Can Fashion Ever Be Truly Sustainable?
22 January 2021
Care for it better. Wear it longer. Why your attitude to clothing can make fashion truly sustainable.
Find out more in this thought-provoking article by PLV Venture Lead and w'air CEO, Jonny Hewlett.
It goes without saying that the world of retail and fashion that I joined over 25 years ago has completely transformed.
My journey started out at P&G in Surrey – from there, my work took me to Switzerland, Paris, London, Shanghai, Milan and most recently, New York. I’ve witnessed hugely differing consumer attitudes towards clothing and seismic industry changes, including the death of the high street, the rise of e-commerce and the terrifying ascendance of fast fashion.
But the word on everybody’s lips in the industry right now is sustainability. It first cropped up about a decade ago and in the past few years its usage has exploded; during the past four years, the number of clothes and accessories described as “sustainable” has quadrupled among online retailers in the US and UK.
This is of course, no bad thing. The accelerating climate crisis and bid to transition to net zero has placed the environment front and centre of every industry’s focus, forcing us all to redefine our relationship with the environment. We’ve long known that fashion is a major polluter: it makes up 10% of humanity's carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. What's more, 85% of all textiles end up in the dump each year. The further you dig, the worse the picture gets.
The challenge we have is that whilst the industry’s marketing is ultra-green, the reality is very different. The idea of creating ‘the most sustainable jeans ever’, with ‘positive impact’ and ‘negative waste’, as some brands claim, is simply invalid. I’m stating the obvious here, but to create a piece of clothing, you’re clearly taking from the environment – not giving to it!
With the volume of apparel and footwear being produced forecast to increase by 81 per cent between 2019 and 2030, it’s clear that we’ve got a major challenge on our hands.
So how do we begin to confront this? And is it time to get real? Is it even possible to make fashion sustainable?
An alternative approach may be to recognise human nature. We have always and will continue to use fashion as an important means through which to satisfy emotional desires and a creative medium for self-expression. For many, fashion is a vital extension of the self. This isn’t going away any time soon; the industry is here to stay.
So, a shift in mindset and approach is required: we need to stop trying to control these humanistic behaviours and instead find a sustainable way in which we can embrace them.
It’s the million-dollar question: can we change consumer behaviour and the way they interact with clothing?
The best way to reduce the environmental footprint of your wardrobe is to buy less and wear your clothing for longer. It’s the simplest and most impactful thing you can do. Washing your clothes in cold water and less often is also critical.
Our traditional approach to clothing care, summed up by our ‘chuck everything in the washing machine’ culture, is hugely damaging to the environment – and most of us do it regularly without even thinking. It’s bad for three primary reasons: it uses a huge amount of water and energy; over-washing leads to irreparable colour fading, shrinkage and misshaping, meaning that 90% of clothing end up in landfill long before they should; and we’re releasing micro-plastics into the environment at the same time.
The effects of this are far reaching: the Arctic is pervasively polluted by microplastic fibres that come from the washing of synthetic clothes by people in Europe and North America. They’ve also been found at the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, the peak of Mount Everest – and researchers now expect to find accumulated microplastics in our organs!
The good news? There’s a better way to care for your clothing. The washing machine was created over 80 years ago and we haven’t seen an innovation since. Meanwhile, we know 90% of clothes washed aren’t actually dirty enough to be thrown in the laundry basket.
Necessity really is the mother of invention and it took almost six years, two scientists in Bangalore and over 11,000 combinations of air, water, surfactants, pressure and cleaning angles to eventually discover the ultimate, environmentally-friendly fabric cleaning technology.
w’air is a simple, hand-held device which uses pioneering hydrodynamic technology to clean clothes in an easier, more effective, eco-friendly way.
It targets stains, dirt and odours, deep cleans denim and delicates and refreshes lightly worn clothing. Put simply, it cleans things most washing machines can’t handle.
w’air represents game-changing innovation and a new age for sustainable clothing care. We’re gearing up for launch in May 2021 and we’ve already had fantastic engagement from high profile, thought-leading retailers who recognise the potential of w’air for their customers and for use in-store and we’re excited to announce these partnerships in the coming months.
But what I’m most excited about is the chance to give consumers the tool(s) they need to do their bit and reduce their environmental footprint – whilst enabling a sustainable future for the fashion industry that I still hold in such high esteem. The value of fashion’s energy, creativity and wonderful unpredictability cannot be overlooked; nor can its ability to connect, inspire and delight both those it serves and those lucky enough to work within it. Rather than diminishing these attributes, we must work with them to enable a better future.
So please do get in touch if you want to find out more about how we’re reimagining laundry for the benefit of consumers, retailers and the planet.
Pilot Lite Venture Lead