How sustainability is key to fashion's future

A few years ago, ‘haul’ videos were all over YouTube. Excited shoppers would empty bags of low-quality clothing on camera, breathlessly showcasing their purchases to millions of viewers.  Somewhere along the way though, things began to change. Awareness about global warming inspired people to think about their wardrobe’s environmental impact, and they began demanding clothes that don’t harm the planet. Now, going green is simply considered the responsible thing to do. Far from a trend, sustainable clothing is fast becoming the new classic.

Many of the agencies, labels and businesses focused on sustainable style in Amsterdam aren’t huge. Martijn Nekoui, founder and CEO of MOAM, an agency that connects young talent with established brands such as  Zalando and HEMA, doesn’t believe this is a coincidence. He thinks smaller companies enjoy greater flexibility and can take risks in a way big corporations can.

 

Transforming old waste into new garments

This adventurous perspective served MOAM well in 2014, when the agency partnered with KLM on one of its first major projects. Instead of going the tried-and-tested route, Nekoui and his team visited a warehouse filled with materials salvaged from planes. Following their creative instincts, they transformed old seat belts, fabrics and other items into a couture collection that was displayed in the Rijksmuseum. Soon, Nekoui found himself fielding requests from prominent companies looking for a partner to help them launch eco-friendly projects. The agency has been on the rise ever since, and its work was chronicled in the book MOAM – Contemporary Fashion & Arts in Amsterdam, which was published by MENDO in March of this year.

For Nekoui, an eco-centric approach comes naturally. "We are in the creative field, where sustainability and the environment are super important. It’s not just something we do for PR, it’s something that’s inside our veins," he explains. He also believes companies are hungry for green ideas – they just need a little help. "Everyone is finally clear that sustainability is a big topic. Five years ago, we had to go to brands and say, 'Hey, would you like to collaborate with us?', but now, they’re coming to us because they see the success we’ve had. They think: 'Wow, this is a new point of view.'" 

Fashion for Good shop Amsterdam - photo by Presstigieux

And though MOAM is likely to continue growing, Nekoui knows being part of an intimate organisation open to experimentation has helped immensely. ‘If you are a small, new designer, you can immediately change a few things, and then you’re more sustainable, and you have a smaller footprint on the Earth. As a big multinational, you have to change a lot more.’ He also says many companies are waiting for someone new to take the lead. ‘They’re open to our vision, because we’re the new generation, and we can make a change and think outside the box.’

Why businesses need to be transparent

Though sustainability is a hot concept, transparency is increasingly important. The days of buying a T-shirt without a second thought about its origins are disappearing. People want to know where their clothes come from, how they were made and if the people involved were treated well.

 

Martin Johnston, founder of the new luxury label Crafted Society, has tailored his business around this shifting perspective. "I’ve been in this industry for 20-plus years," he says. "When we started thinking about sustainability with Crafted Society, we wanted to look at it from a more holistic standpoint, so we created this concept called 'luxury for good,' which is about utilising our business operations and products as a vehicle for positive social impact. Through that, we decided to adopt a completely transparent business model, and what transparency means is that you’re forced to be sustainable, ethical and socially responsible. Being a new brand, we recognised that we needed to do and show more than what is currently going on within other labels in the luxury sector."

Throughout his career, Johnston was dismayed that luxury fashion brands are some of the most polluting. The higher price tag rarely translates into cleaner water or less waste, and it made him consider how he would do things differently. He wanted a brand that didn’t hide an unsavoury legacy behind a fancy name, and he didn’t want to flood landfills with unwanted goods. "From a sustainability standpoint, we wanted to restrict the number of products we make. It’s all limited. With our footwear, we normally make around 12 pairs of each style and colour. When they’re sold, they’re sold. And customers absolutely love it."

Photo: A skilled artisan hard at work on a piece for Crafted Society

The people who make Crafted Society’s pieces also get their due. The label’s website details the processes and faces behind the brand. Nothing is hidden, so everything is made without harming people or the planet. Increasingly, shoppers won’t invest in a backpack or scarf if they know it was produced by exploited workers or soaked in toxic dye. Johnston is up to the challenge, saying, "When we pick a raw material manufacturer or company, because we’re openly promoting who these people are, we’re very strict in terms of their code of conduct and the type of certifications they have. I think if more brands would adopt a transparent modus operandi, end consumers would have all of the facts to decide whether they wish to buy or don’t wish to buy." Informed decision-making lies at the heart of sustainability.

The future of green fashion in Amsterdam

Unfortunately, the world’s issues aren’t going to disappear overnight. But the push for sustainable style isn’t going to vanish, either. Antoinette van den Berg, a trend forecaster and creative director of the RE LOVE Foundation, which helps people reuse, retouch, restyle and repair clothing, believes companies don’t have a choice. "It’s absolutely the most important thing for the future," she says. "We will all have to consume less. People say it’s not good for the economy, but in the end, it’s either that or we don’t exist anymore."

Van den Berg’s words don’t just reflect her personal feelings: They reveal what she believes people want from the fashion industry. "Consumers are not going to buy from companies that behave badly towards the Earth. The ones who don’t care, they are out." She thinks companies should treat the demand for sustainable style the same way they would any other trend – from polka dots to flared jeans – and give people what they crave. 

Antoinette Van den Berg

Antoinette van den Berg

She also says minimising the consumption of new clothing is the way forward, whether that means buying secondhand, repurposing old textiles or transforming used pieces into new ones. "Everybody is focusing on sustainable production, which is good, but it still means you can consume as much as you want. The most efficient solution is simply to consume less new stuff. That is the next thing we are going to realise."

Though this sentiment might scare some retailers, it’s unlikely to bother Nekoui, Johnston and the other leaders of Amsterdam’s sustainable style scene. They understand the importance of quality over quantity and know dressing well goes beyond carrying a different bag every day of the week. Consumers are also catching on, looking for pieces they can buy in good conscience. There’s little point in looking pretty, after all, if it leaves you feeling ugly on the inside. Thankfully, Amsterdam’s sustainable designers are paving the way for a wardrobe overhaul for all of us.