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Published

12 September 2016

First doctor of fashion seeks to promote sustainability

In the fashion industry, ‘sustainable’ has long been synonymous with ‘slow’. Mistra Future Fashion is looking at how ‘fast fashion’ can become more sustainable as well. The sector’s growing interest is manifested in, for example, the four new industrial partners that have joined this research programme.

‘Globally, in terms of environmental impact, the fashion industry is the third-largest industrial sector. It’s vital to influence it in a more sustainable direction,’ says Philip Warkander, a Lund University fashion specialist and senior lecturer, and Mistra Future Fashion board member.

There is still a contradiction between sustainability and fashion, he finds. Fashion is often associated with a showy lifestyle and it cannot be assumed that fashion consumers appreciate environmentally aware choices.

‘There’s a growing interest in sustainability among fashion companies, but knowledge of the practicalities of achieving it is still lacking.’

Warkander was the first person in Sweden to gain a PhD in fashion studies when he successfully defended his thesis, on the interplay between style, sexuality and gender, at Stockholm University in 2013.

The sector’s growing interest in sustainability is also evident in Mistra Future Fashion. The programme aim is, in a dialogue with companies and researchers, to help make the fashion industry more sustainable. Four industrial partners, including Nudie Jeans, joined recently.

‘It’s really pleasing — the company’s a pioneer in sustainable fashion,’ relates programme director Sigrid Barnekow.

‘Our vision is to make change in the fashion industry possible, and we welcome more stakeholders who share it.’

Seeking to shape attitudes

Altogether, the programme now has 12 research partners and 36 industrial partners. Influencing consumer behaviour is one of the four research themes.

‘Working to change attitudes and behaviour is one of the hardest things you can do. But instead of just trying to modify behaviour Mistra Future Fashion’s also working to make existing behaviour more sustainable,’ Warkander says.

In Sweden, the average person consumes around 10 kg of clothing a year, corresponding to some 50 garments — more than we actually get round to using. As a countermovement, the notion of ‘slow fashion’ has arisen in the past decade, Warkander says. Fewer clothing items, of a classic design, used over longer periods spell lower environmental impact. Mistra Future Fashion wants to introduce sustainability thinking into fast fashion as well.

‘If it’s just slow fashion that’s sustainable, we miss many young consumers, who as a rule consume a large quantity of clothing. We’ve also got to ensure that this kind of high-turnover fashion can be environmentally smart.’

Instead of trying to persuade the young to consume less clothing, Professor Rebecca Earley, who is researching sustainable textiles and fashion design at University of the Arts London and belongs to the Mistra Future Fashion research team. Earley is trying to explore scope for bringing about ‘Ultra Fast Forward’, a super-fast and sustainable kind of fashion.

‘You might conceivably use the clothes just a few times and perhaps not even wash them. Instead, compostable clothes could be produced,’ Warkander says.

Increased recycling a key aim

Another challenge for the fashion industry is to recycle more clothing and textiles, and this too is a research theme. Inadequate profits in textile sorting and the lack of recycling techniques are among the obstacles to large-scale recycling. This is clear from a research report presented by two researchers, Maria Elander of Mistra Future Fashion and Hanna Ljungkvist of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, during the summer. The report gives an account of their interviews with some 40 stakeholders: fashion firms, textile sorters and textile recyclers.

‘No single stakeholder can come up with the solution. To increase recycling, we must have a comprehensive approach to textile products and textile waste that circulate in the value chain,’ Sigrid Barnekow says.

The report will serve as the basis for further work in the research programme to identify policy measures that favour both reuse and recycling of textile fibre.

Sustainable fashion at Stockholm Fashion Week

On 1 September, during this year’s Stockholm Fashion Week (held at the end of August and beginning of September annually), Philip Warkander held a seminar on sustainable fashion. Others taking part included Elin Frendberg, the Swedish Fashion Council’s CEO who is also on the board of Mistra Future Fashion, and Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten of H&M, one of the programme’s partners.

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