“The short answer? If we don’t do something, then we won’t have any resources left from which to produce.”
It almost sounds like we’re back in the chillum-hazed days of the hippies, but that couldn’t be more wrong. The words belong to Jonas Eder-Hansen, Development Director at the Danish Fashion Institute. He’s in charge of the organisation’s sustainability project, called NICE (Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical). Founded by players in the Scandinavian fashion industry, it has been at the forefront of efforts to get brands to produce sustainable fashion, entice consumers to buy it, and persuade politicians to promote and legislate.
The organisation arranged the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s leading event for sustainable fashion. More than 1,000 industry professionals attended the last summit in April, held in the Copenhagen Opera House. Copenhagen Fashion Week returns this August, and once again, sustainability will be in focus.
It’s not just that fashion is a money-maker for Denmark as such. On a global level, fashion is one of the most polluting industries, second only to oil. Workers are being treated poorly, and factories are dangerous places (as seen at the disaster at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh where 1127 people were killed).
Preserving scarce resources
Sustainable fashion is concerned with all of this and more. And though it might seem like an overwhelming and perhaps impossible task to change an industry so driven by profit, Jonas Eder-Hansen and NICE believe that everything counts, so they’re looking at every aspect, from beginning to end. For example, he says, 90 percent of all materials used in the fashion industry are cotton and polyester. But that soft and ubiquitous cotton is difficult to produce.
“Soon it will be a scarce resource, as it’s incredibly unsustainable to grow. It’s one of the most water, land, and chemical-intensive crops in the world, and it will only get more and more expensive. That fact alone means it’s time to change the industry,” Eder-Hansen notes.
“There are more and more people in the world, and we need to use the land to grow food – not cotton.”
He agrees that it’s counterintuitive at best to ask consumers to buy certified organic cotton, as the best option would be to buy a different fabric entirely. But, he holds, since the challenges in the industry are so big and will take years to accomplish, every little bit counts.
“Organic cotton is a step in the right direction because it lowers the amount of chemicals used and reduces the intensity of the cultivation process. And it may just bring about a change of attitude among consumers. But we still need to find other materials to produce from,” he goes on, listing natural fibres from milk, bamboo, seaweed and hemp as some of the new alternatives.
It may sound difficult to combine seaweed fabrics and fashion, since fashion is per se concerned with fascination, lust, sex and desire for the new. However, many of these new possibilities are already very well-developed, and demanding designers are slowly getting acquainted with new options at the sustainable garment library at the Danish Fashion Institute.
“If we can get designers to think about these things and provide them with the necessary arguments, then we can make a big difference. Eighty percent of a garment’s environmental footprint originates in decisions made early in the creative process,” says Eder-Hansen.
The brands themselves can’t do everything, though. NICE acknowledges that there has to be demand from consumers. Start buying smart, they say, and start asking questions.
“We need to start asking a lot of questions in the stores, not only about sustainability, but also about social issues. In general, consumers can look for the various labelling systems: GOTS is the biggest labelling system for organic cotton, there’s ÖKO-TEX for children’s wear, and The Swan for towels and sheets,” he notes.
But real change can only come when consumers start handling their garments in a better, smarter way. In fact, 40 percent of the total environmental footprint of a garment is in the hands of the consumer.
“Washing machines that can wash at colder temperatures are a good start. Of course, towels and underwear are excluded here,” he laughs, before ending.
“And by line drying the clothes instead of putting them in the dryer, we can save resources and water. We really need consumers to start making active and informed choices about these things – then we can get to where we want to be.” M