OPINION: Clothing industry needs ‘moon shot’ to end fast fashion

The queen of fashion herself, Anna Wintour, has made her views known about fashion and sustainability.  It’s a welcome influential voice in a sector that is using up global raw materials at an alarming rate.

According to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) global fashion production has doubled in the last 15 years but we are wearing 40% less clothing. This has led to a global figure of over 92 million tonnes of post-consumer clothing landfilled annually.

The planet is in crisis and you probably bought more clothes for the Christmas season – 12 million of us will have bought a novelty jumper with flashing lights and sequins.  Research by environmental charity, Hubbub, said that this purchase was one of the worst examples of fast fashion, a sector now recognised as hugely damaging to the environment.

A recent study by Plymouth University also found that acrylic garments release nearly 730,000 microfibres per wash, five times more that polyester-cotton blend fabric and nearly 1.5 times as many as pure polyester.

Environmentalists are shouting loud and relentlessly pursuing governments to make changes.  The younger generation, with Greta Thunberg as their spokesperson, are worried about the future.   So how can fashion respond?

Lynn Wilson photograph high res jpeg.  (1).jpg
Lynn Wilson

Trusting in our science and technology skills is one way.   This is not a new concept. Fifty years ago, NASA gave us the Apollo 11 moon landing, a project so ambitious it generated its own metaphor; a ‘moon shot’.   The technology used in the astronauts’ moonboots that helped them walk on the Moon eventually found its way into the Nike Air trainer.

We can also get inspiration from the days before we were bombarded by the vast range of clothing brands.   My gran is an example of the make do and mend brigade.   Jumpers were knitted and then unravelled to make a bigger garment as you grew.   Socks were darned and clothes altered.

This idea of valuing the clothes you own and wearing them again and again is being touted as a new idea, but we knew then it was a necessity.   We know now this is the way to start thinking about clothes and is the definition of a circular economy – getting the most value we can and then re-use or recycle at the end of a garment’s life.

The fashion industry is realising that the current consumption is unsustainable and is being helped by the work of start-ups in the industrial biotechnology (IB) sector, who are using plant-based sources to produce or process sustainable solutions for textiles, dyes and finishing chemicals for clothes and finding ways to recycle used garments and develop industrial closed loops for garment processes. This is the continuous cycle the fashion industry needs to try and achieve.

Such companies will be showcasing their technology in Glasgow this week at the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre’s (IBioIC) Annual Conference, where I will be chairing a session on Fashion and the Circular Economy.

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An example of this is Spinnova, who produces a recyclable fibre made from FSC certified wood pulp, in a simple, ecological process, without using harmful chemicals or microplastics.  The fabric was used to create a stunning evening dress worn by Henna Virkkunen, MEP, at the recent Independence Day event in Finland.

It is also critical that we educate fashion, textiles and design students in driving change.  Dr Kate Goldsworthy, University of Arts, London and Co-Director of Centre for Circular Design, whose work with textile and fashion students is doing just that, gets them to think sustainably about a garment’s life cycle at the beginning of the design process.

Dr Richard Blackburn from University of Leeds will also talk about his work on the impact of using science to create sustainable cosmetic products and processes which he has also brought successfully to market.

I too will be sharing my experience of advising students from University of Edinburgh, MSc in Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology who recently competed in the prestigious iGEM (igem.org) competition in Boston in November. They picked up a silver medal for their project titled ‘Bioremediation of Azo dyes and synthetic silk production’. The team were inspired by companies such as Colorifix who are leaders in the field of biosynthetic solutions for dyeing in the fashion industry.

It’s true we can’t produce enough natural raw materials to clothe the planet.  But we can take note of the work of IBioIC and support the innovators and scientists who are working to create a moon shot for the fashion industry.

It’s pragmatic and one small step for man is a giant leap for planet earth.


Lynn Wilson, Consultant, is Chairing the Fashion and Circular Economy session at the 6th Annual Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) Conference on the 5th and 6th February 2020.    

The international industrial biotechnology (IB) conference, now in its sixth year, is expected to attract over 450 delegates to Glasgow on 5 and 6 February 2020. To register for the conference, visit: www.ibioc.com

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