Revolution Through Evolution Thanks to Sustainable Tech

Nike_flyknit2_web_900.jpg

Revolution Through Evolution Thanks to Sustainable Tech

 

The nature of fashion is reinvention. Twice a year, designers renovate the world’s great houses. Styles change. Colors change. To some, this is revolution. When done boldly (see: Michele at Gucci Fall 2015), it can indeed be revolutionary. Until next year, that is.

In clothing, the only constant in change. But not all change is made equal. On record players and in life, some revolutions move faster than others. The shift from suits to relaxed office wear is a titanic one. Not just because it affects the daily choices of millions, but because it came at the speed of an iceberg. These slower-moving revolutions – these paradigm shifts – are breakthroughs of a different sort.

They’re not the result of an auteur with six months in mind; they must be enabled. While biannual changes are often surface-deep, grand revolutions – a change in habits, a change in beliefs – must follow their environment.

Mainstream fashion’s embrace of sustainability is just one such case. But not because of the “environment” you’d expect.

Technology is the key to sustainable fashion at scale. The past decade or so has brought quantum leaps in a few key categories: additive manufacturing, fabric recycling, and production planning, to name a few.

 
Nike’s Flyknit technology

Nike’s Flyknit technology

 

Sometimes the result is sexy. Nike’s Flyknit tech, for instance, makes shoes like Pollock paintings while producing less than half the kg CO2 of a traditional running shoe (per a 2012 University of Michigan study).

Most often, it’s not. PrimaLoft Bio, the world’s first biodegradable, recycled synthetic performance fabric, looks no different than a sports shop “tech tee” when spun into garments. That’s not to say anything, of course, about advances in supply chain forecasting that allow for sustainable fashion by – gasp – just making less to begin with.

These sorts of “upstream” tech solutions have more in common with each other than with what’s on the runway. They begin development years before they ever see daylight. They’re born from developers solving problems, not designers dreaming revolutions. Finally, instead of the developers turning their creation into shirts and shoes, these solutions – these once-a-decade, environment-shifting breakthroughs – are mostly sold to the brands themselves.

adidas Boost is a useful case study: developed by German chemical giant BASF, the technology was licensed to adidas for use but then marketed as their in-house secret sauce. A similar pattern likely led to Flyknit.

The net of this chain (upstream solution to brand partnership to problem-solving product) is the chance at revolution. If customers buy the marketing and the product solves their problem, the brand makes more. If the brand makes more, the technology spreads and the incentive to keep using this success-making tech grows.

Mainstream fashion’s embrace of sustainability is enabled by this cycle. Without it, we’d be a round-off error. With it, the conversation can shift.

And, truly, the conversation is crucial. None of this discounts the role of culture and mood and individual choice in sustainable fashion’s rise to the mainstream.

For one, marketing is not mind control – it must align with culture and with a customer’s pre-conceived notions.

A chicken-egg debate here is useless. If customers didn’t buy the marketing and the product didn’t solve their problem, they wouldn’t buy sustainable fashion. What problem is being solved? Why does the marketing work? Searches for sustainable fashion increased 66% last year according to data provider Lyst. That’s a conversation shift if there ever was one.

 
Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn

For another, once the tech is there, a garment made from it must do those small-but-mighty one season revolutions do best: it must inspire.

The nature of fashion is reinvention. Even if a grand revolution comes decades in the making, it will sit on a shelf (or a web page) next a dozen beautiful same-olds. Fashion is emotional, and in no small part, driven by the sheer novelty joy of wearing something new. Successful sustainable fashion must be rooted in problem-solving solutions, but never forget that those roots must flower. Designers like Christopher Raeburn and Stella McCartney do this best.

---

While eco-friendly garments still have a long way to go, thanks to recent technological developments, sustainable fashion has a chance to hit critical mass. There is progress towards mass adoption. The question remains, then: who will truly lead this fashion revolution? Is it a designer working on reinventions? A developer working on breakthroughs? Perhaps, dear reader, it’s you.




My name is Alex Rakestraw, and I’m a writer and strategist with years of experience covering the fashion industry. In this column, I’ll be covering a part of sustainability most don’t know about: the technology that enables us to live better lives by powering smarter, cleaner fashion. While it’s easy to think the answer is just “back to nature,” we live in a modern world. People won’t trade their microwaves for 1% cleaner air any time soon. Our job, then, is to innovate.