Dutch Sustainable Fashion week is scheduled for 7 to 16 October, but sustainability in fashion is a tricky subject. When is something actually sustainable? And what's more important, that it's not harmful to people, animals or the environment? Fashionweek.nl looked into eight different views on sustainable fashion and came to this conclusion: sustainability is mainly about how long you wear your clothes.
Idea 1: Leather isn't sustainable
It's obvious that leather is harmful to animals, but the damage extends to humans and the environment, as well. Animal skins need to be tanned before they're made into things like bags and shoes. The substances used in tanning, like chrome and acid, are harmful to the tanners' health and to the water they use in the process. On the other hand, there's almost no material as supple and long-lasting as leather. In a way, thanks to their long life and the fact that they only improve with age, leather products could themselves be labelled sustainable. There are plenty of brands, including some Dutch names like O My Bag and Ree Projects, that make products from leather that's been tanned naturally, without harmful chemicals and chrome. Plus, leather accessories are more likely to be passed on second hand, which increases their sustainability factor.
Idea 2: Salmon are the new cows
From bags to shoes, the industry has traditionally been a major consumer of leather, but now the search is on for more sustainable alternatives to cow leather. A non-natural alternative is plastic, used by brands like Melissa. But plastic isn't biodegradable, and thus still damaging to the environment. So now the hunt has turned its focus to more sustainable ways of preparing animal skins. Since Europe is slowly beginning to consume less meat, making leftover cow leather scarcer, the skins of other creatures, like fish, are getting a closer look. Of course they're animals, as well, but it's more about how you go about getting the skins, how many animal products you use and what you do with them. Shoe designer Amber Ambrose Aurèle, for example, has been conducting small-scale experiments with salmon skins she tans herself using natural products like egg. Tanning with plant-based agents ensures that hazardous waste doesn't find its way into the environment.
Amber Ambrose Aurèle conducts small-scale experiments with salmon skins she tans herself using natural products like egg. Photo: Milan Gino.
Idea 3: Wool is worse than leather
If you really don't want to wear animal skin, what are your alternatives? Those in need of a warm winter coat, but who are, understandably, against the use of fur, would perhaps gravitate towards shearling. But of course that's animal skin, as well. Maybe then a sheep's wool coat? Abigail Baker and her twin sister, Lavinia, together run their shop, the Geitenwollenwinkel, as well as their clothing brands, Real Fake and Geitenwollenshirts. They themselves dress according to vegan principles. "Wool is almost worse than leather. With leather, at least the animal is dead, but with wool, by plucking it, the animal is constantly being abused," said Abigail Bakker. "Australia has the largest wool industry, and you'd think that the animals would have good lives there with plenty of space. But that's not true. With sheep, there's always faeces that get stuck in the wool and attract flies and parasites. To get them out, the wool farmers would have to chemically clean the wool, but that's expensive. So they cut a piece of skin from just above the sheep's backside, without anaesthetics. That's called mulesing." It can cause a rotting open wound in the burning sun, which then becomes a home for insects. So they don't touch the wool so it stays looking food for consumers. When the wound closes up, they cut the skin away again. That's why Stella McCartney no longer uses wool in her collections and the Geitenwollenwinkel doesn't sell woollen items.
Sweater from Geitenwollenshirt.
""With leather, at least the animal is dead, but with wool, by plucking it, the animal is constantly being abused."
Idea 4: Pineapples and bananas are a good alternative
So if wool isn't an animal-friendly material, what is? More and more plant-based, but still aesthetically pleasing alternatives to leather are making their way onto the market. Earlier this year, London brand Ananas Anam introduced products from a 'pineapple leather' dubbed Piñatex. For years the company worked on the material, which seems like leather but is actually made from the fibres of pineapple leaves. Founder Carmen Hijosa was working in the leather industry and ended up in the Philippines for a project, where she saw the locals using pineapple fibres to make bags and fabrics. Hijosa spent years researching the material, and the result is Piñatex, which is sustainably made from the waste products of pineapple cultivation. Piñatex.bio is the first major supplier of Piñatex in the Netherlands. "Piñatex has a lot of characteristics in common with leather – it has the same look, but it's somewhat thicker and feels more like a textile," said Willem Veldhuis from Piñatex.bio. "The footprint it leaves behind is many times smaller, and it's also made from the pineapple industry's waste products." "The idea behind this material is really amazing!" said Abigail Bakker. "Pineapple leather is a bit stiffer than real leather, but luckily the vegan fashion industry is already working on developing it." Another plant-based alternative to leather is banana peels. For instance, shoe designer Lotte de Boer uses bananas in her designs – she makes the uppers from banana peels and the soles from banana tree bark.
""Pineapple leather is a bit stiffer than real leather, but luckily the vegan fashion industry is already working on developing it."
Idea 5: Cotton is bad for the environment
Though you might think you're doing a good thing when you buy a cotton product, it turns out that this plant-based material uses an inordinate amount of water, taking the environment down the drain with it. It takes around 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cotton. It's primarily the denim industry that uses a ton of water; denim is made from cotton, but the fabric has to be washed a few times as part of the jeans-making process. "For years the fashion world has been talking about alternatives to cotton production," said Bakker. "Organic cotton uses rainwater, for instance, instead of river or stream water, which is already an improvement. Fair production is very important to us; there are so many people in the world who depend on cotton farming, so if you stop growing cotton completely, it causes real problems in countries like India. The people become poorer; a farmer an hour already commits suicide because of debt." That's why Bakker is in favour of organic cotton, but also its alternatives, like recycled materials. Another alternative to cotton is a plant-based product like hemp, which uses far less water to produce than cotton.
""Organic cotton uses rainwater, for instance, instead of river or stream water, which is already an improvement."
Idea 6: Sustainable fast fashion doesn't exist
Whole books could be written about sustainable fashion in general and fast fashion in particular, and that is indeed being done. Sustainable fashion and design expert Annouk Post will soon publish her new book, Ontdekkingsreis naar een duurzame wereld (Expedition to a Sustainable World), and an interview with the author is coming to Fashionweek.nl next week. The 2015 film The True Cost also opened many consumers' eyes to similar issues. Unfortunately, fashion which is so quickly and cheaply produced in the way fast fashion chains are known for is damaging to humans and the environment, and that's unlikely to be prevented. There is a certain allure around having access to cheap, fashionable clothes, and that's understandable. But it seems like both consumers and the fashion industry itself are beginning to realise that things can't continue this way. Raising awareness is the first step, action is the next. Since 2013, H&M has run a recycling programme for customers to turn in their old clothes. In addition to clothes, Dochterbedrijf & Other Stories also accept cosmetic packages. Last month, H&M organised a Circular Fashion Event in Amstelveen and each year the chain gives out the Global Change Award. It's certainly a starting point. Some, however, blame H&M for simply using topical issues like sustainability and feminism as a marketing tool.
""H&M has run a recycling programme for customers to turn in their old clothes.""
De modewereld wordt circulair
Opvatting 7: Sharing is caring
Swedish label Filippa K has long been deeply involved in making the fashion industry more sustainable. The brand collects ideas about sustainable fashion on its website, and last week Sustainability Director Elin Larsson herself published a letter stating Filippa K's beliefs on the subject. The founders of Lena, a fashion library in Amsterdam, added their ideas as well. And if ever there was a company who understands the importance of sharing – both their fashion and their vision – it's Lena. Here, subscribers and those with a loan punch card can borrow clothes, and non-subscribers can purchase (already worn) clothes.
""It's an effective system for pushing back against the disposable mindset within fashion."
Idea 8: Wear till it's threadbare
For some, sustainable fashion mostly means that you wear a piece for a long time. It's not a bad idea, and part of the reason for the 30 Wears Challenge, advocated by Livia Firth, founder of the Eco-Age consultancy, producer of The True Cost and, oh right, wife of actor Colin Firth. Years ago, Lucy Siegle, a journalist who writes about ethical living for The Guardian, challenged Firth to wear only sustainable fashion on the red carpet with her husband, The Green Carpet Challenge. Firth accepted the challenge and passed with stylish flying colours. Since of course not everyone has the chance to fly around the world to film premieres, Firth gave voice to an idea that every consumer can adjust to his or her own life. The concept is simple: ask yourself, with every piece you buy, if you'll wear it at least 30 times. Is the answer yes? Then buy it. No? Then leave it on the shelf. It's an effective system for pushing back against the disposable mindset within fashion. And it actually makes a lot of sense, since not so long ago – read: a few decades – it was normal to wear your clothes until they were threadbare instead of having a wardrobe full of the latest fashion that sometimes still even has the tags on it. Follow the example of Emma Watson, an enthusiastic user of the 30Wears hashtag, when it comes to conscious buying.
Further Information: Coming soon to Fashionweek.nl: interview with Annouk Post, author of Ontdekkingsreis naar een duurzame wereld (Expedition to a Sustainable World) and Desiree Kleinen of Ree Projects.