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LONDON, United Kingdom — During Nina Marenzi’s masters in sustainable agriculture and rural development at Imperial College in London 15 years ago, she began researching organic cotton in an era of nascent sustainable fabric development. As part of her research, she interviewed numerous fashion designers, textile industry representatives and NGOs. During that period, Marenzi became convinced that the “woolly image” of lower impact materials was preventing the wider adoption of the materials in the fashion industry.
Having been exposed to a number of innovative low environmental impact materials in her research, as a new-graduate she sought to create a way of showcasing the fabrics and the mills and individuals who made them to the fashion and luxury industries. This lead to the launch of The Sustainable Angle, a London-based not-for-profit organisation, in 2010, and its main initiative — the Future Fabrics Expo.
Now the largest dedicated showcase of innovative and sustainable material solutions, the Future Fabrics Expo has over 5000 materials from more than 150 suppliers exhibited every year.
BoF sits down with the founder of The Sustainable Angle to hear how she built her career in the nascent field of sustainable fabrics, and what advice she has for others seeking more sustainable career paths in fashion.
How did your work in sustainability in fashion begin?
I did a Master's in sustainable agriculture at Imperial College and I chose organic cotton as my dissertation topic, which was basically the only fibre that could be traced [to source] at the time. I interviewed a lot of designers and mills that were working with organic cotton during my research and I discovered so many other fibres. I had no experience of the fashion supply chain but it was really all based on the fact that I tried to see the problem through the eyes of a designer — that there were not enough readily available, suitable sustainable. That's really how it started 15 years ago.
How did the idea of the Future Fabrics Expo come about?
I'm a fixer and I felt all the designers that I had interviewed would want to know [about the other sustainable materials out there] but it was clear there wasn't a place to see them. I did research into trade fairs, like every designer does, and I was frustrated and baffled that there were no materials out there and if there were, it was a horrible quality.
Over 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is decided upon at the design stage
I could tell designers all thought organic cotton automatically meant bad dyes and rough textures, but that wasn't true then and it’s certainly not true now. I thought, we have to pull this together into a curated showcase, to try and change the bad, woolly image these sustainable materials had attached to them. But trade fairs I spoke to said, “nobody really wants it, so it doesn’t make economic sense for us to give them a floor space and [implement] the work needed to curate it.”
How did you self drive your career development in an emerging field?
I read a lot of books on the subject and I interviewed some leading lights. For example, Professor Dilys Williams, the director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, was a very important person in my research. Amanda Johnston also joined the centre quite soon after I had my dissertation idea and she wrote a book called Fabric for Fashion: The Swatch Book. Together, we worked with London College of Fashion and worked on the criteria for fabric mills showing at the Future Fabrics Expo.
While it was only a Masters, and I would never call myself an expert because textiles is a vast field so I am careful not to position myself like that, all that understanding I received from an agriculture postgraduate course has helped me see what is important — like soil, for example, which is a carbon sink. It helped us formulate our criteria. We didn’t want to compromise on biodiversity because otherwise, it would just be greenwashing. But ten years ago, nobody talked about it and if you have a sense of agriculture and of certain fibres, you will find intensive, monocultural systems that compromise biodiversity immediately. That meant, implicitly, that we would not work with quite a few fabrics out there.
What insight would you share with fashion talent seeking to be more sustainable in their practice?
Over 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is decided upon at the design stage, so the designer, be it a product or fashion designer, has all the power in their hands to make a product that has a lower impact. If you design a product well, you can make it last for a long time, be reparable and made with materials that will not break down. Now, you also want it to be made in a way that is not polluting the planet; to travel as little as possible; be made with renewable energy; and you don’t want to package it in polyester and petrochemical-based materials.
Sustainability is like a Pandora's Box — once you start looking at it properly to understand the issue, you realise it applies to everything we do and all the adjacent industries to fashion have exactly the same problem. Whether it's fashion, kitchen products or automotive, we’re designing things in the wrong way, overusing natural resources and creating waste in the process.
What advice would you share with talent seeking to build a fashion career in sustainability?
Today, the industry is so thirsty for young talent that has an understanding [of sustainability] and has learnt the tools to create this product completely. There are not enough people like it, so they get hired quickly and immediately have a lot of say in the company because they are knowledgeable on issues across different disciplines.
I think it's a wise decision to take a degree in fashion design with sustainability at the core — you can't really be a more sustainable designer if you don’t know what the impacts are of the different materials. London College of Fashion, Central Saint Martins and Parsons New School are all looking at [sustainability] on specific degrees, but a lot of universities are still lacking up-to-date tools.
Everything is developing so fast, you have to be plugged into every news outlet on sustainability in textiles and fashion.
But don't rely only on your university degree — you have to do a lot of research yourself because even the university degrees that you can take in sustainability are three, four years behind. Everything is developing so fast in sustainability that you have to be on it yourself and plugged into every news outlet on sustainability in textiles and fashion.
Good research resources include Cradle to Cradle for sure. Kate Fletcher is a very good author, as well as Dana Thomas’s Fashionopolis. Then, Clare Press’s The Wardrobe Crisis is one of the best podcasts. I would also go on Twitter and follow some journalists — too many students rely on Instagram for research and that of course doesn't go into depth.