It’s Friday night, you’ve just finished one of the most hectic working week’s that you can remember, and you’ve had the commute home from hell. A glass of wine, Graham Norton, and the latest copy of British Vogue are all it takes for the stress to ebb away. You do a quick flick through the mag at first, aiming to re-read at a snail’s pace later, but you’re no more than halfway through when you spot the most beautiful dress on someone you’ve never heard of in the society pages. There are no dress details listed so you take a quick snap and run it through Google image search. Voila! Within the space of five minutes you’ve tracked the dress down, whipped out your credit card, and the dress is yours! It’ll be perfect for that dinner in a few weeks’ time you tell yourself, ignoring the fact that you already have a dress to wear to that very same dinner. As the saying goes, you can never have too many dresses… 

But can you?  

To be completely honest, I’ve never given much thought to the amount of ‘stuff’ I buy, and how this might be impacting the environment. It seems absurd now when I think about it. In a world where you can’t sleep at night if you accidentally thrown plastic into the waste bin instead of the recycle bin, where God help you, if you leave a light on ALL DAY… how have I not thought about this?

Welcome Bernice Lee OBE from the Hoffman Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy at Chatham House.  Bernice is a global expert in climate change and sustainability, and we were very lucky to learn her insights on the fashion industry, its environmental impact, and the changes that are afoot.  From Bernice, we learned of a staggering amount of facts that might just change the way we shop.

Fact: The Fashion Industry is the second largest pollutant industry in the world; second to the oil/petroleum industry. Fact: it takes 20,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cotton which translates to one t-shirt and one pair of jeans. To put this in perspective, 2,700 litres of water is enough for one person to hydrate over two years. Fact: Cape Town very nearly ran out of water recently. 

So what can we do? And what’s being done to change this? 

More often than not, synthetic fibres such as polyester are being used. Synthetic fibres are made of petrol chemicals and are not biodegradable.  But they are cheap.  Add to this a fast moving, cyclical stream of cheap pieces that make their way onto the high street, where consumers buy up left right and centre.  These pieces go into wardrobes, where they might be worn once, twice, or sometimes not at all, and then they are ‘donated’ to the needy so we feel better about ourselves, but the reality is they are just being thrown away. In fact, 60% of all clothing produced in one year is thrown away - the equivalent of the national income of Belgium in 2016: US $460 billion. If your mind is not boggled yet, add to that textile washing, which releases a million tonnes of plastic microfibres into the ocean each year - or in layman terms, three billion tops.

So, what’s being done to ease our conscious, in a meaningful and real way?  And what does sustainable fashion mean? Are you willing to sacrifice fashion trends for the good of the environment? The answer should be yes, but, at times they are a changing, a sacrifice may not be required.  As a Vogue ethos states: “sustainable fashion needs to be fashionable first, ethical second.”  

As Bernice pointed out, there are initiatives in place: Better Cotton Initiative - aims to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, and better for the environment it grows in; Global Organic Textile Standard - speaks for itself really; and the Bluesign® System - a solution for sustainable textile production. But do they do enough?  Organic is great, but it’s still going to chew through gallons and gallons of water.  Then there’s ethical brands: Gucci who is going fur-free; Stella McCartney who doesn’t use leather; and Louis Vuitton who makes their signature bag out of vegetable-tanned leather.  You’ve got to start somewhere right? But is it enough? 

Welcome plant-based materials. Banana plant stems are currently waste, but they have the potential to be more than that.  Pineapple leaves are being turned into a leather substitute called Piñatex® - self described as “one of those rare products of design thinking that hits all the sustainability buttons at once: it is a material that is completely cradle to cradle, it substitutes leather that has a very heavy environmental and welfare impact, and it brings new income streams to subsistence farmers, allowing them to fully utilise their crops. The implementation of Piñatex® will have far-reaching societal and environmental benefits.”  Then there’s Mango Materials, a start-up that’s converting methane into a biodegradable polyester called Apexa, and Bolt Threads who is producing a silk alternative that involves genes being implanted into yeast.

So, we have sustainable initiatives, ethical companies, and conscious-easing materials, but what about consumers? Surely responsibility also lies with us? We need the fashion industry, and the fashion industry needs us. How do we be socially responsible, while maintaining our ‘individualism’?  Sharing through renting may provide the solution.  Already the US has 'Rent the Runway' with over 6 million users, and China has 'Y:Closet' with over 5 million users.

While I am ashamed to say that I have never stopped to think about my environmental footprint in terms of the clothes I buy, it was an honour to spend an hour of my day being educated on what is a very real problem, one that up until this point, I willingly contributed to.  In these fast-moving, technology-based times, it is worth noting the one statement from Bernice that summed up the above: If Apple, Google and Microsoft can make a commitment to be 100% renewable by 2020, why can’t the fashion industry stand up and pledge the same?

Written by Sally Erickson

Vogue Fashion Certificate