An introduction to sustainable fashion

By Tierney Smith

Fashion is big business for the UK. In a recent report from the UK Fashion Council, it was estimated that in 2009, the fashion industry directly contributed £20.9 billion to the UK economy – that’s 1.7% of its GDP.

In the same year, the UK fashion industry was responsible for directly employing 816,000 people and supporting around 1.31 million jobs, around 4.5% of the country’s employment.

But the industry also has a huge impact on our environment. Around 1.5 million tonnes of unwanted items – clothes, shoes and accessorises – are thrown away every year, ending up in landfill.

Meanwhile the production of a cotton t-shirt takes around 60 litres of water plus the significant amount of energy, transportation and water used to get the product to the store and washing it throughout its lifecycle.

However, a new industry is growing up in the UK, and has gained significant momentum over the last decade: Sustainable Fashion.

What is Sustainable Fashion?

The Ethical Fashion Forum describes sustainable fashion as “an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing which maximises benefits to people and communities while minimising impact on the environment.”

RTCC caught up with Elizabeth Laskar, an ethical fashion consultant and co-founder of the eco-jewellery company Crumple Design, which aims to create biodegradable fashion while tells shoppers a story about the environment.

Co-founder of the Ethical Fashion Forum in 2004, Laskar says she has seen real growth in the idea of sustainable fashion over the last decade and particularly in the last three years.

“We have seen this elevation of eco-fashion which has been rising on the coattails of the climate change press coverage,” she explains. “That was something that we could link into and say ‘well we’re actually already doing this and this is why.’”

The profile of such designers has risen in recent years. For example this year saw the sixth Estethica showcase at London Fashion Week.

The brainchild of ethical designers Orsola de Castro and Filippo Ricci, creators of fashion label From Somewhere – which focuses on recycled textilesthe show aims to highlight the up and coming stars of the eco-fashion world.

Designers showcased at this year’s show include the likes of Junky Styling, which deconstructs and transforms second-hand clothing, Ada Zanditon, which uses organic and or natural fabrics and Henrietta Ludgate using locally produced materials.

The real meaning of throw away fashion

Elizabeth Laskar and Jezella Pigott launched Crumple Designs earlier this year (© Crumple)

For Laskar’s latest range, produced with fine artist Jezella Pigott, she wanted to explore the idea of throw away fashion. For jewellery in particular, she explains, you can buy statement pieces which you can spend a little more money on and that can last a lifetime, but people still want new items which can help them feel fresh.

“You want to wear something for a season which fits in but then if you get fed up with it you want to feel secure that if you think ‘I don’t want this anymore and I am going to throw it away or discard it that it is not going to harm the environment,” she says.

Inspired by the concept of the 1960s paper dress, and Pigott’s love or origami, the range aims to be the ultimate throw away fashion. Made from eco, recycled card, none toxic solvents and paints and sterling silver rings, each of the designs comes with their own story on climate change and biodiversity.

“I think sometimes we get really serious – climate change is a serious issue, biodiversity is a serious issue, if you start taking it apart it is very very serious,” says Laskar.  “And I think people can get really lost in that. What we’ve tried to do with this range and with this brand is tried to simplify the stories which are out there and tried to make them inspirational.

“I think fashion, accessorises, anything we buy whether it is a piece of furniture, anything that we buy, should carry a story which inspires people about what’s happening around them and their environment.”

The earrings are made from eco-card and non-toxic paints and are biodegradable (© Crumple)

The bright colours and interesting shapes and design of the earrings make them vibrant, fun and very on trend. And while many would think that cardboard earrings would not be built to last, Laskar says she has had hers on now for eight months and they are still going strong.

Making a mass market

Crumple Design has been warmly received by the fashion market, particularly by eco-fashion experts and bloggers, but Laskar says she understands there is still a long way to go before all fashion is eco-fashion.

Each design comes along with a story about the environment and biodiversity (© Crumple)

Each design comes along with a story about the environment and biodiversity (© Crumple)

“It has got to be a three pronged effect,” Laskar says. “It has got to come through legislation, it has to come through retailers – making initiatives and stuff – and also it has got to come through consumers, consumers also have to start changing their habits by saying ‘actually I don’t like that’ and having a voice.”

There are already great signs of companies moving the direction of eco-fashion – both as a way of climate proofing their businesses for the future and as a way of building a relationship and trust with consumers.

For example, fashion retailers H&M recently announced their Conscious Collection using recycled polyesters, linens and cottons to create a spring/summer look which is on trend, sustainable and still affordable for their customers.

RELATED AUDIO: H&M’s head of Fashion & Sustainability communication Catarina Midby talks to RTCC’S Ed King about the role the clothes industry can play in cutting emissions and how our consumer culture can be harnessed to sustain a greener production line…

Meanwhile Marks & Spencer’s latest venture ‘Shwopping’ encourages customers to recycle their old clothing. You can now take your old clothes – of any brand – to one of over 1200 ‘shwop’ points across the UK.

The aim is for customers to hand in an item of clothing every time they buy a new one.

It is an extension of their Plan A Programme set up with Oxfam launched back in January 2008 where donors handing M&S clothes into Oxfam could get a £5 voucher for the story.

Jeans company Levis have also joined the group of big retailers going ethical with their Waterless jeans collection – reducing the water footprint of jeans by at least 20%.

The new Waterless jeans can be purchased in a variety of Levis styles, including your traditional 501s and also include a label encouraging customers to wash their jeans less regularly.

But it is not all down to the retailers, says Laskar, consumers will also have to do their bit, and over the last few years they have been helping to drive this change and demand more from the retailers they shop with.

A lot of this, according to Laskar is thanks to the big names now also getting behind the campaign. For example actress and model Lily Cole and high profile eco-campaigner Livia Firth (wife of British actor Colin Firth).

“You have people like Livia Firth going out in some really amazing eco-garments on the red carpet,” says Laskar, referring to the Green Carpet challenge which has been running now for the last few years.

“And when you have an amazing amount of the population watching the Oscars seeing this amazing lady and thinking what is Valentino doing or what is Armani doing.”

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