The irony of Fashioned from Nature is that this is such a beautiful show about the destruction the fashion industry has wrought on the environment. This is not a comprehensive look at fashion from 1600 to the present, but, instead, the show uses samples of clothing from 1600 onward to look at how nature has been exploited and harmed to effect beauty, marketability and extravagance in our clothing. Indeed, an irony within the irony is that beautiful images from nature have often been design elements inherent in the production of clothing which harms nature.

The show reveals that even before the Industrial Revolution clothing and fashion were manufactured in often wasteful and lavish manners. We see, for instance, a dress for the royal court of London requiring materials from several geographical regions, including mines in Bolivia where an indigenous population was used as slave labor. Later in the exhibit we see that, these days, in order to manufacture one tee shirt, even more geographical locations come into play than for that dress. The desire each of us feels to look and feel good has hampered attempts to reign in the fashion industry’s unhealthful relationship with the environment.

It was the international trade networks established by the UK, and wealth generated from these networks, which allowed the Industrial Revolution to expand rapidly and the textile industry was a chief engine in the growth of factories, population and pollution of the air and water. The consumer economy developed in the UK (where cheap, mass-produced goods replaced hand-made production) magnified the waste and extravagance already involved in the production of clothing. Thus, the fashion industry has become one of our chief polluting industries, currently producing a massive amount of carbon emissions and consuming and contaminating vast amounts of our water.

The goal now in the fashion industry seems to try to go back to square one and begin producing longer-lasting clothing without the harmful waste of water and production of waste usually involved. And the show reveals how each major material in the production of clothing has presented problems. The dyeing of silk released massive waste pollutants into water supplies. To obtain flax fibers in order to produce linen, stalks had to be weakened through soaking, thus polluting sources of clean water. The processing of wool produced wastes that went into river systems. The bleaching of cotton caused the first acid rain. Cotton also exhausted, and continues to exhaust, water supplies as a “thirsty” crop. Hundreds of gallons of water go into the production of just one cotton dress shirt. The fashion industry has also contributed to the over-hunting of animals and there are examples concerning whales, beavers, wolves, seals, various types of birds, crocodiles, snakes, lizards and even beetles in the show.

The show does shift, ultimately, in a more optimistic mode as a number of recent innovations in the manufacturing of clothing are presented. We learn that more environmentally friendly clothing is now being produced by designers using longer lasting fibers like linen. Recycling has now also become a big trend as hundreds of thousands of tons of old clothing often go into world landfills. The current recycling trends not only involve old clothing but also the use of plastics. Production of flax only using ground water and rain is a method more ecologically friendly than cotton. Various well-established fashion companies are also lauded for producing cotton products using less water and leaving less of a carbon footprint. Yet, 1) free trade outsourcing using low-wage labor in countries with minimal environmental regulations, 2) new groups of consumers in developing countries and 3) the ease of e-commerce are still ensuring non-sustainable fashion production.

This show will definitely alter your perception of fashion and clothing and even compel you to take a closer look at how you consume and use clothing. It poses the question of whether anything can overcome the human vanity which has propelled this industry forward. As the world becomes more rich, and fewer are left in poverty, the need for attractive fashion will only grow. The conundrum for the fashion industry is how to meet this burgeoning need while significantly reducing carbon emissions and the pollution of our water supplies. Can attractive and durable clothing actually be produced sustainably at bargain prices so that people will effortlessly buy in to the sustainable clothing movement? Relying on individual conscience to promote this movement may not be enough.

This show was curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum and runs through June in Shenzhen - the Design Society is the exclusive Chinese venue. Indeed, an additional component to the show about traditional Chinese clothing materials and sustainable design in China has been added to the exhibit by the Design Society. If you are in China, hop on a highspeed train and take a look at it. If you are not in China, I hope this show can travel to your city as well. This is the type of exhibit that compels one to address a major social/environmental issue while examining one’s own behavior. There are not enough exhibits as meaningful as this one.