What if you didn’t have to buy another jacket, sweatshirt, or T-shirt until the year 2046?
Thomas Cridland, a young UK designer, is hoping to make that possible with clothing designed to last and backed by a 30-year guarantee, promising to repair any rips or tears.
Cridland, and other fashion designers, are taking advantage of advances in fibre science and technologies and consumers’ increased awareness of the environment and the poor working conditions of many garment workers. In an industry known more for pieces that are wearable for a season, Cridland sees the 30-year-guarantee as one way to solidify a place for sustainable fashion in the mainstream. As technologies — such as recycling water bottles into fabric and using recycled polyester fibre — are increasingly used by environmentally-minded designers, experts say sustainable clothing is likely more than a passing trend.
“It's not quite mainstream, but it's also moved very far from its early connotations as something that is undesirably ‘hippie’ and unfashionable,” said Colleen Hill, associate curator of accessories at The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). Just this week, actress and activist Emma Watson walked the red carpet at the Met Gala in a striking black-and-white outfit, much of it woven from yarns made from recycled water bottles. On her Facebook page, Watson pledged to re-use and wear the different parts of the outfit again. “Each and every part of this beautiful gown has been produced with sustainability in mind, even the components that you can’t see,” she wrote.
The fast-fashion cycle has only really existed since the 1990s, but it has taken over the way we shop for and care for our clothes
It still might take time to convince people to choose longevity over the latest novelty, “but I do think it can happen”, said Hill. In some circles, this mindset does exist, to an extent. For instance, for the past few years, numerous fashion magazines and makeover shows have started extolling the virtues of buying a few expensive, well-made pieces that one can pair over and over again with other, less expensive pieces.
The fast-fashion cycle has only really existed since the 1990s, but it has taken over the way we shop for and care for our clothes, according to Hill. “It will be difficult to convince consumers that rather than buy 20 poorly made dresses for $30 each, a well-made, $600 dress that can be worn for years is a better investment,” she said.
Only recently have people’s wardrobes become so large — the average American now buys 68 items of clothing per year. Not so long ago, the average person's wardrobe was much smaller. “It was completely accepted that people wore the same clothes over and over until they wore out,” said Hill.
Cridland is hoping people will return to that.
Trousers first, then sweatshirts
Cridland, 25, originally started his men’s clothing line just with trousers that came in a signature cut and a wide array of colours and fabrics. It was only later that he decided to incorporate items with a 30-year guarantee into his brand: first a sweatshirt, then a T-shirt and a jacket. He developed these with the same seamstresses he had been working with in Portugal to craft the trousers.
The sweatshirts, T-shirts and jackets are made out of luxury fabric sourced from Biella in Northern Italy and are now manufactured in both Italy and Portugal and are treated to protect against shrinking. The trousers are not part of the 30-year collection (they were developed before the 30-year line), but Cridland does offer free repairs on them as well.
“It was an attempt to make sustainable fashion more broadly appealing and to get consumers thinking about fashion as less disposable,” said Cridland, who also hoped to be on the leading edge of the industry in the effort to protect natural resources.
A 'radical' idea
The current climate still favours “disposable” clothing, said Timo Rissanen, an assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons School of Design in New York. “For someone to say, ‘I want to be responsible for making things that can last 30 years’, I think is quite radical. We need radical ideas,” he said. For its part, Parsons, which graduates about 400 in fashion-related degrees each year, now requires all first-year students to take a course called Sustainable Systems, which lets them “see the impact, both positive and negative, they can have as designers”, Rissanen said.
Success isn’t easy
Sustainable fashion is not for the fainthearted, according to FIT’s Hill. “[It] requires a lot of commitment. It's not easy, and there is almost always some kind of trade-off”, she said. “It's really for those who are creative not only in their designs, but in their business models.”
There's a lot to be said for not accepting the status quo
Despite these barriers, she said, the people in the field are “some of the most driven, capable, and artistic forces in the industry. There's a lot to be said for not accepting the status quo.”
It’s no longer just about “being able to create fashion that has the capacity to really inspire and enthral people”, said Parsons’ Rissanen. “[You have to] be creative in solving and tackling the challenges that are facing the industry in terms of the environment.”
Rissanen’s big concern is that all of the advancements in technology may come at the price of higher consumption. “This is my fear with the current focus on new technologies in recycling textiles of mixed fibres and cotton/polyester blends in particular,” he said. “I welcome these technologies, absolutely, but they must not become an excuse for producing and consuming more.”
Bucking a throwaway culture
Cridland’s success is coming at a time when numerous reports have been released showing that clothing companies purposefully design their clothes to fall apart after only a short time, leading consumers to buy more at a rapid pace. A survey last year of 1,500 women in the UK by British charity Barnardos concluded that most fashion purchases are worn an average of only seven times. And, according to a Dutch study, one-third of new clothing is never sold, either ending up in a landfill or incinerated.
For Cridland, there was no direct path to working as a fashion designer. Before launching his eponymous brand in 2014, his only clothing design experience was selling £3,000 ($4,347) worth of T-shirts emblazoned with "SWINE 09" at his school during the swine flu pandemic and donating the money to Médecins Sans Frontiéres.
Ben Stiller, Rod Stewart, and Leonardo DeCaprio have all been seen sporting the trousers
At university, Cridland didn’t pursue a design degree; he studied modern languages, French, and Portuguese. But he says he never felt that comfortable in the classroom. “I've always been an independent thinker and did not enjoy the atmosphere in a lecture theatre or classroom,” he said. And he was no stranger to trying something off-the-wall: Cridland had his own bootleg CD business when he was 10-years-old.
With a £6,000 ($8,693) start-up loan from the government in 2013, Cridland, with help from his girlfriend, Deborah Marx, started the trousers business. It hasn’t hurt that Daniel Craig, Ben Stiller, Rod Stewart, and Leonardo DeCaprio have all been seen sporting the trousers. So far, the brand has sold more than 7,000 sweatshirts, 4,000 T-shirts, and 5,000 pairs of trousers, according to Cridland. The sustainable line, which includes t-shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets, ranges in price from £35 ($50) for a T-shirt to £249 ($360) for a wool jacket.
To some, a 30-year guarantee might seem like a poor business model destined to slow sales. But, of course, Cridland strongly disagrees. “We're a small, independent brand and not driven by corporate greed,” he said. “We're free to design further things to keep our customers coming back to buy more. We're not willing to compromise and move towards the destructive fast-fashion ethos.”
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