Can a circular fashion system save us all?

01 | 2019

sustainable fashion - circular fashion - vogue Australia - mi apparelEverybody's talking about the circular fashion system. But what is it, and can it work?

“We know what we need to do,” says Dame Ellen MacArthur, fixing me with her intense grey-blue stare. “We have to redesign the industry so that it’s restorative and regenerative.” Her tone says that this is entirely achievable and there’s no need to make a song and dance about it. Still. It does seem rather … monumental.

“Isn’t that a bit of a tall order?” I venture. “To redesign the whole fashion industry?”

“Not just the fashion industry,” she says, “but the global economy.”

We are conversing at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, where industry heavy-weights come together each May to try to figure out how to make fashion more sustainable. This is the second year running that MacArthur has been a drawcard speaker.

A Brit who found fame as a record-breaking yachtswoman, in 2005 MacArthur became the fastest person to sail solo non-stop around the world. This she followed with something arguably more extraordinary: she gave up her passion in order to promote the circular economy.

Her lightbulb moment happened at sea, when dealing with finite resources. That round-the-world voyage took her 71 days, 14 hours and 18 minutes. “I wrote in my logs: ‘What I have on this boat is all I have.’” Extending that thinking to the global economy was the next step.

Today her eponymous foundation works with business, academia and organisations like the UN Environment Programme, European Commission and World Economic Forum to facilitate the transition to a circular economy, that is: one that designs out waste and pollution, keeps materials in use and regenerates natural systems.

Change is overdue. The UK is running out of landfill space. In Australia, we’ve relied on exporting most of our recycling, and China’s recent “ban on foreign waste” is causing headaches – we simply don’t have the systems in place to deal with it all here.

According to the ABC’s War on Waste, Australians throw away 6,000 kilos of fashion and textile waste every 10 minutes, while some estimates suggest that up to a third of all the garments produced annually around the world are never sold. Where do they go? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2017 report A New Textiles Economy states that less than one per cent is recycled into new clothing. Down-cycling into things like industrial rags or furniture stuffing is more likely. Used clothing is on-sold via re-commerce sites and flea markets, and donated to charities.It’s also exported by the bale to mitumba(second-hand) markets in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and elsewhere. Oxfam estimates that 70 per cent of used clothing donated to charities globally ends up in Africa, where mountains of cheap old clothes are killing local textile industries. Several East African countries are currently pushing for a ban.

Figures for how much pre-consumer fashion waste is destroyed are harder to come by. Burberry was in the news at the end of the financial year for admitting to destroying A$49 million worth of unsold goods, but they’re not alone; it’s common practice. Last year a Swedish television program revealed that a power plant in Vasteras had been burning unsold H&M clothes as fuel, while the New York Times reported that sneakers from a SoHo Nike store had been mutilated and dumped on the sidewalk.

Interestingly, these three companies are at the forefront of searching for solutions. Nike and H&M are global partners of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Burberry joins them, along with Stella McCartney and PVH (which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) as core partners for MacArthur’s new Make Fashion Circular initiative.

At the production level, Burberry works with London-based company Elvis & Kresse to repurpose leather waste from the cutting-room floor. Nike’s Flyknit sneakers use waste-reduction design principles, while the brand’s Reuse-A-Shoe program turns worn-out shoes into Nike Grind, a material used to surface sports courts and playgrounds. H&M introduced its first in-store clothing recycling bins back in 2012, inviting customers to donate unwanted clothing from any brand. H&M Group’s head of sustainability Anna Gedda expects the industry’s textile recycling capabilities to improve within the next five years.

No-one aspires to squander. We’ve gotten ourselves into this mess unthinkingly but all of us must shoulder some of the blame. The issue calls for bold new thinking, collaboration and a willingness to let go of what we’re used to.

Back in 2002, circular economy thought leaders Michael Braungart and William McDonough noted in their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, that “neither the health of natural systems, nor an awareness of their delicacy, complexity and interconnectedness, have been part of the industrial design agenda”. Sixteen years on, MacArthur says with devastating simplicity: “Our current system is broken. It can’t work in the long term.”

Advocates for a circular economy believe we must change the way that we design, make, sell and consume products and, in the process, reframe how we think about materials and resources, durability, longevity and end-of-use. Literally, it’s about moving from a line to a circle: closing the loop. Forget ‘take, make, dispose’. In its place? Keep resources in the system, thereby retaining their value.

Generally speaking, since the Industrial Revolution our system has been linear: we extract, harvest, hunt, mine or otherwise obtain resources from nature, and often use them to manufacture goods with built-in obsolescence. We dispose of these goods to make room for new ones. Mostly, that means landfill. Sometimes, worse: only 14 per cent of plastic packaging, for example, is collected for recycling, and eight million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans each year.

That’s obviously bad for the environment, but it’s now looking bad for the bottom line, too. Walter Stahel is a Swiss architect and academic who is credited with being the first person to use the term “cradle to cradle” in the 1970s. He argues that, for the last century, we’ve been able to get away with our wasteful linear approach because resource prices for energy and materials have constantly decreased, but in the future the trend is towards prices constantly increasing. When waste no longer adds up, it must be redefined as a resource. In such a context, businesses will need to carefully manage, and keep hold of, their existing finite materials.

Global Fashion Agenda (the not-for-profit arm of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit) warns: “If the fashion industry does not start acting now, the linear model will soon reach its physical limits. According to current forecasts, the world population will exceed 8.5 billion by 2030, and global garment production will increase by 63 per cent.” As the eco meme goes: “There is no Planet B.”

So how might we practically apply circular principles to fashion? According to the UK-based charity WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme), as much as 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage. That gives brands and designers power to reshape the system. So tomorrow’s designers will consider what happens to that dress after its first wearer is done with it.

In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart explain how materials fall broadly into two categories: they can “be composed either of materials that biodegrade and become food for biological cycles” – think about a tree that sheds its autumn leaves, which then become food for the soil – “or of technical materials that stay in closed-loop cycles”. Here lies your plastic and metal, non-biodegradable packaging, your phone, your car. In a circular system, these technical and biological nutrients are kept separate. A pair of poly-cotton yoga pants provides a good example: in its natural state the cotton component is biodegradable, but the addition of the plastic fibre turns the garment into what McDonough calls “a Frankenstein product” that’s difficult to disassemble and reuse. Under a linear system, there’s little incentive to care if something is tricky to recycle, but if the brand retains responsibility for its products at the end of the value chain, that’s a different proposition.

“Let’s look at automotive,” suggests MacArthur. Not long ago, owning a car was a cultural norm. Everyone who could afford one, bought one. “That is no longer the case. People have leases, or they access a car when they need one through a car-sharing scheme.” Millennials are less interested in car ownership than previous generations and that trend will deepen. “Manufacturers know things are changing and that they’re going to be building different cars in the future. Cars will be re-manufacturable and repairable, because users won’t own them; the manufacturers will own them and it will be in their interests to design them so that all the materials will be recoverable.”

She believes that fashion is also poised to focus on access over ownership. Designer subscription wardrobes already exist. Beijing-based YCloset works on a subscription model whereby for around $100 a month, subscribers get unlimited access to a virtual closet. Kenzo and Acne began working with the platform last year.

US leader Rent the Runway’s tagline is “save time, save money, save the planet”. On the site, you can rent all sorts of designer items for a fraction of their retail price. CEO Jennifer Hyman told Glossy last year that she plans to put Zara out of business. Rent the Runway hit US$100 million in revenue in 2016 and the company is growing. With nine million members online, they are branching out with physical stores in five US cities. According to the Washington Post (reporting on data from third parties), only around six percent of fashion fans have rented clothing in the US but Gen Z has a totally different view: “Fifty -seven per cent of teenagers wish brands offered more ways to rent or borrow items.”

In Australia, Glam Corner is the market leader. The company has been in the game for six years, and rents pieces by Zimmermann, Camilla and Marc and Alice McCall. Co-founder and COO Audrey Khaing-Jones says the market is evolving. “Most of our customers [still] discover us when looking for a one-off item that they’d have spent a lot of money on but only worn once – think ballgowns, wedding guest outfits, bridesmaids … [But they are] looking for an increasingly wide range of products.”

A thriving new circular economy will be as complex as the old linear one, incorporating circular materials, resource efficiency, renewable energy and design for longevity and multiple owners, as well as things like local sourcing, detoxifying supply chains and developing new ways to access products.

System change requires unprecedented collaboration. Anne Gedda says these goals exist “beyond competition”. As of July 2018, 94 companies, including H&M, Kering (which owns Gucci, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen), PVH, Nike and Adidas, have signed up to Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Circular Fashion Commitment. The aim is to work on circular design strategies, increase the amount of used product that’s collected and resold, and step up the use of recycled, post-consumer fibres.

“This is about opportunity,” says MacArthur. “It’s about redesigning things to be better, it’s about innovation, creativity and positivity. We can do things better. Isn’t that a great thing to run towards?”

Clare Press for Vogue Australia 

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