WITH a growing number of us becoming environmentally aware, the focus in fashion has shifted to sustainable. Sarah Millington reports

The Northern Echo:

Richard Murr of Open House, which only sells clothes which are recycled, renewable or from a sustainable source

SIR David Attenborough could be forgiven for being just a teensy bit smug. When the now-infamous episode of his flagship series, Blue Planet, hit our screens, something unforeseen happened – we all developed a conscience.

Soon everyone from Costa Coffee to Ikea was queuing up to ditch single use plastics – the kind that, as was graphically illustrated on TV, wreak havoc on our oceans. Even environment secretary Michael Gove got in on the act, waging war on plastic drinking straws.

Now the focus has turned to fashion. Not exactly known for its high ideals, a movement started by designer Stella McCartney has sparked a new trend. It comes in response to a growing demand, one that isn’t just about clothes. Now, as well as whether Kim Kardashian would wear it, consumers want to know where the item came from and how it was made. And that, for designers and manufacturers, boils down to sustainability.

A new shop on Durham Road, in Low Fell, aims to cater for this trend. It only sells clothes that are recycled, renewable, or from a sustainable source – you can even buy eco-friendly soap powder to wash them. For Richard Murr, owner of Open House, it’s about providing choice. “Everyone today is very aware of the fact we need to protect the environment and move away from products made of plastic,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean people necessarily know how to find alternatives.”

Part of Richard’s ethos is to educate – so you needn’t worry if you don’t know the difference between normal and unbleached cotton (the former uses harmful chemicals, in case you’re wondering). Programmes related to the environment are screened on an in-store TV and Richard plans to use the basement to run workshops.

Another new business hoping to capitalise on the market is Davy J. The company based in South Devon makes sustainable swimwear from regenerated nylon yarn, sourced, fittingly, from old fishing nets and ocean-found plastic. Founder Helen Newcombe feels we’re at the start of a journey. “It’s a very new generation of businesses and a very new generation of thought,” she says. “A lot of businesses are interested in it, but very few have started moving down this path, so we’re quite forward-thinking. It’s really nice to see brands in Britain doing it as well. There’s not that many of us in the UK.”

With major players now on board, sustainability in fashion is more likely to filter down. At this year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 22 brands including Burberry, Gap, Nike, H&M and Primark signed an agreement to Make Fashion Circular – a move away from the old “take, make and dispose” model. The campaign’s unlikely figurehead is world record-breaking yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, whose eponymous foundation works to develop the circular economy.

Incompatible as they might seem, according to Helen Newcombe, there needn’t be a conflict between sustainability and profit. “I’m an economist and I came at it from business angle,” she says. “Where sustainability often talks about reducing the negative impacts that business can have, the circular economy looks at how we can feed sustainable products into the starting point and at the end we’re responsible for everything we produce.”

For Davy J, this translates not only in the choice of fabric, but an invitation to send old swimwear back to be repurposed, with the aim of achieving 60 per cent closed loop recycling by 2020.

With sustainability such a hot topic, it seems the fashion industry is being forced into action to avoid possible reputational damage. This is something it is familiar with, having weathered the storm of unethical practices, and it is no doubt anxious to avoid a repeat.

The figures speak for themselves. According to the government’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), fashion has the fourth largest environmental impact, after housing, transport and food. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) reports that in the past 15 years, global clothing production has doubled and that, of the 53m tons now produced annually, 73 per cent ends up in landfill or is incinerated. By contrast, only around one per cent of clothing, and 13 per cent of all material, is recycled. While the industry isn’t fully to blame, it must bear some responsibility for this.

So, however, must we. Part of the problem is the old adage of supply and demand – if we didn’t buy as much, it simply wouldn’t be produced. The finger has been pointed at so-called “fast fashion” – purpose-designed to have a short lifespan – but it’s not just that. In the UK, we each own an average of six unworn items. That’s a lot of clothes that need never have been made in the first place.

With fashion so affordable, you can update your wardrobe every season – and why bother to repair when you can just replace? That’s where schemes like those by TK Maxx and H&M come in. You can drop off your old clothes, which go to charity shops or are recycled, while buying news ones. How’s that for circular?

Another option is to hang on to things for just a bit longer. South Shields-based Barbour, famous for its waxed jackets, has a thriving repairs and reproofing business; and by 2022, even Marks & Spencer will offer repairs. Then there are the simple things – washing less and on shorter, cooler cycles; avoiding tumble drying – to help prolong the life of your clothes. It might not seem like much, but at least it’s a start.

There’s still a long way to go but, according to Helen, the signs are positive. “There’s a new generation of customers who care and businesses are becoming much more aware of the finite resources around us,” she says.

“I think we’ll become more conscious of minimising waste and maximising the value of every product. I think there’s a long lead-in time until that becomes widespread, but I think it will grow. It’s exciting times.”