In the world of fashion, designers communicate through the medium of their designs and the materials they choose to work with. Sadly, the trends in the fashion industry over the last few decades have made it synonymous with waste, pollution and exploitation. But, it was business as usual as the industry chose to ignore its large carbon footprint in the race to cut costs, grow volumes and increase profits.
Lately however, big fashion brands and small, boutique labels are owning up to the damage and taking responsibility for it. One of the ways in which brands are embracing sustainability is by moving towards materials that are less resource intensive - and we’re not just talking organic cotton here. This development is important since it means the fashion industry has sat up and taken notice of the fact that much of today’s used apparel doesn’t create raw material for new clothes. It ends up in landfills, as stuffing for toys, or it is exported to developing countries, where it stifles domestic economies.
Sustainable fibres are those that rely on natural materials, avoid polluting chemicals, and easily break down in the environment. But, the definition can be expanded to include fabrics that don’t deplete non-renewable resources. Using modern technology and research, brands today are discovering the potential of a variety of materials and adapting them into aesthetic and durable designs. The diversity of these materials is dizzying - from the commonplace - hemp, bamboo, soy and pineapple leaf fibre to the crazy - think kombucha, coffee grounds and mushrooms!
But, why look to diverting fertile agricultural land to the business of fashion when there are billions of tonnes of recyclable plastic waste out in the environment. That’s what gave Indian fashion brand The Summer House the idea for its latest line of swimwear. The boutique label is already doing several things right with its support of traditional communities of weavers and craftsmen across India, its focus on responsibly sourcing and the use of natural dyes. Its latest swimwear line is no different, combining comfort, style and sustainability.
“We’d been thinking of a swimwear line for two years, but wanted to be sure to use fabric that would be sustainable,” says The Summer House co-founder, Shivangini Parihar. Their search led them to Econyl, a fabric fashioned by recycling discarded fishing nets and weaving them into nylon particularly suited for sportswear, outdoor wear and lingerie. The brand has incorporated recycled marine plastic into its latest range of swimsuits, available in unique designs in three colours.
Econyl technology was pioneered by Aquafil, an Italian company specialising in turning plastic from abandoned fishing gear and old carpets into textiles, with the aim of diverting waste from landfills and minimising the dependence on virgin raw materials such as fossil fuels. The problem of ocean plastic is serious enough to be called a 'planetary crisis' by the UN which estimates that roughly 6,40,000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets or 'ghost nets' currently pollute our oceans, accounting for 10 percent of the total plastic waste in the sea. These nets act as traps, that accidentally capture, injure and kill thousands of marine animals daily.
The raw material for Econyl comes from fish farms and the fishing industry, but abandoned nets are also recovered by divers before the nylon in them is separated, shredded and converted into yarn. Yes, a bikini made of textile imported from Italy isn't very eco-friendly, but swimwear is hard to make sustainably because it requires special features so far best achieved with virgin nylon which is made from crude oil in a process that requires lots of water and energy. Econyl is not biodegradable, but it is infinitely recyclable which means the material can be recovered from products at the end of their life and turned into new ones. This makes it a great closed-loop fabric option. Because it is made by recycling some of the strongest nylon on the planet, Parihar says, it is built to last, bucking high street's use-and-throw trend. Several fashion giants including Levi’s and Adidas have already incorporated Econyl into their collections.
The fashion industry is plagued by many socially and environmentally unsustainable practices, not the least of which is that most of today's apparel takes decades to decompose. Next generation fabrics like Econyl will reduce textile wastage only so much, and delay only a few garments from reaching the landfill. But, a change in the fashion industry's attitude to sustainable textiles is a good start which, if combined with investment in designing long-lasting and regenerative materials will help it address many of its challenges around pollution and waste.