The virtual garment called Iridescence was auctioned on the Ethereum cryptocurrency blockchain. Created by Dutch start-up The Fabricant, it ‘exists’  as a digital asset

Fashion statement: a need for change

Image credit: The Fabricant

Sustainability is a big fashion industry talking point in our current climate – but how can brands deliver on such expectations?

Would you buy a dress for $9,500 (£7,500), even if it was the most beautiful garment you’ve ever seen? What if it didn’t even exist? What if the gossamer-thin, translucent fabric was simply a computer file – albeit a unique one?

In May this year, an Amsterdam fashion label sold a virtual dress – a blockchain digital asset – at an auction at a New York tech summit. This ‘couture digital outfit’, which is a world-first, poses so many questions that it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, “Why is it digital?”, but also “Will we eventually stop buying real clothes?”.

“The fact that someone paid thousands of dollars blew my mind,” admits co-designer Kerry Murphy at Dutch digital fashion house The Fabricant, the creators behind the virtual dress. “It’s an asset, a work of art. You can copy it, just as I could buy a fake Mona Lisa from China for $50. But there’s only one original.”

To date, Fabricant has largely created digital clothing for advertising campaigns. But the day when it could be selling directly to the consumer is approaching – and it will arrive sooner than we think, says Murphy. Possibly within five years, he says, digital clothing collections could become mainstream – we’d be buying virtual wear for our online presence.

Fabricant is already working on launching a trial platform before the end of the year. But for a digital platform to survive, he says you need digital twins, digital clothing and a marketplace, and if we buy more digital we’re less likely to buy – and bin – real clothes.

This means consumers could let their hair down online. “I have a friend for instance who only wears black or white t-shirts,” says Murphy. “But in a virtual world, he could take more risks.”

Fabricant isn’t the only player in the blossoming digital design field, and on the broader scale, virtual fashion could be one part of a solution to the massive environmental problem that is fashion today. If we satisfied our voracious appetite for the new with virtual clothes instead, we’d be helping to avert environmental catastrophe – or so pioneers, such as Murphy would have us believe. “The challenge is cultural rather than technical.”

Not before time – fashion is famously one of our dirtiest industries and the figures are frightening. Before a garment even reaches the shelves, it has a hefty carbon footprint. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes a kilogram of chemicals to produce a kilogram of textiles and the sector consumes lake-sized volumes of water – some five trillion litres each year for fabric dyeing alone.

The fashion industry – including clothing production – contributes to some 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Also, more than a third (35 per cent) of microplastics in the ocean come from synthetic clothes, which shed microfibres in every wash.

Clothes are sold for a song by online retailers such as Boohoo and Missguided – but often hardly worn. New clothes are packaged with plastic, and unsold stock is sometimes burned. In the UK, the lifetime for a garment is just 2.2 years, according to resource efficiency organisation Wrap, and we buy more clothes per head than anywhere else in Europe. Worldwide, more than $400bn (£327bn) of clothing is thrown away prematurely every year.


Ethics at the tips of our fingers

A host of apps are springing up to help would-be environmentally conscious consumers navigate fashion. This is timely, as we all become more aware. In fact, the 2019 update to an industry report, ‘Pulse of the Fashion Industry’ reveals that more than a third of people surveyed have ditched their favourite brand in favour of one with better environmental or social credentials.

Ethical fashion app Good On You gives information on brands’ ethical scores and recommends similar labels with sustainable behaviour. Another app reGAIN rewards people who recycle unwanted clothes with instore discounts – though this, in turn, means they may buy more.

For example, Earth Rewards, which has just recently launched, uses quizzes and information to help consumers decide and teams up with retailers to allow consumers to offset their environmental impact – credits earned via the app contribute to a forest project in the Amazon.

“So we’re not saying, ‘Don’t buy that jacket’ – you’ve worked hard for it after all,” says creator Ciaran Kelly. “We’re just saying you could offset its impact, maybe by sending two jackets to a charity for instance. It’s to create awareness and help people think about their lifestyle.”

In the meantime, campaigners say we’ve reached a tipping point – something must be done. A few years back, the sector wasn’t talking seriously about sustainability – now most brands are at least thinking about it, and many larger brands are publicly committed to cleaning up.

Why is it taking so long? The fashion industry is so complex, supply chains are so opaque, and brands are far from transparent. Look at any item you’re wearing, for example: could you honestly say you know how or by whom it was made? What chemicals, or how much water or fossil fuels were used in the manufacturing process?

“Things can’t continue the way they are,” says Ilishio Lovejoy, project manager of policy and research at Fashion Revolution, a movement pressing for change. “And it’s here technology has a big part to play. But we need a multi-pronged approach – that means consumers, industry, supply chains and governments. There are so many connected industries; it’s impossible to target a single group.”

By focusing on consumer awareness, Fashion Revolution hopes to build up a head of steam and galvanise brands into action. In fact, the organisation was responsible for the #whomademyclothes hashtag – created in the wake of the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory supplying major brands which killed 1,134 people. “We couldn’t have got as far as we have without technology,” Lovejoy says.

What’s needed next, says Lovejoy, is more accurate, real-time data and reporting from the supply chain. While 55 per cent of fashion brands included in the movement’s annual transparency index publish their annual carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions from their facilities, fewer than one in five publish those of their supply chain – and it’s here that more than half of the industry’s emissions occur.

Just over three in ten brands publish the annual water footprint of their premises, but a meagre 4 per cent share water footprint at a fibre production or raw material level. This year, H&M, Adidas and Reebok were judged to be the most transparent about their supply chains, according to Fashion Revolution.

If more data is required, technology is emerging to provide it. “Thankfully,” says Richard Hudson at software provider Sapphire Systems, “the industry has never had so many tools and technologies at its disposal to drive positive change, helping fashion businesses get their own house in order before getting customers on board.” Broadly, digitisation can make the whole supply chain more efficient, he says.

‘Fashion has some of the most creative minds in the world – we need to put them together and solve this.’

Tamsin Lejeune, Common Objective

Better quality information for businesses could be on the horizon, too. In May 2019, Google and eco-conscious brand Stella McCartney announced a collaboration to track data within fashion’s supply chain. Google is developing a tool leveraging machine learning and data analytics – a pilot will first look at cotton and viscose to help brands choose more sustainable raw materials and processes. Google says it wants to produce an open industry-wide tool to help the sector make cleaner choices.

Furthermore, for years in China – the world’s leading textile exporter – a non-profit research organisation, The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), has dedicated itself to collecting, collating and analysing the country’s government and corporate information about air and water quality in order to build a database of environmental information.

“This is such a game-changer,” adds Lovejoy. “It allows governments and the public to hold the supply chain to account using real-time data.”

Although data collection is important to establish a more sustainable industry, textile production is still famously dirty. Even a single pair of jeans requires hundreds of litres of water and harsh chemical rinses for the ‘lived-in’ look (see box). Natural materials exact a heavy price.

Could we one day ‘grow’ leather rather than rely upon methane-producing cattle? Companies such as US start-up Modern Meadow are working on alternatives with a biologically engineered fabric based on bovine collagen. Also, there’s Piñatex – a fake leather made partly from pineapple fibres, inspired by a traditional Philippine garment called the ‘barong Tagalog’.

A new generation of synthetic materials is emerging as an alternative to petroleum-based polyester – which currently accounts for more than 60 per cent of global fibre consumption. Biosynthetics are based wholly or partly on polymers from renewable resources such as corn, waste and algae rather than oil. They’re also suitable for stretchy fabrics. While many aren’t yet commercially available, they’re gaining popularity with clothing and footwear brands, says non-profit organisation Textile Exchange. For instance, Allbirds trainers use castor bean oil in their insoles.

As well as companies using different techniques to produce more sustainable clothes, we humans could also do our part in tackling fast fashion. In fact, buying more second-hand clothes could be another solution.

Indeed, it’s never been easier to buy second-hand clothes: with online platforms such as eBay, Depop – good for vintage and quirky items of clothing – and there are also Vinted, ASOS Marketplace, Preloved and Rebelle for designer clothes. But could fashion be subject to the kind of digital disruption that has transformed other industries? Will we one day see ‘fashion as a service’? asks the Global Fashion Agenda and partners in the ‘Pulse of the Fashion Industry’ (2018) report: where we rent rather than own clothes. Would we even 3D-print them one day?

“Rental certainly ticks all the boxes; it could slow the industry down,” says Tamsin Lejeune, chief executive of Common Objective, a network that supports fashion to become sustainable. For many years, it’s been easy to rent a posh frock, but services are springing up to make renting more everyday – a sort of Netflix for fashion.

A recent study by the Hubbub Foundation found nearly half of young women surveyed said they felth the need to wear a different look every time they went out. In the UK, Girl Meets Dress rents designer dresses from the likes of Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen for dinners, holidays and more, while the US has led the way with Rent the Runway, founded more than a decade ago. High-street store Urban Outfitters has also announced it will rent clothes, while H&M is also looking into a renting model, and more platforms are emerging.

More than €4bn (£3.6bn) a year could be saved through better business processes and use of technology, according to the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report.

“Think of sustainability as an opportunity, not a cost,” says Lejeune. “We need boldness. Not a sticking plaster, but how can we revolutionise the sector. Fashion has some of the most creative minds in the world – we need to put them together and solve this.”

Water pollution

‘Detox my fashion’

Dyeing and treatment of garments make up roughly 17 to 20 per cent of all industrial water pollution according to the World Bank. Rivers surrounding clothing manufacturing hubs have been found to contain toxic levels of mercury, lead and arsenic.

For many years, communities in poorer parts of the world have seen multi-coloured rivers as a result of effluent from the dyeing and processing of clothes for global clothing brands, says Greenpeace. For example, Indonesia’s Citarum river, with around 200 textile factories along its riverbank, is the most polluted in the world.

As a response to this worldwide issue, Greenpeace began a ‘Detox My Fashion’ campaign in 2011 to persuade brands to clean up their act.

Scientists in the meantime are searching for alternatives to harsh chemical dyes. The world will eventually run out of black and navy dyes as the chemicals required deplete.  

Enzymes are already widely used in detergents, and Dr Chetna Prajapati at Loughborough University is trialling their use in textile dyes. “There are a wide range of benefits in bringing enzymes into industrial processes,” says Prajapati, who’s collaborating with textile chemists.

Prajapati is experimenting with an enzyme group known as laccases which can react with natural compounds to produce different colours. Chemical dyes require high temperatures of above 100°C, harsh acidic chemicals and hours of application. Enzymes, by contrast, allow for simpler application and milder temperatures of around 30°C, cutting the use of chemicals and energy.

With the same starting compound, different colours can be produced to give a range of different hues – which could allow a garment to be easily re-dyed a different colour to meet changing fashion tastes.

Enzymes help eliminate an entire industrial process – there’s no leftover liquid containing harmful chemicals to dispose of. “We’re also looking at how we could dye combined fibres – wool and nylon – in a single process to allow different colours. That also has great aesthetic potential,” she says.

Translating what’s been achieved in the lab into an industrial scale is possibly a decade away, says Prajapati. “This technology is

in its infancy, but we believe it could transform the fashion industry. You could transform clothes into a different colour for a different season. You could be more agile.”

Meanwhile, companies such as Sweden’s SpinDye have eliminated the dyeing process from production by mixing and melting the pigment with clear polyester before the yarn is spun.

A North Carolina start-up, SeaChange Technologies, has developed a way to purify water by separating contaminants from water vapour which it releases clean into the atmosphere – eliminating wastewater from industrial processes.

Indigo Mills Designs, also in North Carolina, uses technology that speeds up the dyeing process, cutting the use of energy and water.

Every 5kg wash of polyester releases some six million microfibres which find their way into waterways and oceans. As one solution, online retailer Girlfriend Collective, which sells clothes made from recycled materials, sells a microfibre filter for washing machines to capture fibres from the outlet water.


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