According to the United Nations, fashion contributes 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production.
In addition to this, 20 per cent of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry. And according to a report from Institution of Mechanical Engineers, each time an item of clothing is washed microscopic fibres are making their way into the ocean – causing ocean pollution that organisations like Ocean Unite are working to reduce.
But what about the designers and manufacturers working to make fashion more eco-friendly?
Inspired by her childhood experiences in the Bahamas, designer Anya Willique handcrafts bespoke bags using Pinatex, a natural ‘leather’ made from pineapple leaf fibre. “It’s a wonderful alternative to animal-based fashion products and when I first came across Pinatex in 2016, I just had to use it,” says Willique who explains that this innovative and highly sought-after fabric puts value on a previously wasted resource.
To make Pinatex long fibres are extracted from discarded leaves and pineapple tops – the by-products of the pineapple harvest. These fibres are washed and left out to dry in the sun, then made into a mesh. Manufactured in the Philippines then finished and coloured in Spain, the resulting fabric is soft and lightweight, durable and long-lasting. “Pinatex is perfect for sewing and I have been using it to make bags, often with a metallic finish - each one is made to order as it’s a time-consuming process – it can take up to four weeks to sketch, design make and sew one bag,” says Willique who now works so instinctively with this natural fabric. “Over the past three years, it has been great to get to know exactly how to work with this material – I know if it’s going to shred, or when it might need reinforcing. It has become second nature.”
Speaking from Turks and Caicos, Willique explains that she is currently seeing a big increase in demand so she’s looking to expand and train someone up to help her. While in the Caribbean she’s developing her new collection using straw: “Straw is one of our main industries here on the islands, and I remember watching the straw vendors weaving baskets when I was growing up in the Bahamas, so when I saw this kind of material in the UK, it took me back to my childhood,” explains Willique who is inspired by the vivid colours of the tropics as much as the vibrant buzz and architectural shapes of the city of London where she is based.
She’s not alone is taking a more conscious and ethical approach to fashion and many other designers are inventing, upcycling and getting creative in sourcing raw materials. Willique found it “refreshing” to be part of a new collective of sustainable designers that recently launched its first exhibition of luxury start-up brands in London. Eco Luxury Showcase is a hub for ethical designers, buyers and customers to connect and it’s a sign that the fashion industry is becoming more serious about sustainability.
Jenny Holloway, director of Belles of London, another member of the fashion collective with a London-based factory, says her ethical ethos reaches beyond the natural materials they use to encompass the fair treatment of workers. "We use pure wool and silk and we source fabric from the UK to reduce our carbon footprint. But it’s also about being ethical with our employees and about women empowering women. We employ lots of single Eastern European women and ensure they are paid and treated fairly. We barcode our work so customers know who made which individual stitch on their clothes. Customers can then scan the barcode in and see photographs of the women who have made their garment."
When Willique founded her business in 2016, she found it difficult to mention sustainable fashion. "But now it is amazing to be part of this time and to be able to make the first steps to protect the planet. I made a deliberate decision to make my collection more conscious and to not just be about the aesthetics but to teach others as well. Sustainability has to start from the beginning – it’s about finding the right people so that sustainability then channels into the product and the rest of the business. I want to know everyone has a fair wage and that it’s not having a harsh impact on the environment.”
This is undoubtedly a growing market. Even high street retailers H&M, Primark and C&A have launched ‘conscious collections’ this spring using sustainably-sourced materials. It’s essential that this ethos spreads into the mainstream market in order to have a greater impact because fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, second only to oil. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation is calling for a new textiles economy to redesign the future of the fashion industry, and consumer pressure can help drive that switch. Willique agrees that each shopper has the chance to make a positive impact every time a decision is made at the checkout, in terms of the ethics we want to support. Her mission is to empower people: “My whole hope when I started my conscious collection was to send a powerful message through my bags. I can tell the story about why I am doing it this way and it can open people’s minds as well.”
Sustainably-sourced slow fashion
Fashion designers are increasingly upcycling in creative new ways or finding innovative uses for natural ‘waste’ materials. In addition to the Pinatex that Willique uses, other plant-based leathers include the fast-drying Cocona fabric made out of coconut husks, Frumat which transforms waste apple skins and Vegea which uses the skins, seeds and stems of grapes from the Italian winemaking industry to create eco-friendly biomaterials. Ferragamo is the first luxury fashion house to create a capsule collection using sustainable fabric made using by-products from the citrus juice industry.
And from fruit to fishing - the new social enterprise Waterhaul transforms recovered ghost fishing nets into trendy sunglasses (pictured below), and Econyl fabric manufactured from recycled nylon yarn sourced from fishing nets and carpet offcuts is now widely used in the swimwear industry.
Riz Boardshorts were one of the first companies to manufacture fabric using 100 per cent recycled plastic bottles, and Planet Warrior’s yoga activewear (pictured) is following suit. And the quest for a more circular textiles economy continues with MIH Jeans – you can recycle your pair of jeans with a company admirably aiming to make 10 per cent of their jeans purely from post-consumer recycled cotton.