Fashion designer Lola Faturoti was conflicted. She had made a mark and was distributing upscale, contemporary designs to global retailers, but she was aware of the footprint her industry was leaving on the planet. A November 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for instance, showed that one garbage truck’s worth of textiles is wasted each second, and not even 1 percent of clothing is recycled. It estimates that by 2050 the industry will contribute 25 percent of the world’s annual carbon budget. In any case, Faturoti decided to reinvent herself.
In 2017, the London-born, Nigeria-raised and New York-based designer launched Lola Loves Cargo, a new collection of sustainable cargo pants that she says preserve traditional African designs and minimize “dumping” of wasted textiles in developing countries. She reuses old T-shirts and army jackets that incorporate African designs. Faturoti is among a growing set of designers across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas who are embracing upcycling as their production method, turning zero-waste and sustainable fashion into an approach that even followers of high-end fashion are increasingly finding they can’t ignore.
Surveys by Global Fashion Agenda, an international platform of professionals trying to prod the industry to turn sustainable, and the Boston Consulting Group show that the percentage of fashion companies for whom sustainability targets are a “guiding principle” in most decisions has gone up from 34 percent in 2017 to 52 percent in 2018. By addressing the environmental and societal fallout of its current practices, the fashion industry could save the global economy $160 billion each year — that’s more than the gross domestic product of the vast majority of the world’s countries.
Actress Alysia Reiner (of Orange Is the New Black) launched her own zero-waste fashion label, Livari, in July 2017. Estonian designer Reet Aus uses leftover fabric from factories to design jeans, T-shirts and skirts; inspired by a 2012 visit to Bangladesh’s sweatshops, she has set up a certification process called Upmade for designers who upcycle. Aus was among just a handful of zero-waste designers at Berlin Fashion Week’s inaugural Greenshowroom in 2009. In 2018, 170 designers participated. In the U.K., MAMOQ, an online marketplace dedicated to sustainable fashion, launched in 2017.
We are just at the beginning of the zero-waste fashion journey, but it is certainly a very exciting time for fashion.
Madeline Petrow, founder and CEO, MAMOQ
Los Angeles-based Ambercycle, which launched in 2014, uses microbes to break down polyester clothes to use in fresh textiles. Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is growing leather in a lab. Ghanaian-American communications professional Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson teamed up in 2013 to launch Studio 189, which manufactures sustainable clothing in West Africa. In 2018, the startup won an $80,000 grant from the CFDA + Lexus Fashion Initiative, which supports ethical fashion. The explosion of sustainable fashion in Asia, the Pacific and Australia became evident at the first-ever Eco Fashion Week Australia, held in Perth in 2017. A total of 40 brands from Australia, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, Japan and others displayed designs made from degradable and recycled materials. Hong Kong-based label BYT, for instance, makes upcycled jackets using cast-offs from the luxury fashion industry. Over the past decade, sustainable fashion has slowly started taking roots in Latin America too, with Uruguay’s Ruta 10, Mexico’s Hacienda Montaecristo and Peru’s Roger Loayza emerging as major champions of the trend. And this is only the start, say designers.
“We are just at the beginning of the zero-waste fashion journey, but it is certainly a very exciting time for fashion,” says Madeline Petrow, founder and CEO of MAMOQ.
A seminal moment for the fashion industry came when Rana Plaza — a building in Dhaka that housed factories churning out clothes for global fast-fashion majors — collapsed, killing more than 1,000 garment workers. While the immediate focus fell on working conditions at such factories, the soul-searching soon spread to other elements of the industry, including how it was affecting the planet. The fast-fashion industry remains a major culprit, says Faturoti. “They’re the corporates; they’re the ones making 10,000 pants in one month — who can do that? Go figure.” Now they’re beginning to change. Swedish firm H&M’s new brand Arket, launched in 2017, focuses on the sustainability of its clothes across the product manufacturing process.
Luxury fashion brands haven’t been epitomes of sustainability in the past either, suggests Adria Vasil, online editor at Corporate Knights, a business magazine and research firm that produces rankings and financial product ratings based on corporate sustainability performance. But there’s been a spike in the number of apparel brands joining U.N. climate change initiatives and signing onto plastic pollution reduction pledges, she says. Gucci-owned luxury brand Kering, for instance, in 2017 announced that it would cut its environmental footprint by 40 percent by 2022. It still needs to work on disclosing supply factory addresses, “but we definitely give [Kering] credit for opening its books to reveal” its carbon and waste footprint, says Vasil.
Make no mistake, sustainability comes at a high cost. A Livari and Elvis & Kresse clutch costs $160, while Livari’s ballet flats with Oka-B are $60. Reet Aus recycled knits are just over $130; a Studio 189 jumpsuit could cost between $325 and $525; Lola Loves Cargo cargo pants are $240, and its sweatshirts $65. In comparison, Zara offers cargo pants for between $30 and $40. So someone committed to buying from sustainable or zero-waste brands may have to also commit to buying less and spending more.
But those high costs will only come down as the market for sustainability standards in fashion grows. The firms — including the luxury brands — that are the pioneers are already responding primarily to pressure from customers, and that’s only going to increase, say industry analysts. “With the proliferation of knowledge around social, environmental, political and ethical issues, people are increasingly exposed to information that they would have previously been unaware of,” says Emma Slade Edmondson, a fashion-focused marketing and brand consultant. “This raises questions when it comes to their favorite brands and retailers.” She believes it would be foolish not to anticipate the growth of consumer demand of sustainable fashion “with Gen Z now making up 32 percent of the population and millennials being another key cohort.”
For sure, manufacturing zero-waste fashion remains a challenge. It takes extra planning and effort to cut patterns that limit excess fabric waste, and to think of strategic ways to use any waste created. Making sure that colors, dyes and treatments don’t percolate into nature can prove complicated. But these designers aren’t willing to wait any longer. “There will always be challenges associated with changing the status quo,” says Petrow. It requires patience on the part of these designers — Faturoti admits her sustainable range isn’t as fast-selling as her original collections. “There’s still a lot of education that needs to be learned,” she says. But slowly, she’s seeing the change in customers’ attitudes. “Some people are conscious about it; some people are getting it.”