September has been quite a month. The first 2 weeks were, as ever, all about Fall Fashion Week in New York City, with models strutting designer collections down the catwalk and fast fashion mongers taking notes on trending looks to create their own ‘new’ collections to bring to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. As soon as Fashion week was over, the Textile Industry rolled out their newest home fashions collections for Fall Market Week, sprucing up their showrooms to seduce buyers of mega consumer outlets. And last Friday, the final day of Textile Market week, students in New York City and all around the world cut school and took to the streets to demand environmental protection.
Over the past few years environmental protection agencies like Greenpeace have been raising awareness about the toxic trail that follows fashion, but many consumers remain unaware. The students who demonstrated may not have realized just how clever their timing was or how relevant their climate strike is to the fashion and textile industries. They may not know just how much our planet suffers in the name of fashion. They may not know that the textile industry (which includes the fashion industry) is the second largest air polluter after the oil industry and the second largest water polluter after agriculture; or that it is responsible for 85% of human made debris on shorelines in the form of synthetic fabrics and microfibers shed from those fabrics, and that it is responsible for 23% of all chemicals produced worldwide and accounts for 5.2% of all landfill in the form of textile and garment waste. They may not know that the textile industry cuts down 70 million trees per year to make room for agriculture and grazing land to produce natural fibers (cotton, bamboo, wool, cashmere) that further contribute to soil degradation. All this for the sake of fashion. (More about fashion industry pollution here).
The good news is that whether or not they knew all this, the millions of youth who cut school for climate legislation on Friday were sending their message loud and clear not only to their governments but directly into the eyes and ears of the fashion industry. Those kids represent the force of future fashionistas so they wield the mighty power of the next generation of consumers. This is a big deal because consumer demand drives industry trends, and textile and fashion manufacturers are most certainly watching. Smart industry leaders are wising up, and are already finding ways to clean up and green up by turning to more sustainable practices that are not only possible but profitable as well. New designers with a commitment to sustainability are receiving special attention in go to fashion rags like Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle magazine, as well as niche environmental webzines such as ecophiles. Meanwhile Eco fashion week, which was established in Canada in 2010, has been steadily gaining steam by introducing ethically aspirational designer collections while hosting forums to discuss and raise awareness about new approaches to sustainability in the fashion industry.
It was thrilling to see this shift in person when I was hired to style the showroom for Grace Home Fashions for Textile Market Week. Grace Home Fashions is a bedding subsidiary of a giant Indian Chemical Company, GHCL.
(It should come as no surprise that textile production has intimate ties to the chemical industry. The chemical industry produces fertilizers and pesticides to maximize the growth of crops for “natural” textile production. Synthetic fabrics -polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc.- are chemically produced polymers derived from petroleum based chemicals. Further along the production line chemical dyes - often toxic- produce the vivid colors that we love. So yes… the textile industry, even cotton - “the fabric of our lives” - is tightly enmeshed with the chemical industry.)
So why was I thrilled? It turns out that GHCL, the Chemical parent of Grace Home Fashions, is going greener on their own initiative. Their new REKOOP collection introduces closed loop recycling into textile production and more sustainable practices all the way down the line. GHCL chemical engineers have created synthetic fabrics from 100% recycled, traceable PET plastics woven with cotton and linen into 15%, 25%, 40% and up to 60% poly-cotton blends in luxuriously high thread counts with a hand feel as smooth and silky as Egyptian cotton. I can vouch for that myself! One twin sized sheet set recycles as many as 30 plastic bottles. The cotton they use is all sourced from either organic or BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) certified farmers adhering to sustainable farming practices. REKOOP includes a line of “dope dyed” viscose/poly blend sheets, using a dyeing technique in which dye pigments are introduced during the “dope” stage (the polymer liquid before it is spun into thread), dramatically reducing water use and waste water contamination as well as production time. Grace Home Fashions sheet sets are sold in biodegradable packaging that dissolves in water. On the tail end GHCL is planning to instigate collection of used sheets in their major export markets (US/UK/Europe) so that their sheets can be shredded and separated, the synthetic fibers woven again into new thread and the organic fibers composted. Included in the SWAG giveaways for their customers is an attractive reusable water canister and a bracelet of clear beads made from recycled PET plastic. They even neutralize the carbon emissions of their business travel by investing in wastewater treatment programs through the South Pole Group.
Creative director Candy Singh papered the walls of the showroom with ocean waves and information graphics about REKOOP’s various sustainable practices. He hired artist Katrina Slack to use recycled ocean plastics to create sea creatures - giant jellyfish suspended from the ceiling as though floating around the beds, a myriad of starfish, and a leaping dolphin fashioned from recovered fishnets. These magnificent creatures served not only to summon the calm of the deep but to underscore the message of this collection: it is possible to recycle our trash and our fabrics and to protect our environment while still producing beautifully designed (and profitable) products.
This is just a start. Many of the sins of the fashion industry are committed in order to meet consumer demand, as well as by consumers themselves - like when we toss our old clothes out with the trash without a second thought, instead of mending, donating or recycling them. If consumers as well as industry leaders make a concerted effort to become aware and mindful of the consequences of their actions and take steps to correct them, perhaps we can turn things around together to sustain our planet and our style.
Here is an easy guide to 7 forms of sustainable fashion from Green Strategy to help you stay stylish with a clean conscience.