Cotton farmers in Vidarbha, a region that used to be known as India’s cotton belt, face the grim reality of crop failures, sinking global cotton prices and crushing debts. More than 20,000 have killed themselves in the past decade and Vidarbha is now referred to as India’s ‘suicide belt’.
Meanwhile, the current oil shortage means additional concerns over the lifecycle of synthetics derived primarily from petrochemicals. Unlike natural fibres, their source is not renewable and they are not biodegradable.
So how is the fashion industry addressing such issues?
Last year Yves Saint Laurent launched the New Vintage collection, made from recycled remnant fabric from past YSL collections, and Marks & Spencer is aiming to become the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015 via its Plan A campaign.
However, although such initiatives are a start, they are not enough, according to Suzanne Lee, senior research fellow in the School of Fashion and Textiles Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. ‘Imagine if we could grow clothes instead,’ says Lee.
Lee is the author of Fashioning the Future, a book in which she explores the future of fashion and clothing, using examples such as the spray-on dress and the talking t-shirt. Her visions are now becoming reality, as she experiments with the concept of growing garments from bacterial-cellulose, through her BioCouture project.
In collaboration with material scientist Dr David Hepworth, co-director of biotech start up CelluComp Ltd, Lee is experimenting with clothes and looking at how the bacterial-cellulose organisms grow.
‘Scientists are looking for ways to explain what they do. And people understand what they see when they see a dress; it’s not something alien to them, so it’s a really good discussion tool,’ Lee says. ‘Once you have a dress in front of someone, you can say ‘You know what? This dress is actually made from a completely different process than you might imagine.’ Then you can begin to talk about the science.’
Her design studio is thus very different to a conventional studio. Lee and Hepworth mix bacteria with yeast and sweetened tea to manufacture their fibres. After 10 days, trapped oxygen produced during the fermentation process sends fibres up to the surface of the tank. These fibres form a mat that is dried and made into the fabric. The last step of the process is printing; Lee uses fruits and vegetables such as blueberries and beetroot to colour the fabrics.
‘You could literally eat your clothes in the future. There is no nutritional value but the fibre is digestible,’ she says.
Lee and Hepworth are currently working with the chemical engineering department at London’s Imperial College to optimise the production process.
‘We will see if we can produce stretchy lace. I want to make shoulder pads from that,’ Lee says. ‘It’s a very conventional fashion component, but it would be completely biodegradable. It’s not made from something synthetic, but actually from something you could find in your kitchen.’
Other garments Lee and Hepworth have produced include a ‘denim’ jacket, entirely hand stitched from bacterial-cellulose, a biker jacket and a shirt.
This alternative production method does not harm the environment. ‘It’s not about growing crops or taking up land mass to produce clothing, neither is it using a petrochemical resource to create fibres,’ says Lee. ‘It’s completely biodegradable.’
Is the fashion industry ready for this change? In the future, Lee could approach brands with a view to collaboration or produce her own lifestyle brand. But she thinks there is a long way to go. ‘I feel that the fashion industry, generally, has got its head in the sand. It needs to wake up fast,’ she says. ‘Half of the sustainability agenda in fashion is being ignored by the bulk of the fashion industry. There are the good and the bad guys, but the bad guys massively outweigh the good ones.’
LS:N Global recently reported in an Insight News article that the fashion industry has to adapt to changes ushered in by climate change, resource shortages and population increase. According to ‘Fashion Futures’, a new study by Forum for the Future and Levi Strauss & Co, the industry must follow to adapt to coming changes.
‘For the fashion industry to be sustainable economically, it must be sustainable socially and environmentally too,’ says John Anderson, president and CEO of Levi Strauss.
According to Lee, some brands are starting to realise this. Ethical fashion labels were prominent during London Fashion week. UK-based By Stamo presented a mix-and-match theme, ‘half jackets’ made of vintage or recycled material that can be buttoned together to create endless variations. Henrietta Ludgate’s collection, winner of the Ethical Fashion Forum’s London Fashion Week innovation award, included local materials such as fine Scottish and Yorkshire wools.
‘Smaller brands like these and organic clothes retailers such as Howies are changing their behaviour to rethink the model for production and consumption,’ notes Lee. ‘The big brands, the luxury goods groups, say that they are trying to address a sustainable agenda, but I think that there is a great deal of lip service and not a lot of action.’
Our top five take-outs
1. Educate employees throughout the structure of the company. ‘There needs to be an understanding throughout the company that ‘we need to change’,’ says Suzanne Lee.
2. Look at the materials you use. ‘Are they sustainable? Brands need to research and resource things that are sustainable; start with the materials,’ says Lee.
3. Check what happens at the end of life with products. Is it possible for consumers to return items? ‘Can products be upcycled or recycled?’ Lee asks.
4. Make customers aware. Some luxury industry players are already reusing expensive materials. ‘I think that’s good practice but they need to make customers part of what they get up to and help them understand why sustainability is a really good thing,’ says Lee.
5. As LS:N Global has reported, the Turbulent Teens decade will see brands teaming up with scientists. ‘That gives you an advantage over other designers or other companies. If you’re already talking to them, you’re already working for the future, and the next generation of products,’ Lee says.