Slow Is The New Fast: Meet the Future of Sustainable Fashion

In 2015, the fashion industry was surprised by the “Anti-Fashion Manifesto” launched by trend hunter Li Edelkoort. In it, she criticizes the unbridled fashion production aimed only at profit. “Prices” she explains, “profess that these clothes are to be thrown away, discarded as a condom and forgotten before being loved and savoured, teaching young consumers that fashion has no value. The culture of fashion is thus destroyed.”

Indeed, fast fashion has led to a situation where worker exploitation and the use of toxic pollutants are the norm. The cost of labor in countries such as China, Bangladesh and Cambodia accounts for less than 1% of a garment’s retail value (ILO). While this may mean cheap clothing for consumers, the cost for garment workers is sky high. They must work long hours in harsh conditions to meet high production targets, only to be rewarded with extremely low wages.

In contrast, slow fashion, in all its stages, respects the environment and society. Not only does it value the people involved in the production process, but it also encourages conscious consumption. Today, slow fashion is gaining prominence thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs and sustainable sewing ateliers.

“The fashion business has to change”

“The fashion business has to change” said Maria Cornejo in 2016 before presenting her Spring collection, Zero +, at New York Fashion Week. Committed to using sustainable rayon, she stripped her show down to its essence to highlight the clothing’s silhouette and material. No accessories, no shoes, no colors. Just a simple white collection to remind us that sustainable fashion is the answer to one of the most polluting industries in the world.

Po-Zu, which means “pause” in Japanese, brings back the art of traditional shoe-making with a unique twist: biodegradable components. In 2010, they partnered with Timberland to make men’s boots that are so ecofriendly they can be planted in the earth. And did you know they use pineapple leaf fibers and coconut husks to make shoes feel light and comfortable? Yes, that’s right, pineapple and coconut waste is being used to make shoes. Who would’ve thought? Po-Zu also avoids harmful chemicals by sourcing wool from British Jakob sheep and tanning their leathers in ecofriendly tanneries. No wonder they’ve been ranked as the UK’s most ethical shoe brand.

“Be the change you wish to see” is what inspired fashion entrepreneur Craig Jacobs to set up Fundudzi in Johannesburg in 2004. The brand has a range of ethical clothing made with locally sourced cashmere, lamb wool and upcycled materials. They also promote sustainability higher up the supply chain by collaborating with artisans and designers in South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya. To this day, all their garments are made in Africa, preserving handiwork techniques that have been passed down from one generation to the next.

In 2016, Brazilian designers Camila Puccini and Melina Knolow launched a vegan clothing line called “Ada” to help women experience the freedom of dressing well without harming the planet. Each piece is handmade, using 100% natural Brazilian fibers. In addition, all leftover materials are donated to the Patas Dadas animal shelter to make beds and blankets. By not outsourcing the manufacturing process, Camila and Melina encourage consumers to question a brand’s ethics with a simple question: “who makes my clothes?”

Today, cotton and polyester make up 80% of the raw materials used in the textile industry (Sustainable Apparel Materials). While it’s true that organic cotton is more sustainable than conventional cotton, there are still a number of challenges. Organic cotton requires a lot of water and arable land. What’s more, producing it is not as efficient as producing GMO cotton, so better alternatives are still needed.

For this reason, the Finnish startup Spinnova is developing a new production technology for cellulose fiber yarn, which does not require chemicals, water or high amounts of energy. The idea is to produce yarn directly from trees that have a long fiber structure, such as spruce and pine. This new method consumes 99% less water and 80% less energy than cotton. It would also allow us to replace the world’s cotton production with the annual amount of wood used in Finland.

Even though sustainable fabrics and improved processes are gaining industry attention, the future of sustainable fashion will not remain bright without changes in the supply chain. This is what makes these next companies particularly attractive.

I:Collect (I:CO) was founded in Germany in 2009 with a mission to recycle old clothing and footwear. Over the years, they have built a global take-back system with partners such as Forever21, H&M, Levi’s and Marks & Spencer to collect, sort and process used clothing. This shifts the current linear value chain towards a circular one by keeping resources cycling in the economy. It also makes consumers and retailers more active participants in managing the lifecycle of products and maximizing their retained value.

What’s great about I:CO is that they’ve made it easy for consumers to recycle and buy clothes in the same place. In exchange for your unwanted items, I:Counter (a smart collection system that weighs and stores apparel) gives you a voucher that can be redeemed in-store. In this way, the point of sale simultaneously becomes the point of collection. Later, when the I:Counter is full, a local driver is sent to pick up the clothes for sorting and processing. At this stage, clothing that can still be worn is re-sold and the rest is recycled. For example, absorbent textiles are used to make cleaning cloths while others are shredded into fibers for cars and clothes. Even materials that can’t be recycled find new life as combustibles for producing energy.

For MUD Jeans CEO, Bert van Son, everything started in 2013 in the Netherlands. After working in the fashion industry in China for several years, Bert realized the negative impact of fast fashion on factory workers and the environment. This led him to set up a sustainable denim brand that makes use of recycled materials and allows consumers to “lease a jeans”. When the jeans are worn out or no longer in fashion, consumers can simply return them knowing that the company will reuse the raw material to make a new pair of pants. This is what makes MUD Jeans a true ambassador of the circular economy.

Now, imagine that you could lend and borrow fashionable clothes with a simple hashtag. Next, what if I told you this was both fun and sustainable? ShareWear is a Swedish initiative on Instagram that encourages people to share old clothes rather than throw them out. Even though the pilot collection features apparel from the likes of NIKOLAJ d’ETOILES and Filippa K, anyone can share clothes with the hashtag #ShareWear. The first person to comment can use the item for seven days, but after this period, they must share it forward. The best part is, it’s all for free.

Since 2011, LUX & ECO has been building one of the most fashionable collections of sustainable brands on the internet. Their e-commerce website offers everything from ecofriendly dresses to organic perfume. In addition, they run exclusive sales for high-end eco brands on a private and timed basis. LUX & ECO is especially proud of their “Our Shop To Give” initiative which donates 20% of profits to charitable partners when purchases are made on the website.

The days of fast fashion producing high levels of pollution and contributing to modern slavery are numbered. Why? Sustainable fashion is no longer a trend, it’s a behavior. Millennial consumers are waking up and starting to understand who makes their clothes why they’re so cheap. This has led many to value sustainability over convenience. Consequently, the fashion industry is having to switch gears.

As we’ve shown, sustainable fashion entrepreneurs are reshaping the landscape with innovative materials and circular business models. What’s exciting is even big maisons brands like Gucci, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen are taking steps towards sustainability. For example, Marie-Claire Daveau, who leads Kering’s sustainability department, has created a textile library with more than 2,000 sustainably-sourced fabrics to help Kering businesses improve their environmental performance (Material Innovations Lab).

Clearly, the conscious consumer movement is here to stay and a new generation of fashion entrepreneurs have responded with a clear message: slow fashion is the new fast fashion.

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