Less Is More：Protecting Nature with Sustainable Fashion
Sharleen Su /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byPhil Newell
Story Wear makes clothes by recycling used and scrap fabrics. They have successfully used outstanding design to transform old denim material into “new clothes” that are popular with consumers. (photo by Lin Min-shuan)
By encouraging consumption and continually increasing production, the fashion industry has reached a new peak in its historical development. But this has given rise to a many environmental problems.
We live amid a surfeit of old clothes, environmental pollution, and workers’ rights issues. But in recent years the fashion industry has begun to face up to the issue of sustainability, and people have begun to make new clothes from recycled material and to create new applications for waste material, doing industry’s bit to protect the environment.
On the runway, everything presented by the models is dazzlingly beautiful. And the fashion and lifestyle industry is avidly exploring even more ambitious new territory. With trendiness, novelty and extraordinary value for money, fast fashion’s ability to rapidly ring the changes of style, and the easy availability of designer-grade garments at reasonable prices, inspire consumers to continually open their purses and spend.
Consuming fashion is easy, but behind it all there is a high price to pay. According to Greenpeace, each year Taiwanese consumers aged 20‡45 discard at least 5.2 million pieces of clothing, meaning that on average 9.9 garments are being thrown into trash cans or clothes recycling bins every minute. In 2018 Global Views Monthly magazine revealed even more astounding figures: “Each year Taiwan throws away 72,000 metric tons of old clothing, which is equivalent to 438 garments per minute.”
Story Wear founder Kuan Chen (left) has a background in the fashion industry. Seeing the many problems generated by this industry, she decided to dedicate her life to reducing its environmental impact. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Each piece of Story Wear clothing has a unique “ID”—a label that clearly documents its production process.
Manmade fabrics’ environmental impact
Another problem is carbon emissions. Cheap manmade fiber is very useful, but three times as much carbon dioxide is released in its production as for raw cotton. At present more than 60% of textile fibers made are synthetic fibers produced from fossil fuels, and clothing made from synthetic fibers doesn’t rot down when it reaches landfill. This prompted the New York Times to comment mockingly that future archeologists may study the fast fashion retailer Zara in ancient landfills. Also, microfibers that come off clothing when it is washed are swept into mountains, oceans, and glacial ice, where they persist for thousands of years without decomposing.
A number of dedicated people are taking action to reduce pollution from the fashion industry. Some famous designers have begun to incorporate sustainability into their catwalk designs, for example by using purely natural cotton or hemp materials for their attire and rejecting the use of manmade petrochemical fibers. Still others have altered production processes or extended the life expectancy of products, or are using recycling to give new value to products and turn waste into gold.
Take for example Story Wear, which takes pride in making “zero-waste fashion.” Using clothing and fabrics collected from all over Taiwan, through design they turn them into fashionable attire in a variety of styles. Also, by working with disadvantaged seamstresses, in addition to avoiding waste they create local jobs.
In 2013, Story Wear founder Kuan Chen quit her job in Taiwan’s fashion industry after five years and went off to the UK to study for a master’s degree. It was there that she became aware for the first time that the fashion industry is in fact the world’s second largest source of pollution (after the petrochemical industry). “My professor specialized in sustainable fashion, so he talked about this issue all year long.” Textiles has always been a highly polluting, quite opaque industry, which has generated many human rights problems around inhumane exploitation and long working hours.
Thanks to their income from Story Wear orders, mothers working as “street-corner seamstresses” have seen their lives improve, while also playing their part in the fight against environmental pollution.
Story Wear seamstresses have to piece together cloth from big piles of denim fabric of different colors and weave patterns; it’s more difficult than making clothes from new.
Upgrading and remaking denim
It was when China refused to accept textile waste from other countries that Chen fully realized the seriousness of the situation in Taiwan. “In the future, the problem of textile trash will become increasingly severe.” There will be no place to send clothing collected for recycling, so all the textile waste will be concentrated in Taiwan itself. This thought moved her to found Story Wear.
The fabric for Story Wear clothing comes mainly from recycled jeans donated by businesses. After being cleaned, the material is remanufactured into fashionable denim jackets, long skirts, splice dresses, overcoats, cloth backpacks, computer bags, and even small products like tumbler totes, key chains, and tissue packages.
“The most difficult thing is that you have to completely take the jeans apart, right down to single pieces of cloth.” After the “street-corner seamstresses” who work with Story Wear receive the denim material, which is tough, wash resistant, and holds its shape, they must first remove all the stitching, which is a major task. “Street-corner seamstresses” is a pet name bestowed on these women by Chen, but in fact they are a group of courageous women who love hand tailoring and are in their second careers, are disadvantaged, or have disabled children at home.
To give the seamstresses a model to work from, Kuan Chen first makes a design and creates a sample. Based on the sample, the seamstresses then select cloth of similar pattern and type from piles of materials of different colors and thicknesses. They have to pay careful attention in order to accurately match the color and make sure the grain of the cloth runs in the right direction before they can then assemble the new piece of clothing by hand.
When Story Wear customers buy their products they can see on the labels information such as “Recycled denim, cloth waste, cotton,” “Handmade in 24 hours,” and the handwritten signature of the seamstress.
Kuan Chen loves fashion, and in her designs she aims for classic styles that never go out of vogue.
A unique ID for every garment
“The raw materials are different for each item of clothing, so the colors and patterns of the finished products are all different.” Information about the production process is printed on the label for everyone to see. “In this way people can be sure that the workers have not been exploited,” says Chen.
Since the brand was founded in 2018, Story Wear has remanufactured 2408 pairs of jeans, representing more than 2000 pairs that would otherwise have been discarded. Also, they bring in an average of 50,000 orders per month for other items made from recycled denim, creating numerous jobs for disadvantaged women.
Lin Yun-ting (right) and Patricia Lip have taken “sustainability” as the core value of their brand. They have worked together to develop a lifestyle business in Taiwan that makes products out of a new material: fiberwood.
Countless experiments and enormous effort have gone into the process of transforming wood shavings and plant fibers into hard and durable objects.
Swimming against the fashion tide
Lin Yun-ting from Taichung’s Fengyuan District and Patricia Lip from Hong Kong are likewise turning waste into gold. The two met when studying at the Royal College of Art in the UK, and based on their shared ideal of sustainable fashion, joined together to form Studio Lim.
They have developed fiberwood objects sustainably made from recovered wood shavings, old newspaper, and flax fibers. They also use traditional lacquerware techniques, repeatedly applying lacquer and sanding it down, to produce serving trays that are hard and durable, and as smooth as glass. In their ingenious products, the use of environmentally friendly materials combined with sophisticated modern craftsmanship greatly alters the impression people have of “recycled” manufactured goods.
“We started out by looking for some materials we could experiment with for our MA graduation project.” In the course of seeking new substances, Lin and Lip serendipitously met scientist Lee Koon-yang from Imperial College London. Lee’s nanocellulose-coated support material became the foundation for their development of fiberwood artifacts.
To enable consumers to get years of use out of fiberwood products, Studio Lim has combined the traditional craft of lacquerware with modern manufacturing processes, making the products more durable.
The two continually experimented with different mixtures of plant fibers in different proportions and even in different colors. They tried out all the fibrous materials they could think of, including flax, cotton, sisal hemp, and Manila hemp (abaca), and also experimented with different shapes, thicknesses, and curved surfaces. For example, after flattening material into sheets they made tubes, and after continually adjusting the physical properties of the material, they finally created a flax-fiber product that was hard and durable. Although this technology did not involve nanoscale materials, for their graduation project they successfully used flax to make a cabinet, a piece of construction board, and a stereo.
“Flax has the second largest production volume of any natural fiber in the world.” This annual herbaceous plant can be harvested each year, and is very environmentally friendly. In the future there will be no need to cut down forests if flax fiber can be made into boards from which to make large furniture.
Waste wood shavings are also mixed into the fiberwood. Lin and Lip took shavings of Taiwan zelkova, cypress, sweetgum and other types of wood from lumber processing plants in Taichung’s Fengyuan District, mixed them with flax fiber and then added coloring, to produce coasters and dessert plates with unique wood patterns.
Because fibers absorb water, Lin and Lip also drew inspiration from Fengyuan’s century-old tradition of lacquerware making, and applied lacquer to the fiberwood to make it waterproof. “So long as they aren’t deliberately damaged, these objects can be used for a long time.” Lately they have launched a new experiment by adding in waste newspaper to make a composite material from which they produce serving trays. From a distance they look like terrazzo, while up close you can actually read the characters from the newspaper.
The creation of fiberwood could in future obviate the need to cut down slow-growing forests. Flax, a widely grown annual herbaceous plant, can be turned into hard board material.
How can sustainability be achieved?
Looking at Studio Lim’s trays made from reclaimed wood shavings, one’s thoughts do not incline to words like “waste,” “secondhand,” or “recycled.” Arrayed on a shelf they look exquisitely beautiful.
Kuan Chen likes classic, enduring styles, and she wants to design things that people won’t stop wearing when seasons or fashions change. While ensuring that its clothes are sustainable, Story Wear also wants to create a brand image for quality.
Returning to the good side of our nature, we can make better consumer choices by treasuring the things around us. “That’s why we encourage people to try to use things for as long as they remain usable.” Lin Yun-ting and Patricia Lip are optimistic about the future of sustainable fashion, and hope to educate consumers to understand that sustainable fashion is not just an ideal for a particular brand, but a way of life.
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama