Innovative fashion designers lead the way on sustainability

LONDON —

Innovative fashion designers are turning to such things as horseradish and nettles to make sustainable clothing and accessories to the delight of a growing number of buyers.

While more consumers are paying closer attention to how the production of goods impacts the environment, old habits die hard. A buy-and-toss mentality persists despite a boost from celebrities helping to drive the upcycle and vintage movements.

Actress Maggie Q, who created an activewear line from recycled fabrics, is among activists who see plenty of room for improvement. She says she feels "sick about fast fashion.''

"You hear people say, 'Well, it was cheap and you need to wear it once, you throw it away,'" she said.

The British design duo behind Vin + Omi, a brand worn by Michelle Obama, Beyonce and Lady Gaga, is forever on the hunt for creative solutions to sustainability. They sourced latex from Malaysia, for example. However, they found the conditions for plantation workers appalling and bought the operation.

At their studios in the Cotswolds, in the heart of the English countryside, they grow a range of crops and plants for textile development, including chestnuts and horseradish. Their latest collection features garments made from nettles, alpaca fleece and recycled plastic from paint tubes. English designer Zoe Corsellis keeps the carbon footprint of her garments low by manufacturing them in London, with fabrics sourced in the U.K. and Germany. She makes them from wood pulp, sea waste and peace silk, considered more humane to silk worms than traditional production processes. A wood pulp gown feels like jersey to the touch.

Belgian designer Sebastiaan de Neubourg is recycling plastic bottles, car dashboards and refrigerators for sunglasses for his brand, W.R.YUMA. Plastic waste is collected and shredded to make 3D printer filament. Transparent frames are made from soda bottles, white ones from refrigerators and black ones from car dashboards.

“Waste, I believe, is design failure," he said.

Fee Gilfeather, sustainability expert at the nonprofit Oxfam, said there's hope on a larger scale.

"The textile industry is getting close to working out how to do fiber-to-fiber recycling," she said. “So what that means is that when you take a garment that's no longer needed, you can break it down into the fibers and turn that back into a raw material to make clothing.”

More celebrities are also playing a role, with some turning to vintage.

Amal Clooney, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle and Kim Kardashian West have been wearing more vintage pieces and re-wearing outfits, something unheard of among many celebrities. Billie Eilish recently wore a custom upcycled outfit from Burberry to the American Music Awards.

“I'm trying to like waste less resources,” the teenage singer said.

Singer Paloma Faith is an old hand at vintage.

“I've been wearing - and obsessive about - vintage clothing for my whole life and I feel like it's really an important thing to recycle and re-use, not just because the ideas in my view were better from the past, but also because we can't just keep contributing to the landfill, and we have to take a bit or more responsibility,” she said.

For more than a decade, designer Stella McCartney has been in the sustainability fight. Her latest collection was her most sustainable yet, using organic cotton, recycled polyester, sustainable viscose and traceable wool.

“It's really important to me that you shouldn't notice that what I do is more ethical than other houses,” she said. "You should just love it and want it and then the desirability means it comes into your life, and it means that other businesses have to change.”

Brands that have heavily used fur in the past have reconsidered. Burberry, Gucci and Versace are among high-end houses opting for faux fur. Many others, including Chanel and Victoria Beckham, will no longer use exotic animal skins.

Burberry destroyed millions of dollars' worth of clothes and accessories every year to prevent the products being sold cheaply. It stopped in 2018, but the practice is still widespread in the industry. Greenpeace described it as the "dirty secret" of fashion.

The rate of change needs to quicken, Gilfeather said, cautioning that carbon emissions from the textile industry are forecast to increase by 60% come 2050.

Fast-fashion industry leaders including Inditex, which owns Zara and H&M, have launched clothing take-back schemes aimed at recycling old items. But recycling, upcycling and a zero waste approach is a relatively small sideline in the global industry.

"There are ways which large companies are helping consumers to recycle, but we know that there's a long way for others to go and to really sort of properly make a difference," Gilfeather said.

Vin, from Vin + Omi, said consumers must take more responsibility.

“What we should be doing is aiming for quality, aiming for origins of textiles, aiming for a real sort of look at each individual fashion company and saying, `'They're a viable business. I will buy from them.'"

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