The 13 edition of our monthly SDG Meetup, which we developed in collaboration with SDG House and C-Change, touched on several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to the fashion industry.

Our diverse lineup featured speakers from W.Green (comms & branding agency for sustainable lifestyle), Fruitleather (leather alternative made from dried fruit waste), Loop.alife (circular knitwear) and Ace & Tate (affordable and stylish eyewear).

Setting the scene with W.Green

The urge to make fashion sustainable

W.Green founder Willa Stoutenbeek’s grew up in a fashion family with parents who had met on the floor of a luxury fashion house. Fashion felt like the only career choice, but she had always felt like the odd one out. In spite of being good at her job and enjoying many aspects of her work, Willa couldn’t reconcile who she was with the work that she did. Fuelled by a passion for activism and politics, Willa started W.Green as a communications and branding agency that work only with sustainable fashion and lifestyle brands.

The scale of fast fashion’s faux pas 

Over the past two years, Willa has seen remarkable progress towards sustainable and fairer fashion. And she believes that, if we keep this pace of change going, there is hope for the fashion industry. But currently, fast fashion is still one of the world’s most polluting industries. Water and landfill waste, high carbon emissions, unfair wages, poor working conditions. The list went on and on, as Willa zoomed in on several key issues and SDGs related to fashion.

Let’s take Reducing Inequality (SDG 10). 1 of 4 people in the world is somehow associated with the fashion industry and the textile sector – from cotton farmers to factory workers to designers. 97% of our clothes are produced abroad in often dangerous conditions, some culminating in disasters such as Rana Plaza. 95% of those working in the fashion industry do not earn a living wage. Many families end up depending on the additional income generated by child labour to survive. To say the issue is complex would be an understatement. And the grass isn’t greener in terms of environmental impact.

Looking at Clean Water & Sanitation (SDG 6), we find out that 20% of global wastewater is generated by the fashion industry, which also uses a yearly volume of 80 billion cubic meters of freshwater. Moving to Life on Land (SDG 15), we learn that fashion is one of the biggest contributors to the plastic waste problem. Only 1% of textile waste, which is often chockful of non-biodegradable, synthetic fabrics, is recycled properly. And 85% of old clothes end up in landfills.

By 2030, it’s predicted that the pollution generated by fast fashion will increase by 60%. Which shouldn’t shock us: fast fashion sales have doubled in the past fifteen years. With new styles popping on the shelves and racks on the daily, our clothing’s lifespan has decreased by 50%. The average consumer dons an item 5 times before tossing it.

The addiction to growth and the need for fashion detox

At the moment, some fast fashion brands push out 52 collections per year – that’s right, one per week – to keep consumers coming back. And even sustainable fashion brands are expected to launch at least four collections per year. Global production has doubled since 2000 and clothes are becoming like fast food. Brands typically must sell items in 2 to 3 months before they lose value and must be discounted. To maintain the illusion of value and increase desirability, global players like Burberry have even resorted to the shocking practice of burning leftover stock. Which to Willa is akin to a criminal practice: burning resources that we’re running out of, such as cotton.

She believes that fashion industry stakeholders are addicted to short-term growth and profits. Though changing the sector for the better does not lead immediately lead to growth, it is the only option in the long run.

So what can YOU do? In the words of Vivienne Westwood: “Buy Less, choose well, make it last”. Or, in more detailed steps:

  1. Ask yourself before buying if you really, really need this kind of item.
  2. If you do need it badly, does it have to be new? Try second hand!
  3. Check where it was made to see if it’s produced in decent conditions.
  4. Do you feel the item will last in terms of style and quality?
  5. Last but not least, does the price seem fair?

Ace & Tate: Not (yet) a sustainable specs brand

Next up, Ace & Tate’s Sustainability Manager, Marlot Kiveron, kicked off her story in celebratory fashion: Ace & Tate currently operates 54 stores in 10 countries and recently sold its 1 millionth piece of eyewear. The stylish specs manufacturer began as a regular business, which was not really aware of what goes in the supply chain. But Ace & Tate is on a mission to become more sustainable while being transparent about its journey.

Initially, the brand was so small that it was only selling 50 frames per month. But once success came knocking, waste also increased. The money and effort put into acetate frames also led the 80% material waste levels. Only 20% of the acetate used would end up the actual glasses sold by Ace & Tate. To tackle its waste problem, the brand developed a four-fold sustainability strategy focused on increasing transparency, reducing its carbon footprint, making its products circular, and engaging with customers on this journey.

In terms of transparency, Ace & Tate initially struggled with its product lifecycle analysis. From raw materials to end of use, and from frame hinges to lenses, the company’s suppliers were reluctant to share their impact. The suppliers feared that Ace & Tate could lower the price paid for their services and materials. Nowadays, the eyewear brand is working with B Corp to further scope its societal impact.

Meanwhile, to increase its circularity, Ace & Tate is focusing not only on the frames themselves but also stores and packaging. The brand determined that 50% of its negative impact was in packaging, so it went from a hardshell case given out with its glasses to a soft pouch and from disposable paper bags to reusable Fairtrade, organic cotton totes. But there is still work to be done in phasing out old stock; Ace & Tate still has about 30,000 paper bags to work with.

Marlot admits it’s hard to match business with sustainability. The brand is transitioning to the use of natural-based plasticiser, namely bio acetate. However, as with the above-mentioned packaging conundrum, Ace & Tate still has a lot of conventional acetate stock left that needs to be used up. Ending on a hopeful note, Marlot shared that the demo lenses in all store glasses – there not just for aesthetics, but also to support the frame – will be turned into 3D printing material by Reflow.

Fruitleather’s take on an age-old material

Fruitleather’s co-founders Koen Meerkerk and Hugo de Boon met as students of spatial design at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. Across their building was the immense Markthal, where fruit waste would pile up at the end of each day. For a school project, they mashed up that part of that fruit waste into a puree that they dried in the sun and then baked in the oven. And that’s how fruit ‘leather’ was born.

On a global level, their innovative fabric contributes to tackling big issues: the 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted and 45% of fruit discarded worldwide. But closer to home it also makes a difference, as the Netherlands is the world’s second-largest importer of mangoes and a trade hub for fruit. And even closer to their roots, the Port of Rotterdam has to deal with mangoes that, for instance, get stuck in unplugged cooling containers.

Mango has become the fruit of choice for the co-founders, who calculated that 159,396 wasted mangoes could turn into 729,213 square meters of ‘leather’. That’s a lofty ambition more suited to industrialised production, which they are exploring. For now, Fruitleather is now working with sheets of 60 x 40 cm and drying 5 meters of mango leather per work session. Together with partners Stahl Europe BV, they finish off the material with a coating – not yet biodegradable – and perform specialised tests, such as tear strength and flexing resistance.

Conventional leather is durable, so if they want mango ‘leather’ to be used for fashion, interior design and ultimately the automotive industry, Fruitleather needs to ensure that its alternative can last for years. After checking off collaborations resulting in luxury wallets sold in New York and bags in London, the two young designers want to keep working with exciting peers. But they are also keen to learn from leather masters, such as retired shoemakers, who have a wealth of knowledge to share and plenty of curiosity for new methods.

Loop.alife: circular knitwear pioneers

Founder Ellen Mensink wanted to take on the post-consumer mountain of textile waste in the Netherlands. So she launched a brand that makes its knitwear (pictured in the banner) in a closed local loop, without water or chemicals. Ellen describes Loop.alife’s pieces as slow fashion items that people will turn into wardrobe staples. But her company is also a community brand in the business of transition. And Ellen is keen to share her knowledge in a bid to see industry peers radically change the way they make clothes and adopt Loop.alife’s production process.

How does that process work? Loop.alife purchases cotton sorted with FiberSort, a technology that can distinguish and separate fabrics based on composition and colour; thanks to FiberSort, Loop.alife can sell no fewer than 28 differently-coloured items. Another innovative aspect of this hyper-specific textile sorting is that it takes place right here, in the Netherlands, which avoids transport emissions and unfair labour practices. Once the fabrics are sorted, Ellen works only with European factories who can turn the recycled fibres and yarn into beautiful items through fair labour.

Loop.alife started out with recycling wool and denim and is now moving towards a softer, cotton yarn. That’s because Ellen heard from her own customers that their jumpers sometimes felt too thick or rough. Which is not a surprise, as most discarded pieces of clothing contain synthetic fabrics. But Ellen is hopeful about sourcing 100% natural fibres in the near future and continuing her journey to make circular textiles the norm.