From seaweed to fish skin, how we can change the fashion industry?
Salmon skins, fishbones, kelp: these are materials not commonly associated with glamorous catwalks, fashion accessories and clothes. Yet, “blue fashion” may be part of a solution in light of the mounting environmental costs that the fashion industry accumulates, and the many challenges that our oceans are facing.
The problem with the fashion industry is manifold: it not only involves highly polluting suplpy chains, but also requires large amounts of resources, particularly water for growing crops like cotton, and non-renewable fossil fuels to produce synthetic garments. Cotton farming is responsible for 24 percent of insecticides and 11 percent of pesticides despite using only 3 percent of the world’s arable land. In addition, the fashion industry has been identified in recent years as a major contributor to plastic entering the ocean, which is a growing concern because of the associated negative environmental and health implications.
There is momentum for change.According to the State of Fashion 2018 report by BoF & McKinsey, 66% of millennials claim they are willing to spend more on sustainable brands. Yet, the gap between those willing to opt for sustainable choices, and those actually choosing, is still wide. Product availability and lack of clear marketing seem to be the main issues. Indeed, voices are rising that the fashion industry needs to change gear. The UN has recognized the importance of the issue, and is committed to changing the path of fashion, reducing its negative social, economic and environmental impact and turning it into a driver for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One aspect of this is to try and promote sustainable material choices. For example, wood from sustainably managed forests could be turned into cellulose fibres which require less water and energy to grow while sequestering carbon in the meantime (watch this video to learn more). The UNECE/FAO Forestry and Timber Section has recently launched the “Forests for Fashion” initiative, which aims to highlight the ways in which forests can inspire designers to strive for more sustainability. Other cellulose fibres could be produced from ocean forests: algae are some of the most productive organisms on Earth. They’re able to transform the sun’s energy into a huge range of useful compounds all while absorbing run-off, sequestering CO2, and improving marine ecosystems when grown in coastal waters. On small islands with large ocean territories, algae cultivation could be an important source of income.
Another important value chain that could produce the next generation of low-impact fashion materials comes from the fishing industry. All those fish skins that are usually discarded or turned into low-value fishmeal, can be used to make beautiful bags. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has recognized the potential of such new value chains to improve the efficient use of fisheries products and the creation of value from industry waste by promoting “Blue Fashion”. This initiative strengthens the potential of ocean-sourced materials, from fish skins to seaweed fabrics, to serve as an innovative and sustainable material source for the fashion industry. In addition, by supporting the development of new uses for aquatic materials, FAO aims to benefit small-scale fishing and aquaculture communities, especially women and youth, through opportunities for alternative livelihood generation and decent employment.
Author: Leonie Meier. Leonie is currently Consultant at the UN Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva where she is working on the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. She wrote her Master Thesis about policy responses to microplastic pollution.