Thirty years ago, the clothing company Esprit shocked a good portion of the fashion world with an advertisement that was, the Los Angeles Times warned its readers, “astonishing.” Entitled “A Plea for Responsible Consumption,” it was an appeal to consumers to consume less. “By changing the things that make us happy and buying less stuff, we can reduce the horrendous impact we have been having on the environment,” the letter said. Since then, despite a seemingly generational shift toward eco-awareness, not enough has changed: Glaciers have melted, seas have risen, and plastics have been found on the Himalayas’ highest peaks and floating above the ocean’s deepest folds. According to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the textile industry was responsible for 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions—more than is generated by all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Textile treatments have polluted 20 percent of the planet’s shrinking freshwater supply. In 2019, Global Fashion Agenda, an association working in alliance with business consultants and sustainability experts, released their annual Pulse of the Fashion Industry report in which they declared that fashion’s efforts not only still had a long way to go but had recently slowed down. If things continue to go as they have been, we’ll be looking at landfilling 150 million tons of cloth
ing by 2050, which, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation also noted, is ten times the weight of everyone living on the planet right now. Why the disconnect, especially when everywhere you look brands are hash-tagging their sustainability? How can those of us who are neither ecologists nor supply-chain experts understand what’s going on?
The way to think about it is like turning a ship, in which a dramatic result is gained by what feels like the tiniest of degrees.
Sixty percent of fashion companies have made serious efforts—measures that run the gamut from changing how their suppliers farm cotton and rethinking traditional materials entirely to vigorously promoting reusing clothes. The astronomical success of clothing-rental companies like Rent the Runway and Girl Meets Dress are seemingly in answer to Esprit’s limit-your-consumption call. Sustainability-focused measures from luxury conglomerates like Kering, LVMH, and Yoox Net-a-Porter are announced almost weekly.
What’s especially hopeful is the work of the individuals who are setting the course, sometimes by revolutionizing how we make elemental ingredients like fibers, sometimes by reconsidering how we deal with what we’ve made, but most of all by a crucial rethinking of what kind of a business fashion is, anyway.
As a $1.3 trillion global industry that employs 300 million people, fashion has an enormous reach. The missing step for most companies is an in-depth accounting of where their impact is greatest: watersheds destroyed by cotton farming; toxic chemicals inhaled by workers in pollutant-spewing factories; carbon emitted by trucks that bring clothing to consumers or to landfills in communities whose water is then polluted by the toxic disintegration of synthetic and cotton fabrics. In 2011, Kering, the luxury goods consortium whose roster includes Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, and Bottega Veneta, introduced its Environmental Profit & Loss account, or EP&L. Its goal was to measure but also put a dollar value on the environmental impact of the company, or as employees put it: “If Kering were to write a check to nature to make up for its impact, how much would that check be?” For 2018, it came to $580 million.
Michael Beutler, Kering’s sustainability operations director in charge of the EP&L, first heard about the company’s environmental accounting in 2011 while working on sustainability for the business software corporation SAP. He remembers wondering where they got their data. By 2012, data-getting had become his job. Today, his team produces spreadsheets of impact caused by Gucci sweaters and Balenciaga belts: color-coded, mapped, graphed to show, for instance, how much more the mining of metal required for that belt buckle pollutes streams in Peru than in the U.S. (In general, the impact is greatest in China, followed distantly by Canada, Japan, and the U.S.) “We mapped all the processes of the group, over 600 processes, with 110 raw materials, and all the environmental processes related to it,” Beutler says. That means tracing “how the business process is run, where all the materials come from, and how things are made.”
If 20 years ago CEOs looked to environmental accounting to keep them from having to pay penalties for polluting, today they are beginning to look to environmental accountants to point them toward potential long-term gains from the use of fewer resources. Last June, Kering released all its EP&L data, arguing that transparency leads to reduced impact across the board. “There’s a real tendency to want to show positivity,” says Beutler, who in the late 1990s was a pollution-prevention specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency. “But I think it’s important to make an honest measurement. We don’t make environmental problems go away by saying they don’t exist.”
Via various think tanks and foundations, fashion brands find themselves inevitably trending toward cooperation, coming to corporate grips with the idea that sustainability has to be more than a marketing plan. In May 2019, LVMH, the luxury group behind fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Fendi, announced a partnership with unesco’s intergovernmental scientific program, Man and Biosphere, “which aims to safeguard biodiversity across the planet” in line with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. LVMH’s aim, from 2013 to 2020, was to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent.
The efforts of multinational conglomerates are beginning to have a ripple effect. In 2018, HSBC sent Susanna Wilson, its global head of sustainable networks and entrepreneurship, to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit for the first time, where she talked about ways big companies could encourage conversations between finance and sustainability people. “What we’re noticing is that a focus around sustainability is broadening out beyond just the large brands,” Wilson told a panel. “So it’s the smaller companies that are starting to understand that this is really important.”
Herno, the Italian outerwear brand, was founded in 1948, when Giuseppe Marenzi and Alessandra Diana started a factory where the Erno River meets Lake Maggiore. Back then, to make raincoats waterproof, they used castor oil, the production of which releases the poisonous substance ricin. “It’s not easy to make material waterproof today,” says Claudio Marenzi, their son, who runs the company today. “In the past we used many things that we now avoid.” To develop new ways of manufacturing, “you have to invest,” he says, and Herno’s new Laminar collection uses GoreTex fabrics that are durable, waterproof, and increasingly free of environmentally concerning perfluorocarbons.
Marenzi is not the only small manufacturer hoping to perpetuate Made in Italy without destroying Italy. Italy wants to re-engineer as well: Marenzi says the fashion business produces 7 percent of the nation’s GDP. Marenzi helmed Confindustria Moda—a confederation of 67,000 textile, fashion, and accessory companies—from 2017 to 2020. “The goal is to make the same materials with the same performance” but without harming, for instance, Lake Maggiore, where the Herno factory still stands. “The reason,” Marenzi says, “is to have a better life.”
Checks and Balances
On November 1, 1986, by another crystal-blue glacial lake, a chemical storage facility sprang a leak and a toxic red slurry of dyes, solvents, and pesticides ran from Switzerland’s Lake Constance down the Rhine and through at least four countries before dumping into the North Sea. Thousands of textile mills in the area of St. Gallen were quickly and expensively forced to retrofit to strict standards. “If you wanted to survive you had to have a plan,” says Christian Dreszig, the head of marketing at Bluesign, an inspection company based ten miles from the shores of Lake Constance. Bluesign was a spinoff of a Swiss textile company. It was supported initially by chemical companies and textile mills in Europe and Taiwan, then by environmentally attentive outdoor outfitters like Patagonia, Vaude, and Helly Hansen, and now by streetwear purveyors like Puma, Nike, and Everlane—brands that are popular among customers who are increasingly aware of how their purchasing power can be put to work in service of the future of the planet.
Bluesign’s scientists and technicians follow a textile from birth to its rebirth as a garment, monitoring the chemicals used and discarded along the way. Though they don’t currently monitor labor practices, they are, Dreszig told me, moving toward adopting standards set by the U.N. Sustainable Development goals. “The manufacturers and brands are required to act responsibly and sustainably with regard to people, the environment, and resources,” Bluesign reports. Sustainability with regard to people—meaning labor rights— is an intrinsic aspect of overall sustainability, despite being frequently glossed over in marketing and in practice. Toward that end, fashion has room to improve: The nonprofit campaign for workers’ rights in the clothing industry, Labour Behind the Label, states in a report that the vast majority of global brands talked about paying sustainable wages, but of the 32 surveyed, 31 “could produce no evidence that any worker making their clothes was paid a living wage anywhere in the world.”
For anyone looking to see the length and breadth of a product’s environmental impact, a complicating caveat arises: As brands have grown, supply chains have moved from a region in the Alps or the U.S. to somewhere else in the world with less regulatory infrastructure. A U.S. garment maker is today most likely just a front office for shirts made in Bangladesh, where there is less-stringent chemical monitoring as well as lax labor protections. “The supply chain is vast and complex,” says Dreszig. “In Bangladesh, they know how to do textiles, but the mills are not staffed with scientists who are monitoring.” Once, a brand had its own mill. “Now,” Dreszig adds, “sometimes they do not even know their suppliers. The real manufacturers are actually hidden in the supply chain.” But if every fashion company followed Bluesign’s standards, or something similar, the effect would be formidable: “A 2015 study that we commissioned,” Dreszig says, “showed that if the whole industry would use best-available technologies now, we could reduce 50 percent of water consumption, 30 percent of energy consumption, and 15 percent of chemical consumption. And that’s getting close to the sustainable development goals of the U.N.”
Daniel Jones is the CEO of Bext360, a start-up company that monitors supply chains. “With coffee or cocoa, we can weigh and grade the product and pay farmers with a digital payment, and we don’t need an Internet connection,” Jones says. Add sustainability data, and suddenly the EP&L statement is significantly more accurate, verifying not just where cotton is coming from but how the farmers are growing it and how they are getting paid. Jones had not initially thought of working with fashion companies, but Fashion for Good, a sustainability think tank, approached him. “I give them credit,” Jones says. “They came to me and said, ‘Come show us what you’re doing, and we’ll show you why it pertains to cotton.’ And for a small company like ours, to be teamed up with industry experts who have that kind of reach and ethos—it’s hard to turn down!”
The next phase has to do with textiles that can be returned to the earth without dire effect. Patagonia’s Alex Kremer, a principal at the brand’s venture capital fund, Tin Shed Ventures, invests in and partners with sustainability innovators. Kremer also works on Worn Wear, Patagonia’s recycling operation, which is opening a retail space this fall in Boulder, Colorado, as well as Regenerative Organic Certification, which encourages farmers of cotton, for instance, to use sustainable agriculture practices—a way, Kremer says, that might not just go a little easier on land and water, but would suck up carbon and restore watersheds: “Ultimately, we think agriculture practiced the right way can be a good thing for our planet.” His dual positions, in the day-to-day Worn Wear business but also investing in new technologies, mean he’s on the deck looking forward at what sustainable fashion in the future might be—or, really, what it has to be. “How do you break a garment down into its core components?” he asks. “If you can find a solution where that jacket, whether amazingly made the first time or not so amazingly made, then that can be reused. That solves a major environmental issue, and it also solves the issue of having to extract more oil to make a new synthetic, or reduces the need for more farmland if it’s a natural textile. That’s great, that’s huge!”
A number of brands are getting in on the action. Stella McCartney’s collaboration with Adidas resulted in sneakers and yoga gear made with Parley Ocean Plastic, a fiber created from detritus harvested from oceans and rivers. In July, the two brands launched a sweatshirt made using NuCycl, technology developed to liquefy used cotton and make it into a new fiber. In June 2019, Prada announced that it would phase out its use of virgin nylon by 2021 and expand its bag range with a new collection called “Re-Nylon” using Econyl, a fabric made from nylon recovered from landfills and the ocean.
Eileen Fisher is working on something else entirely: a whole new textile, born of but not necessarily related to its fashion designs, that up-cycles old clothes into works of art and home accessories. “In fact, we are making a very different product that points to other markets,” says Sigi Ahl, the head of Fisher’s artisanal textile unit, called, succinctly, Waste No More. “We’re a fashion company, but now we find ourselves starting from scratch basically, going into new zones.”
If the loop is ever to be completely closed, with what we wear remade out of and into something else entirely, it will require technologies that are only just beginning to seem possible. Ambercycle, a Los Angeles–based start-up sponsored by Fashion for Good, takes garments made with cotton and polyesters and runs them through a process that makes the cotton usable as cotton again and makes the synthetics into pellets that can be extruded and spun into new fibers.
Daniel Grushkin is the founder and executive director of the Biodesign Challenge, a competition that allows university and high school students from around the world to envision future applications of biotechnology. It’s a cross between an art and design class and a biology project, an exercise not just in modeling good behavior in terms of sustainability but in creating entirely new protocols. A few years ago, some of his students were proposing a yarn made of algae, which grows quickly and also happens to suck carbon from the atmosphere; now they are launching a textile start-up called AlgiKnit.
More recently, a group of students from the Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá, Colombia, created what they called Woocoa, a yarn made from coconut husks softened with enzymes from oyster mushrooms; they won the 2018 PETA Prize for Animal-Free Wool, which included a visit to Stella McCartney’s studio in London. “Here was a bunch of design students who decided they were going to take a waste material that didn’t have many other uses and turn it into something that would be a replacement for wool,” says Grushkin. Though they came into the event as design students, they managed to commandeer tools from the biology lab, like an electron microscope, which they used to show how they changed the surface of the fibers. Ordinarily these departments are siloed, says Grushkin. “Suddenly, you find scientists working on a design project in support of these students. It’s transformative!”
In other words, the ship is turning.