What is sustainable fashion? A chat with Marina Chahboune

Sustainable fashion is not an option. It's the only solution.
Sustainable fashion is not an option. It's the only solution.


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It’s not a dirty secret anymore: the global fashion industry — clothing and textile — is one of the largest polluters in the world. That’s why sustainable fashion is taking the world by storm. Opposing the ‘fast fashion’ trend, sustainable fashion raises awareness on the environmental and social impact of the production of garments. In this article, I have a chat with Marina Chahboune, sustainable fashion consultant, with 15+ year of experience in the field. Read on and dive deeper into the movement that is revolutionising the world of green fashion.

The global fashion market is valued 3,000 billion dollars and represents 2% of the world’s GDP. From an economic point of view, this is certainly a positive number. However, if we look at the fashion industry with an environmental and social lens, the statistics are far from being positive:

  • The fashion industry produces nearly 20% of the global waste water;
  • The production of one t-shirt and one pair of jeans requires more than 5,000 gallons of water;
  • Cotton farming represents 3% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides.
  • Rather than recycling them, consumers send on average 32 kg of shoes and clothing to dumps per year.

And the numbers only get worse when we consider the social conditions — including the minimum wage and safety of the workers creating the garments.

In 2013, more than 1100 workers died in Bangladesh, when Rana Plaza, a garment factory, collapsed due to neglected infrastructural problems and lack of maintenance. Also, since 1995, more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers have killed themselves. Allegedly, one of the main contributing factors is the high price of genetically modified cotton seeds taking over the market, creating a vicious circle of unmanageable debt. Together with this tragedy, the one stemming from the toxic chemicals used in cotton farming, causing birth defects and premature deaths in the local villages.

In the wake of these disasters, designers, consumers, trade unions and workers’-rights groups have called for a more sustainable fashion market. Since the first signs of awareness, the sustainable movement has been growing exponentially. 2018 was a reckoning year for the fashion industry, and its results are promising.

The Fashion Revolution is a global organisation that, following the Rana Plaza tragedy, launched the campaign “Who Made My Clothes,” calling for a more sustainable and transparent fashion industry. In 2018, the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes reached 720 million impressions, +35% comparing to 2017. Also, the number of brands and retailers that answered with real information almost doubled from 2017 to 2018.

In order to better understand the sustainable fashion movement — and what does “sustainability” really means — we had a chat with Marina Chahboune, eco-designer, sustainability consultant and co-organizer of the Fashion Revolution Week in Bandung Indonesia, with more than 15 years of expertise in the field.

Marina Chahboune: a passion for sustainable fashion design

When I asked Marina “what does sustainable fashion mean to her?” I had no idea that the question would have led us to such a personal story and a precise moment of her life.

Marina always wanted to be a designer. Born in Germany, at the age of 15, she began learning pattern making and drawing, which has given her a solid and hands-on knowledge on material and fibres. This is key to understanding how to source materials and how they match with a particular kind of clothes, product segment and accessories. “It’s a complex process,” she says, that she dove deep into during her fashion design studies in Berlin and Helsinki.

It was 2008, and, as part of her coursework, she visited the Arktikum museum, showcasing life and its challenges in the Arctic. One of the installations showed the Arctic region from a birds-eye perspective. With a touch of a sliding bar, visitors could change from a view where the polar ice cap was bigger to a smaller one. At first, Marina thought it was the difference between Summer and Winter. However, when she asked the guide, she was told that was the variation of just a couple of years.

“What’s going to happen in 15 years?” she suddenly asked herself. “I cannot sit here doing something harmful,” she thought. That moment changed everything in her approach to her professional, academic and personal life. Mind you, this happened in 2008, when the awareness on climate change was not as widespread as today.

The year after, she obtained a BA in sustainable fashion design. For her final project, she created a collection raising awareness on plastic pollution in the ocean, through clothing patterns telling the story – tragedy! – of plastic tides. In 2012, she also completed a Master in Sustainable Fashion for Textile Production, which led her to join the team of Hessnatur, a German company pioneer in the sustainability movement.

Founded in 1976, Hessnatur specialises in selling ecological products, with a focus on sustainable garments. Marina worked for them for 5 years, responsible for the optimisation of social and environmental standards for factories in Eastern and Northern Europe, North Africa and Asia. She now consults Indonesia’s largest textile and garment factories on how to reduce the environmental impact of production and supply chains.

Sustainable fashion: definition and tips

With such underpinned and hands-on knowledge of the industry, Marina is the ideal person to explain to us what sustainable fashion really means.

“There isn’t a concrete definition,” she explains me, “different people look at sustainability from different perspectives.” However, one thing is certain for Marina:

“Fashion sustainability has to be holistic.”

Meaning that it has to cover all the three pillars of sustainability. Namely, it has to be economic, ecologically and socially responsible.

“A brand cannot be called ‘eco-friendly’ if it adopts only one of the pillars. It certainly is a step forward, but it cannot be defined ‘sustainable.’ It’s just doing ‘less bad’.”

For example, continues Marina, organic cotton production is great, but it’s not enough: the chemicals used to dye it have to be eco-friendly as well and the conditions of the workers have to be ethical.

This statement has made me question a lot about the organic clothes I’m buying and wearing. I’ve been thinking that the “organic cotton” label is ‘enough said.’ What she told me makes me want to dive deeper and investigate even more on how — and from who — my clothes are produced. And this is the right consumer’s approach, Marina confirms me.

“Question everything.”

This is her ultimate tip. It’s indeed a challenge for sustainable consumers, but transparency is increasing from the producers’ side and there are multiple tools to find sustainable brands. From websites like Good On You and Rank a Brand, to dedicated catalogues like  The Iconic – Considered, blogs like the Eco Warrior Princess and other resources like the Fashion Revolution Transparency Index.

Fashion Revolution Week: green fashion is rising in Indonesia

As well as consulting some of the largest Indonesian textile and garment factories, Marina is also co-organising the Fashion Revolution Week in Indonesia, an event happening worldwide on the 22nd-28th April 2019.

“Indonesia,” she tells me, “is planning to be the 10th largest economy in the world by 2030, and the national textile industry represents 7% of the total manufacturing GDP of the country” and second largest export contributor, reaching USD12,4 billion in 2017.

Bandung, capital of the West Java province and 4th most populated city in Indonesia, is where most of the textile factories are located. It counts for more than 14% of Indonesia’s GDP, being also the supply chains for global fashion brands like Zara, Gap, Uniqlo, Adidas and H&M.

This area is also where the infamous Citarum — the “most polluted river in the world” — runs. In 2018, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called for a seven-year-clean-up campaign, put in the hands of the military and coordinated by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs.

Since then, Marina reveals, “more than 50 factories have been closed down, until they will introduce sustainable water cleaning systems.”

The challenges, continues Marina, are multiple. First of all, Indonesia faces a problem of lack of waste management and regulations. Moreover, there’s no incineration systems and infrastructure, which leave textile factories with very little options on how to manage their waste. Hence, most of the waste goes to landfill where toxic chemicals used during the production contaminate the soil and groundwater. The risks are huge.

Also, Indonesia has limited fibre sources, therefore the production is mainly based on synthetics, namely man-made fibres derived from finite, non-biodegradable origin (such as petrol).

However, there’s always hope and that’s what Marina is working on. “Indonesia,” she tells me, “can be strong in circularity. There are already a lot of possibilities to recycle and reuse textile waste from polyfibres.” That’s why textile waste management is key and Marina is helping some of the largest factories in Indonesia toward setting up textile waste management systems, designing out waste from the beginning and the integration of re-logistics.

On the consumer side, she is co-organising Bandung Fashion Revolution Week, teamed up with Parongpong recycle centre, the Indonesian French Institute IFI, the students of Maranatha University and the popular 23 Pascal shopping mall. A 3-day event with panels of discussion, a runaway with showcasing collections made from recycled waste and zero waste pattern making, and film screenings.

These are small crucial pokes awakening the consciousness of fashion industry giants like Indonesia. We’ll have to be persistent. And also, keep awakening our consumer habits.

“Us, as consumers,” Marina tells me “have the power to make a statement: we can choose how and where we spend our money.”

We can make more conscious choices, reduce our consumption or maybe look for alternative options, like swapping, or leasing and support local designers.

“Be part of the solution. Join the revolution.”

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