Portrait by Pam Nasr

Portrait by Pam Nasr

Redefining Sustainable Materials in Fashion

At the start of A/W 19 New York Fashion Week, 500 fashion industry professionals, designers, scientists and students gathered at the United Nations—not for the latest headline-grabbing fashion show in an unusual setting—but for The Study Hall, a summit that explored sustainability within the fashion industry. As a designer, advocate, writer, founder of both her own sustainable label Slow Factory and The Library Sustainable Fashion Archive Céline Semaan is perfectly placed within the industry to bring together a vast array of brilliant minds to all share knowledge and innovative ideas around the question of fashion and sustainability.

Throughout the day speakers shared their thoughts on the importance of circularity. They explored what we can learn from native communities, how we can use waste as a resource, what innovative new materials are being developed in 3D printing labs, what brands of the future will look like and how influencers can use their reach for good. Hard questions were asked about whether an industry based on consumption and desire can ever be fully sustainable and innovative solutions around space technology were examined. In the journey towards a more sustain- able and circular future, Céline’s voice and her work are incredibly important. She has the ability to bring influential global brands like adidas on board alongside smaller designers who are redefining local supply chains. She speaks on the subject of sustainability not from a place of judgement but from a place of optimism. Céline hopes that if we recognise the problems we’re facing and work together, innovative solutions can be found to create a more equal and environmentally sound industry for the future.

Riposte: When it comes to materials and sustainability what does it mean to have a circular supply chain?

Céline Semaan: You know we talk about circularity as though it’s a new concept but in actual fact, it’s part of ancient wisdom. Understanding the importance of co-existing on this planet and that we’re all part of our ecosystems is not something new but we as humans have forgotten it. Anything that we use will be discarded at some point, whether that’s the peel of a banana or what we wear. Circularity is about looking at how we’re disposing of these items in a way that returns them to the earth as food rather than as poison.

R: What kind of examples have you seen that are really successful models of that circularity?

CS: There are many models from Enrica Arena and Orange Fiber whose company uses orange peel to create innovative fabrics for fashion, to Pashon Murray of Detroit Dirt who compost food waste. We really need to be looking at the design for de-manufacturing—what happens to your product when it’s no longer of use? Right now, we’re looking at ways we can reuse what we’ve discarded and reintroduce those materials in the resource channel. For example, with gold, I just read that gold Olympic medals from Tokyo 2020 will be made from gold extracted from e-waste. That’s so good. How we de-manufacture, deconstruct, and disassemble waste now and in the future is really crucial.

Circularity is about looking at how we’re disposing of these items in a way that returns them to the earth as food rather than as poison.

R: What do you feel that people need to understand when it comes to colonialism and materials?

CS: When we look at current trade routes and supply chains for both resources and labour, they map identically to colonial routes. The economic reality is that we’re keeping these countries in extreme poverty and continuously exploiting both human labour and materials. When we appreciate this, we can understand that colonialism is not a concept from the past. It is something thriving in our current economic structures. If we acknowledge this we can come up with solutions that are more global. We can deal with the problem on a structural level.

R: What do you think those global solutions would look like?

CS: There are many things that we can start looking into. I think, first of all, part of the global solution is shifting the marketing dollars of big brands into research and development. I really think that the future of intelligent marketing is to allocate financial resources into empowering local communities and empowering education, access to technology, access to information, therefore closing the loop in our system.

R: What should we be aware of with things like organic cotton— which is often billed as the best material to look for. Is it?

CS: Of course, organic cotton is important but if we want to harvest it, it has to be done properly because at the minute we have about 60 years left of soil to harvest on this planet. As Passon Murray from Detroit Dirt says we have to make the soil fertile again but it takes around 300 years to recreate fertile soil—we can’t just put in some fertiliser and hope for the best! At the current scale at which we are manufacturing and producing food and fabrics, we’re not going to have enough soil for future generations so, with this reality of our soil being endangered, how and why are we just putting all of our efforts and energy into organic cotton as our only resource and our only option? Why aren’t we actively looking into recycled options right now? There is so much waste that we can play with. Waste is a new material. Brands need to be shifting some of the marketing money that they pay celebrity influencers with into creating materials for their products that are super smart.

Brands need to be shifting some of the marketing money that they pay celebrity influencers with into creating materials for their products that are super smart.

R: Do you feel like those resources and those ideas are there and it’s just a case of directing the right finance?

CS: Yes, absolutely, but at the minute there’s a transaction mentality. Business is very much profit and sales driven. We need to re-establish this because if we are just going to be blindly looking at one aspect of our economy which is profit, or more specifically short-term profit, we’re going to be in big trouble. We have to be able to adjust our lens to look at the long-term benefits for companies, customers and the environment instead of being so focused on selling this product or that collection, obsessing over this quarter’s profits against last quarter’s profits.

R: How can we change the perception around what is “cool” so that we’re all thinking long term and it’s not about what brand new things you can buy?

CS: By having Dapper Dan at the Study Hall at the United Nations it was an extremely interesting conversation because we were able to hear that street style, hip hop and black culture have already been looking at sustainability. It is a big topic in that community. Cultural influencers with an authenticity who focus on this topic are key to it becoming a mainstream concern for the masses.

R: How do you feel about the future in terms of sustainability and materials? Are you hopeful?

CS: Yes. I’m definitely hopeful, we have to be. As Ara Katz says, “We have to be pathological optimists.” We have to collectively put our efforts in the right place. Not for the sake of the brand we work for or our economy, it’s for our survival.

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