By The Medical Futurist | September 26, 2018
Fast fashion is not only unsustainable but means an unbearable burden to the planet. The situation is ripe for change. Could lab-grown leather and other novel ways of synthetic garment production, biofashion or digital clothing show the way into an alternative future of the apparel industry?
From Burda to the unsustainable downward spiral of fast fashion
Haut couture – or rather its street-style version – has never been so accessible for the average, middle-class citizen as today. When our grandmothers in the 1950s wanted to dress according to the latest trend, they bought the Burda Magazine alongside with some fabric and used the family sewing machine to create their own couture. It was one of the most popular women’s magazines around the globe. Moreover, in 1987 Burda Moden became the first women’s glossy magazine to be published in the Soviet Union and in 1994 the first in China. The scarcity of financial means of our grandmas urged them to create lasting pieces while the two seasonal cycles of fashion allowed them to fashionably wear their beloved pieces for years.
Now, without longing for past decades, we have to ask: when was the last time you sewed a button on your shirt or brought your shoes to the shoe repairman? The Guardian’s Lucy Siegle recounted a story how a fashion industry commentator once watched in horror as a customer emerged with six or seven brown paper bags full of clothes from Primark, an affordable Irish clothing store. The young woman walked through the busy street in the rain when one of her bags broke – and she just walked away without even thinking about bending down for the clothes. So what happened between Burda and street-littering carelessness?
Fast fashion and the outskirts of Dhaka
Store chains offering affordable versions of haut couture for affluent middle-class people within weeks seen on the catwalk have radically changed the landscape from the beginning of the 1990s. By now, the process accelerated exponentially: instead of the two seasonal cycles there are even 50-100 micro-seasons; it has been estimated that there are 20 new garments manufactured per person each year, and we are buying 60 percent more than we were in 2000. The time span of garments has shrunk at an astonishing rate: compared to wearing clothes for decades back in the previous century, clothes are worn at most for 3.3 years before being discarded. Moreover, looking at the current trends, there is no sign for the fashion industry to slow down. Experts say that in 2030, there will be 5.4 billion people in the global middle class, up from 3 billion in 2015. We can expect increased demand for clothes and other goods that define middle-income lifestyles. If consumption continues at its current rate, we’ll need three times as many natural resources by 2050 compared to what we used in 2000.
The overheated production and consumption cycle of fast fashion has unforeseeable consequences for Mother Earth and our resources. Researchers estimated that five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the apparel sector – in other words, the creation of clothing results in environmental pollution equaling that of Russia. Parallel to that phenomenon, huge amounts of textile waste are generated at every level of production and consumption. Hundreds of tons of garments are set on fire in the outskirts of the low-wage textile hotspot, Dhaka, where the pollution level is beyond comprehension. At the same time, fast fashion retailers even accelerate the processes by offering clothing created by the strategy of obsolescence – easily expendable, low-quality garments – and by marketing strategies making purchasing the latest items quasi-addictive.
Alternative production: lab-grown leather, orange fiber, and mushroom-based bag
It is crystal-clear: we are not paying for fast fashion with money – we are paying for it a much higher price. We are trading our planet’s future for cheap clothing. And if the situation doesn’t change soon, we are doomed.
Some players such as fashion icons Stella McCartney or Vivienne Westwood already recognized the scale of the problem, and a handful of companies are experimenting with alternative means of production. That means they are trying to avoid the use of traditional materials, such as leather or cotton, and replace it with lab-grown, synthetic materials created through bioprinting, for example.
The New Jersey-based company, Modern Meadow, grows animal skin in a lab as bioprinted cell culture. Recently, the biotechnology start-up, Bolt Threads debuted a handbag made from its proprietary vegan material, Mylo. Components are made with mycelium—mushroom root systems that the company grows into 3D structures on a bed of corn stalks before compressing the mass into durable, animal-free leather. The venture also partnered with Stella McCartney to design a modern take on the shift dress made of synthetic spider silk from proteins produced through fermentation using yeast, water, and sugar. The Italian start-up, Orange Fiber delivers the first yarn made of by-products of citrus juice with the help of nanotechnology.
And what if we go one step further and think about not only lab-grown materials for clothes but synthetically modifying the human body? The most sci-fi-like scenarios for fashion were introduced by the A.Human art installation about a futuristic body modification fashion house, where you are not changing your clothes, you’re transforming your body according to the trends for example by growing skin or bones at unusual places. It’s highly unlikely to become a mainstream trend any time soon. However, we have already seen cyborgs modifying their bodies for specific purposes – so nothing is impossible.
Sensor-based fashion and digital clothing
As fast fashion imposes 50-100 fashion cycles a year on consumers, as well as creatives, it is more and more difficult to come up with more than the recycled styles from previous fashion epochs. That’s why the popularity of products which have something different than the mainstream, will draw attention. For example, alternatively produced garments, clothes having more utility function than just covering the body – or extreme ways of self-expression through fashion such as A.Human.
Or garments equipped with sensors. Luxury clothes brand Tommy Hilfiger has released a range of “smart clothing” containing inbuilt Bluetooth chips that allow the item’s movements to be tracked and users to be rewarded for wearing them. In 2014, Ralph Lauren debuted its smart shirtmeasuring heart rate and breathing during the US Open.
In May 2015, Google started collaborating with Levi’s to create fibretronic materials. The idea was to produce a newly designed conductive fabric and turn it into “smart jeans” to allow the garment to send data and power without the need for wires. Since then, engineers of Google and Levi’s have changed their minds and created a “smart jacket” instead of the iconic trousers. The jacket has touch sensible material: users can tap, swipe or hold on the left cuff of the sleeve to fulfill simple tasks like changing music tracks, blocking or answering calls or accessing navigation information.
The Medical Futurist believes that in the next couple of years, sensor-based fashion items will be extremely “hot” and their numbers will exponentially multiply. Moreover, these garments will not only be in style, but they could also possess useful functionalities. For example, technologists at the University of Minnesota have designed real-life gloves that tingle when they sense nearby objects. They use an ultrasonic sensor to detect what firefighters cannot, allowing them to “see” through the smoke. Or, material scientist Jun Kamei has created Amphibio, a 3D-printed garment that functions as a giant gill, allowing the wearer to pull oxygen from an aqueous environment and breathe it. He is already a giant leap ahead of us – saving humanity from rising sea levels as a consequence of global warming. Mind-blowing, isn’t it? Let’s see what do we have in healthcare!
Healthcare and fashion interweaved: the appearance of digital clothing
The fitness and wearables market seems to already found the niche area of digital clothing for itself. Sydney-based startup Wearable X’s Nadi X yoga pants come with built-in haptic vibrations that gently pulse at the hips, knees, and ankles to encourage you to move and/or hold positions. French fashion tech company, Spinali’s UV Protect swimsuit collection is equipped with a removable medallion-style waterproof sensor that aims to stop you staying too long in the sun. OMSignal’s smart bra, the OMbra, records distances run, breathing rates and heart rate, and even tells you when you’re recovered enough to head back to the gym. Sensoria’s second-gen connected socks want you to have the best run possible by offering data on your speed, distance, time as well as style.
All the while, Owlet Care thinks about the smallest and cutest creatures. It offers smart socks using pulse oximetry to measure your baby’s heart rate and oxygens levels while they sleep. Using the app, you can view your baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels in real-time.
In sports medicine, several companies offer digitized garments for improving performance. For example, HexoSkin developed a shirt with sensors woven into it that measures heart rate, breathing, counts steps taken, pace, and calories burned.
The swarm of already existing combinations of digital technologies and fashion items shows the massive potential in the marriage of the two fields. Although healthcare professionals might be averse to fashion walking into medicine if people bought digital health technologies more easily because it is packaged as a beautiful garment, why not give it a chance?
On the other hand, digital clothing might bring new direction into fashion and perhaps it would slow down the fast fashion industry a little bit – as people might not throw out clothes with technology so carelessly. We cross our fingers for that!