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What will make the fashion industry greener?

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High-tech fabrics and lab-grown silks and leathers can help, but we also need a societal mental shift in how we view clothing acquisition. British MPs have launched an inquiry into the fashion industry to determine the full extent of its environmental impact. The inquiry will consider things like resource use, water footprint, and carbon impact throughout clothing’s full life cycle to reestablish the industry as both “thriving and sustainable.”

If fashion were a country, it is said that it would be the fourth biggest polluter on Earth. Those are ambitious words to describe an industry that’s currently the second most polluting one in the world. Achieving sustainability is a huge and very challenging goal. Lucy Siegle, the ethical fashion correspondent for The Guardian, has some thoughts on what could make the industry cleaner and greener. This past weekend, she published a list that features a mix of slow fashion, natural fabrics, and high-tech solutions. Some noteworthy picks from that list:

1) New and alternative fabrics

A whole world of natural fabrics is waiting to be developed, made from banana plant stems and ‘fruit leathers.’ Siegle writes.”The Spanish brand Piñatex has already brought [such] fabrics to market; a square meter of pineapple leather uses 480 waste pineapple leaves and is half the cost of traditional cow leather (and, its proponents claim, comes at a fraction of the environmental cost of raising livestock).”

Seigle also touches on the versatility of yeast to grow ethical, eco-friendly alternatives to leather and silk. One company doing this is Modern Meadow, which we profiled on TreeHugger last summer. Its cruelty-free leather is far less wasteful than ordinary leather because it comes printed in straight-edged sheets. Meanwhile, Bolt Threads is experimenting with using yeast to grow silk.

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2) A greater appreciation for high-quality natural fibers

Wearing wool, silk, cashmere, and organic cotton will be viewed as a luxurious treat. These pieces will be purchased with the intent of keeping for prolonged periods of time, a kind of investment; they will be cared for attentively, protected, and handed down to subsequent generations. The fact that they do not shed plastic microfibres when washed will be important, as will the way they are produced. “A new appraisal of naturals will favor regenerative wool growing: keeping sustainable sized flocks of sheep and goats on grassland, it is claimed, helps to sequester carbon, restore watersheds and benefit wildlife habitats.”

3) New forms of ownership

Clothing rental services will likely become more popular as people seek to update their wardrobes in more affordable, innovative ways. Choosing refurbished or upcycled clothing will be more common, as demonstrated by the increased numbers of retailers accepting their own clothes back for resale at reduced prices. As clothes become more valued and expensive, their owners will prioritize repairs over replacement and learn important maintenance skills, i.e., mending.

Some critics think the technological solutions are largely pointless, that the fashion industry is too far gone to be saved by these relatively tiny efforts. They argue that we need to rethink our relationship with shopping and clothes in general, that no amount of greenwashing or fancy tech innovation will solve the problem we currently face. We need to cure ourselves, somehow, of the irrational need to shop, collect more clothing articles than we need, and buy things that do not fit right or complement our bodies, simply because of the novelty appeals.

We need both influences in our lives. Seigle’s solutions are fascinating and hopeful; the more consumers demand quality and eco-friendly fabrics, the more clothing manufacturers adopt them. At the same time, though, consumption must be curbed. We need to make do with what we have, make it last, and fight against the urge to buy new, even if it has all the eco-friendly, ethical certifications one could dream of.

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Geneva A. Crawford
Twitter nerd. Coffee junkie. Prone to fits of apathy. Professional beer geek. Spent several years buying and selling magma in Miami, FL. Spent a year lecturing about psoriasis in Las Vegas, NV. Managed a small team writing about circus clowns in Las Vegas, NV. Garnered an industry award while writing about lint in the financial sector. Spoke at an international conference about getting my feet wet with dust in Libya. Spoke at an international conference about researching rocking horses in Bethesda, MD.