Fashion 4.0, No. 3: How Innovation Can Help Fix Fast Fashion's Fallout

Modern Meadow Zoa biofabric leather

By now, we’ve all heard about or experienced some form of backlash from “fast fashion,” whether it’s devastating news stories about underpaid garment workers losing or risking their lives toiling in unsafe overseas factories, losing jobs at home as apparel industry work has gone off-shore, or the collective realization that we have too much stuff that ends up in landfills and pollutes the planet.

Veteran fashion journalist Dana Thomas’ new book, “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes,” out this month from Penguin, spells out exactly what’s ailing the apparel industry today, why it happened, and how new companies are using innovation to solve the problem. In her well-researched and compelling read, Thomas begins by making an example of Zara, the world’s largest fashion brand, which produced more than 450 million clothing items in 2018. Last year, she writes, U.S. shoppers bought an average of 68 garments a year. If you totaled up that figure for everyone in the world, that would be 80 BILLION apparel items annually.

How did we go from the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, when the invention of mechanical loom heralded progress, to this? As Thomas explains, up until the Seventies, the U.S. produced at least 70 percent of the apparel that Americans purchased. In the Eighties, when inexpensive, trendy clothes became popular, companies began off-shore manufacturing in less-developed countries to keep prices lower. In 1991, only 56.2 percent of all clothes purchased in the U.S. were made domestically. By 2012, it was 2.5 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. textile and garment industry lost 1.2 million jobs while worldwide, the number of apparel and textile jobs nearly doubled. Fashion employs 1 out of 6 people globally, but fewer than 2 percent of them earn a living wage.

Why? The average consumer, many of us included, liked paying less for clothes that they’d wear fewer times, and often didn’t think about how or where they were made. Thankfully, things are changing. New fashion entrepreneurs began to question why they were making more things and how they could do it differently. Part of the messaging brings the staggering statistics to light for consumers.

Thomas notes that conventionally grown cotton is one of the world’s most polluting crops. Almost 2.2 pounds of hazardous chemicals are required to grow two-and-a-half acres. The resulting textiles are often dyed with more toxic chemicals that also get into the world’s waters, and once an item end up in a landfill, those same dyes again poison the earth. Synthetic fibers are no better: they can release microfibers when washed, up to 40 percent of which enter rivers, lakes and oceans. The World Bank estimates that garment production is responsible for nearly 20 percent of all industrial water pollution annually. Fashion production also releases 10 percent of all carbon emissions in our air. Where does it all go? Of the 100 billion items produced each year, 20 percent go unsold. In the last 20 years, the volume of clothes that American throw away has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons. That's equal to 80 pounds per person per year of clothes that get thrown away. 

Thomas' book has clearly been a long time in the making, and it sheds more light for more people on the changes needed in our industry. The latter half of the book highlights the ways in which new companies are striving to clean up fashion's act. When we founded Variant last year, our aim was to create beautiful, lasting fashion with far less impact on the planet. We made customization our platform on the premise that consumers wouldn’t want to throw away a unique and high-quality piece made just for them. In making items on-demand only and local to our customers, we also hope to eliminate materials waste and inventory, and shorten the supply chain.  

What we make our items from is also an opportunity to support fellow innovators. With science and technology paving the way for sustainably-produced fibers and those created from upcycled, post-consumer “waste” like plastic bottles and nylon carpets, we can help to change the status quo, one garment at a time. Each day, we discover new changemakers and entrepreneurs who inspire us to be better. Recently, one of our younger team members came across a company called Modern Meadow, which is using science and technology for “Biofabrication,” or building textile fibers with biology, beginning at the molecular level with a collagen protein cell’s DNA. Those cells are grown and multiplied through fermentation, each one producing collagen proteins that can eventually become the building blocks for textiles when combined with other animal-free, natural or man-made materials.

Pictured above and in our featured image is Zoa™, Modern Meadow’s first-gen material inspired by leather. While it’s not yet available commercially, we’re excited by the possibilities of creating fashion with textiles that are healthier for the planet.

It’s worth noting that many innovations of the past still hold plenty of value today. Stoll, the German company that created the first automated knitting machine 100 years ago exactly, is still a leader today. The Stoll 3D knitting machines we use at Variant now knit forms to shape, eliminating materials waste and enabling customized fits. If that’s not the opposite of fast fashion, we don’t know what is.

With Gratitude, 

The Variant Team


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