True Fashion Talks: How to Clean up a Dirty Industry

Image: Kenzo No Fish No Nothing Campaign

The relationship between water and fashion runs deep. Each year, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water to produce the clothes we wear. That is 4% of all global freshwater used annually. Ocean plastic pollution is another issue. But even though we can now turn plastic into textiles, only 5% of plastic waste is currently recycled. It doesn’t need to be this way.

To learn more about the role of water and plastics across the fashion industry we gathered more than 100 fashion enthusiasts at Fashion for Good last week to ask industry experts: “How to Clean up a Dirty Industry”

Infinity Wall at Fashion For Good Experience in Amsterdam — Image by Presstigieux

In this report we share the solutions put forward by panelists Doug Mignola, founder of sustainable Fashion brand Hoodlamb and Laura Díaz Sánchez, project leader of Ocean Clean Wash — a campaign initiated by the Plastic Soup Foundation.

The talks were moderated by Malu de Bont, editor at ELLE Magazine. With having interviewed the likes of Léa Seydoux, MØ, Alexa Chung, Diane Pernet, Maarten Spruyt, and Reiner Holzemer in the past this lady sure knows her way in the industry and made sure we left the Fashion For Good ballroom with enough knowledge and also very tangible tips to be part of the solution.

True Fashion Talks — Image by Presstigieux

Quoting Harvard Psychologist Dr. Jerome Bruner (“You’re more likely to act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action”) Malu started off with a metaphor of having to clean up a messy room. We might all remember this feeling from when we were little. The number of times we had to be told before starting to actually clean, but didn’t it feel good when it was finally done? Well, it’s time to clean up our messy room, which refers to the dirty fashion industry in this context.

“Why are we having this conversation and why is the ocean so important?”

Laura’s answer to this question was short and simple; “We breath and feed from the ocean. A Healthy ocean means a healthy planet and healthy people.”

Laura is Project leader of the Ocean Clean Wash campaign, an initiative by the Plastic Soup Foundation, which aims to tackle one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution in our oceans: microfiber release from synthetic clothing. Microfibers come from textiles and clothes; if we wash our polyester garments for example, tiny parts of plastic end up in the wastewater, which ends up in the ocean. In fact, it’s not only the washing of our clothes that has a polluting effect, even by just by wearing your clothes or cleaning the lint off your dryer plastic microfibers are spread. The biggest polluters are polyester, nylon and acryl of which polyester is the worst — being the most used (60%). Why? Because Polyester is the cheapest material available.

“So is it better to choose a garments made of natural fibers over synthetic fibers?”

The founder of Sustainable brand Hoodlab swears by the quality and sustainability of one natural fiber in particular, which is Hemp.

Being a surfer, Doug Mignola is an ocean lover pur sang and when he founded the brand in the early nineties, to fulfill the wish to feel warm, comfortable and protected after an exhilarating day surfing the cold waves of the North Sea, it had to be sustainable!

“It took some time, experimentation, and innovation to get it right but we found hemp. I could go on about the benefits of Hemp. There’s no need for pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, it requires half the amount of water than other agricultural crops, and it enriches, rather than depletes, the soil by shedding its leaves throughout the season.”

As well as being an expert on the natural fiber hemp Doug has developed several groundbreaking innovations in for example waterproofing the jackets without having to use harmful chemicals and creating the first high-quality and sustainable fake fur for his brand.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible yet for the top level of fake fur he developed to make it without (recycled) plastic and acrylic. But Doug strongly believes the use of plastic in the fashion industry has to be faced out! He does add that the fake fur in his Hoodlamb jackets don’t need to be washed — as it’s outerwear all it needs is an eco dry clean every few years.

Hoodlamb AW18 Campaign
“Microfibers are impossible to clean we have got to stop adding them.”

The fact that Microfibers are impossible to clean they are everywhere must have been the most shocking insight of the evening.

“When we talk about plastic pollution we see those images of heavily polluted rivers in China but the harsh truth is that also those gorgeous beaches or rivers on dreamy holiday destinations are polluted.” Laura explains.

But she is also positive about the future. The Plastic Soup foundation expects a reduction of 80% of synthetic microfiber release in the coming years. “We believe that we need to find solutions in the yarn manufacturing stage, fabric manufacturing stage, as well as at the end of the product’s lifecycle. It is not an option to only focus on one step of the chain: the responsibility of this issue devolves upon all the stakeholders involved in the life cycle of clothing. There are currently solutions that are looking promising and will significantly reduce the number of microfibers released. A washing machine filter is being developed by the start-up Planet Care in Slovenia and recent tests show that it can stop up to 80% of the fibers released. At the same time, the research institute Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Italy is working on a pectin coating that can be added to the yarn and could potentially prevent 80% of microfiber release.

Laura explains there is a bit of reluctance in regards to collaborations with the bigger players though. They are afraid to have research being done and shared, as they don’t know how bad it is.

“Personally I do feel there is enough research but what we need now is a benchmark which enables us to communicate how much a garment pollutes”

As a brand owner, Doug agrees it’s the responsibility of manufacturers and he does see that companies are starting to take their responsibility.

A quote from Malu’s ELLE colleagues in the UK underlines the importance of change, having to come from different angles.

“The Fashion Industry uses enough water to fill 32 million Olympic Swimming Pools each year. Something has to give. That’s where designers, activists, fashion school teachers, innovators, and models come in.”

All three speakers see that general awareness especially in regards to the plastic pollution problems is increasing. And thankfully at the same time, public opinion is becoming of bigger influence.

As a lot of people start to ask themselves where their takeaway coffee cups are going for example. With multiple countries and cities banning single-use plastic like plastic bags and plastic straws, the topic of single-use plastic is becoming more mainstream.

In regards to the obvious problem of plastic packaging, Doug explains that there are alternatives. “At Hoodlamb they use biodegradable corn bags for example. It’s just not so widely available yet and it’s more expensive. But if the public demands it….. you would have to fulfill it as a brand!” With a little side note: “This is the best we have found so far. They actually leave residue on the jackets if we ship them without wrapping in thin paper but you have to start somewhere and support developments who are trying to find the solutions we need.”

“There is an important role for fashion magazines in raising awareness with a large fashion-loving public. How do you tackle this as ELLE Netherlands?”

Malu explains it is complex. “We’re in the midst of the conversation on how to be sustainable in the work we do, which is making people enthusiastic about fashion. But ELLE is not simply about consuming, it’s much more about finding items that match your personal style and personality and we change along with the zeitgeist. In a perfect world, we show new upcoming brands that have a good story. Unfortunately, we live in a world where not everything is that yet.”

“See it as a sandwich, we are always putting some green lettuce in it”

Doug adds to this that he agrees that sustainable brands also have a responsibility here, which is to make it look good!

“ Are we swimming plastic microfibers right back in the ocean with the recycled swimwear trend?”

The first question from the audience got everyone thinking.

“Using recycled plastic for fashion collections is a hot topic and you see it a lot being used in the promotion of sustainable swimwear. But aren’t we in this way dumping it directly back into the ocean?

Both Laura and Doug couldn’t ignore that even though it might seem a sustainable solution it is still plastic. No One had the answer except for that more research in this field by the industry is key!

Enough food for thought! But also great input and tangible tools for fashion consumers to become part of the positive change in this unfortunately still dirty industry.

True Fashion Talks at Fashion For Good — picture by Presstigieux

The conversation ends with Doug referring back to Malu’s metaphor of having to clean our messy rooms by saying: “You can’t preach to other people if you can’t even clean your own home. “

TIPS TO HELP CLEAN UP THE DIRTY FASHION INDUSTRY

ABOUT TRUE FASHION TALKS

‘True Fashion Talks’ is a talk show by True Fashion Collective, organised with Fashion for Good and Impact Hub Amsterdam, where we invite industry professionals to discuss urgent challenges and possible solutions in the textiles industry.