Anne Prahl on Meaningful Innovation: The cure to fashion pollution

A daunting problem, an environmental nightmare, and an opportunity to innovate for the better. Fashion is the 4th most polluting industry, contributing to carbon emissions, chemical usage and clothing waste.  

The possibilities for sustainable innovation within this sector are huge, and with an industry that is willing to change, the biggest difference will come from connecting the big brands and retailers with sustainable innovations that create the best environmental impact. This will also create the path for smaller designers and brands to design and operate in a more sustainable manner.

80% of the environmental impact of a product is decided during the design phase.

In speaking with Anne Prahl, Design & Innovation Consultant at concept+design, it is evident just how important the design phase of a product is. There is a huge responsibility, as well as opportunity to ensure the environmental impact is minimal, by making educated and impactful design decisions right from the start.

After two decades of working in the sports and leisure fashion industry as a Designer and Design Manager for well known names such as Puma, Nike, Ellesse, Marks & Spencer and trend forecasting agency WGSN, Anne found herself questioning why she was designing, the impact of her designs and if, in fact there was even a need for them.

This is where Anne’s sustainability journey began. After completing the MA Textile Futures at Central St Martins, she made it her mission to embed sustainability principles into the design and development process of products.  

As a thought leader in the industry, and ahead of our Circular Fashion Innovation Summit in March 2022, we were curious to hear Anne’s thoughts on the future of the fashion industry and how we can accelerate sustainable innovation through collaboration and open innovation.  

Can you tell us about the industry’s journey to sustainability thus far?

“From working with Germany-based international brand ESPRIT, I know that there was a first wave of interest in sustainability in the early 90s, but it never really ‘caught on’ then.  

"Sustainability wasn’t talked about for a long time after that and when I left my very enjoyable (and lucrative) freelance design job at Nike in 2007 to go back to university for my sustainability education, people were impressed by my choice but also surprised.  

"For the next few years, the discussion around sustainability in fashion and clothing grew gradually but really it was only just a limited amount of design pioneers taking an interest. There was a real feeling of being part of a small movement, especially in London, where you would bump into the same people at every event.

A pivotal moment came when the Ellen McArthur Foundation popularised the concept of the circular economy around 2012/13.  

"Although it took a few years to translate this concept into the fashion industry, suddenly companies seemed to have a framework around the word sustainability that was more defined.

"The appeal of the Designing for Circularity concept was that it was less vague than the term Sustainability, which could mean so many different things.  

"Many big brands and retailers started to join initiatives and pledges to work on moving towards a circular economy, however, the initial focus appeared to be on the recycling element of the concept only, which would do nothing to reduce overconsumption.

"Greenpeace’s 2017 report ‘Fashion at the Crossroads’, which I contributed to, criticised this and called for the ‘Slowing down of the cycle’, i.e., slowing down and reducing consumption, before considering recycling or composting solutions.

"Since then, the industry has realised that the first step of circularity must be to design and manufacture durable products, which active lifespans can be extended through repair, refurbishment and resale, before we even consider recycling.”

What are a few key drivers for sustainable innovation in the industry right now?

Anne explains that there are two things that she is seeing at the moment which are accelerating sustainable innovation.  

Due to the circularity movement Anne has been working towards for the last eight years, the fashion industry and consumers are now catching on to the opportunity of resale and the pre-loved market has gone through the roof.  

The Business of Fashion  is reporting that the second-hand fashion market is worth a staggering $130 billion.

As recycling technologies aren’t ready to handle many of the thousands of fabric mixes currently on the market, clothing created needs to be designed to be reused, repaired or refurbished for a second or even third time. Focusing on durability and creating products that are not throwaway means material innovation is essential and this is an aspect of the industry Anne is particularly interested in.

The other driver she is seeing at the moment is lockdown due to Covid-19. Anne explains that pre-pandemic, she would be fighting to get the chance to talk to corporates about the need for sustainable design. Since lockdown there has been a shift and sustainability is now higher on the agenda. Corporate leadership is realising the need to provide designers with tools and support to make more educated decisions about materials.

What innovations are needed to move the industry towards a more circular model?

“Over the last two years, we have seen a huge trend towards recycled synthetics made from single-use plastic but although utilising these alternatives reduces the carbon footprint compared to virgin raw materials, many companies claim to be sustainable brands just because they use recycled materials.

"There is also much misinformation or green-wash around this subject, but thankfully we are seeing a more complex discussion emerging around this subject now; stakeholders of the fashion and packaging industry are beginning to question why we are using plastic bottles to make clothing, when these are needed as feedstock for recycled packaging.

The holy grail of recycling is still so-called ‘fibre-to-fibre recycling, where materials can be recycled into new materials for new clothing.

"This is where innovation needs to be accelerated, as we still have a very limited number of viable recycling technologies for a very limited number of fabric types.

"As well as all the exciting next generation alternative materials, such as leather made from waste materials or grown in the lab, engineered man-made silk and fossil-fuel free alternatives to polyester”.

What are your thoughts on large fashion brands and retailers collaborating with start-ups?

“Collaboration between corporates and start-ups is essential to accelerate innovation, as corporates can bring both financial and practical support, such as insights into industry processes and requirements.

"In fashion we have seen a lot of innovation in the last three years, much of this has been achieved through accelerator and scaling-up programs, such as Fashion for Good where corporates gain first access to pioneering and scaling-up stage materials and technologies.

"In order for these relationships to be successful, corporates must allow space for innovation, while providing support to steer towards meaningful and impactful innovation.

"I still see too much ‘because we can’ innovation, where someone just had an idea.  

In this day and age, and in view of the environmental goals we need to achieve in line with COP’26 agreements, all innovation must contribute sustainable solutions that make the world a better place for future generations.”

We look forward to working with Anne Prahl closely over the Better World Collective Innovation Summit series.

Better World Collective’s Circular Fashion Innovation Summit, taking place in March 2022, aims to connect major fashion brands and retailers with the pioneers creating the sustainable innovations needed to accelerate them towards circularity.


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