Why global fashion brands are taking a stand on sustainability

Adidas recently unveiled running shoes that never have to be thrown away. Levi's has reduced its water consumption by over 3 billion litres globally. And celebrities such as Jaden Smith are collaborating with big brands to help sell sustainable clothing.?

When it comes to the environment, global fashion brands have realised the future is now – and are acting quickly to not only reduce their impact on the planet, but woo their environmentally and ethically-aware customers.

In Australia, fashion labels are scrambling to keep up with some of their northern hemisphere counterparts.

Melbourne clothing and accessories brand Elk is among those leading the charge. In May, the company released a 124-page Transparency Report, shining a light on every aspect of their business.

Meanwhile a host of smaller companies with sustainability at their core continue to pop up.

A tipping point

So why now?

Australian Fashion Council chief executive David Giles-Kaye says while brands such as Stella McCartney have long been vocal about sustainability, it was the horrific Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 (which killed more than 1100 and injured another 2500) that really gave the industry a wake-up call.?

"It really brought the global eye to the issue, particularly of workers' conditions and workers' wages." says Giles-Kaye.? "Then along with that comes all aspects of sustainability and ethical production."

The Bangladeshi disaster inspired the $3 trillion a year global industry to come together to push for more rapid change, he says.


"Organisations like Fashion Revolution (a global movement calling for greater transparency) were born out of that incident. All of a sudden we started to get more reports on how fashion labels were doing compared to other labels."

A crisis of excess

Camille Reed, a textile designer who founded the Australian Circular Fashion Conference, believes the fashion industry has reached a tipping point, partly because of a crisis with our landfill and recycling.

"There's also lack of education and knowledge, there's a lack of investment in infrastructure, and we're importing a huge amount of items, a greater volume than we actually need or sell."

For a long time, many within the industry were unaware of the environmental problems being caused, she says.?

Now, it's a rare fashion label that would enter the fray without giving serious consideration to environmental and ethical issues.?

Turning around the denim industry

Michael Kobori, vice-president of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., says there's definitely growing awareness, particularly among younger consumers.

"This is clear with the Millennial generation and it is even more apparent with Gen Z, those born after 1995," he says. "We believe it is rapidly becoming the price of entry for global apparel brands."

Denim has traditionally taken a huge toll on the environment. An analysis by Levi's found it took 3781 litres of water to create one pair of Levi's 501s, including growing the cotton.

The global giant is trying to combat this through its WaterLess ?manufacturing process, which it says can reduce the amount of water used in manufacturing by 96 per cent. Levi's has also committed to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by next year.

Australian denim brands, including Neuw, are also tackling sustainably issues headlong.

Nuew, which began in 2009, has released its sustainable denim collection, Zero, which promises zero water waste, chemical distressing or washing waste.

"Zero has been in development for over three years, and the product and processes are finally at a point that we are happy to release to our customers," says co-founder Par Lundqvist.?

He says the company wanted to eradicate the use of chemicals in the distressing phase of jean manufacturing.

"Zero completely replaces traditional denim distressing processes such as bleaching, acid washing and potassium permanganate, allowing us to drastically minimise the amount of chemicals used."

The jeans are instead hand-stitched, hand-brushed and hand-grinder prior to washing, to produce the distressed look minus the chemicals.

Born to be sustainable

Australian company Will & Bear, which makes 'unisex hats for the road', is also doing its bit for the environment.

For each of around 20,000 hats sold annually, the business plants 10 trees in Senegal through non-profit organisation, Trees for the Future.

And in Melbourne's Mount Dandenong, Leigh Blackall, who runs the Peak Oil Company, is a world away from mass production. He hand sews customised sheepskin vests, and wax canvas jackets, overpants and gloves from his home studio.

He says it's all about taking materials from the pre-plastic age –petrochemical materials are out - to make garments designed to last a lifetime or longer.

"I'm interested in the outdoors. I don't like the non-sustainable directions that the industry has allowed itself to go in, which is a pretty stark contradiction to the people who enjoy the wilderness and nature but are engaging in consumerism that ultimately hurts it or destroys it."