Seeking high-tech innovations for sustainable fashion

Design by Fiveleft Leather - Eco Fashion Week in Vancouver. Photo credit: Jason Hargrove
Grace Susetyo
1 June 2018

WASHINGTON (Landscape News) – In anticipation of the launch of the United Nations Partnership for Sustainable Fashion in New York in July, the Global Landscapes Forum held a Digital Summit panel discussion titled Fashion for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The summit introduced current innovations expected to lead to sustainable fashion supply chains and green job opportunities for youth and women.

Despite being considered the world’s second largest industrial polluter after oil, the $2.5 trillion fashion industry supports over 60 million workers throughout the global value chain. The number of urban consumers will double to 2 billion people by 2025, according to estimates by McKinsey management firm. Related pressures on the environment and the need to achieve the anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 makes a transformation within the fashion industry critical.

Streamed live on Wednesday as part of the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) Investment Case Symposium in Washington, the discussion was moderated by Nairobi-based UN Environment Management Officer Michael Stanley-Jones. Featured speakers included: Kaya Dorey, founder of sustainable fashion brand Novel Supply Co.; fashion technologist Amanda Parkes, New York-based chief innovation officer of sustainable fashion investment incubator Future Tech Lab; and New York-based runway producer Ava J. Holmes, co-Founder of Fashion For Conservation.

Dorey was named the 2017 UN Environment Young Champion of the Earth-North America for starting an innovative Vancouver-based production for “comfortable basics” made of sustainable cotton and hemp, and no synthetic dyes.

She said that automation plays a significant role in the sustainability of her business: eliminating the need for manual laborers, yielding higher production quantities, and allowing the company to spend more on quality materials and better-paid professional staff.

“(Due to labor outsourcing to developing countries,) there are very few manufacturers (in Vancouver), and ones that are still running are at full capacity. Most of the seamsters are in their fifties and retiring,” Dorey told Landscape News in a pre-event interview, adding that customers are starting to see value in locally-made apparel over ones imported from exploitative sweatshops.

While Dorey regarded automation an ideal solution for North America-based manufacturers, she said she cannot speak for developing countries where millions of garment laborers might be anxious to defend their livelihoods.

During the summit, Parkes compared this anxiety to the England’s 19th century Luddite rebellion, where textile workers destroyed machinery to protest industrial machinery projected to make human labor redundant.

“Yet today, machines turn out to help people do their jobs better. Today’s outcry on the automation takeover is an education problem, not a technology problem. If people get retrained to occupy different jobs, there will be more jobs and better jobs if the industry handles this correctly,” Parkes said.

As a manufacturer, Dorey said the challenges of automation relate to the technology being in its early stages, with most machines programmed to make only one style of garment.

In response, Parkes admitted that fashion automation lags behind the long robotized automotive manufacturing because “technologists haven’t figured out how to manipulate textiles so delicately.”

She added that she expects advancements in fashion automation in the near future, as technologists develop camera-and-algorithm-based programming. Dorey said she looks forward to the day machines are able to make multiple styles of garments, as it will allow her to seek investments to expand Novel Supply.

Dorey also expressed concern that “automation in the wrong hands” might potentially accelerate fast fashion’s unsustainable industry practices, specifically planned obsolescense-driven overproduction and the use of synthetic dyes.

Holmes expressed skepticism in ending fast fashion, dubbing it a “fast moving money train.” However, she said she believes in reclaiming sustainability in fashion by catering to niches that value local artisans and smaller brands—another emerging trend in today’s fashion industry.

Meanwhile, Parkes challenged the status quo by pointing out that the fast fashion industry is “cannibalizing the whole world” as formerly cheap suppliers of labor such as China now become expensive, and factories move to even cheaper countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia. “Where are we going to go next? We’re going to have to figure out a new business model,” she said.

Parkes said she believes that biotechnological innovations could be the precursor to this new, sustainable fashion business model. Innovations include laboratory-grown spider silk, which Parkes claims “saves land, water, and animals,” and mushroom leather, which British designer Stella McCartney will use for her upcoming bag collection.

Holmes added that the current business model can be challenged by encouraging brand transparency through consumer engagement. This effort is reflected in Fashion For Conservation’s recent production of the Rainforest Runway. Having debuted at the London Fashion Week in February, it features the avant-garde, rainforest-inspired, zero-waste collection by designers René Garza and Kalikas Armour.

Subsequently, an 18-page editorial bulletin featuring the same collection and models was shot in the Amazon rainforest. “It’s such a powerful communication tool to not just use facts, charts and databases, but visually communicate what (sustainable fashion) looks like. That’s how you get a lot of people paying attention to your transparency,” said Holmes.

Manufacturers can move toward a sustainability by implementing the circular fashion economy, which includes providing the means of recycling at the end of the garment’s lifecycle.

Dorey mentioned developing a take-back program for Novel Supply customers while figuring out future possibilities in upcycling with a partner in Indonesia.

Other aspects of circular fashion include phasing out hazardous substances and making longer-lasting garments. Dorey said that while Novel Supply has refrained from coloring, she is experimenting with organic indigo dye for future collections. “(Dyeing one’s clothes by hand) is a really intimate experience. I think it makes you value (clothes) more, and if I could (convey this appreciation) to consumers, I think they’ll be less likely to chuck it away the next day,” said Dorey.

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