Could ‘True Materialism’ save Fashion?

Following Greenpeace's new report, we wonder if fashion is ready for the circular economy

in brief

For the second article of our sustainable series in collaboration with Lenzing, we’re exploring the impressive report from Greenpeace. For the first time ever, the environmental group has put together an open database of 400 entries, which helped pinpointing the many flaws of today’s practices and can serve as a great base to create new, more sustainable scenarios for the modern fashion industry.

In its new report “Fashion at the crossroads” released during Milan Fashion Week, Greenpeace took to the stage to point out the dangers of the dominant business model of the global industry.

For fourteen years (between 2000 and 2014), global clothing production doubled (according to a recent McKinsey report), while the average amount consumers spent per item, and how long they kept it, both declined. Increasingly made of polyester, our clothes are putting dangerous amounts of microfibers in the oceans, and too often end up in landfills after little to no wear. While nowadays brands continue to use far more raw resources than recycled ones, “Circularity” is the current buzz word promoted as the latest solution to the environmental problems.

Image source: Waste Advantage.

While the idea in itself holds true, Greenpeace warns that this kind of effective years-long effort to reduce hazardous chemicals from the textile global supply could be ruined by a premature ‘circular economy’. Where recycling happens before detoxing processes and materials occur, this can pose serious threats to the environment given the intensity of production and growth of compulsive consumption. Instead of relying on short-term solutions to mainstream throwaway fashion culture, the group advocates for a radical transformation through a business model that would slow the flow of materials and implement long-term waste prevention solutions for the entire supply chain.

A ‘circular economy’ is the latest meme being used across the EU and worldwide, [but] behind this nice phrase lies the industry’s fantasy that circularity can fix a material-intensive system; selling the promises of 100% recyclability which is unlikely to come true.” says Chiara Campione, senior corporate strategist at Greenpeace Italy.

Fast fashion isn’t free, someone, somewhere, is paying for you to buy your “cheap” clothes. The heart-breaking testimony from Shima Akhter, in the 2015 documentary ‘The True Cost‘.

After hosting a debate with representatives of small and medium-sized fashion companies taking steps toward slow fashion, the environmental advocacy group’s latest report tries to provide the industry with tangible ways of becoming more responsible, instead of what it calls a “fast fashion fix”. To break up with the global fast-fashion addiction, Greenpeace advocates a shift towards “true materialism”: a design approach for longer product life and extended usage.

Borrowing from Kate Fletcher’s book, Craft of Use, the group defines true materialism as a switch from an idea of a consumer society where materials matter little, to a truly material society, where materials—and the world they rely on—are cherished.” In other words: We’re not materialistic enough in how we value our clothes. This philosophy gave birth to some of the following solutions, putting the immediate focus on changing the way we produce and consume clothes in the first place:

  • First of all, the priority is the adoption of new business models that not only focus on limiting and reducing damage but also are part of a transformation in how clothes are produced, sold, shared, repaired and reused. The viable alternative business models are currently being championed by smaller or medium sized companies, meanwhile, larger companies are seriously evaluating these options for the longer term. Therefore, higher levels of experimentation are required by the big players in order to benefit from the opportunities that lie ahead.


  • Secondly, companies need to find solutions that reduce the environmental impacts at all stages of the life cycle through more conventional means. Increased energy efficiencies, better material usage, technical solutions for achieving biodegradability, the performance of recycled materials or techniques which can extend the life of clothing during use are just some ways to achieve this. As a matter of fact, this implies sourcing for better eco-friendly materials, by following more eco-friendly guidelines, like the multiple examples exposed in our previous piece on eco-fashion, amongst which, modal, lyocell, or Lenzing’s newborn EcoVero. Thanks to unique environmentally friendly and traceable viscose fibers, the new EcoVero solution provides the fashion and textile industry with means to meet today’s consumers expectations in terms of sustainability, transparency and traceability ; powered by a special identification technology, tracing the product’s origin back to its fibers.


  • Last but not least, adopting a design for longer life approach and promoting extended use of clothing are, in the group’s opinion, the most important interventions to slow down the material flow by reducing purchases of new products while addressing the environmental challenges of the current fashion system. Companies outside the mainstream (sharing and renting companies) and smaller fashion brands are also leading in these efforts by extending not only the physical but also the emotional durability of clothes. A mindset that also fits the way new generations growingly perceive fashion and may even become mandatory in a near future.

There is no escaping the need to re-think the materials mix if we want the fashion ecosystem to be future-proof. At the same time as acknowledging recent efforts from various actors, these conclusions stress the need for larger brands across the landscape to take the lead on making sustainability, transparency and traceability the new standard. As much as they show that designers too can make a difference, by designing for slowing the pace of fashion, the first step will be to take back control of the rhythm of fashion and creating a more virtuous cycle-loop. While true-materialism might hold the key to unlock a more sustainable future, taking this responsible approach further would require a global movement, one that would finally bring the whole industry together to foster collaboration, facilitating the sharing of knowledge and cooperation between all sizes and types of companies, organisations and academics and ultimately accelerating the emergence of multiple solutions and ensuring the takeover of such responsible practices as a result.

A common effort that growing synergies between fashion and innovation in all its aspects could provoke in the very near future.

There's always more to discover. Subscribe to our newsletter to explore the unfound.