Print-á-porter – Jenny Banks' sustainable fast fashion
Jenny Banks graduated from CSM's Material Futures MA this year. Her project offers an incredible solution to the unsustainable fast fashion problem without depriving people of their quick fashion fixes. I asked Jenny for some background on her work for a story I am writing for 10 Magazine (out in January) but her answers to my questions are so fascinating, I thought I would share them here. I can't wait to see how this project develops and am so hopeful that incredible research like this really will – eventually – change the industry for the better.
I just wanted to talk about your 3-D printing idea. Do you have some background info you can send me so I fully understand the project?
How does the process work?
In brief, the 3D-printer uses recycled waste textile fibres (varying lengths can be used) and binds them in layers - which can be built up to create three-dimensional fabrics. It is what we call a non-woven construction - so it is neither woven or knitted - and this means that the textile process bypasses all the energy intensive traditional textile processes such as carding,spinning,weaving,finishing,dyeing etc. Because of its digital nature, it can lay down the fibres in such a way that can produce custom-fitting flat pattern pieces which just need to be assembled to produce a garment (this also means no production waste from fabric off-cuts.) Any fibre can be used and I've tested fibres from cotton and wool to silk. The fibres used can also be mixed fibres which gives it an advantage over current close-loop recycling process we have at the moment (Teijin/econyl etc.)
Why did you want to find a better way of continuing the fast fashion cycle?
So at the moment, when a fast-fashion item is no longer wanted by its owner (happens more frequently than premium clothing due to lower quality/obsolescense), it will be either thrown directly in the bin or given away. We have a great textile recycling industry in the UK, so commonly used clothing will be donated to charity shops or textile collection banks. Generally speaking used fast-fashion doesn't stay in our charity shops very long, if even at all because it is of such poor quality. It will instead be sorted and shipped to third-world markets which actually only drives the production and import of new clothing onto our high streets.
If used clothing cannot be exported abroad, it will be recycled. The most frequently used recycling process for textiles is mechanical and basically shreds and tears the fibres up into wadding. This recycled material can only be re-used in clothing if it is mixed with virgin material and differentiation in colours/fibre type etc. often limits its use in this way. It is therefore downcycled into insulation/stuffing/cleaning rags etc. This down-cycling process is hugely inefficient - not only in terms of the environment - we still have to produce new clothing from virgin materials - but also economically.
This project is exciting because it takes the wadding material from the mechanical recycling process and uses as its raw material. It then processes it directly into product without the need to spin the recycled fibres with virgin fibres, weave/knit it into fabric/dye it/finish it, and cut and construct it into new garments.By bypassing all of the traditional textile processes, we can make huge environmental and economic savings. Also, because the garments are processed into garments, we close the loop - we don't need to use virgin materials to produce new garments.
Do you think it's possible to make fast fashion sustainably and fairly?
Yes - we just need to be clever about it. We need to re-frame the problem. Instead of trying to convince everyone not to buy fast-fashion, I think we need to accept that actually the business has nailed it. The consumer loves to buy something new, they like to change their wardrobes often and they love a bargain. Take any of those elements out and the appeal is gone. Currently, the sustainable solutions that we do have always attempt to extend the life of our clothing and actually this ends up contradicting the very business model of fast-fashion. Why would they adopt such solutions? Instead they're stuck with the textile recycling whose limitations I mentioned above.
Advances and innovations in digital manufacturing and the adoption of product-as-service business models could really work for fast-fashion to make it more sustainable without avoiding it completely:
Digital manufacturing allows clothing production to be versatile and reduce lead times even further - which is what fast-fashion brands want and allows them to keep up with the latest instagram trend. It's also has a lower environmental impact as mentioned above.
Product-as-service business models mirror the short-life cycle of fast-fashion clothing. Imagine a fast-fashion subscription. Rental or subscription works less well for higher-end fashion because the consumer often wants to keep the item, but fast-fashion's price makes this less of an issue.
How close are you to making this prototype a reality in industry? What interest have you had from industry? what's the next step?
This is a tricky one. I have a working prototype and because of its digital nature, standard components and the fact that many of the processes it draws on are already used in the textile industry, there's no reason why it would be difficult to implement the process in industry. I have also had lots of interest from industry ranging from a big fast-fashion retailer and lingerie manufacturers to the automotive industry.
However, I think for the process to be successful the fast-fashion industry, we need to time it right. The project throws digital manufacturing, product-as-service, consumer design customisation, super short-life fashion, a new fabric tactility/material capabilities into the market. That's a lot of 'new' all at once..when individually each of these aspects are only just starting to be adopted by our mainstream brands and consumers. There's something to be said for spectacle but I don't want the project to just be that, a passing trend. This needs to be implemented in a way which allows this way of consuming fashion to become the norm in order for its sustainability benefits to have any impact.
The next step for me is to start building a network of retailers and manufacturers in the fashion and textile industry to kick start collaborations which really hone each of the individual elements mentioned. Can digitial manufacturing cater for the masses? How do we do it? etc. Does the consumer want to customise their fashion? Is there a middle-ground between consumer customisation and off-the shelf? ....and so on.
What are you doing now?
Right now, I'm working for British cold-water surf company, Finisterre, and the University of Exeter, to develop a wetsuit that is not only made from recycled materials but that can also be recycled at the end of its useful life. Currently, there are more than 500,000 surfers in the United Kingdom who, on average, will replace their wetsuits once every two years. That's just in the UK! Wetsuits have a reasonably complex construction and are made of lots of different materials which are difficult to seperate so old wetsuits go straight to landfill and do not biodegrade - we often use neoprene (core of a wetsuit) to line landfills - that's how non-biodegradable the material is!
What motivated you to do this project?
The project came out of my frustration with the lack of impact that many of our sustainable fashion solutions are having on the carbon, waste and water footprint of the industry. The most successful and common sustainable fashion solution being implemented is the smaller, ethical, luxury brand and whilst the work they do shouldn't be discredited, their reach is limited. I'm very ethically conscious but I don't shop with these brands because of their premium prices - It isn't realistic for me and it isn't realistic for the rest of mainstream society either.