Breaking down: sustainable textiles and practices

Published on: Author: sarahfoskett 2 Comments

By Katica Laza, 1st year student, MPhil Textile Conservation.

Over the past decade we have become more aware of the impact the fashion and garment making industry has on the world. Reports have emerged not only of the humanitarian issues, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013 which highlighted the inequality and poor working conditions many faced in the textile industries’ supply chains, but also the ecological devastation that increasing textile production is having on the world’s ecosystems. The fashion industry is thought to be in the top five of the most polluting industries in the world with many of us contributing to this by discarding our old clothes for something more fashionable. Shockingly, about 300,000 tonnes of our garments end up in landfill yearly from just the UK.[1] The production process is no better, with textiles such as denim using large amounts of resources such as energy and water while also polluting the surrounding areas and increasing green-house gas emissions. Against this backdrop, organisations such as Fashion Revolution were created to educate and inform people of the garment making process, advocating for us as consumers to hold companies accountable for every link in their supply chain and to opt-out of buying ‘fast fashion’.

Sustainability is a growing movement: from books on how to love your pre-owned clothes to videos on how to upcycle them. However, for those who are still looking to keep their wardrobe up to date with the latest trends but would also like to reduce their carbon footprint, new options are arising with the development of easily degradable textiles. The Zero-waste movement has prompted designers to think out of the box, such as :

  • Rachel Clowes who has created biodegradable sequins from polyactic acid, taken from bread or waste products, to create shimmery sequin like products to adorn your clothes with.
  • Vollebak who-has created a closed cycle process of making hoodies from Eucalyptus which is fully biodegrabale and can be composted within 8 weeks of its production.

Further experiments have also been carried out in growing textiles from fungi, algae and yeast and dyeing with bacteria which would help eliminate waste both at the manufacturing stage and at the end of the garments lifecycle, degrading into nontoxic waste.

While these are all amazing feats of textile innovation, as a textile conservator I cannot help but wonder what the ethical, practical and technical implications of these new textiles and garments will be when we face them in the work room (if they survive that long!). While conservators are no strangers to treating textiles created from organic materials, I am intrigued how we would approach a textile purposefully designed not to last. As in many situations, ethics and context will play a large role in the decision making. Would it be considered unethical to conserve an object which the creators themselves had not intended to last? Would this go against the purpose of the garment? Another important question is, do we have a responsibility to use sustainable treatment and workroom practices to conserve objects produced using sustainable and waste free practices ? This, of course, raises the issues of whether we even have the means to do so. An excellent example of the dilemmas of exhibiting sustainable garments in museums were showcased when the V&A were creating their Fashioned from Nature exhibition (2018) where the decision was made to only use upcycled and environmentally friendly products for their display cases, costume mounts and information cards. Their exhibition blog gives an insight into many of the decision making processes and the outcomes.

Fashioned for Nature was not only an important exhibition in showcasing sustainable and upcycled clothing but also in highlighting how museums are starting to take steps towards eco-friendly decision making. Sustainable practices have also become more prominent in conservation. Organisations such as SiC (Sustainability in Conservation) provide tips and information on how to become more environmentally responsible in daily conservation work, while teaching here at the CTC also includes reflecting on our everyday practice in the framework of sustainability. While the conservation of sustainable textiles has not yet become the focus of institutions, the increasing amount of resources and teaching on sustainability will hopefully give us the wider tools and transferable skills necessary to be able to tackle such objects. I can’t wait to see how the ethical and technical issues are resolved when these innovative and experimental fabrics find their way into the work room.


1 Lauren Bravo, How to Break Up with Fast Fashion,  p7

2 Responses to Breaking down: sustainable textiles and practices Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Really interesting article Katica. Sustainable practice in textiles conservation is something I think about more and more – I will look up your references and links and keep trying to improve. I am aware of the gap between what lies on the studio table, and the materials being used to stabilise that object.

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