Renewable Matter # 16 / May-June

Sustainability Is Fashionable

by Antonio Cianciullo

Food is now beyond debate. In just a few decades, the world of food has been turned upside down and a vision that can be defined as political – that is the capacity to connect different sectors, needs and companies – has become common practice amongst those approaching the food debate. Nowadays, the definition of a modern agricultural strategy often includes love for traditions, the desire to maintain social cohesion, marginal lands and biodiversity preservation, turnover expansion and tourism revival.

So, one of the defining characteristics of Italy’s brand has established itself as a driving force carrying with it the revival of local products, organic and biodynamic produce. Now it is the fashion’s turn. Certainly, fashion is not lagging behind judging from its competiveness capacity: figures prove quite the opposite and the very nature of this sector is characterized by a continuous evolution of sensitivity. But this topic can be tackled striking different chords. Lately, the environmental one has been very popular. 

This game started as a defence. Campaigns such as Greenpeace’s Detox helped focusing on the need to purify the system from unwelcome elements. The awareness of the health impacts of some toxic substances present both in clothes and in the environment started a transformation of production processes of the clothing industry still taking place and with different paces in different countries. 

Now a new challenge is gathering momentum: not only introducing the environmental variable into the choice of materials used but also adopting it as a competitive edge. The acceptance of this process cannot be taken for granted because resistance is building up on different fronts. One is skilfully highlighted in this issue of Renewable Matter in the article by Marco Ricchetti who tackles this topic with a quote by John Elkington from the incipit of Cannibals with Forks: “Is it progress if a cannibal uses a fork?” In other words, is it progress if corporations fighting for supremacy adopt sustainable production models?

This provocation embodies widespread suspicion also characterizing discussions on other extremely innovative production sectors. In theory, it is difficult to judge: it could be a wise precaution to bring greenwashing into the open; or it could be an ideological prejudice, a dogmatic stance against the industrial world. Pavan Sukhdev, the Indian economist who created the Teeb project on the value of ecosystems, in Corporation 2020, expressed a positive vision for the future of multinational organizations: “Over the last 2 years, green investments have grown by 61%, from $13.3 trillion in 2012 to $21.4 trillion in 2014. Old companies shed their skin, for instance Dow Chemical in Lousiana has invested in energy efficiency with a return equalling 204% over 13 years. And there are new companies such as Patagonia, Natura or Indian Infosys that have grown a lot by betting on social and environmental commitment.”

In the fashion industry how advanced is this process and how can it be coupled coherently with the circular economy’s perspective? To answer this question we had to bring up basic data, that is the strong growth of material flow to feed this sector. +68% in the last 15 years: from 8 kg of textile fibres per capita to 15. With the ensuing consumption of water, energy and land to support this mechanism. 

Faced with these figures, the proposal backed by our magazine is explained in a book just published, Neo-materials in the Circular Economy – Fashion (edited by M. Ricchetti, Edizioni Ambiente 2017, editor’s note). The work relates examples of sustainable use of materials in the fashion sector and analyses the topic from the use of non-renewable materials, the use of water resources and the impact of chemicals employed.

The fleeting grace of a fashion-show jacket might seem inconsequential and we might focus instead on cannibals with forks. But if we take into consideration the bigger picture, the life cycle of what is used to make what we wear every day is more important: clothes have a remarkable environmental impact. And our choices can have a positive or negative outcome.