One of the most outwardly glamorous industries is quite different internally.
Though it's ever-chic and dream-like in its fashion weeks and runway shows, the industry is one of the most powerful when it comes to effects on our climate. Right now, this power is being wielded for worse.
The $2.5 trillion fashion industry accounts for at least 10% of global carbon emissions annually. Beyond carbon emission is the issue of water usage: Annually, the fashion industry uses at least 93 billion cubic meters of water and produces at least 20% of global wastewater coming from garment dyes and treatments, according to the World Bank.
The fabrics and textiles used for fashion make up a major part of the industry's environmental impact. Dr. Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at Fashion Institute of Technology, suggests that fibers, fabrics and textiles account for as much as 70% of fashion's overall environmental impact. Whether they're petroleum-based synthetics or naturally-derived, raw materials must be turned into fibers, which are either grown or artificially made. These fibers then become fabrics through a variety of other processes before being sewn into clothes that are shipped out, put up for sale and taken home by the consumer.
The future of fashion and its impact on the climate lies in fibers and fabrics, which carry a massive weight in the industry's overall environmental impact. While the miseries seem endless and daunting, it's human nature to want to find solutions to our biggest problems — and that requires innovation.
Why Fabrics and Textiles Carry So Much Weight When It Comes to Sustainability
Every fabric we have today was seen as a marvelous innovation at its time.
Made of plastics, polyester was a miracle invention in the 1940s. You could wear it, seemingly endlessly, without needing to iron it or much other maintenance. Nylon was a revelation that amped up military clothes, and decades later sprung into consumer popularity through its much-loved use at Prada.
Almost a century after that excitement, we now live in the wake of the downsides of these former "miracles." As durable and malleable as polyester may be, it sheds microplastics with harmful health implications now found in our blood and oceans. The fabrics we claim to love are also the ones we waste, annually depositing a couple million metric tons of textile waste in landfills or sending them off to be incinerated. Today's innovations need to mend the oversights of the past — like heavy plastics use and hyper-consumption — while illuminating the path forward.
Despite all the downsides of plastics (and thinking beyond fashion), the material has powerful capabilities that other natural fibers don't possess, especially in medicine. Envisioning a future that's plastic-free might be ideal for many, but what about the sheer amount of plastic we've already produced?
Some argue the best path forward is to find ways to reuse the plastic that's out there.
"We still have these technical fabrics, and they're gonna need technical solutions to recycle and manage them," says Kathleen Talbot, chief sustainability officer at Reformation. "If we could literally snap our fingers, we'd probably reduce our reliance [on plastics]… but since they already exist, one of their benefits compared to natural fibers is that they can be recycled a lot more easily."
Recycling plastic is an intensive process, and a synthetic fiber can only be recycled so many times, according to Dr. Arya. But it's still better than nothing. Here's the issue: Though we can technically recycle plastics, only a minority of plastic waste actually gets recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And the problem with the whopping majority of plastic ending up in landfills is that it can take hundreds of years or up to a literal millenium to decompose.
This is where innovations like CiCLO come in.
CiCLO is a textile technology that seeks to make synthetic, plastic fibers mimic natural fibers on a molecular level, in order to achieve a similar rate of biodegradability. It's backed by Netherlands-based Fashion for Good, an incubator dedicated to investing in fashion's sustainable ideas, focusing on good materials, economy, energy, water and livelihood. (Fashion for Good has also stood behind some of the buzziest material startups in fashion, like Lucro and MYCL.)
CiCLO is an additive that deposits nutrients into the polymers of synthetic fibers to encourage microbe metabolization, which promotes overall decomposition and conversion into naturally-occurring nutrients. This creates a process similar to how a natural fiber would decompose. Emerging companies like activewear line Definite Articles and medical scrubs maker Welles are using it with the intent of making their products circular. But a question and cautious skepticism looms: As the CiCLO-treated synthetic fibers break down, are they becoming more microplastics or turning into a natural material on a molecular level?
"There's a number of different kinds of additive compounds that are being promoted as a solution to some of the plastic pollution — I would just be really cautious about that," Saskia van Gendt, Rothy's head of sustainability, says. "The main act that those chemicals can have as an additive is actually [to] make the plastic into smaller pieces, not actually degrade the plastic, so it can become invisible to the human eye, but it doesn't necessarily solve the degradability of the plastic itself."
CiCLO's third-party research claims the decomposition of synthetic fibers becomes exclusively nutrients — no microplastics involved. But research on plastic biodegradation is in early stages, leading some to worry.
Why Compostable Fabrics Aren't a Realistic Solution
As companies fling around new words to convey sustainability, "compostable" and "biodegradable" are going to be used a lot more often — and, at times, interchangeably. But it's important to distinguish them and highlight why this may be the latest episode of greenwashing.
Composting involves mixing ingredients to fertilize plants and improve soil health. Biodegradable means able to be naturally decomposed by bacteria and other living organisms. In theory, both sound like possible solutions for fashion waste — but even if fabrics claim to be compostable, we know most adults don't compost anyway.
"The challenge with 'compostable' is that it requires a level of effort and initiative from the consumer that I wish it were easy, but it's just not realistic," Definite Articles founder Aaron Sanandres says.
Biodegradable is also a nice word and a nice idea, but some argue it's not ultimately what we want for all of our apparel and accessories.
"We don't want our materials to biodegrade because we want our materials to be used for years, for decades, for generations," Greg Stillman, general manager at material science company Natural Fiber Welding, says.
Natural Fiber Welding creates fabric alternatives with natural components — like a leather partly made from coconut husk and rice hull called Mirum, for example. Its work is based on "mother nature's nutrient cycles that have existed for literally millennia, which implies that one manifestation of a set of molecules and material is another entity's breakfast, lunch and dinner," says Stillman. Rather than decomposing and falling apart quickly, the goal is for these materials to become products that can last centuries.
Waste Could Be a Powerful Resource
All of these sources agree on one thing: The future of fashion is circular.
"To talk about what the future looks like, I would start with where we are today — mostly still petrochemical, virgin inputs, lots of leather, manufacturing where brands can outsource all of the production and the responsibility of the process," Rothy's van Gendt says. "Unfortunately, products are still designed for short seasons and made to fall apart, and that whole supply chain and business model is creating products that are destined for landfill. The vision for circularity is: How can we start to create a circle out of what now is a one-way ticket?"
A circular system looks different between natural and synthetic materials. One with synthetic materials takes a massive amount of effort, and can involve taking products back (which Rothy's does through its recycling program, beginning chemical processes to separate synthetic materials, then adding them to new blends to be used as fabrics. With natural materials like hemp, cotton, or Natural Fiber Welding's Mirum, circularity is already part of the process.
"There are no dead ends in mother nature," Stillman says. "There are no stockpiles and landfills and incinerators to deal with plastic in mother nature." Instead, he continues, "there's a very elegant solution."
As is the minefield of solutions in fashion, efforts to use natural materials and fibers can easily be upended by the time you reach the finished product: Dyes, chemical treatments and synthetic threads can take it out of those natural nutrient cycles, thus affecting their circularity.
The Problem of Overconsumption
The current model for the fashion industry is built on an acceleration of consumption, urging you to buy more and spend more while workers get paid less and the planet gets less healthy. It's designed to be as quick and cheap as possible, to be as endless as the screens you scroll, to be as addictive and desirable as hours spent on TikTok.
The fall of the fashion haul and growing awareness of its dangers is just beginning. Previous "wake-up calls" to the industry have mostly left short-term shocks. Despite the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse — which killed thousands of garment workers and severely injured thousands more — labor practices remain largely shady and unregulated. A recent Channel 4 exposé titled "Untold: Inside the Shein Machine" shows the persistence and severity of the issue, as workers for the ultra-fast-fashion brand are expected to make 500 garments daily at wages far under livable.
Growing consumer awareness is crucial, not just for slowing down consumption but also for demanding better from the players stuck in their profit-fixated ways. Though, individual decisions aren't the main culprit — it's on these big companies reaping profits, pouring money into "green" marketing and maintaining the status quo to do better. Still, Dr. Arya acknowledges how hard it can be to navigate greenwashing, economic pressures and other factors that influence the way we shop. Her recommendation: a mindset of not becoming "brand loyal," but rather "planet loyal."
A Roundabout of Endless Problems — But Many Paths Forward
When discussing innovative solutions to questions of sustainability in fashion, each one can seem to feed into another problem in a daunting way.
There's still the issue of microplastic shedding, which dirties our bodies of water as well as our own bodies, and of the chemicals in dyes that can pose health problems all the same. Though shifting to natural fibers sounds more eco-friendly in theory, some crops like cotton need large amounts of water and pesticides, which can ravish landscapes.
With technologies like CiCLO that claim to break down plastic fibers, questions arise around whether the decomposed product is something we even want in our environment. But at least this research and innovation is happening.
"Technology and innovation in the space are just going to grow at an exponential rate [such] that in 10 years, we will probably have truly circular yarns," Sanandres says. "What the future looks like, I think will be very different than [what] we see today. But that doesn't mean we can ignore and wait."
While it's a nuanced conversation that'll push us to our most thoughtful innovations, the future of fashion is deeply enmeshed with environmental consciousness. And because of that, it'll be heavily influenced by its fabrics, fibers and game-changing genius.