Nina set up The Sustainable Angle as a result of her fascination of forestry and crops. Crops that are grown for fibre to produce our clothing and crops for food. When she looked at fashion, she could see it was trailing behind many other industries in sustainable choice. Her research led to amazing fabric discoveries and the need to bring these to the fore instead of tucked away in the corner at trade fairs, and so The Future Fabrics Expo was born. Most people are probably still unaware that most of our clothing comes from the ground, from the soil. From the soil we are degrading with overproduction. If we destroy the vital top soil what do we use to grow our food……..
D: Where did you grow up?
N: I grew up in Switzerland outside of Zurich and of course that’s kind of suburban. Everyone had a little patch where they could plant some tomatoes and that was one of my favourite things. And to pick some berries on the way home from school you know, that kind of thing. My mother would often be in the garden working, with a spade and doing stuff with plants, or whatever so I guess it’s just something that then sticks with you doesn’t it. Connections with nature and an appreciation for it, so I think that was definitely an important influence.
D: And the rest of your family, do you have siblings?
N: Yes I have a sister who is not at all interested in what I am doing as such. She is basically supportive but it’s not really her field she is working in neuropsychology as a professor. So very different tack. But we do talk about it you know. There’s an interesting connection now in research into people’s behaviour and what it takes to get people to move and become; not an activist, but to become somebody who is let’s say taking action. So we have interesting discussions on behaviour about it.
D: Do you think you have always had a social conscience?
N: Maybe a bit more than others, but growing up in Switzerland you are quite a conscience person. Everyone is aware of the consequences of your behaviour and you would not dream of say, fly tipping in the street. It is just not done. You clean up after yourself. And yes I think people have a conscience but perhaps I was a bit more, interested. Therefore, I read up earlier than other people on the Kyoto protocol and climate change and all these things. My Mother was part of the Club of Rome, it was the first environmental organisation that was really looking at policy and in terms of the wider implications of what we do to nature and the implications that has on the economy for example. Look it up Club of Rome it was set up in 1967, I think it is very influential.
D: I see you have 3 degrees as part of your education which is pretty amazing, and fashion didn’t seem to be the direction you were travelling in at all. On your original trajectory, what did you see your self doing?
N: I was actually interested in doing environmental law and studying political science. There were courses on that, that I took and found fascinating. Those were early discussions around oil pollution and oil spills from oil tankers.
D: And what happened in the Caribbean?
N: Exactly, exactly and I was very interested in that and at the time those were the
pre-eminent stories in the newspapers so I was fascinated by them. At the time you couldn’t really do many courses on sustainability so to me political science was therefore a good first step. And as part of the course there were things on environmental law and like I said I was that was interested in that. Then my second degree was right after which was to do with the History of International Relations which really was something as it was in English. My first degree Political Science was mainly taught as a French course it was a very French thing. They didn’t have an interdisciplinary course as Political Science at the time, this is the early 90s I suppose. It was very interesting to see how you could have different courses such as law, policy making, economic thinking, all sorts of different histories and all taught in one course. Political Science was one of the first interdisciplinary university degrees, that is why I wanted to do it so had to do it in French. You couldn’t do it anywhere else. Of course, in Switzerland you have these 3 languages.
D: Yes of course.
N: We had French at school, but my French wasn’t very good so that was a steep learning curve. For the second degree I went to the LSE and everything was in English. At the time I was more interested in international relations and politics and how that effects, the political landscape in terms of the environment and what can be done there. How can you force companies and society to veer around and become much more accountable for what you are doing and reducing pollution and all that. My 3rd degree was much later and was on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development. The reason I did that was again because it was a masters, but by then I of course had also been working, and was very keen on understanding much more on the side of sustainability from a resource point of view and the raw materials that were used. When you looked at all the industry and its impact on the environment a lot of it actually comes from the raw materials either extracting or that we are just abusing, overusing and I wanted to understand what was happening. The points that were revolving mostly were either agriculture or forestry because in terms of the climate forestry is of course hugely crucial and so is agriculture because there is so much, we are doing wrong with this intensive agriculture. Almost any industry relies of course on all of us and what we do relies on what we take out of the earth and how we are using it. How we are using it wrongly and how we are overusing those resources and how we are going across the planetary boundaries. That sustainable agriculture and rural development degree was very much exactly on those themes. That was the 3rd degree, so the learning wasn’t all in one go it was over time.
D: The final degree seems to be the one that set you on the path that you are on now.
N: That’s mainly because we had to write a dissertation at the end of the course and typically of course you have to choose a very specific narrow subject to write your dissertation on. I was fascinated by again of course by forestry and crops and crops for fibres and crops for food. At the same time, I was also someone who was very interested in design and fashion and I couldn’t understand how, when you could make so many of your lifestyle choices sustainable you weren’t. You could cycle instead of taking a car, or instead of a conventional car you could have a hybrid. These are the things you could easily do. Or you could always have a green electricity provider that was a no brainer. Yes it was a little bit more costly but then, since you were an environmentally minded person you are going to use little electricity anyway. So there is all that and the more you think its only costing a tiny bit more, doing the right thing and promoting this industry, it also reminded you to save on your energy use. When it came to fashion and clothing it seemed to be very much behind other industries so I looked a bit more into that and I couldn’t quite understand why it was so difficult to find an equally high-quality product with a lower environmental footprint at the same time there.
So, the fashion industry was lagging behind a lot of other industries. At the time the only real good fibre that was prevalent in clothing was organic cotton. And you only could find it in certain items like baby clothes. So I decided to write my dissertation on organic cotton and why was it not used more? Through that research I saw that there were so many amazing alternative materials available yet at the same time they were not really being shown to brands as a viable option. At the trade fairs there was hardly anything. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Which of course is very frustrating, and the designers don’t have the time to do this and they also don’t necessarily have the training to understand. It was important to me to give the designers easy access to that information and the educational background information. To make sure they could access it. To make sure it’s easy and digestible and the information that they are getting, was clear. I was conducting a lot of interviews for the dissertation with fashion designers who are also very much solutions driven. A designer is always someone who is looking for solutions, for making a design that perhaps has a certain function and it could be a better function in the next design stage etc, etc. They were of course very open to all these new materials I had found and as soon as you showed it to them you see how a light bulb would switch on and they would say “oh yes this is amazing” and they were inspired. All of a sudden absorbing all of this information easily because they were touching and experiencing the material, therefore their minds were open to receiving this information. Of course you could also go to designers and tell them all about the sustainability information and you could take them through PowerPoint presentations but it doesn’t have the same effect. It’s much more powerful if they can touch the fabric at the same time.
So the aim became to create the Future Fabrics Expo as a space where we curated these amazing materials taking the best of the best including all the sustainability information per fabric summarised in an easy non tech language, this was very important. It’s not that it was non tech it’s just that it was digestible in bite size yet still giving the designers everything they needed and if they want more all the contact details were there so they could get in touch. At the same time it was very important to provide background information throughout The Future Fabrics Expo so we would have certain focus on certain themes each year. In general the designers seemed so open to it, they just didn’t have the right platform. So that was what I got stuck into and it has just grown from there.
D: Did The Sustainable Angle come straight on the back of The Future Fabrics Expo? Did you see it as the natural progression?
N: It did. In the beginning we had a few more things on food production, but that was pretty much when we were very absorbed in The Future Fabrics Expo. That had mainly driven everything. At the same time, we had a lot of information on regenerative agricultural practices which we have focused on especially in the last 2 years and that is of course goes full circle with my studies, on biodiversity and intensive farming practices which are at the root of a lot of out problems today. Soil fertility loss, resulting in a lot of biodiversity loss, a lot of it comes back to our farming practices and it was very nice to put that into The Future Fabrics Expo as a focal point, while also showing the materials that are made with these fibres and that are grown this way.
D: Students are probably not even taught in school where their clothes come from. Where the fabric in their clothes come from. Some people don’t even know where their bananas come from. And that comes from education, doesn’t it?
N: Exactly, and The Sustainable Angle is now delivering this educational information, we are putting together and researching that, as a not-for-profit organisation, because usually education is not really a commercial venture.
In 2018 we set up the Future Fabrics Expo as a UK limited company because we had to make these decisions for the bigger exhibition spaces and by then so may exhibitors had joined. In the very beginning it was very much a curated showcase and we collected all these materials then showcased on the behalf of the companies.
There are so may trade fairs for a mill or an exhibitor to go to already so to have yet another one is sometimes almost not feasible. Especially not if only a small range of your collection which is sustainable. So it was a great bridging of that problem for us pulling it all together and providing that service. Having all the information attached and how they could get in touch. Now a lot of the exhibitors actually want to be there in person.
Want to be at the show and have a stand. So this is why we had to set up this small Future Fabrics Expo as a UK company. The Sustainable Angle is partly supporting it and is involved with the Expo of course.
D: I have seen how you have grown as I first came to the Expo a few years ago and it was in a small room and it was amazing to be in amongst all the fabrics, to be pulling them out and to see where they had all come from and to be seeing what you have said about all the pieces of information that you have on each one. It was very cool to see. You have grown so much from then which is fantastic. With all of the speakers and content you have now I am sure is bringing even more people to the Expo.
N: It does yes. A lot of it means that there is a ton of organisation and admin, it’s a really big thing.
D: Was that somewhere you ever imagined your degree would take you?
N: No, I didn’t think it would get that big but there still is a need for it so we just keep going.
D: How do you choose the fabrics that you highlight at the shows?
N: We have our own environmental criteria. Which we set out which were established together with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion in 2011 for the first Expo. Then just recently 2019 we updated them and refined them a bit because things had evolved and those 4 (which are also on our website) are on Biodiversity, Waste, Water and Energy we are trying to keep them quite broad but at the same time they are going into detail a bit more. It allows us not to do it quantitively but mainly qualitatively. Also when perhaps a fabric is not certified to a certain standard we still take them in if they can be transparent and have a traceable supply chain because sometimes those innovations are very new and certifications don’t exist yet so we allow for that too. Also this year (2020) we are working to add a chemical criteria, that is going to be a good new addition which is mainly focused on the processing of the fibre and the fabric, we are very keen on that.
D: That’s great, because that is the final part of the process before it reaches our skin.
N: That is exactly what it is.
D: You have over, is it, 3,000 fabrics now in the show?
N: Actually in the show itself we had over 5,000 at least in the curated section and then many more in the whole Expo and an online section for those who can’t attend and of course because of Covid that was something that became much more important to develop. That’s working quite well.
D: Yes I enjoyed your Expo online, it was good.
N: We were torn, we didn’t want it to be called an Expo as such. So we called it a live event it was really, really important to show that it is not an alternative Expo that it’s just something to tide us over, help participants and exhibitors to gain some visibility and some connection but it’s not replacing the Expo.
D: I guess it also helps those who are new and catching up, it gives them a space to come and listen to the speakers.
D: What do you think is the most surprising fabric that you have at the moment?
N: I am still very fond of Linen and Hemp. How well it blends with silk and cotton so that is something I am very keen on. Any of those Bast fibres as they are called, are really inherently so much more sustainable. They don’t need to be irrigated and they don’t need to grow on fertile soil. So the more we head into the problem of food crops having to grow instead of fibre for clothing that is a really important. Linen and Hemp are brilliant for that. I am interested in the blends, that is my main love. I like to be surprised by the high content of Linen and Hemp without actually being able to tell it’s there.
You were probably hoping for some whacky innovative material which we have plenty of so it’s quite difficult to name. Its quite amazing what you can make out of mushrooms, apples and algae and they are fabulous ones.
D: Mushrooms were the ones that surprised me the most.
N: It is very, very fascinating.
D: It is good because we use so much cotton that linen and hemp would be fabrics that could replace possibly, cotton and not have the same environmental impact like you say.
N: Absolutely. We make a big difference between conventional cotton and organic cotton of course regenerative organic cotton that’s something we are very keen on stressing the difference. But still if you grow cotton it has to grow on fertile soil, which could be used for food of course.
D: You mentioned about blending the fabrics, when you blend the fabrics and the 3 you mentioned are very good, when they come to the end of life is it easy to recycle the 3 to create something new if they are blended?
N: As long as they are blended with natural fibres with cellulose it’s not a problem at all as long as they are natural.
D: How do you work with the mills that weave the fabrics?
N: We try to communicate their sustainability achievements as much as we can. We try to show them in the Future Fabrics Expo in a way that makes it very attractive for designers to discover them. We give them the choice of being involved in our seminar series to make sure they can speak and represent themselves. There are a lot of things we do. Then there is the whole digital and online side which is very important these days.
D: Does that help them be more transparent, help with the next part of the process for when the designers come in.
N: Absolutely, it is very important, a designer has so many things they have been getting used to for the past 20 years with all these massive trade fairs and more and more trade fairs and you have to go to all of them and it’s very difficult to find something that you really want amongst all of these 100s of and 1000s of things so we try to help them especially now that there is so much green washing around. We are very keen to help people understand the difference between the materials so that they are not falling victim to claims that are not substantiated. So we do a lot of work on that. We are less and less only doing research, discovery and curating, it’s also very much about making sure that we really have the best of the best on board and that these claims can be backed up.
D: And getting the message out to everybody.
N: Exactly yes.
D: I have spoken to some factories who are working on small runs do you have mills who are doing the same so it is easy to take it to the factory to create the small run of clothing? Therefore, reducing waste?
N: Yes we have that, on the digital platform there is a whole button called SMOQs so you can find that relatively easily in that filter. Of course it’s always a problem for small designers as sometimes there is this barrier of minimum order No.s. I think often sustainability often gets a bad name in the sense that people say “Oh, you know the minimum number was too big.” Most young designers have that problem, whatever fabric they want they just can’t get in small enough quantities. Unfortunately with the mills the machinery dictates how big the run needs to be. It’s very difficult to find a way in between but we try and bridge that gap a bit by making it really easy to find those that take small minimums.
D: It is the same if you were writing a book and doing a print run.
N: Exactly a good analogy.
N: Well, I always think there is a space for education. It is important to make sure that everyone understands what the background information is so that they can make a choice and not fall victim to greenwashing. I think we will always do that. We see ourselves as a really big filter, we take the best of the best, the most sustainable fabrics, and we pull it all together and deliver a service for all of those who are interested in those materials so they can find them easily without too much of a headache. It is a matter of trust. We deliver all of that and they can trust that what they find in the Expo meets their criteria.