The fashion industry is one of the most environmentally damaging industries globally, accounting for around 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of global wastewater. Producing a single cotton t-shirt can require up to 2,700 litres of water and significant amounts of energy. Additionally, the industry generates a significant amount of waste, with an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste produced each year. For the average US consumer, this is ~82 pounds of clothing every year, disposed annually. This model is unsustainable, damaging to the both the environment and the workers involved in the industry - many face poor working conditions and low wages. Given these facts, it is needless to say that we must start looking at sustainable alternatives as a way to make a difference to the climate crisis.
Several new industry trends in sustainable fashion are already emerging and their demand is growing. Major focus areas include:
- Sustainable sourcing: Such as using organic cotton, recycled polyester, plant-based leather and fur, natural dyes etc.
- Resource-efficient production: Reducing the environmental impact of production by using resource-efficient processes, such as minimizing water and energy use, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
- Circular design: Initiatives that aim to design clothing for longevity and reuse, using materials that can be easily recycled or repurposed, and minimizing waste in the production process.
- End-of-life management: Reducing the environmental impact of clothing at the end of its life, including promoting textile recycling, upcycling, and/or encouraging consumers to donate or resell clothing instead of throwing it away.
There are many exciting start-ups operating the emerging sustainable fashion space. For instance, ThredUp has helped promote circular design by creating an online marketplace for buying and selling second-hand clothing, extending the life of garments that might have otherwise gone to waste. Rent the Runway also promotes circular design by encouraging the rental of special occasion dresses, thereby reducing the need for people to purchase single-use garments. These companies are disrupting the traditional model of fast fashion, encouraging consumers to buy second-hand clothing and to rent clothing items. Other more established companies, such as Outerknown and Patagonia, focus on sustainable sourcing and resource-efficient production, using eco-friendly materials and processes that reduce the environmental impact of textile production.
However, in my own experience as a start-up founder in the sustainable fashion space that has now spoken to several brands, I’ve learned that producing sustainable products in the fashion industry is challenging. Brands face significant price pressure to keep costs low, making it difficult to use sustainable materials and to employ ethical labor practices. Additionally, lack of transparency in supply chains can also make it challenging to trace where materials come from and how they are produced. Furthermore, bulk order quantities make it challenging for smaller brands to source sustainable materials. These factors all contribute to the high cost of producing sustainable products, which consumers are often not willing to bear.
As a founder of a sustainable fashion venture in the plant-based leather space, I often find it extremely hard to make these trade-offs. Our venture, Banofi Leather, makes plant-based leather from banana crop waste. Currently, our material is more expensive than traditional animal leather. A key reason for this is that we have partnered with many low-income farmers to source the banana crop waste, in turn providing them with additional income. Brands love our story of working with marginalized farmers, but also want our alternative product to be priced similarly to animal leather. Additionally, our prices are pushed higher due to the two years of R&D investment we’ve had to make, which is yet another aspect that brands are not as eager to support.
Additionally, our Banofi Leather solution is a mixed material and, currently, is not 100% biodegradable. Despite this, it has 90% lower carbon emissions when compared to animal leather. It is essential to remember that often sustainable fashion is not a perfect solution. Some sustainable materials, such as plant-based leather, are not entirely sustainable or biodegradable. However, these alternatives are still significantly better than traditional materials and are a crucial steppingstone for future improvements. Supporting such initiatives often provides R&D funding for improvements to be made.
Despite the clear need for sustainable alternatives to traditional fashion practices, many consumers remain critical of the options that are currently available. One reason for this is the prevalence of greenwashing, or the practice of making false or exaggerated claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service. As consumers become more aware of this issue, they are more distrusting of sustainability claims, making companies hesitant to implement alternatives unless they are ‘perfect’ solutions. However, it's important to recognize that while sustainable fashion may not yet be perfect or completely eco-friendly, it is still a step in the right direction. Through the launch of Banofi, we have learned that brands have extremely high standards for sustainable materials, and want the material to be 100% backyard compostable, whilst also providing the durability and long-lasting nature of animal leather. However, these two different asks contradict each other.
Balancing durability and biodegradability is the major challenge in creating sustainable fashion. Sustainable materials are designed to be long-lasting and durable, so they don’t contribute to the landfilling problem. However, this often means that they are not biodegradable, which then contributes to the plastic usage problem. Additionally, consumers have become increasingly wary of plastic and may be hesitant to purchase products that contain it, leading to a lack of transparency from brands. Prior to starting Banofi Leather, I was critical when large companies said shoes were made from “recycled PET bottles”, when the shoe only contained 20% recycled material. However, I now understand why. As a consumer, I would have never bought the shoe if I read that it only contained “20% recycled material” and would’ve believed that it was a half-baked measure, With Banofi Leather as well, if we say “leather from banana crop waste” vs “leather from 60% banana crop waste”, the former is definitely more appealing to consumers and brands. For the industry to change, we must try and reward transparency where possible, as consumers and as businesses.
Another challenge is the price of synthetic vs. natural materials. Synthetic materials are often much cheaper than natural materials, which can make it difficult for brands to justify investing in sustainable alternatives. Overall synthetic dyes are widespread, easy to use and affordable. Finding sustainable alternatives to synthetic dyes remains a challenge for the industry, and while there are promising developments in natural dyeing techniques these are not yet extremely accessible. Overall, there are many trade-offs that brands must consider when attempting to create sustainable fashion, and it will take continued innovation and investment to overcome these challenges.
In conclusion, while sustainable fashion alternatives may not be perfect, they are still a step in the right direction. Consumers should be less critical of sustainable fashion and acknowledge the progress it represents. Brands face challenges when it comes to producing sustainable products, but investment in sustainable practices and materials is necessary for the fashion industry's shift towards sustainability. Solving the climate crisis requires concerted efforts across all industries and not just energy, transportation, and carbon capture. Building a sustainable fashion industry is the need of the hour. The growing demand for sustainable fashion is promising, and consumers can contribute to the movement by choosing sustainable options, encouraging transparency and rewarding sustainable brands.