Sustainable fashion options / 16. May 2022
Targets such as “climate neutral by 2030” sound reassuring. And yet they almost make it sound as if we are already on top of the challenge: the same patterns of consumption, but in green, without the sense of guilt. Analysis, however, shows that the climate crisis cannot be resolved with better technology alone. To clarify the scale of the issue, environmental researcher Dr Sonja Gelger estimates that total consumption in Germany will have to fall by 75% of the average if the climate goals are to be achieved.
This will require regulation, changes to the design of textiles and a lot more research. The greatest challenge, however, is closing the vast gap between knowledge and action. What are our options?
By Joachim Schirrmacher
Part 1: Analysis: The circular economy is a downward spiral
It is crucial that we all make a lot of small steps and change our behaviour. And that we do so straight away. In our work, and in our private lives. We can almost always choose a better alternative, and ASAP: “as sustainably as possible”.
Sustainable fashion begins not with certified organic clothing but with conscious consumption. Vivienne Westwood put it in a nutshell: “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. And wear it for as long as possible.”
The key point here is wearing clothes for longer – ideally until they wear out. That requires durable quality, timeless design and above all, clothes that we enjoy wearing. Using clothes carefully, looking after them and repairing them, is the best form of sustainability. This should be taught once again in families and schools. Instead of buying new fashion straight away, we should first look online to see if a similar item is available second-hand.
Usually, that will save money too. Unwanted clothing should be swapped, adapted or sold/donated as second-hand goods. Conscious shopping means questioning each individual purchase, taking a walk round the block first, or sleeping on it: do I really need this? Does the item match the rest of my wardrobe? The portal Siegelklarheit provides an overview of sustainability seals that are worth considering, such as GOTS, Fair Wear Foundation and BlueSign.
One way of enjoying a love of fashion without producing new clothes is through ‘virtual fashion’ such as The Fabricant. Virtual fashion can be presented in games as an avatar or is widely distributed as a filter (e.g. from Dressx) for one’s own ‘mixed reality’ photos on Instagram, TikTok etc.
And finally, a ban on free returns would certainly be a step that could make a big difference.
High quality materials
They will increase the durability of clothing. This is highly dependent on the costs allowed for the materials. It has to be more, for sure, than the maximum of €3 currently allowed by one of the biggest German brands. It would be effective to start with proven standard qualities that could be used in large volumes and for many seasons.
The mandatory use of recycled materials would make sense, as in the Netherlands, for example, where for 2025 a minimum recycled proportion of 25% will be imposed. This creates a market for recycled materials.
Fewer, more durable clothes also means more valuable clothes, and does not have to lead to lower turnover for producers and retailers. And there will be less transportation, too.
Design for Recycling
The design phase determines up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact, according to the Germany Ministry for the Environment. Durability, ease of repair and ease of recycling are significantly affected by the use of materials of a single type, and by the right choice of decoration and print. Another factor is the ease with which all components (fabrics, zips, studs, buttons and applications) can be separated. This also provides opportunities for a new, specific aesthetic.
Design for Recycling is still mostly theoretical – very little expertise or training yet exists, let alone collections. The EU Textile Strategy envisages the imposition in 2024 of mandatory requirements for ecological sustainability of textile goods, along with a minimum proportion of recycled substances.
The pressure for research is enormous, especially due to the EU Textile Strategy, which focuses more on fibre-to-fibre recycling and calls for proposals until 2027 under the ‘Horizon Europe’ umbrella.
Other issues include consumer behaviour aimed at “less but better”, materials and the circular economy, elimination of microplastics, new business models (digital processes, AI forecasts), and also new production methods such as highly automated single-piece production using a 3D knitting process, as was developed for personalised items in the ‘Design Reactor Berlin’ research project in 2007 (in which I was responsible for design management), and subsequently presented in 2017 as a similar concept, ‘knit-for-you’, within the Adidas Speedfactory. Adidas terminated this pioneering project much too soon: just imagine what Apple would do with this technology at, for example, at the Marc Cain premises in Bodelshausen, Germany.
Combating greenwashing and improving labelling
Under the EU Textile Strategy, claims such as ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ are permitted only if an outstanding environmental benefit can be proven, e.g. through recognised eco-labelling. Voluntary sustainability labels must be on the basis of third-party verification or issued by public authorities. In addition, there are EU minimum criteria for expressions such as ‘climate neutral by 2030’. In 2024, the criteria for the EU Ecolabel for textiles and footwear will be updated. The Commission is also testing the introduction of a digital label. This would be a great help when recycling but it must not be readable by the fashion shops, for example.
Similar to packaging, vehicles, electrical and electronic devices, industry associations ‘Zukunft Textil’ and the BVSE argue for a disposal fee to be included in the ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR) approach, as is already the case in France (since 2007), Estonia (2015), Bulgaria (2021), Italy (2022), Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands (all from 2023) and Portugal (from 2025). The EU Textile Strategy, too, contains plans for such fees.
The wide-ranging catalogue of measures under the EU Textile Strategy includes:
– a ban on the destruction of unsold products and returns
– combating environmental pollution by microplastics
– incentives and guidelines (2024) on the circular economy, such as reuse, rental, repair, and second-hand fashion retailing including design criteria and a technology roadmap for textile recycling (2022)
– funding for research and investment in innovation, e.g. new bio-based textile fibres
– sustainability obligations for companies with over 250 employees and a turnover of over €40 million (2023)
– cross-border market supervision and measures to tackle imitations and fakes (2022)