04 Oct Sustainable Fashion Defined: Circularity
Describing a brand or garment as sustainable is one of this season’s hottest trends, and fashion is all about trends. But what does sustainable really mean? I’m on a quest to learn more about the attributes of sustainable fashion in my “Sustainable Fashion Defined” series. In this post I’m taking a closer look at circularity, and how it contributes to sustainable fashion.
Our current fashion industry is built upon a linear take-make-waste approach. We take natural resources, we make a garment, we use the garment for a brief time, then when it fails to catch our eye, we throw the garment away and create waste. Bending this linear, take-make-waste model into a circular, never-ending model is a critical step toward a sustainable fashion industry. Circularity is founded upon three principles:
1. to eliminate waste and pollution;
2. to keep materials in use; and
3. to regenerate the natural systems.
Eliminate Waste and Pollution:
To eliminate waste and pollution within the fashion industry, we need to start at the design stage. “…As much as 12 percent of fibres are still discarded on the factory floor.” With more thoughtful choices at the beginning of a garment’s creation, designers can have a huge impact on the volume of waste produced within the fashion industry. To minimize waste a designer can focus on utilizing as much fabric as possible. This can be achieved in many ways such as including pattern pieces from multiple garments on the same roll to ensure all the fabric is used, modifying their designs so that more units can fit on each roll of fabric, or even creating a garment from previous leftover fabric offcuts to ensure they don’t go to waste.
The fashion industry also needs to address overproduction. At the end of every season, racks of clothing remain unsold, even at 70% off. These unwanted garments are commonly referred to as dead stock — garments that were never purchased and never worn. Dead stock epitomizes our overproduction problem. We are making way more clothing than we can consume, let alone need.
Finally, as consumers we have a responsibility to wear and actively use each of our garments. It’s estimated the value of clothing discarded worldwide every year is over $500 Billion. Actively using the garments we own will reduce the total number of garments we consume and will extract more value from the natural and human resources used to make them.
Keep Materials in Use:
Similar to strategies I recommended for eliminating waste and pollution, we can help keep materials in use by changing how garments are designed. Fashion designers need to conceive and build garments which are “made-to-be-made-again.” These are garments which, at the end of their life, can be safely and easily used to make something new. This can be achieved in many ways. One option is to take apart a garment at the seams and re-cut and re-sew it into something new. Another option is to breakdown the material into raw fibers that can then be re-spun and re-woven into new fabric.
There are many ways to create garments which are made-to-be-made again. First, we need to design garments which are easy to disassemble. Limiting the use of hardware and embellishments, such as zippers and sequins, on a garment will make them easier to take apart. Second, we need to prioritize weaving fabric from homogenous fibers. Garments made from 100% wool are much easier to sort, break-down, and re-spin, compared to complex fiber blends such as 50% cotton, 35% polyester, 10% viscose, and 5% elastic. Additionally, the fashion industry needs to build the infrastructure to facilitate this work. To keep more materials in use for longer, we need comprehensive collecting, sorting, and recycling facilities.
Regenerate the Natural Systems:
To regenerate natural systems, we need to create garments from safe and renewable materials. These materials will reduce the pollution and toxic chemicals in our air, waterways, land, and ultimately ourselves, and will help to restore the natural balance within each of these systems. We can look for garments with credible third-party certifications to ensure the garment is safe and helping to regenerate the natural systems.
“While donors likely believed their clothes would go on to spark joy in someone else, or perhaps clothe a homeless person, only about 20 percent is actually passed on to a person in the way we might imagine.” Maxine Bedat, Unraveled
In pursuit of circularity, many people donate or recycle their clothing to give them a second life. While the collection of unwanted clothing is an important component of circularity, the vast majority of existing recycling options are not circular – in fact, they are just an extended linear model.
What really happens to the unwanted clothing we donate or recycle? After we make a donation to a second-hand shop, the organization sorts them to determine what is appropriate for resale in their store. Next, they sell off some of the remaining donations to businesses who use the materials for lower value applications such as insulation and rags. Finally, the remaining majority, estimated to be anywhere from 40-80%, is bundled and shipped overseas to second-hand markets around the world. The donated garments then flood foreign markets, disrupt their textile and manufacturing industries, and fill-up their landfills. According to Maxine Bedat in her new book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, in Ghana’s Kantamanto market, one of the largest second-hand markets in West Africa, “an estimated 2,425 tons, or 15 million items, pass through the market per week.”
Given there are so many issues with our current clothing recycling system, it is frustrating to see H&M of all retailers, launch Rewear in Canada and tout it as an opportunity to “push circularity and help close the loop.” This is incredibly ironic coming from H&M. Not only because, our current garment recycling system does not achieve circularity, but because H&M is one of the industry’s biggest fast fashion sinners. Their business model is built upon pillaging the planet’s resources, neglecting its workforce, encouraging garment disposability, and heavily contributing to the massive amounts of textile waste and pollution. H&M’s business model is literally the opposite of circularity. “This has everything to do with profit and nothing to do with impact: A clothing company that calls itself “circular” while continuing to overproduce is not interested in solving the problem—it’s interested in extracting profit from the problem.” They are greenwashing their guilt, and it stinks like cheap fabric.
“The fashion industry makes more clothes than we can buy. We buy more clothes than we can use. We waste.” Liz Ricketts, @theorispresent
While the fashion industry works to find technical solutions to help make circularity a reality, achieving sustainability within fashion will require more. I believe the real solution lies in fewer, more thoughtful and, simply, better choices. At every step. Before you buy, know what is going to work for your body, your lifestyle, and with all the other items in your wardrobe. When shopping, consult your Good on You app for better brand alternatives, choose garments made well, and buy the best quality you can afford. Then, once you bring the garment home, wear it often, wash it with care, and repair it along the way. If you need to pass it on, try to find an actual person who will treasure it, as you have.