In Conversation With Charlotte Turner Of Sustainable Angle About How To Source Sustainable Fabrics
Charlotte Turner serves as The Sustainable Angle’s Researcher and Project Manager, as well as working at the Centre of Sustainable Fashion (CSF), and as an Associate Lecturer and Consultant at the London College of Fashion. She researches and sources sustainable fabrics and suppliers worldwide that meet The Sustainable Angle’s environmental and social criteria, and explores sustainable fashion education and practice.
Described to me as "a walking dictionary of textile knowledge” by one of her colleagues at the CSF, Charlotte Turner was a natural choice and ideal speaker for the first talk “From Fibre to Fabric” in the event series “Threads: Rethinking Fashion”. Taking place in London on the 23rd February, 2016, and co-hosted by Lissome, Impact Hub Kings Cross and Ashoka Changemakers, this first of three events looked at how to drive genuine progress in the field of production and sourcing of raw materials.
What was the motivation to initiate The Sustainable Angle in 2010, and what were your original goals?
The Sustainable Angle was established by Nina Marenzi in 2010, and I joined shortly after to help develop and manage the Future Fabrics Expo and associated projects, with Amanda Johnston as education consultant and curator. The Sustainable Angle set out with the core aim to initiate and support projects aimed at reducing the environmental impact of industry and society, by raising visibility of key sustainability issues and solutions, and with a focus on both agricultural as well as on fashion and textiles projects.
The Future Fabrics Expo and the Future Fabrics Virtual Expo are two projects that were created under the umbrella of The Sustainable Angle. Could you outline the mission and aims of these two initiatives?
To give context, the idea for the Future Fabrics Expo came about while Nina was researching for her dissertation ‘Organic Cotton: Reasons Why the Fashion Industry is Dragging its Heels’ for her MSc in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development at Imperial College. She interviewed numerous fashion designers, representatives of the textiles industry, and NGOs, and as a result, the need for a curated sustainable textiles showcase became apparent. Cotton and polyester are the fashion industry’s most used and harmful materials and a textiles showcase could serve to increase access to more sustainable alternatives. This started off the Future Fabrics Expo, a design-led annual showcase of fashion materials with a reduced environmental impact, displayed alongside wide-ranging information on sustainability in the fashion and textiles supply chain. We’ve so far showcased over 2,500 individually selected sustainable materials sourced from approximately 100 companies based in almost 30 countries. These include anything from organic cotton and recycled polyester, to mushroom leather, exotic fish leather, cellulosic fibres, bio-based polyester, large scale natural dyeing and much more. To date, the expo has also welcomed thousands of visitors from luxury, high street, and start up fashion brands, as well as students, global organisations and press.
And in addition to a physical annual exhibition you created an online showcase?
Yes, the Future Fabrics Virtual Expo is our online sustainable materials platform. It is designed as an extension of the Future Fabrics Expo, enabling constant global access to a curated selection of hundreds of our sustainable materials and resources. The Future Fabrics Expo was developed to meet the needs and requests of international designers and brands to discover and source sustainable materials, without needing to travel to international textile fairs.
The Sustainable Angle works exclusively with sustainable textiles. How do you source your textiles? What kind of research is involved?
We travel to textiles fairs in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and China (so far!) to meet mills and source high quality sustainable materials. For designers and brands this is a huge job, made even harder when time and cost pressures are such an issue. So it’s great we can go some way to help with this. As our profile has risen we’ve been getting approached by more and more companies who are dedicated to producing more sustainable products and who would like to be showcased by us. Additionally we attend events and conferences and do a lot of desk-based research too. It’s definitely an ongoing process.
How do you decide if a textile is sustainable and can become part of your library? What are the criteria that underline your decisions?
Firstly it’s important that we select fabrics according to quality, aesthetics and suitability for both fashion and function. This is absolutely essential if we want to change the outdated image of sustainable materials as being unappealing or low quality. Then to ascertain environmental impact, we research each fabric and mill individually against our environmental criteria of biodiversity, water, waste and energy. For example looking for a reduction of water use and waste effluent, effective waste water treatment, utilization of waste streams, reduction of carbon impact, and the preservation and promotion of biodiversity, with an emphasis on diversification in textile fibres. As well as these key criteria, ethical and local production, recycled materials, and entirely certified supply chains are taken into consideration.
How do you communicate your criteria to the fabric buyers?
We collate all the facts that we can to then communicate them in an easily understandable way. The fabrics and mills are awarded symbols for addressing relevant criteria in relation to the provenance, processing, raw materials and systems management involved in the fabric production. These criteria have proven themselves to be helpful indicators to those sourcing sustainable materials, to more easily identify and learn about materials with a reduced environmental impact.
Should designers only work with certified textiles? What is your take on this question?
When we started we were aware that it wouldn’t be feasible to expect certifications for all companies and fabrics. Especially for smaller producers these can be costly to get and don’t always tell the whole story – there are such interesting production backgrounds to so much of what we show in addition to solely measurable improvements. However when possible, certifications are important in that they can assure responsible sourcing, production and/or labour methods, which is especially important for larger brands. Some of the most commonly found certifications include GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Oeko-Tex, Global Recycle Standard and Fairtrade which we always look out for. A standard like GOTS in particular provides assurance that the entire supply chain meets organic requirements. But I think there’s more to the conversation than certifications alone.
How can students and designers access your sustainable materials resources for their research?
The textiles of the Future Fabrics Expo are not permanently on display but they can be accessed at Future Fabrics Expo events, workshops and talks. Additionally they can be found at www.futurefabricsvirtualexpo.com - our online platform showcasing a wide range of the sustainable materials we’ve sourced from around the world. They are shown with beautiful images, easy to understand sustainability information, contact links, and further resources related to sustainability and certifications.
Where does The Sustainable Angle see itself in five years from now? Are there areas in which you are facing obstacles and what is your vision for the future?
We really want to see materials with a reduced environmental impact being used more widely in the fashion industry. And we want to see students and graduates bring sustainability knowledge and practice into the businesses they join and start – and for this to be standard practice. This means we’ll be engaging more with education, both in a university and business context. Through educational collaborations and industry workshops and consulting, we aim to raise awareness and visibility of sustainability challenges and potential solutions in the fashion and textiles industries. At the moment we’re trying to get companies to think more holistically, to realize that if they assess their companies as a whole, they may be able to create efficiencies in various areas which then allow better (yet sometimes more expensive) materials choices.
Do you have a favourite fabric or a textile innovation that you are excited about and want to share?
There are so many incredible sustainable materials out there and we’ve been really lucky to showcase so many. Though I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible in terms of sustainable materials development. An absolute favourite of mine at the moment is Piñatex by Ananas Anam, which is a non-woven material made from the fibre of pineapple leaves, ideal as a leather alternative. We've showcased Piñatex on numerous occasions since its launch in 2015, including at the 5th Future Fabrics Expo, INSPIRE ISPO Munich, and at our recent sustainable materials workshop hosted in conjunction with UK Trade & Investment and the UK Fashion and Textile Association. The great thing about this material is that it’s made with agricultural waste that can be found in abundance in the Philippines where it’s made. It is produced using existing infrastructure, and it is a perfect example of diverting waste and creating new income streams for communities.
Do you have any ideas for us how to get started, how to live in a more sustainable and life-enhancing way?
There are some great documentaries, websites and books by authors such as Naomi Klein and Kate Fletcher, which are ideal for people with all levels of knowledge who want to find out more.
In daily life, really just be conscious of what you’re buying and using. What’s it made of, where was it made, can you find out anything about who made it, has it benefitted the community in which it was made? These seem like difficult questions which might require some research, but the more we ask questions like these to brands and retailers, the more available this information will become. And the more they will work towards making the answers positive!
Aside from that, I think it’s important for us to be conscious of what we do, and the impact it has on our environment. And to think hard before we buy new things. We have the opportunity to support amazing companies and communities, to choose products made with exciting materials and techniques, and most importantly to buy high quality, thoughtfully made items which will be treasured for years to come, not just disposed of when we get bored of them.
Thank you so much, Charlotte!