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Clothing made from recycled cashmere, plastic, leather and polyester in London’s Oxford St shopping precinct. Photo/Pamela Stirling/Listener

Ideas for greening the fashion industry

There are plenty of ideas – some old, some cutting edge – that are taking sewing scissors to the fashion industry’s reputation for wastefulness.

Slow fashion is in full bud. Alongside the accelerating growth of the used-clothing market, swapping, mending and repurposing are developing into viable business models.

Perhaps the greenest new shoot, however, is the rise of laboratory-grown fabric.

New York bio-fabricator Modern Meadow makes what any microscopic inspection would identify as leather. However, it is made from a collagen protein derived by fermenting yeast, resulting in flawless leather with no wastage and no animals killed. California’s Bolt Threads makes what it calls “spider silk”, without troubling spiders, and of a quality that Stella McCartney and fellow global label Patagonia are poised to use as a mainstream fabric. This is especially good news given the plight of the silk industry, which is plagued by shortages because so many silkworms die from pollution, toxins and diseases, and from the production process itself. There is ethical silk harvesting, which does not deliberately kill the silkworms, but, overall, demand has forced undesirable intensification that is still falling short.

Read more: The shocking price of fast fashion

Elsewhere, fabrics are being successfully developed from wood, seaweed, mushrooms, orange peel, pineapple, recycled plastic and, of course, from reconstituting used fabric. There are companies whose entire business model is cutting up second-hand clothes to make new clothes, an approach particularly suited to denim. Here are a few ways in which the fashion industry and its loyal followers are changing things for the better:

Darn it

Upcycling, mending, patching with appliqué, embroidering, crazy-quilting, needlepointing, unravelling and re-knitting and the almost-lost art of invisible mending are increasingly being used to prolong the life of clothing and fabric.

Wash out

People are re-examining how often they need to wash and dry-clean. Here, wool is popular, given its antimicrobial properties. Overnighting in the freezer can spare many garments, including jeans, from constant washing, as freezing kills bacteria and odour. Dry spray-cleaning products may, chemicals notwithstanding, be preferable to water use and the risk of non-biodegradable filaments washing into the ocean and water table.

Corporate green-boasting

Cheap clothing chain Primark is training 160,000 cotton farmers in organic farming. Its business model may still be at the bulk end of “more for less”, but it’s making a start at reducing their environmental footprint. ASOS has just sworn off using silk. As green boasts become a marketing plus, we can expect to see more improvement.

Call the doctor 

Dressmakers and tailors are getting more repair work, on top of their usual trade in clothing alterations and new garments.


Clothes-swapping “events”, until recently a popular fundraising technique, are turning high street. Britain’s Toast chain, for one, has trialled offering redeemable tokens for returned items in good condition, which customers can spend on others’ returned items.


The local, seasonal-food movement is knocking on the wardrobe. Growers, farmers, designers, machinists, knitters and retailers are ganging up to show that the greenest supply chain may be the shortest. Fibershed, an international grassroots network, is working to popularise the idea of buying entirely locally produced clothing, made from regenerative farming and without artificial dyes, saving on air and road miles and creating local work.

Either a borrower or a lender be

Rent the Runway is among the fast-growing number of couture-rental providers. This still scratches the fast-fashion itch for variety, but without the wastefulness. It’s also democratising high fashion. Few consumers can afford a one-off designer piece or premium ready-to-wear. The opportunity to rent them for weddings, parties and the like is winning over more and move converts.

Royal approval

Huge store is set by the dress habits of celebrities and there are few more influential than the British royal family. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, both make a point of re-wearing their outfits and highlighting sustainably produced items. Meghan wore her sustainable Reformation-label dress on tour in Africa and again in the Pacific. As Fashionopolis author Dana Thomas says, “These duchesses are saying, ‘I feel good in these clothes and I’m going to keep wearing them.’ It’s a really useful message for them to put out there.”

The new Gordon Gecko

What the 1980s movie Wall Street did to prompt a rethink of money-market tactics, the forthcoming mockumentary Greed could do for fast fashion’s ethos. Due for release in February, it stars Steve Coogan as a heartless, heedless business mogul, based on Britain’s unpopular but influential clothing king, Sir Philip Green, the founder of Topshop.

That's a wrap – print it

3D printing to order could, one day, be a game-changer, Thomas says. The ability to remotely summon up garments made to individual measurements and from a choice of sustainable fabrics would save a lot of wastage. Already, online businesses Redbubble, in clothing, and Spoonflower, in fabrics and manchester, warehouse thousands of designs contributed by customers and allow other customers to buy a range of items printed with those designs through online ordering. Their factories print only what is ordered.

This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.