Sustainable fashion: pullover on a coat hanger with Fashion for Good label
Presstigieux/Fashion for Good

Rethinking Fashion: “We Need to Make Sustainability the Norm”

Dressing up is fun, but garment production often harms the planet. Fashion expert Katrin Ley explains what you can do to stay stylish and help reshape the apparel industry – for good.

When it comes to fashion, beauty and creativity take center stage – but behind the scenes things can get ugly, as producing billions of shirts, pants and sneakers comes with a heavy cost to both workers and the planet.

Portrait of Katrin Ley, Managing Director of Fashion for Good, Amsterdam

Thankfully, there are numerous initiatives that are working tirelessly to change the garment industry for the better. One of them is Fashion for Good. Through its Global Innovation Programme, the Dutch NGO supports change-makers who aim to make the garment industry more responsible and sustainable.

Ahead of DLD Circular 23, we spoke with Managing Director Katrin Ley about turning fast fashion into slow fashion, sustainable materials and what all of us can do, as consumers, to make the entire life cycle of fashion products beautiful – even when you look behind the scenes.

Is buying a new pair of sneakers bad for the planet?

The issue isn’t buying a new pair of sneakers when they are genuinely needed, but rather the consequences of careless consumerism and excessive buying. When we buy clothes without considering if we actually need them, it leads to overconsumption and overproduction – and this has far reaching environmental consequences.

How big is the impact of fashion on the environment?

The fashion industry alone is responsible for 2 to 8 percent of global carbon emissions, not to mention biodiversity loss, pollution and waste. Roughly 100 billion garments are produced each year – and 73 percent of them are incinerated or end up incinerated or in landfills as textile waste. Only 1 percent are recycled.

Second life for sneakers: In a pilot program, FastFeetGrinded and Fashion For Good are testing if materials from sneakers can be repurposed for the circular economy. (Photo: FastFeedGrinded)

What does that mean for consumers?

It’s important to do everything we can to mitigate the impact the industry has on the environment, and this means consuming less and consuming more mindfully. We need to move away from this linear narrative of newness and disposability, and reimagine a way of decoupling value from consumption. It’s not about demonising buying a new pair of sneakers, but rather about realising the power of our choices and how we can positively impact the industry and drive the change for a more sustainable future.

Would it help if slow fashion became cooler than fast fashion?

I believe it can and it will help. There’s already more interest in sustainable fashion than there was five or ten years ago, especially as consumers continue to prioritise sustainable choices. However, to truly change the trajectory of the industry, we need systemic change – because this is a systemic issue.

How so?

We need to make sustainability the norm – and this is not an easy task. It will require a reimagining of how we use, produce, and consume fashion, which implies a complete cultural and economic shift. We need to move away from the “take-make-waste” linear business model under which the industry currently operates, and instead, focus on producing less, as well as producing intentionally. This is to say, designing garments with sustainability and circularity in mind, and taking into consideration the entire lifecycle of a product, from its inception to its eventual disposal.

An exhibition at the Fashion for Good museum in Amsterdam shows mannequins wearing dresses made of organic materials

Good-bye cotton, hello spider silk: An exhibition at the Fashion for Good museum in Amsterdam shows dresses made of organic materials. (Photo: Alina Krasieva)

Where does nature offer promising alternatives to chemical products?

There are many innovations already out there that have harnessed the regenerative power of nature to create alternative materials that are good for people and the environment. A few examples include mycelium, the vegetative or root-like structure of mushrooms, which can be grown and processed into a sustainable and biodegradable alternative to synthetic materials. Another one is Tencel (or Lyocell), which is made from wood pulp, is biodegradable, and requires significantly less water than cotton during the processing stage.

Agricultural waste, like banana and pineapple peel, can be used to create sustainbale and biodegradable textiles. Bio-based polymers which are generated from biological feedstock, such as food crops, organic waste, and wood pulp, have a lower carbon footprint than fossil-fuel polymers and have the potential to replace plastic (we’re currently conducting our Home Compostable Polybag project on this specifically.) And these are just a few examples.

Which solutions are startups coming up with?

Each step of the fashion supply chain could and should be replaced with an innovation that is out there but needs to be scaled and implemented to ensure it becomes our new normal. Through our Innovation Programme we screen, scout, and scale startups that can really make a difference. One example of a success story that is already paving the way for the rest of the industry is that of Finnish company Infinited Fiber Company (IFC), which we brought into our programme in 2018.

Their breakthrough recycling technology turns cellulosic textile waste – cotton but also cardboard and paper – into high-quality textile fibres. We introduced them to partners, and brought them to participate in our consortium projects to test and validate their technology. With our support, they received investments from our brand partners adidas, BESTSELLLER, and Zalando and they now have commercial recycling plants in Finland. Their Infinna fiber consumes less water compared to cotton and viscose and, by recycling textile waste, is helping to reduce the amount of textiles that end up in landfills or get incinerated.

What can YOU do to make a difference?

Quite a bit. Take a look at the expert tips from Katrin Ley.

  • Materials: Opt for fabrics that have a lower environmental impact. Natural and organic fibres like wool, organic cotton, hemp, and linen are generally better choices. These materials often require fewer chemicals and water to produce. Also, opt for material consistency of 100%, like 100% wool, 100% cotton, 100% linen. This makes it easier to recycle.
  • Certifications: Look for certifications such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), OEKO-TEX Standard 100, and Fair Trade. These labels indicate that the clothing has been produced using environmentally friendly practices and ethical labour standards.
  • Second-Hand and Vintage: Consider buying second-hand or vintage clothing instead of new. These options extend the life of existing garments and reduce the demand for new production.
  • Mending and Repairing: Before heading out to the stores to replace your old pair of jeans, think of ways you can mend it or repair it. If you don’t have the time, bring it to a tailor. This will extend the lifespan of your clothes.
  • Sharing is Caring: Additionally, consider swapping clothes with friends or participating in clothing swap events to refresh your wardrobe without purchasing new items.
  • Quality over Quantity: If possible, invest in well-made, high quality garments that are designed to last. This will not only save you money in the long-term, but it will also force you to take better care of your clothes and avoid impulsive buying. Like the late Vivienne Westwood used to say: “Buy less. Choose less. Make it last.”
  • Read the Care Label: Follow the proper care instructions to extend the lifespan of your clothes. Try washing and drying your clothes less frequently, and use cold water to help save energy.
  • Shop your Own Closet: Remember that the most sustainable piece of clothing is the one you already own. Try to resist cheap and trendy clothes and look instead for ways to creatively use the garments that are already part of your wardrobe. Fashion is ultimately about expressing yourself and what better way to do that than using your creativity and imagination to refashion what you already have? Experiment with layering and new ways of accessorising, and embrace the challenge of mix and match.

Further Reading

Photo illustrating sustainability, shows a beach and a wooden sign, shaped like a foot, that says, “Only leave your footprints”

Sustainability: “Recycling Should Only Be a Last Resort”

Circular economy expert Ramona Liberoff explains how companies and consumers can make the biggest impact in reducing their environmental footprint.
circular economy, sustainability, society, consumption, business

Why the Circular Economy Is the Future

Wasting resources is expensive and unsustainable. The circular economy promises progress by preserving natural resources and offers many new business opportunities…
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