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14 May 2013

Mistra Future Fashion starts delivering results

Research for a more sustainable fashion industry is under way at several levels in Mistra Future Fashion. Recycling systems for clothing are now being introduced worldwide. Soon fashion designers en masse will receive training in sustainability thinking, right from the drawing board.

During the spring, clothing giant H&M has run its seasonal campaign on billboards around Sweden. One phrase, ‘sustainable fashion’, has recurred. This is not, of course, the first time H&M has launched this theme. The company has previously engaged well-known designers to come up with small, attractive and sustainable collections.

‘We’re trying to get the consumers used to it in stages,’ says Mats Westin, Mistra Future Fashion’s programme director, who has been researching ways of making the fashion industry more sustainable since 2011.

Another sign that sustainable fashion is beginning to get established in the sector is that the subject was the theme of a long article in the women’s magazine Plaza Kvinna recently. However, the task is an extensive one. It involves transforming an industry that is taking up a growing share of the Earth’s resources. Cotton production is at an all-time high, and more stringent chemicals legislation is threatening fashion companies.

Recycling on the increase

H&M is among the companies collaborating in Mistra Future Fashion. This Swedish clothing giant is well on the way to introducing systems for recycling clothes in stores all over the world. In Mistra Future Fashion, a study of the same collection system was carried out in Weekday shops (the Weekday chain is owned by the H&M group) in four Swedish towns. H&M itself has implemented a similar study in Switzerland.

‘The industry has grasped the fact that “fast fashion” isn’t sustainable in the long term, although it’s earning money for them at present,’ says Mats Westin.

At present, recycled clothes are used for upholstery material in furniture, and in other relatively low-value products. However, researchers are currently attempting to break down the cotton fibres and make new viscose-like materials, and also to melt polyester to manufacture new fabric thread.

Mistra Future Fashion seeks to transform a whole industry, not just one company, and interest is keen throughout the sector. Companies in the forest industry, which see new potential for spinning textile thread from wood cellulose, are also taking part.

Better data on environmental impact

In Mistra Future Fashion, numerous studies of consumer behaviour are in progress. A study is now being planned, for example, to develop a microchip that can be inserted in garments to register frequency and temperature of washing and tumble-drying.

‘We’ve learnt that reality is not always reflected in questionnaire responses. People forget, and simplicity is important for obtaining correct data on the characteristics of a garment’s user phase,’ Westin explains.

He goes on to describe new software for life-cycle analyses and how researchers are constantly trying to improve these analyses by focusing on previously disregarded aspects.
‘Do current life-cycle analyses tell the whole truth? You can’t help wondering. For instance, it’s proved difficult to calculate the impact of chemicals. And that results in a tendency to omit it, although we know that their impact on the environment is massive.’

Another project that Westin finds promising involves training designers in sustainability thinking from the start, at the drawing board. Researchers at University of the Arts London have developed a training tool that they are currently training selected H&M designers to use. The plan is that afterwards, this select group in turn will train all H&M’s designers, numbering about a thousand, how to think in sustainable terms when they design clothes.

‘Designers are a key group that we must have on our side if we’re going to change the fashion industry,’ concludes Mats Westin.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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