Why ecological design sustains not only the environment, but also gives your life a bio-buzzing boost: Ecopreneur Hans Galliker of Beijing-based NEEMIC and Uncover Lab writes for Temper Magazine.
“Slow fashion rewards companies for being more transparent and strengthens the bond of trust with the customer.” sustainable wizard Hans Galliker.
Not organically certified, yet very sustainable nevertheless, Beijing-based fabric supplier Summerwood sources traditional handwoven ramie. One group exhibition of designers in 2016 who uses their fabrics got exhibited in collaboration with New York Fashion Week. Looking back on the past 10 months worth of China Fashion news, Temper Magazine stumbled across this September 14, 2016, Summerwood item and thus deems it time to go in thigh-high-boot-deep and get PC-textile about China Fashion! And who better to invite for some much needed enlightenment other than…
Co-founder of ultimate-afternoon-delight Beijing-based fashion brand NEEMIC and sustainable design collective Uncover Lab, amongst other life-long-lasting undertakings, Hans Galliker is an eco-preneur pur sang. The man in February of 2017, was ‘slow business traveling’ on bicycle from Lucerne/Switzerland to Berlin/Germany. The term ‘slow business traveling’ leans on the concept of ‘slow movement’, advocating a cultural shift toward the slowing down of life’s pace. Ergo, the goal was to reach an equally productive and wholesome balance of the work and personal realms in life. Especially for Temper Magazine, Galliker writes about his eco-preneurial times and testings — with a nod to China Fashion.
The Fashion Buzz Beeswax
And we’re not talking about Tour-waxed legs. Despite the sportive aspect of pedaling on for 1500 km not being a real motivator, I simply traveled to different places, for example to visit fashion brands, farms and the BIOFACH annual organic trade fair. On my bicycle back rack, I took with me enough possessions to last me a month: Clothes, laptop, documents. And gifts for those who hosted me along the way.
On normal riding days I was wearing simple, function-driven outfits and in order to fade in with the environment, I avoided all genres of flashy sport wear. For maximum comfort, I was wearing layers of cotton and merino underneath. On the outside, man-made technical fabrics which dry faster in case of occasional light rain. On days brimming with extensive showers of rain and storms filled with snow, I wore a two-piece raincoat with extensions — covering yours truly from head to toe if need be. My outfits proved highly suitable across a smorgasbord of occasions; from your regular simple, comfortable and protective cocoon-mode to the occasional butterfly-mode — i.e. a set of appropriate swag to dive into the Munich or Berlin nightlife.
The NEEMIC brand started out back in 2011, with the aim of creating a conscious fashion brand. Beautiful on the outside and more sustainable on the inside.
One riding day, which started with the onsets of heavy snowfall, a sudden and swift breeze cleaned up the sky and the rays of sunshine bursting through instantly illuminated my thoughts about a question which shrouds the ideas and conceptual creations of many a fashion/textile professional at some stage in these 2010s we live in:
- What is all that fashion jazz about?
- How does fashion really make our lives better? Like the clothes in the spacious cupboard which we have never worn, what do they add?
- There are plenty of reasons for the employment of fashion: Vanity, protection, formal obligations or individual expression. Which one is yours?
To answer the first question right off the bat, most of all it’s one big play created, orchestrated and amalgamated by the multi-billion-dollar fashion industry in order to keep flourishing… In other words: Make consumers believe they need more clothes than they actually require.
About Revolution, Reagan And Nylon
As co-founder of clothing company NEEMIC, I’m all too aware of this ongoing process. Amihan Zemp and I (Zemp is also the sole founder of Zuerich-born brand COLTRANE; to be continued) started out back in 2011, with the aim of creating a conscious fashion brand which both looks beautiful on the outside and helps to make the industry more sustainable on the inside.
It’s the pattern of fast fashion: From dirty production, to trends, to trash!
“More sustainable” … yes! A thought which should lie at the core of today’s fashion expression. The world needs us humans to act more sustainably. Big time! Starting with the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, the production of clothing gradually found itself centralizing inside factories, which in turn exploited both ecological and human resources. The textile industry also became increasingly chemical-heavy. After WWII had come to an end, many chemical factories manufacturing explosives for guns and bombs became obsolete and began looking for other ways of being useful. Subsequently, they changed up their original formulas and started producing textiles such as nylon; or — picking up the politically-propagandized Green Revolution signs of the times — fertilizer and pesticides for agriculture. From the late 1960s onwards, and especially during the American Reagan-ruled years (1981-1989), the globe witnessed a massive shift of production from the Western hemisphere to that of the East. The main goal(s)? To produce at lower costs, namely dishing out lower salaries, and to avoid environmental regulations.
Smart marketing specialists then came up with the idea to further lower product quality and increase production quantity, allowing for wardrobes to become so cheap that consumers didn’t even have to think about the price tag attached anymore. Instant gratification, literally disposable after a few runs around the block. This new, modern, must-have consumption patterns was further triggered by increasingly high-paced trends: Magazines, celebrities and fashion bloggers telling us what’s in and what’s out on the very same day. The pattern of fast fashion: From dirty production, to trends, to trash!
The fundamental problem with fast fashion is its inherent lack of responsibility.
A Land Filled With Fast Fashion
Forward to 2017, and we have arrived at a point where the average global consumer buys some 12 kg of clothing a year, with shopaholic fashionistas and self-sufficient farmers located at both ends of this extreme. As quality has suffered and careless behavior has skyrocketed, the average clothing’s life-cycle now ends after only three years of (often unworn) possession, being laid to rest on a landfill or inside the incinerator in most cases.
The fundamental problem with fast fashion is its inherent lack of responsibility. Production gets outsourced to local factory owners who are pressed to produce at the lowest possible cost. And these costs don’t reflect the real costs. The two dollar shirt you get at Primark is an irresponsible affront since the real cost behind its production is far higher. It’s society who pays the difference, having to deal with the environmental and social burden which is externalized upon all of mankind. This stands in stark contrast to the profits made, which are internalized toward the fast fashion company’s shareholders.
In all fairness, we’re dealing with one very complex industry. Its supply chains are long and international and so the question beckons… Which policies of which countries or which standards shall the industry follow? This conundrum is precisely why international cooperation is required. Around 190 countries in 2015 ratified the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 which sets out to help reduce poverty and increase ecological and social well-being. They stated these 17 SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals) as being the actionable and measurable guidelines. Many countries, including China, have copied these goals and are now shaping their individual down-stream national policies.
Additionally, we must bear in mind that the impacts are difficult to measure as those in factual charge are often avoiding responsibility and sometimes do not even realize the mess their doings have created. And this group includes us as consumers! That’s why the role of independent observers such as environmental non-profit organizations is so very important. Take for example good ole Greenpeace or Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun’s Beijing-based IPE who investigate and make real issues transparent for public discourse.
Keeping in mind the “sustaining of life”, one crucial aspect is … Soil. Not only to grow food, but also to grow cotton and other natural fibers like flax (linen).
The Bigger Picture
When looking at the bigger picture, it’s important to gain a systemic understanding. Mother Nature forever remains unrivaled in Her beauty and complexity. The scientific field that delves into nature’s systemic design is called “ecology” and Biologist Barry Commoner summed it up as follows: “The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.” More specifically, we’re talking about biodiversity and how energy and materials interact with one another. Just think of nature supporting plant growth by photosynthesis, which at the same time cleans the air, or how nature provisions pollination by bees and gives us the room to recreate. In this light, American Architect Sim Van der Ryn and Scientist Stuart Cowan some twelve years ago decided to apply the ecological perspective to human endeavors and coined the term “ecological design” (aka “the marriage of nature and technology”) as “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes.”
With the “sustaining of life” in mind, one crucial factor is the soil; not only for the production of food, but also to grow cotton and other natural fibres like flax (linen). In the soil, we find the roots interacting with nutrients and small soil organisms. Monoculture production, over-fertilization and other irresponsible agricultural techniques are causing major problems to soil fertility. As the fashion industry nowadays feels the ever-bigger pressure to steward the land more responsibly, leading to higher costs for producing those cotton fibers, they embrace man-made fabrics derived from fossil fuels. The problem with man-made fibers is that they don’t naturally decompose — as opposed to natural fabrics.
GOTS – the Global Organic Textile Standard – is regulating, certifying and controlling the production of natural fabrics in the most ecologically and socially congruent way. From farm to factory to consumer, its label can be traced for more transparency. No chemical fertilizers, pesticides or GMO to be found! In comparison to certified organic foods, GOTS does include some man-made chemicals at the processing stage. There exists a strictly controlled list of chemical dye-stuff which have proven to be non-hazardous. This brings along a broad range of colors which otherwise, using purely natural-based dyes, wouldn’t be possible.
Clothes made from natural fabrics do bio-degrade and should ultimately end up on your compost heap. Clothes created from man-made fabrics should be recycled endlessly.
Time To Get Fashion-Forward-Specific
Many of you are eagerly awaiting some fashion-specifics to appear in here, so let’s hereby enter my selection of designers who are using organic fabrics:
- Shanghai-based brand Klee Klee uses GOTS-certified cotton and silk. “Klee klee” is Tibetan for “slow”.
- Zuerich-based brand COLTRANE proves that an all-organic strategy can lead to at least as beautiful creations.
- New York-based brand Study New York is using a variety of fabrics including organic cotton, ethically sourced alpaca, and hemp. They make seasonless updated classics without subscribing to the traditional fashion calendar.
- TBT, not organically certified, yet very sustainable nevertheless, is Beijing-based fabric supplier Summerwood who is sourcing traditional handwoven ramie. One group exhibition of designers in 2016 who uses their fabrics got exhibited in collaboration with New York Fashion Week.
Take a look at the Summerwood New York Fashion Week collab (courtesy of the YouTube PROFILES Channel, featuring Mickey Burns):
Ecology is about cycles of materials and energy so modern design-approaches like cradle-to-cradle are leaning on these principles to make optimal use of all resources. On a larger scale, such zero-waste approaches are encompassed by the circular economy model. In the case of textile fabrics, it differentiates between the two major cycles of natural fabrics and man-made fabrics. Clothes made of natural fabrics do biodegrade and should ultimately be going to the compost. Whereas clothes created from man-made fabrics should be recycled endlessly. However “common-sense” this may sound, it lies on the other end of our reality spectrum which for the most part still functions in a make-buy-trash manner, the so-called linear model.
Looking at the sustainability of fashion requires to study the holistic spectrum, basically from the vast width of ecology to the mindset of each individual person. Education plays an important role to shape a more conscious understanding and decision-making. It is encouraging to see how fashion schools are extending their eco curriculum and motivate their students to engage with NPO’s like Redress, whose zero-waste advocacy culminates in the annual EcoChic Design Award.
As we live in the digital age and mostly reside in consumption-driven economies, it is viable to see us as consumers, aka the most influential stakeholders, cast our vote for ecological and social progress.
A Potential For Change
Systemic change happens not only on large scale, like from linear to circular economy, it happens also in specific ecosystems, such as the important niche of independent fashion designers. The London-based information- and sourcing platform Ethical Fashion Forum comes to mind, or the Hangzhou-based YCO Foundation.
Powerful non-profit organizations like Greenpeace with their Detox campaign, local civil society like the Beijing-based IPE with their BlueMap or the global Fashion Revolution movement with their #whomademyclothes campaign make transparent and catalyze the relevant findings. They take their findings and address these to the respective target groups, often with seismic effects for the increased creation of consciousness among major stakeholders.
The potential of consumption-driven change on the global scale can hardly be quantified. Nonetheless, it can be realized on personal level and there’s a minimalist movement of people who experience a more simple life as being mighty enriching. I certainly enjoyed my initially described slowed-down business travel. Having said that, I for one choose to stick with the philosophy of up-cycling pioneer and bag-producer FREITAG: “We believe in the next life of things. That’s why we think and act in ‘cycles’ and ‘cycle’.”
The sense of simplicity in fashion can also be enriching if one opts for quality and continuously evolves a wardrobe instead of just adding more pieces to it, for example by swapping items. That might not be the first choice of the majority, but at least everyone in this scenario can vouch for having the right clothes of good quality. And care for them. Let’s take Vivienne Westwood’s advice to heart: “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last”.
Be conscious about how your wardrobe has a positive effect on you and our environment.
Slowing Down And Summing Up
To complete the cycle of my sustainable fashion tale, “slow fashion” comes to mind. These two words embody the entire life-cycle of one piece of clothing and extend to the facets of quality or ecology by cultural dimension. Similar to “slow cooking”, the concept comes with a multitude of desirable cultural advantages such as diversity, seeing the bigger (systemic design) picture, resilience through decentralized production or simply the emotional connection through being part of one and the same eco- or value-system.
Slow fashion is the anti-thesis to fast fashion, yet there is more and more overlap to be spotted such as the aim to deter companies from purchasing or producing items that are not made from recycled, organic, or re-purposed materials. Another well-known much-talked-about topic is their requirement for a minimal carbon footprint left on the environment. Notably too is the up- and coming true-cost calculation to value in environmental and social externalities.
Slow fashion rewards companies for being more transparent and it strengthens the bond of trust with customers. Slow fashion facilitates a holistic type of development and therefore offers synergies right down to the personal level. It helps to empower yourself, the control you have over your life and the health of body and mind. It shows you how being conscious about your wardrobe can have a positive effect on both you as an individual and your environment-at-large. Life is as ecology, all aspects are related; so, in sum… Be mindful, take it slow and reduce to the max!