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How a New Generation of Designers Could Solve Sustainability in Fashion

Much has been made of the apparel industry’s apparent moves toward a more eco-conscious future—but are sustainability vows simply 2019’s buzziest trend?

Brands and retailers are committing to new environmental standards with increasing fervor, vying for the proverbial gold stars that will earn them a passing grade with consumers. But despite these changes, the fashion industry’s underlying objectives—to create desire, and to sell more—have not changed.

Throughout the past decade, newcomers have come to challenge the status quo with promises of material innovation, increased corporate social responsibility, and streamlined processes that reduce waste and emissions. But even as products are being built for circularity, repair and longer lifespans, trends have not slowed to a more thoughtful, conscious pace.

“While I’d really like to say that I can see a move away from a trend-driven atmosphere in fashion, I don’t see this happening in the near future,” said Michael Sadowski, a Nike veteran and contributor to industry-leading environmental consultancies like SustainAbility and the World Resources Institute.

Despite industry insiders shaking hands daily on agreements to promote sustainability and circularity, “brands need to sell more ‘stuff’ to grow and meet the expectations of investors, employees and other stakeholders,” Sadowski added.

“I actually think designers are in a tough spot, as many I speak with embrace the concept of the circular economy as it presents a unique design challenge to be overcome,” he said.

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The objective is at odds with their job descriptions, ultimately, as “they are being asked to design more items to keep the engine of company growth humming,” he said.

The brands that are poised to make an impact over the course of the coming year are those that have already driven progress through both research and reach.

Market leaders like Adidas, Nike, Puma, VF Corp. and H&M have long possessed the resources to innovate, affording them a place of privilege within the industry, Sadowski said.

“Such companies are setting science-based targets (SBTs), investing in new technology and materials, and experimenting with new consumer-facing business models such as rental and subscription, and we will see more of this in 2020,” he said. It remains to be seen whether the efforts of both these incumbents and the startups looking to challenge them can change the trajectory of the sector overall.

“For every company like those mentioned,” Sadowski said, “there are several others focused primarily on meeting the insatiable consumer demand for fast fashion.”

Sadowski’s hopes for the coming year rest in companies’ drive to deliver on the promises they’ve laid out.

“In 2020, we will see more companies across the value chain—brands, retailers, and manufacturers—setting science-based climate change targets,” he said.

Sadowski began working with the World Resources Institute himself two years ago to create guidelines for apparel and footwear companies to set SBTs, and when he started, there were fewer than 10 companies on board.

Today, nearly 50 companies from around the world have approved SBTs or commitments, and even more have signed onto the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action.

“Companies see the urgency to address climate change, as they are already seeing the impacts on their operations,” he said. “We will see which companies align their investments and business decisions with their words.”

Designers themselves also have an opportunity to create change in the industry by experimenting with recycled and re-spun materials made from post-consumer apparel, production scraps and more.

“Designers inherently understand the notion of a circular economy and design, and want to push the boundaries on what’s possible,” Sadowski said.

Everybody & Everyone

One such brand is Everybody & Everyone, the brainchild of billionaire apparel industry heiress Veronica Chou.

As the Hong Kong-based former head of Iconix Brands Group China, Chou was once responsible for translating the success of the fashion firm’s American mass retail brands to a Chinese audience.

Having grown up in the industry all her life, Chou said she had misgivings about it from an early age, though she wasn’t fully conscious of the source of her unease.

“Growing up as a teen, going to my family’s knitwear and denim factories, I was always asking why it was so dusty and smelly, and why the water was a weird color,” she said.

Once Chou delved into the issue again as an adult, she made it her life’s mission to build a more sustainable apparel brand of by focusing heavily on materials and supply chain—as well as the product designs themselves.

“I want to make things that can last a long time in your closet, that are versatile,” Chou said, adding that many of her brand’s garments have removable elements or customizable details. “They’re closet essentials with a bit of a fashion twist.”

The brand’s bestseller is the Little And A Lot pant, which is adjustable around the waist and ankle so that wearers can tailor the length to the type of shoe they’re wearing. The pant’s fabric is made from a wrinkle-resistant blend of wood pulp-derived Tencel Lyocell and Sorona, a performance fiber made from fermented sugars.

The knee-length All Things Puffer jacket is another fan favorite, as it can be whorn short with a simple zip. The coat is made from 330 recycled plastic bottles, and Chou expressed hopes of finding a plastic solution for its metal buttons so that it can be made fully circular and recyclable.

“There’s no 100 percent—we try as hard as we can on everything,” Chou said. “There’s no clear standard, either,” she added, highlighting her brand’s status as both a driver of change and a guinea pig.

Chou fully believes that the brands that don’t do the work to become sustainable will be phased out by consumers—and fast. The biggest breakthroughs will be in material sciences, she said, and the ball is already rolling.

“We’re working with these materials,” she said. “A lot of them are moving away from petroleum-based plastics, dyes and polyesters.”

And while she hopes small brand like hers can be a beacon for change, she echoed Sadowski’s feeling that the sector’s power players will ultimately turn the tides.

“Component manufacturers will be swayed by the larger brands,” she said. “They move the needle, because a lot of things in fashion are about minimum order quantities.”

Heading into 2020, Chou predicted a heavy adoption by mainstream brands of natural materials like organic cotton, hemp and linen, as well as other bio-based fibers like Tencel.

“These aren’t crazy new innovations, but they could come to replace things we’ve been using—especially virgin polyester,” she said.

And while her brand champions thoughtful, utilitarian design, Chou is realistic about the industry’s immovable objective to sell more clothes.

As materials and processes evolve, however, she believes that the impact of fashion’s fast pace could be blunted. The advent of renewable energy has lessened our dependence on fossil fuels, she said, and the same revolution could happen with material sourcing for fashion products.

“If we can find a replacement for the way they’re made, we can continue in many ways to live our convenience-focused lives,” she said.

Ending ‘vast overruns’ and overproduction

Some experts believe that the only way to quash the industry’s mounting impact is by addressing the problem of excess, however.

“The biggest environmental challenge is to cut down on overproduction,” Charles Ross, sustainable sportswear design lecturer at the Royal College of London, said.

In a world where automation and technology stand to revolutionize every industry, there’s no reason that brands should be creating clothing that can’t be sold—and that will ultimately end up in landfills.

“The seeds of the fourth Industrial Revolution have been planted,” Ross said, speaking to the building up of localized, automated production. As those operations blossom and integrate with new technologies to support on-demand manufacturing, the industry could see the end of the “vast overruns that brands usually do.”

Technology has also added to fashion’s waste problem, however. The unquenchable expansion of e-commerce has contributed to consumers’ rapacious appetites for fast fashion and instant gratification. “Retail theatre has been missing, and thus the race for service and price has been lost to the virtual domain,” Ross said.

A downside of shopping online is that it doesn’t afford a tactile experience, Ross said, and shoppers are apt to buy cheap products without as much care or consideration as they might display when shopping in stores.

Still, Ross is confident that the next generation of apparel designers can steer the ship to calmer—and cleaner—waters.

“The good news is that the new generations of designers asks me harder questions each year,” Ross said.

As Gen Z design students make their way through his classes, he’s found that sustainable solutions he may have offered just a year ago are already out-of-date, forcing the group to reexamine the issues deeply, and often.

“The incoming designers want to work to these better standards, and if companies will not let them do it, then they will create a startup to do it themselves,” he said.