HAS THE FASHION INDUSTRY EVER BEEN SUSTAINABLE?
The simple answer is YES! Actually, the fashion industry has a history of being sustainable, which is much longer than its history of being destructive.
Before the invention of Nylon by Dupont in 1935 and other man-made synthetic materials in the early twentieth century, all textiles were created with natural fibres, such as flax, cotton, silk, wool, and hemp. No chemicals were available, so these fibres were dyed using natural pigments made from plants, shells and insects, such as murex for Tyrian purple and natural Indigo for blue.
Even though the same natural fibre can have a range of impacts depending on how it's farmed and processed, in general, natural fibres are biodegradable and much more sustainable throughout their lifecycle.
Today, synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon, produced through chemical processes, represent 64% of global fibre production volumes. The rise of synthetics can be predominantly attributed to the cost-effectiveness and application potential of man-made fibres. This brought down the cost of clothing and the conception of clothing as a consumer good rather than something meant to last a lifetime.
Throughout history, things have been very different. Buying clothes was a major expense: fabric was often woven on handlooms and embroidered by hand, so the cost of fabric was very high. This meant that clothes were valued, repaired, and taken care of.
CIRCULARITY AND DURABILITY AS HISTORIC CONCEPTS
A Circular Economy is a model of production and consumption which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible. Circularity wasn't defined in history, but it was definitely applied.
Production happened in front of the eyes of everyone, with artisans working in their own stores, farmers living close to cities, looms and embroidery done in homes. The time and effort spent making products was evident to everyone and therefore valued. No material was ever wasted.
In history, mending and remaking contributed to clothes being extremely durable. Designs were made so that it was easy to fix specific parts of the garment, for instance, replacing the sole of a shoe when it got damaged. This even included resizing, which allowed clothing to be utilized for a longer period while our bodies changed size and shape, but a garment was utilized at its best, with a good value for money.
Fun fact: though historical fashion appears to create a sense that humans in previous centuries were more petite, evidenced by extant garments in museums often being much smaller in waist measurements than one would expect from an adult, this can be attributed to the fact smaller sizes were inherently rarer and could often not be adjusted beyond their seam allowances. Thus, the garments were more likely to survive the passage of time. Diversity in history can be easily overlooked, but it provides vital lessons for our approach to fashion today.
Styles evolved at a much slower rate as well; there used to be two collections a year, which then became 4, but it would have been unimaginable to have new collections out every week as is the case for many of today's fast fashion brands. Designers applied what is now defined as "slow fashion" or "always in style" without limiting it. This history of fashion article describes trends that change after a decade. It was also widely accepted to repeat outfits even within the same social circle, now seen as a rebellious choice.
SHIFTS IN SUSTAINABILITY PATTERNS
How did fashion evolve from a slow, artisanal, craft-based practice into the global manufacturing giant it's known as today?
Like most industries, the Industrial Revolution transformed fashion through automation. The introduction of innovations like the power loom, which automated the weaving process for textile-making, and the sewing machine, which revolutionized at-home garment-making, became pivotal in spreading and scaling clothing production.
With automation, fashion became part of a system. Mass production became possible through machinery that scaled up the garment-making process, creating an industry. This led to the spread of factories and textile manufacturing areas within cities and clothing, and the fashion culture began to emerge in a big way.
Manufactured fashion became cheaper and standardized to produce, while hand-made, tailored fashion grew in popularity among elite clientele. Charles Frederick Worth, dubbed the "Father of Haute Couture," introduced custom-made pieces based on preference and the idea of launching seasonal drops of his collections, incentivizing greater fashion consumption.
A duality emerged in fashion around the early 20th century. Automation democratized fashion, making it accessible to a mass audience, creating marketability and competition. While couture exuded an air of refinement and exclusiveness that trickles into luxury fashion today, creating a culture of competition and mass-consumerism.
Fast fashion grew during the late 20th century as clothing manufacturing became cheaper through more efficient supply chains, quick-response manufacturing methods and greater reliance on low-cost labour from the apparel manufacturing industries of South, Southeast, and East Asia. New man-made materials were extracted and processed across the world through automated solutions. Machinery, chemicals, and materials are sourced globally depending on availability and costs.
Globalization shaped supply chains as we know them today in a way that removes production from consumers' lives. There is yet to be a specific date for globalization; however, after World War II, many nations looked to break down trade barriers between countries, promote free trade, and set up global organizations. The Bretton Woods Conference 1944 created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Free trade was brought about through NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) signed between the U.S, Canada, and Mexico during the 1990s. This agreement allowed the government to negotiate trade deals that encouraged offshoring for companies through the elimination of trade subsidiaries, barriers.
The shift in fashion towards globalization led to a loss of jobs in the U.S garment sector. It is estimated that by 2006, NAFTA was responsible for the loss of at least 1 million jobs – dissolving reliable industries like textiles and apparel within North America. In fact, between 2003-2013, China’s apparel exports to the United States increased five fold despite tariffs remaining high at 13.2%, proving just how little fashion could cost to produce.
Fashion companies like Zara started taking advantage of leninant trade regulations/policies and began expanding in a big way while keeping their costs low through cheap labor, creating the fashion fashion giants we know today!
Changes in technology and economic policies reduced barriers to the flow of goods, services, and capital. Transport and communications costs dropped; and specific trade deals opened up the global economy. Low labor costs and exchange rates made goods produced in countries such as India and China competitive in economies such as the U.S. and Northern Europe.
As clothing production became further removed from people’s lives, so did the knowledge of the time and effort required for production, and the value associated with it.
CONNECTING HISTORY AND INNOVATION
With greater incentive to move production offshore, many large fashion brands leveraged innovation within trade and manufacturing to increase their profits and produce more significant volumes without regard for the environment or people.
For automation to create a positive impact, we have to look beyond our culture of consumerism to minimize the environmental impact of fashion production. In the past decade, we've seen a slow response to the adverse effects of fast fashion. As an industry, we are much more focused on sustainability.
Advancements in technology such as AI, machine learning, and sustainable innovation are changing how clothing is produced. Processes are becoming streamlined as brands take human labour and artisan-made work out of the process, optimizing production schedules and increasing resource efficiency and precision. We discussed how AI can improve fashion sustainability in depth in our most recent article here.
Automation allows energy conservation by adjusting power levels to match production requirements. Take Patagonia, for example; by automating automation into its warehouses, it claims to have cut energy consumption by 30% and increased worker efficiency by 20%.
Laser technology, while expensive, is a popular way to achieve a specific finish on jeans without the use of harmful chemicals. It can substitute dangerous and harmful practices for denim products like sandblasting and hand sanding while eliminating the water-waste traditionally associated with denim production.
Innovation today means brands looking to nature for answers. Fiber solutions have existed within nature long before chemical dyes. Designers are exploring plant-based dyes, mycelium, algae, and agricultural waste products to produce biodegradable garments.
For instance, our latest collaboration with Interloop showcased garments made from Interloop's LoomShake Fabric, a blend of 80% cotton and 20% banana stem waste, to create a collection that shows the connection between farmers and fashion.
Biomimicry is defined by Janine Benyus as “Innovation inspired by nature”. The idea at the core of Biomimicry is that life has already solved most of the problems we are currently grappling with, so we can find solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s patterns and strategies. For example: birds can fly with no need for fossil fuels, barnacles can adhere to underwater surfaces and have a tremendous ability to stay attached, insects outweigh humans yet cause no pollution or waste, leaves soak up sunlight and manage to efficiently and effectively transport water and nutrients through a dense network.
THE HISTORY OF DENIM PRODUCTION
There's a deep history behind your favorite pair of blue jeans.
Dating back to the 12th century, the Càtari, a Christian movement migrating from Bulgaria, brought their knowledge of woad and weaving to Europe.
Also known as dyer's woad, woad is a yellow flowering plant belonging to the cabbage family that, when wetted or fermented, produces a blue dye previously used for Indigo dye.
Knowledge of Fustian, a 2x1 woad dyed fabric composed of cotton, sometimes hemp or linen (modern denim is 3x1), began to flow into the region. This was used as a workwear fabric throughout Europe, with a light blue finish dyed with woad due to its abundance and ability to grow everywhere.
Modern denim was developed when Vasco de Gama, a sailor and trader, brought Indigo from India to Europe, and denim fabric emerged in Nimes (France) and Genoa (Italy). Many people preferred the deeper blue and began to demand a switch from woad to Indigo, transforming the industry. As a result, a fabric called "serge de Nimes" emerged -- a woad-dyed twill made of wool mixed with cotton/hemp, eventually called denim like we know today!
The innovation during this period was sustainable because makers were subject to the availability/supply of natural materials that proved durable during this period. That's why there was a lot of hemp used in the early days of denim for its simplicity to grow, resistance, and long-lasting workwear.
Hemp benefits has been used for centuries and has many sustainability benefits. Unlike cotton, hemp fabric comes from the plant's stalk, and everything in the plant can be used to serve different purposes. It can be grown in any climate, does not require pesticides, and only uses 1/5th of the water needed to grow cotton. It is also antibacterial, anti-microbial, and biodegradable. Hemp can even be used to remove contaminants from the soil, which has been used since the 1990s to remove heavy metals and pollutants from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The fact that hemp was used for denim fabric proves that denim was and still can be made sustainability. Today, most mills are using hemp in some capacity and blending it with cotton to achieve a different texture while minimizing the impact as people become aware of the benefits.
Denim was worn by sailors, and people working in the port area of Genoa were wearing blue jeans as workwear until it was ripped and distressed, looks that we try to manufacture today.
Looking at this textile from 1538: The Canvas of Passion, you see early denim fabric with indigo dye painted with white, similar to what the industry is trying to replicate today with laser technology and denim.
In the late 19th century, Adolf Von Bayer developed synthetic Indigo, which scaled up production, leading denim to Baltimore and throughout the rest of the states into the hands of Jacob Davis and Levis Strauss, who created the 5-pocket jeans and patented the rivet.
There is debate in fashion about rivets because they make it hard to recycle denim at the end of its life. The initial purpose for rivets was durability, securing the spots with copper (copper was readily available) where the jeans suffered the most distress. Rivets were a clever feature that reinforced the workwear jeans originally made for tough miners of California's Gold Rush. Today, however, most denim is worn in situations very different from miners' ones, and rives are optional.
You can read more on the history of Levi Strauss's signature jeans here.
Fun Fact: Did you know that, on average, the pockets in women's jeans are 48% shorter and 6.5% narrower than men's. If you want to dive deeper into how this compares among different jean brands and styles, check out this article, which visually compares a range of jeans. Around the 17th century, in Europe, pockets were sewn directly into men's jackets. At the same time, women maintained a type of "fanny pack" tied around the waist. We've all tried on jeans and felt disappointed from reaching into a fake pocket. Christian Dior once said, "Men have packers to keep things in, women for decoration”. The difference in pocket size shows how jean design became less about functionality and more about current styles/trends.
Modern Day Denim
Today, the majority of denim on the market is made from synthetic indigo dye with a blended fabric of cotton and polyester or another synthetic material to give it qualities like stretch and a different finish that fits the current denim trends. In fact, less than 1% of indigo dyes used are derived from the Indigofera plant because of the consistency in color and constant demand for more product.
More and more people are searching for alternatives to the denim we are fed. There is a rising interest in denim made from hemp and natural materials. However, the trouble is in the size of the market, causing a high price for anything other than cotton. FibreShed estimates that replacing indigo production globally with natural Indigo from composting would require about 2.1 million acres of Indigo or about 3300 square miles of production.
Vintage denim has grown in popularity because it offers a durable, well-made, unique alternative that holds up because of craftsmanship put into the creation process. Accrue denim, natural cotton denim without dye, provides a solution through avoiding blue altogether, with many brands embracing this natural clean denim look.
Suppose we want to transition back to the sustainable production of denim that resulted from the availability of harvested crops. In that case, we need to find ways to harness innovation.
Levi's recently launched their plant-based 501s made from Renewcell's Circulose® fibre, dyed with plant-based Indigo from Stony Creek Colors, and use Water<Less® technology that produces zero discharge of harmful chemicals. While materials are not the only or best solution to minimizing the impact of textile production, it's a great start, presenting possibilities for the future of denim production.
Instead of valuing newness, speed, and scaling, innovation should focus on minimizing environmental impact. Are we returning to the early days of denim? Innovation is not about originality but about reprioritizing our values as an industry.
SHOE CASE STUDY
The oldest shoe record available is the Fort Rock sandals ancient fibre footwear found in 1938 by anthropologist Luther Cressman. They were beneath a layer of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Mazama in Fort Rock Cave in Oregon. Fibres from the sandals themselves were dated to be more than 9,000 years old. These, of course, were completely natural. Fort Rock sandals are made of shredded sagebrush bark. They are twined, with pairs of fibre wefts twisted around passive warps.
The Areni-1 shoe is a 5,500-year-old leather shoe found in 2008 in excellent condition in the Areni-1 cave in Armenia. It is a one-piece leather-hide shoe, the oldest piece of leather footwear in the world known to contemporary researchers - again, completely natural.
As civilizations began to develop, thong sandals (precursors to the modern flip-flop) were worn. This practice dates back to pictures of them in ancient Egyptian murals from 4000 BC. Another example of mono-material natural shoes can be found in the Roman era, where classic Roman sandals were made with leather, which was naturally treated.
A significant shift in shoemaking is found with the espadrille, first found in the Middle Ages, around the 13th century, in the Pyrenees. This is a sandal with braided jute soles and a fabric upper and often includes fabric laces that tie around the ankle. Here, we start seeing multiple materials being used; these can easily be separated, upcycled, and replaced. In this phase, dyes start being applied to shoes. However, they remain entirely natural.
Eventually the modern shoe, with a sewn-on sole, was devised. Since the 17th century, most leather shoes have used a sewn-on sole, which remains the standard for luxury quality shoes today.
As the industrial revolution developed in the 18th century, shoemaking became more commercialized. This removed the link between the artisan and the customer, and the ability to design the shoe to fit perfectly to one’s feet.
In 1812, engineer Marc Brunel developed machinery for the mass production of boots for the soldiers of the British Army through nailed-boot-making machinery that automatically fastened soles to uppers using metallic pins or nails. Chromium salts were introduced in 1858, revolutionizing tanning into a faster process of producing lighter leathers. In 1862, the first 'plastic' (synthetic polymer) was created as Parkesine and marketed as an alternative to ivory and horn. The first rubber heel was patented in 1895.
A process for manufacturing stitchless, that is, glued shoes, was developed in 1910. Since the mid-20th century, advances in rubber, plastics, synthetic cloth, and industrial adhesives have allowed manufacturers to create shoes that stray considerably from traditional crafting techniques. Chemist Otto Bayer developed the first polyurethane (PU) in 1937 and registered it for a patent.
The sneaker as we know it today, according to Nike, has about 23 different parts. It's not just the heel, the tongue and the laces, which most of us can point out, but rather a more complex breakdown of parts. In 2022, 23.9 billion pairs of footwear were produced around the world. This makes about 550 different parts of shoes made annually of other materials, with complex supply chains all across the globe. It's not surprising that it's complicated to trace all materials and solutions to repair and recycle each of them.
Mono-material shoes made in the shop down the road have a lot to teach us, and going back a few years in history, we can find solutions to the barriers to sustainability we have today.
Innovation is often coupled with growth. But what if we reframe our definition of innovation? We imagine a world where growth is not the objective and innovations can serve sustainable development and environmental stewardship.
Degrowth, a concept discussed in previous articles, critiques global capitalism through a slow, targeted growth that matches global population increase. Professor Kate Fletcher expands on this concept in her Fashion Research Plan called Earth Logic. In "earth logic fashion," the earth is placed at the top of the hierarchy above industry, and environmental and community priorities dictate industrial ambition, describing natural and human limits.
We know fashion hasn't always been the destructive industry it is today, so there's room for correcting our mistakes. There's no lack of human potential – we've met and featured countless innovators in sustainable fashion, making waves through innovative technology, machinery, dyes, materials, and more. If harnessed positively, innovation can be the path to lead us towards more sustainable production that puts the earth first.
Until next time,
Stay Curious & Stay Diligent x