29 March 2018

Africa: Fashion Paradigm That Does Not Pollute the Planet

Photo: Capital FM
South Africa's David Tlale (file photo).
opinion

Vancouver — Fashion is meant to be trendy. It's fast-paced: in one season, out the next. If you want to keep up, you had better update your wardrobe - that top you bought last summer is already outdated. While things may have been built to last a life-time a generation ago, today they don't even last a year.

But the world is finite, and so are the resources in it. What we wear is every bit as important as what we eat when it comes to environmental sustainability. If we're serious about preserving our world, we're going to have to shift our current linear fast-fashion paradigm to a slower more circular one that doesn't pollute the planet.

When I learnt about fast-fashion and textiles waste, it was the 'make, consume, scrap it' attitude that made me think. I realized that most of our clothing is produced in a linear production line where we take from nature, consume and throw away when we are done. But nothing is ever really "away". Even if it's natural, nothing biodegrades in a landfill. I had to do something.

Synthetic clothing is petroleum-based - just like plastic. That means it's part of our global plastic problem, which is clogging our oceans and damaging our ecosystems. More than 8 million tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean each year - equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute.

But sustainability as a concept doesn't work when you guilt trip people into it. It also doesn't work when you force it on people. The sustainable choice has to be cool, and undeniably the best option in terms of quality and style - sustainability aside. It also has to be accessible and affordable compared with other options.

As a young person, I thought at first that my voice was a drop in the ocean. How could I possibly make a difference? Yet, the more I studied and the more I learned about the fashion industry, the more I realized: we are the ones who need to change this. Every time we shop, we are making a choice. If we have the right information, we can make more conscious decisions, and bring about real change.

If we work together, we can make a difference. Since I started my sustainable apparel company, I've found people who share my passion, values and vision to make apparel that is truly sustainable in terms of materials, dyes and the people making it. I have sourced organic cotton and hemp fabrics, inks that doesn't have any PVC or heavy metals in them and all my product is made ethically in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

Yet a major hurdle we keep encountering, is that we need bigger players on board to truly make an impact. Big brands have the buying power and the economies of scale to bring down costs associated with truly sustainable apparel. The global fashion industry can still be trendy - we can still change our wardrobes. But when we do, we will do it without killing the planet.

A major shift is needed to turn this thing around, starting with embedding sustainability into school curriculums and design programs. We're looking at the problem of waste from the wrong angle: at the end of the process. We should be looking at it from the very beginning: before the design process even starts.

Designers - and not just clothing designers - need to design with the end in mind. We need to start innovating, coming up with new ways to eliminate waste from production and taking full responsibility for the products we're making and what's left over.

Consumers need to ask more questions and learn about where their clothing is from: what it's made of; who's making it? Just as we have started doing with food. If we vote with our dollars, and buy from brands that are more transparent with this kind of information, brands will be forced to improve their supply chains and sustainability practices out of sheer competition to stay in the game.

We also need policy makers to get behind the sustainable agenda. For example, dying processes, and fabrics that contribute to climate change and cause a lot of waste could pay higher taxes. We must create solutions, which pave the way for our societies to change.

Last year, I became one of six United Nations Environment Young Champions of the Earth - an initiative that has supported me to actively make a difference. You can apply now for 2018, or find other initiatives which champion and support your idea to create real environmental change.

Some days it's tough. Fighting an environmental cause, especially as a young person and within the fashion industry, means looking for solutions which may not be the most lucrative, or appealing to the mainstream. But by joining other designers, fabric suppliers, manufacturers and other fashion industry players, we're using our networks, speaking up, and finding solutions.

For our fashion industry to be truly sustainable, we need everyone on board. We need big brands to support sustainable innovation within their companies. We, as consumers, need to seek out more natural and organic fabrics when shopping for new clothing, or buy second hand. And we, as designers, need to design with the end in mind and develop closed-loop and zero waste production lines.

I believe that together we will create change, just like Margaret Mead once said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." If we start small and set big goals, we will make a difference. We can shift this fast-fashion paradigm forever, without sacrificing a trendy wardrobe.

*Kaya Dorey is founder of Novel Supply Co, a conscious apparel company that creates, designs and supplies fashionable products that shift the stigma of sustainability, using minimalistic design, natural fabrics and sustainable inks with a focus on zero waste.

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