Last week Eco-Age’s fashion and textiles team Charlotte and Philippa visited the 9th Future Fabrics Expo in London, which was bigger and more popular than ever before. Over 1,000 visitors attended on the first day alone, reflecting the growing momentum for businesses to adopt more sustainable supply chain practices. Here are their top takeaways.
The overall feeling at the 9th Future Fabrics Expo was one of hope, with Fashionopolis author Dana Thomas declaring 2020 “the year of clarity” where we seriously consider how the fashion industry can build on the momentum of change that’s been percolating in recent years – and most importantly, act on it.
This empowered message was echoed by the event organizers The Sustainable Angle throughout the two days, who argue that fashion can be a powerful force for positive change by adopting regenerative principles, a circular systems approach and sustainable design strategies. Not only this, but it is intrinsically linked to the Sustainable Development Goals which were on show throughout the event.
Accompanying the showcase of materials and supply chain solutions was a wealth of information and seminar series, held in partnership with Parley for the Oceans. Parley Founder Cyrill Gutsch opened the sessions by urging visitors to remember that “it’s our obligation to inspire and encourage everyone to make change – we should not rely on systems that have failed us over the last 50 years – instead in the next ten years we need to find alternatives for every single material ingredient.”
Further seminars featured key thought leaders, innovators, industry insiders, textile producers and designers including Clare Press,Vogue Australia’s sustainability editor at large, Mary Creagh, former UK Member of Parliament and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, fashion and culture critic and journalist, Christine Goulay from the Kering Group, Lukas Fuchs, research Analyst at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Jasmine Hemsley, author of East by West, Phoebe English, designer, and Tamara Cincik, CEO and Founder of Fashion Roundtable.
One main topic of conversation was the human side of fashion. Claire Press urged us to be willing to take risks and fail in the pursuit of a better future, while Dana Thomas mused that we buy clothes and toss them without much thought because we haven’t invested much in them financially or emotionally. “Where we once bought one item, we now buy ten – we could keep getting dressed for a couple of decades without making anything new.”
On this idea, Orsola de Castro explored how we can better make and experience fashion. “We need utter connection. We need to co-habitate with the fact that as people, we are living between things we inherit and things we make ourselves. We can’t live without one or the other so being mindful is essential. And being a conscious consumer means making conscious decisions which we can’t do unless we study.” Finally, she echoed a sentiment often observed, that we don’t need to diminish the products of smaller designers – instead we need to slow down fast fashion production to make space for them instead. Mary Creigh emphasised this, calling for “business to stop profiting from making problems and to start making profits from solving problems.”The former UK MP also noted that we all need to “change the way we invest, so sustainability isn’t a luxury for the rich but a norm for everybody”.
From a consumer perspective, the speakers explored the guilt we can feel as small, individual customers, and how this can make our actions feel negligible and insignificant. However, we must not lose hope, and keep voting with our voices and purchases to bring about a better future for fashion.
Another key talking point was the use of language and terminology to increase brand transparency and decrease consumer confusion. In response to Claire Press’ question about how we can make sustainability the language of business success whilst also accepting that terms like innovation have been so overused they may be losing meaning, Christine Goulay of Kering explained there are actually ten versions of innovation including incremental, disruptive and radical. Hanna Denes from Responsible Wool Standard opted for the term ‘preferred fibres’ instead of ‘sustainable fibres’, as side by side comparison of material impacts is incredibly difficult.
Christine was also transparent about the fact there are still hurdles to making these materials the norm – from ensuring scaling up alternative materials doesn’t cause detrimental environmental or social impacts, to the challenges of getting the entire supply chain on board, and of course the need for resources. For Kering itself she admitted that they can achieve 20% of their 40% EP&L reduction targets themselves, but need collaboration to achieve the rest.
But there is hope. Designer Phoebe English reflected on the fact that whilst it can be hard to feel positive sometimes through a feeling of contributing to the environmental crisis, she is hugely optimistic of what the design community can do. “We either decide to contribute in a positive way now or live with the consequences”. A designer spotlight exhibition highlighted just some of the designers already trying to do their part, including Phoebe herself and Patrick McDowell.
Some of the speakers’ biggest hopes for the future were regenerative systems, carbon sequestration, and utilising waste materials. Below are some of the key topics and solutions we identified to be aware of for the future.
Circularity continued to be high on the agenda. The exhibition included technology to recycle post-consumer garments without the need for further dyeing, as well as recycled, recyclable and safely biodegradable materials such as wool and linen. The importance of investing in circularity over linear business models was discussed amongst panellists who agreed that recycling is only one piece of the puzzle, and that we can no longer “recycle our way out of this mess.” Education, collaboration and investment are essential for overcoming the current challenges facing true circularity.
The climate crisis means that ‘sustainable’ production is no longer sufficient. Instead, we now need to be investigating and investing in ‘regenerative’ solutions that can reverse the environmental damage caused since the Industrial Revolution. We saw some truly innovative projects, including a futuristic photosynthesising fabric coating that not only removes and replaces carbon from the air, but changes colour in the process too. Restoring soil quality and biodiversity through regenerative livestock farming and fibre cultivation was another key theme. Did you know that healthy soil harbours water and removes carbon from the atmosphere, but dry and malnourished soil actually becomes a source of carbon? The book Fibershed provides a great overview to this.
Carbon reduction and sequestration was another key topic, with many exhibits and discussions geared towards remedying the industry’s incessant release of carbon emissions. Carbon emissions can be reduced at all stages of the supply chain – from recycling existing fibres to prevent raw material extraction or cultivation, to investing in renewable energy in production phases. The customer-use phase contributes to significant proportions of a garment’s environmental impact, especially over-washing and many panellists agreed that the industry is lacking sufficient consumer-facing labelling and care instructions. Regenerative farming systems were hailed as a key player for carbon sequestration.
Packaging plays a huge part in the fashion industry’s environmental impact – from single use packaging for business-to-business shipping and consumer packaging that will long outlive its contents, to plastic coat hangers and unnecessary amounts of coated and non-recyclable paper. Several exhibitors and panellists explored alternative options, from recycled and bio-based coat hangers (one even made with grass), to upcycled labelling and compostable bags – which still need further development to be truly feasible.
There were many exciting fabric and fibre developments, from traditional to highly technical. We saw plastic-free fur alternatives made from alpaca and sheep wool, beautiful linen, a fast-growing fibre from the flax plant that flourishes without chemical additives and denim developments made with recycled fibres and reduced-impact processing. There were also plenty of inventive ways to use existing materials such as shoe soles made from marine plastic and recycled cork, to stem virgin raw material production. One of our favourite materials, Piñatex, was on show with new developments, along with another plant-based material Bananatex.