It is not a brand synonymous with style, but WWF, the world’s biggest conservation organisation, is teaming up with a London-based online fashion community to produce what it claims will be the world’s first 100% sustainable clothing range.
Big-name stores including Selfridges and Harrods are being lined up to sell the range in the UK, but WWF wants to make this a global project. It is determined to prove to the fashion industry that it is possible to design and produce clothes with zero impact on the environment.
“It’s hugely challenging,” says Alfredo Orobio, founder of the online community AwaytoMars that is working with WWF. “Everything from the buttons, zippers, labels, tags and packaging to the fabric and production process itself – all of it has to be sustainable.”
Orobio says WWF approached him at the end of last year, attracted by the way his crowdsourcing platform allows anyone, from anywhere in the world, to have a hand in making clothes. Participants in the community upload their design ideas and the best ones will be chosen for the final collection. All profits from the venture will go to WWF.
The clothes will use a newly designed cotton fibre, from a German startup called Infinited Fiber, that can be recycled an infinite number of times and which won’t, in theory, wear out. But this project goes way beyond the fabric, Orobio says. In a detailed 150-page document, WWF has stipulated “all the things we can’t do”.
“So it’s about finding the right suppliers, for example, and not using any pigments, only natural colour,” he says. “The whole of the production process has to be sustainable, even the lights and energy. The seamstresses must be paid a living wage, all the packaging will be recyclable, the trimmings, the labels, the tags.”
All of that is expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, which is one of the main reasons that sustainable fashion has yet to take off. But Orobio believes the bigger barrier is the lack of consumer buy-in and the fact that most shoppers are unaware of how polluting the industry is – fashion and textiles, says bestselling US designer Eileen Fisher, are second only to the oil industry as the biggest polluters on the planet.
It is not just the energy-intensive process of making the garments, the reality is that most of the clothes we wear end up in landfill. According to a recent Greenpeace report, the average European consumer now buys 60% more clothing items a year and keeps them for half as long as 15 years ago.
Synthetic fibres are one of the biggest problems. Manufacturing polyester, for example, which is already present in 60% of clothing, produces almost three times more carbon dioxide than organic cotton, and it can take decades to degrade – as well as polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres. And around 21 million tons of polyester was used in clothing last year, up 157% from 2000.
“Cheap fast fashion is a huge obstacle to a more sustainable industry,” says Tom Cridland, who started his own green fashion brand three years ago with a £6,000 government startup loan. “Theoretically, a 100% sustainable fashion collection is not impossible but we need more brands to promote buying less but buying better.”
Cridland’s unique selling point is the 30-year guarantee he attaches to his T-shirts, jackets and trousers. The notion that we can buy an item of clothing and keep it for much longer is taking off, he says, with sales now over £1m a year.
Karinna Nobbs, a lecturer at London college of fashion, thinks WWF’s involvement could make some difference, but ultimately sustainable fashion needs big-name front-runners to make it more of an industry norm.
“If that doesn’t happen, I think we’re truly in danger of ruining the planet,” she says.
Some big-name designers are already putting sustainability at the forefront of their brands. At a recent speech on sustainability at London college of fashion Stella McCartney declared that her industry was “getting away with murder” yet even her latest collection is only 53% sustainable.
One of the key barriers to consumer take-up is that the expense involved in turning every part of the life cycle of a garment green means the cost of sustainable clothing is out of the reach of most. Current prices at AwayToMars, for example, range from £50 for a T-shirt to £390 for a wool jacket. Cridland’s signature 30-year jacket costs £190 while a T-shirt is £35.
Of course Cridland and the sustainable fashion movement argue that you end up spending more in the long term with a fast-fashion route, but others say that is part of the attraction – the ability to buy clothes and discard them when fashions or fancies change.
Fashion lecturer Nobbs believes the industry is close to a tipping point. “Prices will normalise – they will have to as more brands get involved in sustainable clothing,” she says.
Orobio agrees that price is an issue but says he is undaunted. “My main goal is to be affordable – I don’t want to exclude the people who design for us,” he says. He believes that people will want WWF collection pieces because they will be “buying a piece with a huge story. It’s very different form buying something from Zara that was just copied”.
His online community will start having their say on the new WWF project from next month, and the aim will be to come up with six to 10 different looks. The prototype of the collection will be shown at the Helsinki fashion show in July.