Sweden as a country is a pioneer in sustainable fashion research. Mistra Future Fashion is a unique interdisciplinary research project hailed by IVA as one of the most important research projects in the area of sustainability. A major shift is occurring in the fashion industry, where actors are increasingly working to cut their climate emissions. But so far we haven’t seen this trend reflected among consumers.
The concept of sustainable fashion is widely discussed today, but its actual meaning is open to interpretation. Sustainable fashion encompasses both production and consumption and aims to achieve a circular economy based on a closed-loop supply chain model. For this reason, sustainable fashion relies on both producers and consumers taking responsibility for bringing about positive changes.
– “Sustainable fashion means that clothing is developed and optimised for a specific purpose. Many actors sell fashion through in-store experiences, rather than based on the garments’ usefulness. This means that the garments are designed to look and be perceived in a certain way whilst in the store, which seldom results in an optimal lifespan,” explains Sandra Roos, former researcher in life cycle assessment and chemicals in textiles at RISE.
Sandra is one of the researchers who participated in the research program Mistra Future Fashion, which conducted interdisciplinary research in sustainable fashion over a period of eight years (2011–2019).
– “Sweden is a pioneer country, and Mistra Future Fashion is unique in bringing together researchers and experts from different disciplines. Nobody worked on their own during the project. Instead, we all collaborated to find new solutions and opportunities. For instance, rather than just focusing on our separate areas of expertise, such as new fibres, recycling or law, we worked together. This collaboration led to new insights and solutions. The interdisciplinary work in the project attracted a lot of feedback from researchers in other countries who have had difficulty succeeding with this type of collaboration,” says Sandra.
Social sustainability is important, and so is being able to express yourself through your clothes
We need both fast fashion and slow fashion
In partnership with the Swedish fashion brand Filippa K, Mistra Future Fashion has designed a study on fast fashion and slow fashion.
– “In order for fast fashion to be sustainable, the production and recycling phases must both be efficient. The quality must not be higher than is absolutely necessary. The garment might not even need to be washable. This would allow the use of non-woven instead of woven materials, for instance. A typical example of this type of garment is a festival T-shirt, which is very relevant for only a short time. With slow fashion, on the other hand, the production phase can be longer, but the garment must be classic to ensure a long lifespan. The material might take a long time to design and the recycling process might be difficult, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that the garment will be worn many times,” Sandra explains.
Social sustainability is also important
A consumer often follows a particular style or trend. A person who favours a specific style opts for classic garments that can be worn again and again. Such consumers typically take good care their clothing. They mend garments that get damaged, and might sometimes lend them to a trusted friend. Meanwhile, a person who follows trends typically replaces their clothes more often and might use second-hand services or other alternative business models, such as renting or borrowing garments to achieve more variety.
– “Social sustainability is important, and so is being able to express yourself through your clothes. That’s why fast and slow fashion both have a role to play. But it’s important to be consistent both in both production and consumption," stresses Sandra.
Initiatives to reduce emissions and traceability requirements
The fashion industry is changing, and more and more actors are working to reduce their climate footprint.
– “It’s great that the fashion industry is taking its responsibility. Above all, we’re noticing how different fashion actors are taking initiatives to reduce their emissions according to set targets. This requires measurability. For instance, if an actor aims to reduce their emissions by 30 percent by 2030, they need to know what their current emission level is. Then they can work on improving the figure. Knowing your climate impact is the first step towards reducing it. Meanwhile, more actors are imposing requirements on their suppliers. REACH, the EU chemicals legislation, has had a major impact, and imposes requirements for traceability. Some actors specify on their website which sewing factories they use, and some even specify their fabric factories. That's good news,” says Sandra.
Unfortunately, we’re not seeing the same change among consumers.
– “There are still no signs that consumers are shopping more sustainably. Clothing is becoming cheaper and consumers wear their garments fewer times. These figures are very different to the ones we would like to see. Although second-hand shopping has started becoming trendy and you sometimes hear people ‘boasting’ about it, we’ve seen no decline in new clothes shopping. Second-hand shopping will only bring environmental savings if people buy second-hand clothes instead of new clothes, not as well as. However, we hope that consumer’s growing interest in second-hand clothes will lead to a change later on,” says Sandra.
My best tip is to go shopping in your own wardrobe
The confusing world of ecolabelling
Many consumers want to buy more sustainably but don’t know how. Reading ecolabels when shopping can be very confusing. Sometimes the label refers to the whole garment, and other times only to part of the material.
– “While ecolabelling isn’t a universal solution, it is good to choose a garment that has an ecolabel over one that doesn’t. However, my main advice is to buy from companies that are credible and seem to have control over their supply chain.”
A general rule of thumb is that larger companies often have more resources and possibilities of controlling their supply chain.
– “Companies that publicise their sustainability efforts, impose requirements on suppliers and follow up on those requirements are generally credible in terms of sustainability. Some smaller companies may not be familiar with the relevant legislation, which is very problematic. They might sell organic cotton products without having any idea of where in the world the item was manufactured. This means there is a risk, for instance, that child labour or harmful chemicals could have been used in the production process. If a garment is labelled ‘Produced in Europe’, this only means that the sewing factory is in Europe. The fabric may have been produced elsewhere. Unfortunately, many actors have little understanding of the textile industry,” Sandra points out.
Shop in your own wardrobe
It is important for consumers to consider what clothing they actually need and buy items they will use frequently, rather than just shopping on impulse.
– “My best tip is to go shopping in your own wardrobe,” Sandra concludes.