Fashion designers react to the environmental crisis


Canada has never been a fashion engine. As a nation, our culture and identity is often reduced to stereotypes involving plaid, nature, and hockey. Although we had several fashion weeks, they never really found their footing and failed to synchronize with the global industry.

Our government has not supported Canadian creators or recognized their contribution to our economy. As consumers, we tend to stay safe and play it safe with new designers. Instead, to survive, most designers end up leaving the country for more established fashion hubs where consumers take risks.

Our local talent, however, has begun to flourish in the face of a global sustainability crisis, and Canadians are taking notice.

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries

My story as a designer in the industry opened my eyes to the environmental destruction and social injustices plaguing the fashion industry, and led me to my current research into how the fashion apparel design process can spark sustainable consumer behaviors and new business models.

The global fashion market is facing a major environmental crisis. Today’s linear economic model of take, make and throw away is reaching its physical limits as the earth’s natural resources come under increasing pressure. The fashion industry is a big consumer of natural resources and a big polluter. If the industry maintains current production and consumption trajectories, these pressures will intensify to the point of threatening the very survival of the industry.

The Canadian fashion industry is at a crossroads. The past lack of support for fashion designers has created an opportunity for Canada to take a leadership role in the global fight for a sustainable fashion future.

Global fashion hubs with an established industry – with its complex systems, supply chains and structures – may struggle to develop sustainability. Typically, brands have limited control over their offshore suppliers, and the frenetic pace of the industry leaves little room for research and development or testing new production methods.

Canada can leverage its small industry — because there is a new foundation on which to build a sustainable industry — without the challenges of disrupting an entrenched system.

Harmful toxins lie near our body

Research shows that consumers are generally aware of the negative environmental and social impacts associated with clothing. However, this awareness and these pro-environmental attitudes are not necessarily a good predictor of behavior and consumption. More emphasis needs to be placed on the negative health consequences of wearing clothing made using harmful toxic chemicals and processes.

For example, as a society we now understand the health benefits of eating organic foods or using a paraben-free body wash. Considerable research exists on the effects of toxic chemicals used in the food and beauty industry. The clothing, however, is not as clear and the area is still underexplored.

A large agency has looked into this question. The Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has documented exposure to toxic chemicals on human skin through normal wearing of standard clothing. The agency found that people were absorbing chemicals on clothing through their skin. Tiny fiber particles abrade or fall off, which can be ingested or inhaled. The Danish EPA found residues of toxic chemicals used in clothing production on participants’ skin, inside washing machines, showers, baths, and in gray water after washing or bathing.

Current technologies and resources prevent brands from achieving 100% sustainability. Designers therefore often choose issues that correspond to their personal values.

By interviewing sustainable fashion designers, working with an entrepreneur, and analyzing current design tools, I can see the broader patterns of consumer engagement, barriers, opportunities, business model development, and practices of overall design. I have created a sustainable design canvas that incorporates a series of building blocks that designers must work through to further develop sustainability into their brand.

Designers present beautiful sustainable visions

However, our local talent has begun to sow the seeds of sustainability and Canadians are taking notice. Last spring, Fashion Takes Action (FTA), Canada’s non-profit sustainable fashion organization, celebrated its 10th anniversary with a sustainable design competition. Design Forward 2017 saw 10 Canadian designers showcase three sustainable looks in a runway show.

The winner of the competition receives the Sustainable Fashion Award, which comes with financial and industrial support. The FTA show proved that Canada has the talent to compete internationally and to be a leader in sustainable fashion.

Notable designers from the Design Forward fashion competition highlight the diversity that represents the Canadian spirit:

Peggy Sue collection is the equivalent of farm to table and 500 mile diet all in one. The designer, Peggy, is not only talented, but she also shines a light on the ecology, farmers and artisans that make up the Canadian Fiber Shed.

Peggy Sue collection at Design Forward.
(Lean Parker)

Eliza Faulkner uses sustainable materials to create garments that emanate freshness by playing with volume and the most seductive accents of ruffles and bows.

Eliza Faulkner at Design Forward 2017.
(Lean Parker)

Triarchy Atelier Denim focuses on reducing water consumption in denim production through sustainable production processes and reusing used denim in fresh new silhouettes with bold accents.

Triarchy Atelier Denim at Design Forward 2017.
(Lean Parker)

Lisa Aviva presented a collection of timeless silhouettes for curvier women. A slow fashion ethos is promoted through the use of luxurious natural textiles, clean lines and local manufacturing.

Lisa Aviva at Design Forward 2017.
(Lean Parker)

Noemie embodies a playful feminine spirit available only in limited editions produced in Montreal from organic cottons, linen, wool, silk and bamboo. This collection used voluminous silhouettes with subtle details, prints associated with the most delicate umbrellas evoking the feeling of playing in a wheat field in summer.

Noémiah at Design Forward.
(Lean Parker)

Jennifer Glasgow believes in local production, using organic natural materials in easy silhouettes promoting a slow fashion lifestyle. The pieces have used blocking and volume in clever ways to produce cool clothes that will be coveted by mothers, daughters and grandmothers.

Jennifer Glasgow at Design Forward 2017.
(Lean Parker)

Bronwyn Seier Age-old handcrafted embellishments expertly blended together such as embroidery with a futuristic feel demonstrated by sheer material choices and thoughtful overlays.

Bronwyn Seier Design at Forward 2017.
(Lean Parker)

The list will be narrowed down to just three finalists who will compete this fall to become the overall winner of the Canadian Sustainable Fashion Award at the Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology (EDIT).


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