Farm to Closet: Making Fashion More Sustainable

Denim design veteran Jonathan Cheung advises brands – fashion and otherwise – on innovative practices that will transform their production lines, and the planet. He shares how leadership plays a part in creating a culture of change.

Editorial Team01 Apr 2022

The year was 1993 when Jonathan Cheung first had an inkling that sustainability might have a part to play in creating fashion. The now veteran fashion designer was at the time working with Italian legend Franco Moschino, whose love of nature led him, whilst terminally ill, to try to lead the charge in switching from using synthetic materials to more natural ones.


In the mid-90s, Cheung admits this was a difficult switch – “but it was my first awakening and effort to do things better, though at the time we didn’t truly know what ‘sustainable’ meant. And I think to a large extent, the fashion industry still doesn’t.”


It wouldn’t be until almost 25 years after Moschino’s passing in 1994 that the industry as a whole would get a real wake-up call, when in 2017 news headlines pointed to fashion as being the second most polluting industry in the world. Though that statistic has since been debunked, the substance behind it remains true, including the fact that something like a third of all garments never make it onto bodies, going straight from excess inventory to landfills.



From Evolution to Revolution: Giving Back to the Planet


Having spent a decade with Levi’s, most recently as Head of Design & Innovation, aftercutting his teeth working on Moschino, Iceberg and Armani’s denim lines, Cheung has been in a position to witness the evolution of the industry and its response to the demands of the earth. He now advises brands on aspects of design, innovation and strategy, often incorporating processes and techniques that help show the planet a little more love – for example, materials company Bolt Threads, which is pioneering mushroom leather; Unspun, an on-demand, made-to-measure denim brand which eliminates unnecessary inventory; and Bluebird, a software that helps companies measure sustainability impact. He was also a key player in setting up denim and workwear for Pangaia, a purpose-driven basics brand that starts with materials science and amplifies this technology through design, offering its raw materials to other brands in a B2B arm.


Cheung agrees that a top-down approach is needed in the fashion industry for the most far-reaching impact – indeed, there are hurdles that only legislation can solve, such as the infrastructure around clothing recycling. “Leadership, fundamentally is about the ability to make good decisions. If leaders are going to make a significant impact in sustainability, then it has to be a part of their own values, and the company’s values. And then the products that come out of it should always be a reflection of the company’s values. One of the leaders I admire most is, Bob Haas [the brand’s Chairman Emeritus and a direct descendant of the Levi Strauss family], and he really started something called profits through principles. I remember him telling the story of when he was CEO, stopping sponsorship of the Boy Scouts of America because [of discriminatory policies around sexual orientation] at the time. And he got something like 120,000 letters of complaint, and he said when he got the letters, he empathised with what it was like to feel persecuted, so he just doubled down on his beliefs. That, and many other examples, set Levi’s as a company that cares about social values”


Some of the most transformative initiatives that Cheung sees today include the next generation of chemical recycling of cellulose – creating clothing material from plant matter. What this means, further down the line, is that “you can take your old clothes and basically spin them in high pressure and break down the cellulose into a goop. Think of it like a toothpaste – and you can squeeze the tube and get this new fibre that comes out of the other end.  From that your old jeans can be transformed into a new T-shirt or made back into jeans, socks, underwear. So you keep the base cellulose material, but the physical form of the clothing changes. Science can be like magic.”



Regenerative Farming to the Rescue


Another major leap forward has nothing to do with new technology, although certainly, modern science has helped to optimise the concept. “Regenerative farming is the counterbalance to mono-cropping,” says Cheung. “The endpoint of continuous mono-cropping is soil depletion and which eventually leads to desert. Regenerative farming  has the ability to cushion the earth from fluctuations in temperature and atmospheric CO2 as well as increasing biodiversity and growing the soil. That’s the biggest thing that we can do as a society to turn things around.”


Much of this has been learnt on the job for Cheung, and so he’s taking his knowledge and sharing it with companies across the spectrum, in advisory roles – and these sharings are infinitely impactful in disseminating learnings quickly as we race to save the planet. Pangaia, for example, was set up in a post-millennial era to prioritise sustainability from the get-go, but it is harder for others – whether large existing conglomerates or small start-ups – to replicate this same infrastructure and DNA.


But Pangaia also represents a new way of doing business, one that is sustainable not only in terms of the earth, but in terms of commerce, too. “Pangaia is there to invest in and incubate new technologies and new materials – and they’re going to be demonstrated and expressed as clothing. And that’s very, very different from a company that’s just about clothing, and we just want to sell more clothing. Pangaia wants the materials to solve problems, and the clothing is an advert for those materials. Fundamentally, they’re not a fashion company, fashion is just the way they express their materials science,” he says. Ultimately, what will drive the fashion industry’s conversation on sustainability forward is that there is an appetite for it – top down as well as bottom up.


“There is enormous appetite for it. From a junior level, that’s what designers want to do – use amazing new technologies and feel good about it. Then from a company perspective, it’s a business opportunity. And others see it as corporate governance and danger mitigation. You want to clean yourself up. There are multiple motivations. And I’m learning every day,” Cheung says.