There is exciting news from this year's mainstream fashion scene. Sustainable fashion is becoming one of the biggest trends of 2019, and a huge part of the conversation like never before. This discussion of sustainability and transparency in fashion is making headlines in major fashion publications such as Vogue, and are now reaching a larger audience than ever before.
What's more, according to a recently released report by Lyst, there has been a 66% increase in sustainable searches for sustainable fashion so far in 2019 compared to 2018, and specifically, for our niche, searches are up 119% for vegan leather. Sustainable denim searches are up 187%, as well as an increase by 16% for searches for organic cotton. The term “vegan fashion” has also had over 9.3 million social impressions.
Not only are searches up, but overall, people seem to be much more ready to hear the message that sustainable fashion brings to the table. Compared to a few years ago, there has been a major shift in thinking among the public. As climate change becomes more evident, more people are starting to realize that it is no longer a choice to care about the environment, but our duty.
In past years, sustainability was viewed as a trivial aspect of a brand, and in fact, many consumers reacted negatively to messages about saving the environment, seeing it as "guilt marketing" that only was effective on people who already cared about the environment, but fell on mainly deaf ears of the majority of the population who didn't particularly seek to make eco-friendly purchases.
According to designer Chris Raeburn, "we are at a pivotal time where the shift in mindsets is beginning to happen." He also feels people are becoming more interested in sustainability, and more educated and curious about the issues behind the sustainable fashion movement.
H.E. Siim Kiisler, President of the UN Environment Assembly, echoes this sentiment. He states, “By using fashion as a form of activism and empowerment, the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion doesn’t perceive sustainability as a limitation to fashion, but rather a trigger for bringing real creativity and passion into the industry.”
Plant Textiles and the Future of Fashion
With the launch of the new H&M Conscious Collection on April 11, mainstream fashion writers have started addressing the issue of sustainable fabrics in fashion in a big way.
Specifically, the main point that has people talking is the innovative use of new plant-based textiles that H&M has started to utilize in this new collection.
We have been supporters of H&M for a long time, a company who, despite being a fast-fashion outlet that still has a lot of work to do to be fully sustainable, has been making huge strides in the industry. H&M is leaps and bounds beyond any other fast fashion retailer, and has already made many changes in its supply chain to address the problems with worker rights in Bangladesh, according to ground-level research done by Alden Wicker of EcoCult.
In particular, the new Conscious Exclusive Collection of Spring 2019 has made use of three new materials never before used by H&M. First, they have begun to use Piñatex, a textile made from pineapple skins, for the first time. We have written a bit about Piñatex before, and although we do not (yet) make use of it in our store, we are big fans and think it has huge potential as a material. They have also begun to use Orange Fiber, a silk-alternative fabric made from orange peels, which happens to be made right here in our home country of Italy! Last, they have made use of BLOOM Foam, which is a foam made from algae biomass. H&M says that the use of these algae blooms "cleans the environment and reduces the risk of algal blooms while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels." In fact, all of these fabrics make use of what would be otherwise be considered waste material to be discarded, as a by-product of the harvest of pineapples, juicing of oranges, and algae in waterways.
In an interview with Vogue Magazine, Ann-Sofie Johansson, H&M’s creative advisor, says “It’s so incredible to have the opportunity to work with all of these truly beautiful materials that show that fashion and sustainability must go hand in hand.”
We couldn't agree more! Although perhaps still small on the grand scale, these are all amazing steps forward in the right direction!
We believe, without a doubt, that alternative, plant-based textiles will be the solution to the environmental crisis created by the years of mindless trend-following brought about by the fast-fashion industry. Seeing as how humans probably aren't going to stop wearing clothes any time soon, we need to address what materials our clothes are actually made from, and take a serious look at the raw materials used in textile production.
Criticism of H&M
However, some people disagree that plant-based textiles are the solution to the fast-fashion crisis.
Some critics have voiced their concerns that this new use of fabrics like pineapple and orange peels are simply "gimmicks," or a way for big companies like H&M to seem like they are making much more effort than they actually are toward real sustainability in their supply chain. There are two major concerns that have been voiced regarding these new, innovative eco-textiles.
The first is that these materials, to prevent them from readily biodegrading while being worn, are processed to extend their longevity. Some of these materials are coated with a non-biodegradable petroleum-based resin, which renders the materials themselves unable to naturally biodegrade, despite the fact that they are made from renewable textiles.
The second concern is there are not enough of these plant-based textiles that could actually be used on a large-scale to make a dent in the material production used in fashion.
Linda Greer, a fashion sustainability expert and former lead scientist at the Natural Resource Defense Council, told Global Citizen "the use of organic materials like pineapple leaves and orange peels are sustainable in theory, but they fail to address the fundamental problems of the fashion industry. They just don’t grow that many pineapples for the leaves to be collected to go into this effort. So why are they spending their time and effort on something like this that isn’t scalable?”
However, she does support certain aspects of this effort, as she continues, “I would say that on the plus side, it’s great that they’re [H&M] using a renewable resource, which is biological waste, so it doesn’t require the mowing down of forest to plant something new,” she said.
We completely understand Greer's points, and we admire her dedication to addressing this issue thoroughly and at all levels of production, and not being satisfied with just making slight, eye-catching efforts that aren't actually going to amount to widespread change in the fashion industry.
However, despite these criticisms, we still support H&M's efforts. We think that although perhaps plant-based textiles are only one piece of the puzzle, using these innovative textiles is still a huge step toward changing the fashion industry as a whole.
Innovative Plant-Based Thinking
I think the discussion of plant-based textiles in fashion can be likened to the conversation surrounding renewable energy.
Often, critics of renewable energy say that although it is an admirable initiative, we cannot create enough renewable energy to displace the petroleum fuels that are currently the global standard for powering our electrical infrastructure and our automobiles.
But, we don't subscribe to this belief. I feel that this is only still the case because large corporations and governments have not started to take these initiatives seriously enough yet. While perhaps in certain places it is true that there might not be enough sunlight to completely rely on solar energy, with the combination of all forms of renewable energy including wind, solar, and hydro-powered energy, I believe that it is already possible to transition the world off of fossil fuels. But, it would take a major effort on all parts to make this happen, including corporate and government initiatives, new laws, and loud public demand. If all forces united to make clean, renewable energy a global reality, using a combination of all of the existing renewable energy sources, we believe that it is possible to accomplish.
It is the same concept with plant-based textiles in fashion. Sure, there are still some kinks to work out. But the point is to first, raise awareness and demand, and then, bring together a new model for fashion that makes it possible to use a wide range of renewable textiles in innovative new combinations. This will take the true determination of the entire fashion industry, as well as turning to sustainable agriculture to make the raw material production a reality. Sure, there might not be enough discarded pineapple skins today to make Piñatex alone an industry-wide scalable solution. But, Piñatex is far from the only natural vegan leather alternative! With the combination of cork leather, mushroom leather, apple leather, banana peel leather, and many more, natural vegan textiles could easily be enough to provide for the world's fashion needs in place of animal-hide leather.
Starting the Conversation
Vogue Magazine agrees that these innovative plant-based textiles are important for not only inspiring and innovating new fashion designers, but for initiating the conversation around sustainable fashion. The "element of surprise" is important as well, they say, as it helps to not only start the conversation around these new textiles, but also to help tell the brand's story. "If your dress is made from re-purposed orange peels, isn't that the first thing you'd tell someone?" they ask. These plant-based cutting-edge textiles are hitting the market at a perfect time, they add, as environmental concern is on everyone's mind and many people are asking more questions about the impact of our clothes and lifestyle choices.
Although we don't like to seem like we are simply promoting cork because we sell it, cork is the one vegan textile that does not use any coatings or petrochemical resins in its production. Cork production a huge part of the economy of Portugal, and a growing part of the economy in Spain and Italy. There is enough cork to meet global demand currently for the next 100 years, and more land is being dedicated to cork oak forests throughout the south of Portugal to be able to even exceed the current production levels of cork.
Also, Piñatex has made a statement on their website that they are actively working toward replacing the petroleum-based resin on their products with a biodegradable, non-toxic, natural resin. As Piñatex receives more support and more interest in their product, I have no doubt that there will be great improvements made to the material to reach complete sustainability.
But even if some natural vegan leathers such as Piñatex have a petrochemical resin, they still save untold amounts of fossil fuels from being used in raw material production. Currently, petrochemical fabrics make up a large part of the materials used in fashion, including polyester, lycra, spandex, nylon, and PVC and PU plastics (often used to make so-called synthetic "vegan leather"). Diverting away from these materials toward natural resources is far more beneficial to the environment than continuing to use petroleum-derived fabrics as raw materials. It doesn't make sense to say, "Oh, well, natural fibers aren't yet perfect, so we should just remain with the status-quo." Switching to natural fabrics that do not pollute in the production/harvest stage is addressing the first step in replacing the current linear design model of fashion with a more circular model.
Shift in Mentality
Sustainable fashion also needs to recognize that our mentality surrounding fashion needs to change. There might not be enough plant-based textiles to meet the current needs of the fast-fashion machine, but this is also because fast-fashion retailers grossly overproduce clothing. They manufacture false demand based on new "trends" appearing every week and 50-100 "micro-seasons" every year, compared to the traditional two cycles of fashion seasons per year. that is , spring/summer and fall/winter styles. This overproduced clothing is intentionally made with low-quality standards and destined to fall apart in a short amount of time.
Due to these new fashion industry trends, the average person bought 60% more clothing and kept each article for half as long in 2014 than in 2000, according to the World Resources Institute. This mentality of throw-away fast fashion needs to be the first thing that we address. Before attempting to simply replace the model that exists with sustainable fabric alternatives, we need to face the fact that we produce way too much clothing, which is made possible by paying workers slave wages in countries like Bangladesh, all the while creating multi-millionaires out of CEOs of faceless corporations severely lacking with regards to ethics and environmental accountability.
With all of this said, I firmly believe that plant-based textiles are the way forward to create a sustainable and environmentally beneficial fashion industry. We still have a long way to go, but innovation is on the horizon, and the future is looking bright for plant-based, sustainable brands!
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