To forecast the fashion of the future is a perilous business. Many years ago I road-tested compostable clothes for this newspaper. The corn-starch separates promised much: they potentially allowed us a guilt-free way of consuming fashion at a frenetic pace without the nagging thought of them festering in landfill for eternity. Unfortunately the garments I dutifully wore all day – praying that they would not begin composting while I was on the tube – never caught on. Surprising, that.
But this time, I’m back with bigger, bolder predictions, and for once I have some firepower. On Friday, the parliamentary environmental audit committee, led by Mary Creagh, announced it would investigate the social and environmental impact of disposable “fast fashion”. The aim is to remodel the industry and make it sustainable.
This sort of spotlight makes a difference. Despite a rise in awareness of the social and ecological injustices contained in the consume-and-chuck-it cycle that governs the way we dress, substantive change has been slow. We currently produce 100 billion new pieces of clothing each year, mainly from virgin resources. And, according to a recent report from environmental NGO Stand.Earth the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of global climate pollution.
If the garment business were a nation, it would be the fourth largest climate polluter on Earth. So the committee has quite a task ahead of it. Here are my hopeful suggestions for what your wardrobe might look like in a decade’s time if fashion’s sustainable revolution succeeds.
1. Fibres will be fruity
Our wardrobes are dominated by cotton, a thirsty crop saturated in pesticides, and polyester, which is derived from petroleum. These will be displaced by so-called “wealth from waste” fibres, including “banana sylk” (from the stems of banana plants) and fruit “leathers”, especially from pineapple. The Spanish brand Piñatex has already brought the latter to market; a square metre of pineapple leather uses 480 waste pineapple leaves and is half the cost of traditional cow leather (and, its proponents claim, comes at a fraction of the environmental cost of raising livestock).
2. You’ll be carrying a bag made from fermented yeast
Modern Meadow, based in New Jersey in the US, has caused a stir by applying sugar feedstock to yeast cells that have been engineered to create collagen. It is then pressed into sheets and tanned (in an eco-friendly process) to create cow-less leather. This clever bio-leather will become available commercially in 2020 but small sample pieces have sent the fashion pack into a frenzy with their low-emission, animal-friendly realism. Meanwhile, on the west coast, Bolt Threads is perfecting the art of brewing silk from yeast cells.
3. Colours will be more natural
Expect an increasing number of brands to ditch toxic chemical dyes and switch to those that siphon pigments from plants, sugar molasses and micro-organisms, to eliminate heavy metals, acids and solvents. According to trials, these techniques also use a 10th of the water of conventional dyeing. If you’re a fan of a lairy colour palette, don’t worry. These next-generation dyes also include the wilder tints of nature, not just porridge-hued neutrals.
4. Your washing machine could be regulated by law
The clothing industry has migrated towards petroleum-derived synthetics, but these have been shown to shed microfibres (fragments of plastic under 5mm), which potentially spell disaster for aquatic environments. Already, California’s state assembly has pushed for a law that clothing containing 50% polyester must carry a label warning of microfibre shedding and advising that garments should be hand-washed. If washing machine filters and fine-mesh laundry bags are shown to help contain microfibres during machine washes, expect these to become mandatory.
5. A wool cardigan will be prized like a Birkin bag
When you want to slip into something special, you’ll be wearing organic cotton and wool. Naturals will be prized and precious fabrics, to be cared for, protected and handed down as heirlooms. (They’ll also be prized for not shedding microfibres.) A new appraisal of naturals will favour regenerative wool growing: keeping sustainable sized flocks of sheep and goats on grassland, it is claimed, helps to sequester carbon, restore watersheds and benefit wildlife habitats.
6. You’ll work out in silk and your jumpers won’t shrink
If you’re trying to map this brave new textile culture, it’s wise to follow the patents and the investment, and they seem to be pointing to Silk Inc, backed by six UK patents covering 75 chemical formulations. A process of creating silk protein in water has been shown to change silk from water-repellent to water-wicking (essential for sportswear). It can also be used to coat cashmere or nylon to make wool and other materials shrink-resistant.
7. You’ll print your own outfit …
First you’ll 3D scan your body; then, for a precise fit, you’ll buy a file with your preferred design and 3D-print or 3D-knit your clothes at home or at a designated store. Designers such as Danit Peleg are already pioneering this approach, which takes wasted stock and excess production out of the equation. A 3D-printed Peleg design was worn by Olympian snowboarder Amy Purdy at the Rio Paralympic opening ceremony to great fanfare. Last year Peleg produced the world’s first fully customisable and personalisable 3D-printed garment for sale online. Admittedly, pieces took 100 hours to print, but advances in printing technology mean this process should be up to speed in a decade.
8. … and be your own rag trader
A big chunk of your wardrobe will probably be refurbished or remanufactured by your favourite brands. “Recommerce” is already taking off: outdoor brand Patagonia has teamed up with online reseller Yerdle and gently launched the website Worn Wear. You return your pre-worn clothes to a shop, where you get credit. They are processed (and waterlessly washed), reinvigorated and sold online at a lower cost than new.
At the moment we can’t get a grip on our fashion consumption: a survey by the fashion recycling app reGAIN found that 27% of Londoners chucked unwanted clothes straight in the bin. Imagine if that were reversed and there were such a global demand for your spent threads that you were contacted daily by an organisation asking if you’d finished with your trousers. It’s going to happen.
9. Self-mending clothes
At Penn State University in the US, squid teeth proteins have been turned into liquid and used to coat materials. When torn, the textile can be repaired by placing the two ripped edges together. It’s seamless, glue-free and threadless – just add warm water. The minuscule volumes of the proteins currently being produced are slated for medical applications, but in a decade this could have branched out to apparel, meaning you can throw away your needle and thread (if you are one of the few that still bothers to make do and mend, that is).
10. Someone else will own your clothes
In the UK, an estimated £30bn of clothes hang unworn in bulging wardrobes. The case for sharing just got real: last week Armarium, the US luxury fashion-hire company, joined forces with Browns, the upmarket clothier, to take hiring and sharing up a notch. At the moment, this is a rarefied rental service for people who could comfortably afford to buy from upmarket designers outright. But it’s just the beginning.