Sustainability Pioneers

If fashion has always wanted to change the world while inspiring us with the most beautiful things in life, what are its plans to reduce the giant ecological footprint it has left on the planet? We went to find out about the players and brands in Portugal that are starting to make a difference and change mentalities.

Words: Patrícia Barnabé

Photo: Pedro Ferreira with Ana Caracol

After decades of excesses and indifference, fashion brands are being forced to rethink their ways of sourcing, production and distribution, while consumers begin to realise they will have to change their unconscious way of consuming. The more aware are already demanding alternatives, and fashion, as the fourth-biggest polluter on the planet, has a big say. Without an immediate sustainability requirement, the next generations may not have a healthy planet on which to show off their looks, however beautiful they may be. Civil society had already started to move, even before the major international resolutions for sustainability were launched by the UN and the European Union. In 2010, the Ellen McArthur foundation was founded on the principle of circular economy in fashion, of products and materials valued at their highest level alongside a regeneration of nature. And what had begun as a “hippy” and anti-consumerist movement with little appeal has gained another status.

In high fashion, Stella McCartney was the first to truly revolutionise by presenting her 100% vegan collections since her brand launched in 2001. A vegetarian like her parents, Paul and Linda McCartney, she has always rejected textures or accessories of animal origin, be they leather, feather, skin or fur. In 2018, she partnered with the United Nations in writing a letter to the industry containing 16 commitments that will significantly reduce the climate impact of clothing. Other summits and letters of intent followed, notably, the Fashion Pact presented at the G7 summit in Biarritz in 2019, where French President Emmanuel Macron challenged Kering CEO François-Henry Pinault to create tools that will transform the fashion industry’s operating model as it establishes an emotional and intimate relationship with people. The truth is that fashion is not only vanity and art, it is also identity and social projection, which is why its role as an agent for changing mentalities is fundamental: everything that is cool today has to involve sustainability.

The intermediaries of the green future: industry and consultancy

In Portugal, there are already people who are moving in this direction, including Paulo Gomes, founder of ModaLisboa and creative director of Elle. After decades of working in fashion that appealed to consumption, she has become a spearhead of this paradigm shift. Alongside the Portuguese textile industry, she created the iTechStyle Green Circle — Sustainability Showcase where she combines new solutions from the industry with the talent of Portuguese designers whom she knows intimately. “Two worlds normally turned upside down”, she says. This year, with the support of the Textile and Clothing Association of Portugal, the ATP, she launched the Green Book of Portuguese fashion, and the recent magazine Green Materials from Portugal, which communicate a future of green solutions. “I would say that more than 50% of Portuguese production is already focused on this new paradigm.”

Portugal is, for the most part, a producer of fabrics that are now made here from Himalayan nettle or rose stems, based on soya, bamboo or the hemp plant; the latter is a very resilient and regenerative fibre that uses less water and needs far fewer pesticides than cotton. Many of the new textiles, such as vegan leather and recycled cotton, are created from industry waste, and fabrics are already being produced from agricultural waste, such as waste derived from grapes, oranges, pineapples, bananas and coconuts. Behind this, is a major investment in innovation, such as in Inovafil’s The New Cotton Project, which brings together 12 companies to create textiles using cellulose regeneration technology and technical and intelligent fabrics launched by the sports industry, but which are also used in workwear and uniforms due to their recognised performance and resistance. A crown jewel of national industry and a definition of sustainability.

There are technologically pioneering projects like Eco Black from RDD, part of the Valérius group, which has created products dyed with high-performance black pigments derived from wood waste, without the use of dangerous chemicals. The same company is also working on the Colorifix project, which uses biology and DNA sequencing to create colour from bacteria that mimic nature’s colours. Valérius is also responsible for the visionary 360º project, which closes the cycle by transforming fabric scraps into new yarn at an industrial unit in Vila do Conde created specifically for this purpose. 60% of the waste used comes from several of the group’s factories, but waste from other producers, both domestic and foreign, is also used. This new yarn will give rise to new fabrics and new pieces; the goal is for this to account for half of the company’s fabric production by 2025.

There are other, less visible conspirators in this sustainable transition. Companies and institutions that are creating a green support network for the future. This is the case of BCSD Portugal, the Business Council for Sustainable Development, which, since 2001, has supported companies, organisations and projects, both public and private, that want to make the leap to sustainability (and follow the major objectives of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, the European Green Pact and the Paris Agreement on climate change). Now it is working on a specific project for the fashion industry, supported by the Recovery and Resilience Plan, aiming at “the creation of high value-added products from biological resources, as an alternative to fossil-based materials”, says João Menezes, BCSD Portugal’s secretary-general. This is with the knowledge that “the national textile industry will invest €138 million in the sustainable bio-economy”. BCSD Portugal not only supports its members in “building competitive, innovative and sustainable organisations and business models” but also wants to contribute to the creation of public policies and raise awareness in Portuguese society. Led by CITEVE (Technological Centre for Textile and Clothing of Portugal), the BCSD’s Be@t project brings together 54 promoters, including companies, universities, technology centres and other bodies. Ana Tavares is one of the most visible faces of sustainability in the Portuguese textile industry. She created a pioneering department at Tintex in 2015, where she implemented product standards and certification and the optimisation of production processes with an eye on design. Today, she is a face of sustainability at CITEVE, where she works on the Strategic Agenda for Sustainability and the Circular Economy. “It’s the largest Portuguese textile quality control laboratory, but it also works in research and development with companies and other technology centres — and the area of sustainability applies to all these activities,” she says. Ana also mentions the specific programme created for the textile sector, where she is responsible for “letting the business and the consumer know what is going to be developed.”

Committed brands and designers

We know that fashion is also about politics and social progress, and has always been on the side of causes: from female empowerment to gender or race identity, and their representation in the prevailing canons of beauty. And today, there is no fashion brand that does not have its own green project, particularly if it wants to continue being relevant: it is a path of no return. According to the Business of Fashion website’s 2022 report: “At the moment, less than 10% of the global textile market is composed of recycled materials”, but “sustainability remains at the top of the fashion agenda, with 60% of companies increasing investment in closed-loop recycling solutions to reduce their environmental impact”. And “37% of fashion executives cited social commerce as one of the top three issues that will impact their business in 2022.”

At the same time as we see new clothing and shoe repair companies springing up, following the gradual disappearance of traditional seamstresses and shoemakers with an open door to the street, the more couture fashion designers, who devote an artist’s and craftsman’s attention to every piece they make, are reclaiming old pieces of their own. Just take a dress, a top, or a jacket that you bought for a special occasion and then left forgotten in the wardrobe to Alves Gonçalves’ studio in Chiado, and they will give it a new life. Nuno Baltazar also revitalises pieces from previous collections, sometimes using textile waste, “to shorten the production chain and recover an emotional connection with the past”, which fits in well with his nostalgic aesthetic. And Dino Alves created the Clothes Hospital, what he calls “upcycling with style” in a more accessible line, and all the pieces have the SOS Dino Alves label. Inês Torcato also increasingly seeks to valorise the local, the traditional and the recycled, as does Katty Xiomara, who told The Green Wave magazine, “We can make a difference in the little things, and the most important thing is to stop being consumers and become customers.”

There are designers and brands that are already working with waste in mind. Vera Fernandes, for example, grew up among the fabrics of her modelling grandmother and launched Buzina in 2016, for which she designs pieces as diverse as the women who wear them, and sustainability was natural. “She didn’t have a big budget”, so she decided to “recover raw material from factories, make it profitable and offer exclusivity”. Such ideas have always been very evident in the work of Joana Duarte from Behén, who debuted her work at ModaLisboa in 2020, after working with communities in India and wondering about the role of a fashion designer in a better world. She began making clothes from the trousseaus of her grandmother’s friends and neighbours, or vintage tablecloths bought in markets, transforming them into blouses, dresses, jackets, and accessories. Today she goes further and supports various Portuguese craftsmen in an attempt to recover the most traditional arts and prevent them from disappearing, from the different types of embroidery to textiles. A similar incursion is also increasingly visible in the work of Constança Entrudo. And even in the recent collections of designers like Marques Almeida, the Portuguese duo launched by London Fashion Week, who is now showing at Portugal Fashion, and who created the collection Remade from their waste. In a big show celebrating their 10th anniversary, for spring-summer 2022, they called on young fashion designers and emerging artists and, the following season, they showed their inclusive models, of all races, genders and looks, on the seashore at Viana do Castelo with a collection that highlighted the weaving, patchwork and embroidery handicrafts of the region and country, mostly made by women. They called this project M’akers.

Durability is another major driver of sustainability, and of more sporty and urban brands like Ana Penha e Costa’s +351, born out of a love of surfing, nature and fashion design and inspired by Osklen, created by Oskar Mentsahvat, the Brazilian environmental activist who was a visionary of sustainable clothing. In 2015, she started by making pieces with the knitwear she had in stock and created her brand of timeless, unisex basics, in 100% organic cotton, “with different weights, textures and finishes”, in which she plays “with textures and dyes”. The same ideas were followed by the masculine ISTO, which stands for Independent, Superb, Transparent and Organic. “Is it really essential or is it superfluous? “If it’s superfluous, we won’t move forward with it”, says Pedro Palha, one of its founders. “We don’t produce more than we intend to sell”. All the pieces are organic knitwear, and “they must be pieces in which, at 18 or 90 everyone feels comfortable. We defend the idea of a wardrobe for life”. They want their transparency to be evident, so much so that they invite customers and the curious to visit the factories in the north of the country where their collections are produced: a concept they have named Factourism.

António Gonzalo, from the consultancy McKenzie, a BoF partner in the fashion industry annual reports, says that Portugal is one of the countries in which the nearshoring that emerged as a response to the supply chain crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is most evident. The crisis led to “greater responsiveness from brands” and “better codes of conduct”. He says the country “has a great tradition in manufacturing leather, textiles and footwear and, over the last few years, Made in Portugal has become a significant asset in terms of quality and sustainability. Due to this tradition, Portuguese manufacturing has an opportunity to grow with a more advanced, innovative and sustainable approach”. Now, renewed by a new generation that is more focused on innovation and sustainability.

Sneakers: Sanjo
Jacket: Riopele

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