Every year, Metro Vancouver produces 79 million pounds of textile waste. More than half of this is apparel.
While designers continue to create new clothing out of second-hand garments, a growing scene of local designers is now focusing on using durable fabrics as a means to reduce the volume of clothes ending up in the waste stream.
Emerging local designers are moving towards adopting a “slow fashion” approach, an anomaly in an industry that is notorious for churning out quick, cheap, and easily disposable clothing. “Slow fashion” reduces the pace of the production cycle of clothes by using long-lasting fabrics to create classic styles that can be worn all year around.
Janine McAughren, a 24-year-old eco-conscious fashion designer in her fourth year at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is among the upcoming designers embracing slow fashion. McAughren hand-dyes locally sourced fabrics like cotton, linen and hemp to create skirts, jackets, blouses and other items of clothing. A lot of her dyes are sourced from fruits and vegetables.
While one of her skirts might cost more than $300, McAughren wants to encourage consumers to view their purchases as investments. She is creating garments that could live in a person’s wardrobe for almost 10 years.
“You’re designing something that’s going to last. You want it to be around, you want it to be in their wardrobe so you think about how you’re going to design this piece so that it actually withstands the test of time,” said McAughren.
Many fast-fashion brands use low-cost synthetic materials like polyester. These materials are difficult to recycle and often end up in landfills after a few wears. As textiles decompose in landfills, they release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.
“Fast fashion nowadays is being constructed more and more poorly. They don’t want it to last,” said McAughren. “They want it to fall apart within three or four wears so that you will go buy another.”
Karen Storry, a project engineer with Metro Vancouver’s waste implementation team, believes that designers should use more durable materials to make their clothing.
This is a more effective way of reducing textile waste than simply relying on recycling, according to Storry, who also works with local designers to help them identity opportunities for waste diversion.
“Certain types of fabrics aren’t recyclable,” said Storry. “It’s hard to recycle blends of cotton and polyester, it’s really hard to recycle things that have stretchiness, it’s really hard to recycle things that have chemical additives in them like flame retardants or waterproofness.”
By encouraging designers to use better materials at the beginning of the production cycle, she hopes that clothing will not be wasted.
“We need to design products to last longer. While garbage is not on the top of everyone’s mind, it’s a very important topic because every time you make anything, it takes a lot of energy, creativity, resources but people wear it a few times and throw it out,” said Storry.
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A ban on textiles
Last year, Metro Vancouver announced that it was looking into the feasibility of a textiles disposal ban in the region to stop clothing from ending up in landfills.
But early research reveals that charitable organizations would be overwhelmed with clothing donations if a ban on textiles were implemented. Charities would then have to spend time and money to dispose of the extra clothing.
Currently, thrift stores and charities process only 20 to 30 per cent of all second-hand clothing that ends up in donation bins in B.C. The majority of second-hand clothing in B.C. is sent overseas.
Fashion designers also say that second-hand clothing – or post-consumer waste – is very difficult to work with. Maintaining good quality and consistency is challenging when recycling waste and transforming it into new items of clothing. But producing clothing by using sustainable fabrics is easier because designers can then create multiple pieces that look alike.
Limited access to sustainable fabrics
Introducing the concept of “slow” in an industry that is known for its fast turnover is not without its challenges.
Stephanie Phillips, an instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University with a background in material sustainability, believes that there is a need for more access to sustainably produced fabrics in B.C.
“Getting sustainable materials is the hardest part for all small designers out here,” said Phillips. “There are only a few suppliers in B.C who have some ecologically sensitive options.”
McAughren finds it challenging to get fabrics for her hand-dyed clothing collection. But she hopes that more demand will eventually make it easier to obtain sustainable fabrics.
“It’s something that’s just starting to become bigger in the industry. With more people looking for these materials, the suppliers will hopefully bring in more sustainable organic materials,” said McAughren.
While there is a recent wave of interest in sustainability issues, both designers and researchers acknowledge that there is a need for more awareness among consumers about the environmental impact of textiles.
“We’re not going to change any of the issues until people are aware. But gaining awareness will be the biggest and hardest step,” said McAughren.