IP Information & News

The future of fashion — catwalking towards sustainability

Alison Cole

By Alison Cole

Senior Trade Mark Attorney

At this year’s London Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council (BFC) took the unprecedented step of proclaiming the catwalk ‘fur-free’. Although this may seem like something of a clickbait statement, it was actually part of a larger commitment from the fashion industry to work towards a more ethical and sustainable future. For an industry that reportedly creates 92 million tons of textile waste per year, this is obviously a welcome initiative and a timely one, with MPs pressuring companies to put the brakes on ‘fast fashion’.

Here’s a look at what’s happening right now to help the fashion industry move towards sustainability.

Tracking the product life cycle

Over the last few years there has been a massive consumer awakening to the provenance of products, as well as their end of life cycle. Innovations based on Blockchain and A.I. can now monitor a product from cradle to grave, which will in turn help the battle against counterfeit goods. Social media champions like Know The Origin can also track and publicise the source and supply chain of goods to market, reassuring consumers along the way. However, what we do with products we have no further use for is another issue.


Greenpeace has reported that the average person buys 60% more clothes and keeps them half as long as they would have done 15 years ago. Discarded clothes pile up in landfill as they are quickly deemed “so last season”. Furthermore, we’re increasingly aware of the sheer volume of plastic that ends up in the ocean through the manufacture, washing and disposal of garments. A large portion of this is generated by the fashion industry as a whole. Clearly something needs to be done. As Nicolas Ghesquère of Louis Vuitton said, “fashion is there to break any frontier possible”. The creative minds involved in this field have been successful at producing a large number of interesting and positive solutions to this problem, and have simultaneously generated some potentially valuable IP.

Celebrity endorsements

When big brands and personalities lend their reputation to a cause, it can give it immediate traction. In the war on waste, pioneering celebrities and companies have taken slightly different angles. Surfing legend Kelly Slater has created his own brand, Outerknown, producing clothing from 100% recycled fishing nets. He has used his name and standing in the surfing community to raise awareness and promote his noble venture. Likewise, the singer Pharell Williams is presumably ‘happy’ with the success of his investment in the G-Star Raw brand, which makes clothing from recycled ocean plastic. Aside from their positive impact on the environment, these brands are now registered trade marks and have value in their own rights.

Brand collaborations

Companies have, generally speaking, opted for collaborations rather than creating new concepts. Joint ventures have seen Adidas and O’Neill (among others) partner up with the non-profit collaborative initiative ‘Parley for the Oceans’ (also a registered trade mark) to create trainers and clothing from recycled plastic retrieved from the ocean. Such is the demand that Adidas sold over one million pairs of these trainers in 2017. Stella McCartney has gone one stage further by launching a long-term initiative with Parley under the brand Ocean Legends.

Burberry has partnered with the UK-based, sustainable, luxury accessory brand Elvis & Kresse to make bags, cosmetic cases and other accessories from its leather off-cuts. Elvis & Kresse started out with a mission to recycle decommissioned fire hosepipes from London Fire Brigade and has succeeded in building a valuable brand for belts, wallets and bags from 170 tons of material.

Less obvious collaborations have also emerged, such as the beer producer Corona linking up with Spanish designer Adolfo Correa and Parley to produce a Hawaiian shirt, not only made from plastic collected from oceans and shorelines, but also imprinted with a design that incorporates items such as six-pack rings and bottle caps, to highlight the danger of such items ending up in the water.

These collaborations will undoubtedly involve trade mark licence agreements to allow each brand to benefit from the initiative and to ensure that ultimate control and ownership of the rights are not lost, blurred or otherwise damaged.


Retailers are also getting involved in eco-llaborations. Selfridges was an early pioneer, partnering with The Zoological Society back in 2015 to promote the protection of the marine environment with the slogan ‘Be Part of the Sea of Change — see through the plastics problem’. While slogans often cannot be registered as trade marks due to their inherent descriptiveness, they can function very effectively and may later become distinctive, no longer requiring association with the house mark (for example, Nike’s ‘Just Do It’).


As part of the project, Selfridges promoted the groundbreaking products of Studio Swine. The partnership behind this brand made their own hand-powered water pump tool, ‘The Nurdler’ for picking up ‘nurdles’ (the 4mm plastic particles said to make up 10% of ocean litter). Previously referred to as ‘mermaid’s tears’, these particles now don’t receive nearly such charming press. Rather than obtaining patent protection and controlling the use of the tool, which could justifiably been an option, the magnanimous pair have open-sourced the product and process to enable others who are inspired to use them for similar purposes. Studio Swine uses the nurdles in a 3D printer to make unique furniture, with tags indicating the location where the plastic was found. It’s highly likely that these original products could attract design protection.

Plastic is a design failure

As the founder of Parley has been quoted as saying, “plastic is a design failure”. Although retrieving and recycling plastic is ethically sound, there is a push in the fashion industry to find replacements for plastics and synthetic fabrics. In its typical, blunt style, French Connection has launched 100% plastic-free t-shirts summing up its positon, bearing the trade mark ‘FCUK PLASTIC’.

Clearly, alternatives need to be found. This is partly happening organically through designers promoting existing natural product brands, such as Richard Malone’s endorsement of luxury silk producer Taroni (which has supplied the likes of Balenciaga and Prada) and the creation by de Le Cuona of ‘Wanderlust’ — a fabric collection made purely from linen, silk, alpaca and wool. In addition to her recycling endeavours, Stella McCartney has partnered with a Swedish non-profit organisation, Canopy, to find a sustainable supply of viscose.

Turning threat into thread

As well as keeping plastic in closed-loop supply chains and reducing the use of new plastics as far as possible, one way to hopefully turn ‘threat into thread’ is to create replacement materials. This has been done in the form of Econyl (used by Adidas, H&M, La Perla and Triumph), Bionic Yarn (used by Topshop, Moncler and Timberland) and Repreve (used by Ford, Fossil bags and Patagonia). The investment in these discoveries has been protected by trade mark registrations, allowing the owners to control their exploitation. This is particularly important in such a fast-moving, constantly changing and competitive environment.

Protecting sustainable ideas with patents

It’s highly likely that the inventors of the new yarns will have explored patent protection too. Additionally, Studio Swine’s creative thinking and certain processes such as Bureo’s ability to turn old fish nets in to sunglasses and surfboards could also be patent protected (provided Bureo did not disclose the process before promoting it).

Alongside new uses of waste plastic and new types of biodegradable yarns and materials, a recently filed international patent application (WO2018 145175 A1) focuses on the fashion supply chain. It’s all about the reuse of products originating from the textile industry to address the negative environmental effects of fast fashion. The concept provides an automated, digitalised and eco-friendly circular fashion platform, which creates clothing collections for rent. These are later sent back to the production line to be reused to create a new products or product lines and/or be recycled, where the material is biodegradable.

Fashion forever

With exciting new materials, processes and brands emerging, coupled with a real consumer and industry push towards sustainability, a bright and eco-friendly future is in sight for the fashion industry.

If you’ve come up with a sustainable idea for the fashion industry and think you could benefit from protecting your IP, feel free to get in touch with me at ajc@udl.co.uk for expert advice. In the meantime, check out our industry pages for fashion and materials for more information about our services.

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