Unusual materials and a supply chain rethink are helping the fashion industry move toward increased sustainability
The soul of fashion may be love, but its survival has always depended on desire. Both new Gen Z and maturing millennial shoppers are as passionate about their purchases as prior generations have been, but changing times have caught these prized demographics at a crossroads.
“From the economic recession a decade ago to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, millennials and Gen Zs have grown up in a unique moment in time impacting connectivity, trust, privacy, social mobility, and work,” explained Michele Parmelee, Global Chief Talent Officer for Deloitte. “This uncertainty is reflected in their personal views on business, government, leadership, and the need for positive societal change agents.”
One of the greatest desires reshaping the fashion industry is consumers’ need for authenticity, sustainability, and transparency. Young shoppers want to know where their objects of desire come from, where materials are sourced, and how ethical products are manufactured. According to Deloitte’s latest Global Millennial Survey, “Millennials and Gen Zs, in general, will patronize and support companies that align with their values; many say they will not hesitate to lessen or end relationships when they disagree with companies’ business practices, values, or political leanings.”
On the whole, the fashion industry has been slow to respond to these emergent demands, but strong pockets of consciousness do exist; raw material sourcing is becoming an area of fierce attention given that it’s the most murky link on the fashion supply chain. A new partnership between Google and Stella McCartney, designed to measure fashion’s impact on the environment, takes a big step toward much-needed transparency.
“We are actively working with fashion brands, experts, NGOs, and industry bodies with the ambition of creating an open industry-wide tool, and plan to continue driving collaboration with other key players—large and small. We hope that our experiment will give fashion brands greater visibility of impact within their supply chain and actionable insights to make better raw material sourcing decisions with sustainability in mind,” according to Google.
From human trash to humdinger looks
Global fiber production has more than doubled in the last two decades, and will rise to 145 metric tons by 2030. With an estimated 73 per cent of tossed clothing piling up in the world’s landfills, that’s an astounding amount of sheer waste.
As a result, designers are diving deep to discover revolutionary new textiles, and sometimes that means actual dumpster diving. Consider Pentatonic, the company that transforms garbage into luxe goods. As noted on their website, “(W)e invent new materials using the world’s most abundant and dangerous resource–human trash–and we do so without compromising an inch on design, performance, or function.”
German fashion fiber innovator Qmilk shapeshifts unsold milk into silky strands that have natural heat-bonding properties without the need for additives that harm people or the planet. The zero-waste protein fiber is compostable, consumes relatively small amounts of water and energy to manufacture, and can be processed in about five minutes. With silk-like texture, natural moisture wicking and cooling properties, Qmilk is ideal for clothing, but its appearance on retail shelves is a year or so away.
Textile engineers at Bolt Threads want the world to kiss leather and pleather goodbye. Their MyloTM
vegan leather alternative is made from mycelium cells, which are part of the underground structure of mushrooms. The cells are grown on beds of agricultural waste and byproducts; billions of these cells grow into an interconnected 3D network which is then compressed, dyed, and tanned.
The company’s MicrosilkTM alternative to rayon and nylon is inspired by spider silk, and developed from fermented yeast, sugar, and water. In 2017, their first retail offering, a tie, sold out almost immediately.
While conscious fabric developers are making a difference, whether offering fibers made of wheat, wood pulp, fruit skins, and other unconventional natural materials, some industry leaders insist that progress is not moving quickly enough.
“(A)dditional progress requires even bolder, more urgent leadership that dares to redesign the traditional ways of doing business and disrupt the entire system. That dares to create a new movement of forecasting better, producing smarter, and producing less. That dares to develop new business models for reusing, reselling, recycling, and working collectively to avoid overproduction and thus prevent excess stock and dependency on sales. I believe there’s a compelling business case for those who invest in long-term social and environmental sustainability, not just short-term profit,” stated Global Fashion Agenda CEO Eva Kruse.
Blockchain technology may hold the key to a brighter fashion futureFashion House Hugo Boss, a leader in sustainable manufacturing and sourcing practices, set an ambitious target to procure at least 90 per cent of their sourcing volumes from good to satisfactory in their most recent social accountability audits. They reached that goal two years ahead of schedule. In 2017, the firm debuted their first sustainable capsule collection and a vegan sneaker made from pineapple frond fiber.
The firm’s sustainability principal, Heinz Zeller, recently posited that blockchain technology can assist companies to create greater supply chain visibility. “Based on a digitised, decentralised, public ledger of cryptographically secured transactions, blockchain technology empowers companies with the ability to update and grant access to all relevant information, including compliance. Thereby, the receiving business partners and a greater blockchain community validates the information,” he told GFA.
“With information sharing in real time, companies can quickly reach an increased overall efficiency. For example, throughout the whole supply chain, repetitive tasks (e.g. delivery slips, bills of lading and customs clearance) may be automated through so-called ‘smart contracts’ or apps built on information, secured by a distributed ledger. Bringing together procurement, compliance and financial transactions by using so-called cryptographic tokens (a concept pioneered by Bitcoins), the blockchain ecosystem unfolds its real potential and differentiates itself from current approaches.”
As GFA’s Kruse so passionately put it, “Leaders must address the root of the problem. The fashion industry must ask itself how to approach profitability and reconfigure the parameters of success. It cannot tackle this alone, and dramatic change will require collaboration across the entire value chain, including organisations, policymakers, manufacturers, and investors.”