalists.

The relationship between the world of fashion and the natural world has not always been an easy one and with its significant impact on the health of our planet, it’s a relationship that needs some work. Although the answers are not simple or easy, if society, industry and government work together to find a new way forward there is a chance sustainable fashion could be a major player in the fight against environmental degradation.





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