In my days as a student, India was a country that equated success with becoming a doctor or engineer. These were the professions that every nuclear family revered and wanted their children to be part of.
Students were under constant pressure to study the sciences and excel in them, to fulfill the ambitious dreams of their parents and grandparents, who could one day boast of a doctor or engineer in the family.
Being creative yet also having a penchant for the sciences, I soon found myself at a crossroads. I took entrance exams for two prestigious institutes in India: one specializing in medicine, the other in fashion. Accepted by both, I was forced to choose my own path.
My mother was instrumental in helping me make the decision. Her advice was simple: there are already many medical doctors available in India, and there are many other ways to contribute to the betterment of society. Every field needs passionate, gifted people, fashion included.
I heeded her words and committed myself fully to fashion.
It was early in my design days that I realized the impact of fashion and the message it could carry. Like music, photography, and other creative disciplines, fashion has the power to make necessary statements and change perspectives.
I also soon stumbled upon the dark side of fashion. As I toured the globe to gather ideas for my own designs, the injustices and wastefulness of the industry became clear. I realized that “fast fashion” was an epidemic taking the world by storm.
I learned of the vast amounts of material squandered in the prototyping process for clothes and the exploitative labor practices concealed by convoluted supply chains.
Fast fashion means constant pressure to discard what you have in favor of the latest trend. And over 80% of unwanted clothes wind up in landfills, not in the hands of a new wearer.
The industrialized production of clothes also entails insane levels of water wastage—years’ worth of drinking water for a single pair of blue jeans—and poisons the environment with waste products from chemical processing.
In particular, the dyeing and treating of clothes within the textile industry consumes around 43 million tons of chemicals each year. Transparency on what chemicals are being used and how they’re affecting our planet is rare, and the World Economic Forum estimates that fully 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile manufacturing.
Rivers in manufacturing countries are heavily polluted, killing wildlife and spreading illness among citizens. The workers handling the chemicals are also susceptible to deadly diseases.
For the United Nations’ 2020 Ocean Conference, I committed myself to finding innovative solutions to the water wastage and pollution rampant in the fashion industry. I set out to make a statement that would reach industry stakeholders and designers, showing the value of nature-based solutions and the need for us to protect our oceans and waterways.
My inspiration was the ancient technique of suminagashi, “the art of floating inks,” a method dating back to the royal courts of twelfth-century Japan. Basically, I applied chlorophyll inks to the surface of a trough of water, stirred the colors with a toothpick to create elegant floral patterns, then captured the designs by gently laying my fabric on top of the trough.
This unique printing technique combats two of the industry’s biggest concerns: toxic chemicals and water wastage. My suminagashi method allowed me to forgo the harmful chemical inks typically used in the dyeing and printing industry in favor of natural chlorophyll inks extracted from flowers, and I was able to execute the whole process using a single trough of water. Through this technique, my team printed 250 meters of patterned fabric with only 50 liters of water (a far cry from the ~7,000 liters used for that standard pair of jeans).
As an added bonus, the seaweed I used as a coagulant in the process is food-grade, posing no danger on contact with skin. Workers dyeing garments with this technique needn’t fear for their safety.
Another pervasive issue in fashion that I wanted to confront with my designs is that of plastic pollution. On every wash, synthetic materials shed microfibers that inevitably make their way into our oceans, where they are consumed unwittingly by fish and wreak havoc on marine food webs. These harmful fibers even enter our own stomachs when we consume affected seafood.
Addressing fashion’s contribution to plastic pollution means designing with the end of the supply chain in mind, embracing naturally sourced fibers and saying no to synthetics.
My muse this time was cyanobacteria, a.k.a. “blue-green algae,” one of Earth’s earliest examples of oxygen-producing life. These single-celled microscopic organisms are found naturally in all types of water, sustaining themselves via photosynthesis.
In warm, nutrient-rich environments, cyanobacteria spreads quickly across water’s surface. The algae is completely biodegradable, requires no land, and is not water-intensive, making it an excellent choice for sustainable textiles.
My project, a collaboration with Oceanic Global, entailed harvesting algae along California’s coast, using saline solution to separate out strands of algal yarn, processing the yarn to rid it of impurities, sanitizing it via boiling, and, finally, sculpting it into dresses.
The material we used imbued the collection with a uniquely natural aesthetic: the dresses took on the varying hues of the sun-bleached algae, and their wavy forms evoked the sea from which we had sourced the cyanobacteria.
Our mission in creating this collection was simple: to raise awareness of the detriments of synthetic clothes and offer an example of a viable alternative that would not pollute our environment with microplastics.
Most up-and-coming fashion designers have the power to embrace these kinds of methods and stand up for our planet. If enough small- and medium-sized enterprises make a change, the impact on our environment will be massive. And their example will help to steer the industry writ large away from the harmful practices that have defined it in recent years.
Just getting your start in design? Schools are beginning to implement more and more courses on sustainable methods of production, so be sure to take advantage. And don’t by shy to brainstorm bold new eco-friendly approaches of your own! The complexity of the climate crisis demands creative solutions.
Even if you’re not a member of the fashion industry yourself, it’s vital to remember your power as a consumer. Do your research on what brands use sustainable techniques and on how to make your clothes last as long as possible once you’ve bought them. Seek out organic, GOTS-certified fabrics. Wash on cold to reduce microplastic shedding. There are many small ways each of us can help the environment—and we all have to do our part.
Fashion gives us a special opportunity to stand up for our planet through the self-expression of our style. It’s up to all of us to do our due diligence and be outspoken in our support of sustainable practices.
For my part, I have always sought to use my collections as vehicles for important messages on climate change, biodiversity loss, and more. So when I look back at the crossroads I faced decades ago, I am certain that I made the right choice. We all have unique passions to bring to the table, and when we channel those passions toward protecting our common home, the results can be amazing.
Runa Ray is a fashion environmentalist and interdisciplinary designer who uses fashion-as-activism to advocate for policy change. She is a featured speaker at the United Nations, The National Institute of Fashion Technology, IUCN Youth, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Rutgers University as well as a column writer for the CFDA, IOC Unesco and the Deccan Herald. Her exhibitions, shows and designs have been featured in the New York Times, HuffPost, Vogue, ID, WWD, the Daily Mail and Harper's Bazaar.