With a hellish heatwave hitting Europe this summer, it's getting harder for developed countries to ignore the Earth's changing climate. And as an industry that produces so much waste, fashion has its own ongoing role in harming the environment. In short, humanity's growing obsession with buying new stuff is helping to kill the only home we have.
Fashion has been rallying against its uncomfortable position as the world's second-biggest polluter after oil with some corrective gestures: sustainability conferences, various designers promoting sustainable sub-lines, and plenty of PR-friendly buzzwords. But even "good" production methods can have their issues. Organic cotton, for example, might be grown without pesticides and, like all cotton, be biodegradable, but it is also even more water-intensive to grow and might still be dyed with the same chemicals as non-organic cotton.
With genuine change in the industry proving elusive, even the word sustainability itself has become frustratingly obfuscated, often deployed to salve the consciences of consumers who're unlikely to read the small print. Cutting through the bullshit is Future Dust, an Instagram account chronicling some of the best fashion made using bona fide sustainable methods, with captions that break down a garment's materials and production in easy-to-digest chunks.
We caught up with former Highsnobiety editor Alec Leach, the freelance writer and consultant behind the account, to square up to fashion's sustainability crisis and ask what we can do to prevent our love of fashion from harming our planet.
Tell us what inspired Future Dust. And what would you like to achieve with it?
There are a huge amount of quote-unquote "sustainable" brands out there. They've really flooded the market recently, but most of them are pretty dull. There are also a lot of brands who are quietly improving the way they do things, but they're reluctant to talk about it. That's understandable. Designers either feel like they'll be called out for the parts of their collection that aren't sustainable or be accused of greenwashing.
I wanted to create a safe space to talk about the latter half: people who are making cool, responsibly made products, but are a bit reluctant to really shout about it.
I thought that an Instagram feed for this stuff would be a useful tool for designers, buyers, and editors. I want to encourage everyone in the industry to think a little harder about the stuff they're making, selling, and talking about. At the same time, I want to show people who are interested in the subject that there's more to sustainability than hemp tote bags. The idea is to make the issue more relatable and show people that you can be responsible and exciting at the same time.
The stuff on Future Dust isn't, like, saving the world, it's just one step toward creating a better industry. Everyone knows we don't need any more new stuff, but at the same time, this giant, crazy machine isn't going to disappear overnight. So step one is driving demand for things that are made in a better way, but the ultimate goal we should be aiming for is a system where we can consume things without wrecking the planet. That's why the circular economy and rental services are so important.
What was the tipping point for you wanting to engage with sustainability?
There wasn't one big moment. It's been a gradual process of questioning the things around me and thinking they should be done differently. I did a bit of research on the issue, and once I started to realize just how harmful the fashion industry can be, I couldn't ignore it. You can't just switch off that voice in the back of your mind. I was looking at a hundred new collections in Paris and asking myself, what is this all for? Once you open the door, you don't close it.
Can you give some examples of how wasteful the industry really is? What do people not know?
Cotton blows my mind. It's a small plant, so you need to use loads of space to get a decent amount of it, and you need to shower it with water because its roots aren't big. But it only grows in arid areas, i.e. places where water is already hard to come by. And it doesn't want to be dyed! You have to mix it with nasty chemicals if you want to dye it.
Most of the cotton that's being grown now isn't organic, so it fucks up the soil, leaves it useless. Farmers throw loads of pesticides on it, too, which is bad for the local ecosystem. So you've used up loads of water, land, chemicals, and ruined the soil, to get a fabric that people use to make gimmicky T-shirts that get thrown away within a year. It really makes you think twice about this whole "graphic tees are a method of communication" cliché that gets thrown around so much.
Where do you think change needs to happen?
The sorts of problems we're dealing with are so enormous that things can only really, genuinely change when governments get behind it. We need big incentives for regenerative agriculture, repair, rental, and recycling services, that kind of thing. Make waste an actual problem for companies, with serious consequences. H&M sitting on $4 billion of unsold inventory is a scandal. Can you imagine how much water, carbon, pesticides, crude oil, transport emissions, and manual labor was used on those garments, just for them to sit in a warehouse?
But consumers can drive this sort of top-level change by creating demand and putting momentum behind the companies that are doing things in a better way. This is why Extinction Rebellion is so promising — it's using mass protest as a means to drive top-level change.
I would encourage anyone reading this to start questioning their consumption habits. Do I really need to buy new clothes when there's so much amazing secondhand stuff out there? If I do buy new stuff, should I really be supporting brands who aren't doing anything to address their impact on the planet just because it's quote-unquote "cool" right now?
Which brands are at the forefront of sustainable fashion and which need to improve?
Unless you're someone like Patagonia, who have built their entire brand around sustainability, it's hard to really push it as much as it needs to be pushed.
Having said that, there's loads of this patchwork-upcycle stuff out there, and it's pretty repetitive, but Marine Serre always comes up with some insane stuff. STORY mfg's production methods are amazing and I'm always impressed with how GmbH makes recycled fabrics look so high-end. Matthew Williams was a big inspiration. He told GQ that you should have to take a test before you're allowed to make clothes. I don't think that's exactly what we need, but it's the right direction. Making clothes is a responsibility.
If you're going to put pressure on the planet by creating new things, they need to really have a reason to exist. They should serve some sort of higher purpose. GmbH does an amazing job of that, again. Sure, they're still using virgin materials and some PVC here and there, but they're giving a platform to people who would normally be seen as outcasts. That's a genuinely valuable thing.
What can people do to live more sustainably?
I would encourage anyone who cares about the issue to buy secondhand wherever possible. It's a no-brainer. The damage has already been done, you're saving things from being wasted, supporting a better consumption model, and lowering demand for new things. There's loads of amazing stuff out there, you just have to have some patience. It's a win-win situation.
The process of buying secondhand is really healthy, too. It's not just a case of seeing something and thinking, "I like it, I'll buy it." You have to go on a bit of a journey. You have to really know what you want. Get all your measurements, think about what sort of wardrobe you want to build, then get digging! You can get some really ridiculous bargains, especially if you look for brands who make great stuff but don't have much hype around them. Jil Sander is a good example.
Follow Future Dust here.