As Berlin Fashion Week was in full swing, I took my first step into Berlins most established sustainable fashion hub: NEONYT. While I knew the journey to a sustainable fashion industry was riddled with challenges, I learned that “paradoxes of sustainability” is a more fitting description and the insights I got set off one roller coaster of thoughts. Since I started as a researcher and Ph.D. student at the ESCP Europe Business School in Berlin, I was quite sure that I wanted to focus on sustainable consumption. However, it was the jaw-dropping experience of reading the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report on the textiles economy – amongst other things learning that more than 80 percent of the total fibre input used for clothing is landfilled or incinerated – which convinced me that my research had to concentrate on sustainable consumption and production in the fashion industry. It also helped me arrive at my own understanding of sustainable fashion, as producing and consuming items with gratitude and respect for the people and nature involved during the lifecycle of the item.
TOP 3 SUBJECTS I FACED AT NEONYT
THE PARADOX OF SUSTAINABILITY
The location, Kraftwerk, was filled with booths and stylish people. Beautiful prints, elegant cuts, and quality materials popped into my eyesight wherever I looked! But it was the story behind these products with their practical and ethical considerations which really moved me.
When talking to people, I struck me that the meaning of sustainability varies from person to person and brand to brand. This was evident from the different textile and product combinations, as well as what each company and person sees as the ideal sustainability goal. Several brands focused on recycling and upcycling waste from textiles and by-products from other companies by processing the wasted material and combining it with new materials, one example being synthetic fabric made from plastic bottles. In this way, materials, which otherwise would have been wasted resources, are redirected into the loop of production and thereby, value is maintained or even generated¹,².
The paradox is that synthetic textiles like polyester can be characterized as more or less sustainable, depending on how they are made and used. Recycling plastics to make yarn and fabric leads to a significant reduction in use of water, energy and chemicals, compared to making these materials from raw materials. In this way, textiles based on recycled plastics have much less of a negative environmental impact³. Nonetheless, using recycled plastics in clothing is also associated with problems. For example, when washed, polyester gives free microfibers⁴. Polyester is not biodegradable and it has turned out to be a major pollutant in oceans, rivers, and lakes⁵,⁶. Moreover, PET bottles alongside many plastics used for food packaging contain BPA, which has been linked to reproductive disorder, heart disease, cancer, asthma and fetal brain development and asthma⁷.
Several of the designers at NEONYT had given these paradoxes of sustainability a lot of thought in how they made their elegant and innovative designs come to life. One example is Mila.Vert. The brand presented its first line of bags and purses, which look like natural leather but are made of recycled plastics. Thereby, the brand incorporates recycled plastics into fashion in a sustainable way, since it does not come into close contact with the skin and minimizes the risk of polluting the environment in the form of microfibers.
2. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY AND THAT VOTING WITH YOUR WALLET CRAP
The most frequently addressed topic when talking and listening to people was the role of consumers. Whether I talked to designers or listened to the panel discussions, the influence of current and past consumption patterns was an omnipresent topic.
When looking at articles and developments on social media the past years, there appears to be an increased awareness of consuming sustainably, both regarding consumption in general⁸ and fashion consumption in particular⁹. Interestingly, thredUP has recently reported a strong increase in consumption of second-hand fashion between 2017 and 2019, including a 46% growth for the 18 to 24 year-old American women¹°. Thus, there seems to be a change not only in awareness of sustainability but also in consumption patterns towards consuming existing and used garments, especially among young people.
In the panel discussion “10 Years of Sustainability in Fashion — What’s Next Now?”, consumption was a central topic as well. Here, several of the discussant pointed out that it is far from the majority of consumers, who actively question the morality and sustainability of the products they buy. As Magdalena Schaffrin - co-founder of the Green Showroom at the Berlin Fashion Week and organiser of NEONYT - said, “I don’t think we consider moral questions while consuming and I don’t think it is to expect from consumers either”. This point was widely agreed upon in the panel discussion. As Orsola de Castro - founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution - pointed out, the story the past 10 years has been that the power and responsibility is in the hands of the consumer; a story which she described as “this voting with your wallet crap”.
So while we as consumers may be able to put pressure on brands, industry actors, and politicians, this pressure does not necessarily result in the big shift in the industry or mean that the moral responsibility should lie solely on us. The question is, who indeed has the responsibility to push for real, substantial change?
3. LOOKING BACK AND INTO THE FUTURE
The discussants in the panel “10 Years of Sustainability in Fashion” agreed that they were more optimistic about making fashion sustainable 10 years ago. It is disappointing that the fashion industry is still among the most polluting industries and that the market to a greater extent than previously is dominated by higher quantities of cheap, poor quality clothing. This pressures small and local producers to offer their product for a price too low to pay the costs of production and a reasonable living wage, as well as generates and excess amount of poor-quality clothing which ends up polluting the environment. Therefore, the real responsibility, as Magdalena Schaffrin put it “lies with the companies, platforms and change-makers such as us”.
Therefore, the most positive insight from NEONYT was to experience that some of these companies indeed do make a great effort to take responsibility! This not only concerns the production process, but also the whole lifecycle of a garment and how the brand can encourage the customer to consume sustainably.
One example of how to incorporate sustainability and zero waste aspects in fashion is the brand DANYA WEEVERS. In our conversation at NEONYT, founder and designer, Danya Weevers, emphasised the importance of durability and minimalism. Her slow-fashion brand offers one collection a year with timeless items, which are made on-demand and can be worn during all seasons. Furthermore, she offers a 10 % discount on new items for customers returning the old garments and she will incorporate the fabrics in the design of the new collection.
Another example is MUD Jeans, a brand which makes its jeans from 40 % recycled cotton (from old jeans), offers to lease a pair of jeans, and gives a 10 euro discount on the new jeans when you return your old ones.
While there are many challenges to making fashion sustainable, NEONYT was a positive and hopeful view into the future. Several brands had addressed the paradoxes of sustainable fashion head-on by paying close attention to the life-cycle of the garment and its key components. Even more important was the insights that making fashion sustainable cannot only be about implementing clever technologies and sustainable raw materials and relying on consumers to vote with their wallets. The big shift happens when brands and industry actors take responsibility, and at NEONYT some of these showed how to do this: by offering alternative consumption models and pushing for political and societal change!
Photography: if not otherwise marked by ©Cherie Birkner / SUSTANANBLE FASHION MATTERZ
¹https://www.thebalancesmb.com/automated-sorting-for-textiles-recycling-2878011 , ²http://www.textilevaluechain.com/index.php/article/technical/item/247-recycling-of-plastic-bottles-into-yarn-fabric, ³http://textilefocus.com/manufacturing-fabric-recycling-plastic-bottles-ecological-approach-part-1-necessity/, ⁴https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/6956/what-are-microfibers-and-why-are-our-clothes-polluting-the-oceans/, ⁵https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/microfibers-plastic-pollution-oceans-patagonia-synthetic-clothes-microbeads, ⁶https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jun/29/microfibers-plastic-pollution-apparel-oceans, ⁷https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/221205.php, ⁸Clark, L. (2016, April 22). Zero-waste bloggers: the millennials who can fit a year’s worth of trash in a jar. , ⁹Cocozza, P. (2019, February 19). ‘Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes, ¹°ThredUP. (2019). 2019 Fashion Resale Market and Trend Report