The average lifetime of an item of clothing in the UK is estimated at just 2.2 years and it’s thought that up to $177 million of clothes end up in landfill each year. Image: REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
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Whether they like it or not, the clothes worn by royalty and first ladies sometimes get more column inches than the causes they support - think Meghan Markle’s wedding dress and Melania Trump’s ‘I don’t really care’ jacket.
But a dress recently worn by Jenni Haukio, the wife of the Finnish president, has received attention for exactly the right reasons.
At a reception to mark the country’s Independence Day, the first lady of Finland wore a sustainable evening gown made from Finnish birch trees.
The dress was designed using innovative Ioncell technology developed by Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, which could revolutionize the way we make - and recycle - clothes.
Ioncell uses a range of materials, including wood, recycled newspaper, cardboard and old cotton to make fabric with less of an environmental impact than the processes used to make cotton and viscose. It can also be recycled.
“Fabric made from Ioncell is soft to touch. It has a lovely sheen and falls beautifully. Most importantly, it’s an environmentally sustainable option,” Pirjo Kääriäinen, Professor of Practice at Aalto University, said.
Making durable, recyclable clothes from wood means carbon emissions can be reduced since the carbon is stored in the lifespan of the fibre. Finland’s forests are also sustainably grown - each year, the growth actually exceeds harvest - and they require no watering.
Ioncell produces cellulose-based textile fibres, like viscose, but unlike viscose production, the process uses a safe, non-toxic ionic liquid instead of harsh chemicals, which can end up polluting local water sources.
The fibres are also biodegradable and don’t release harmful microplastics into the environment as they break down, or when they’re washed.
The technology is still at the research stage, but the aim is for an Ioncell pilot production line by 2020.
The fast fashion problem
A study by Deloitte found that almost half (49%) of the US Millennials surveyed said they would consider sustainability and ethics before a purchase, followed by 38% of Chinese Millennials.
But even if consumers do make ethical purchases, they may not keep the clothes for very long. For example, the average lifetime of an item of clothing in the UK is estimated at just 2.2 years and it’s thought that up to $177 million of clothes end up in landfill each year, according to the charity Wrap.
Cotton currently accounts for around half of all textiles produced - and provides jobs for almost 7% of all labour in developing countries. It’s the most profitable non-food crop in the world, but the methods used to produce it are not sustainable.
According to the WWF, 20,000 litres of water are needed to make enough cotton for just one T-shirt and a pair of jeans (1kg of cotton).
Chemical dyes and bleaches also pollute waterways and leach into the wider environment. But the fashion industry is making efforts to clean up its act. A Greenpeace report shows that 80 fashion brands that had committed to more environmentally friendly production systems had made significant progress towards their targets.
With consumer attitudes beginning to change, people are becoming much more aware of the environmental impact of their choices, and the need to reduce, reuse and recycle.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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