The true cost of cheap clothing is no longer breaking news—especially with so many stories of rampant worker exploitation, increasing textile waste in landfills and natural resource depletion leading the headlines. Although we may spend a few dollars less on those cool jeans and tees, we actually pay high human and environmental costs for our clothes.
Still, fashion remains central to the way we shape ourselves in the world. It is a nearly US$3 trillion industry, employing 57 million people worldwide. Bringing change to its lucrative value chain is not a task for the faint-hearted.
An unlikely network of social entrepreneurs, designers, fashionistas and “woke” brands is bravely standing up and calling for a whole new system, one that re-imagines the path from design sketch to a consumer’s closet as a closed loop—only taking what it gives back.
How does this work?
Rather than using old growth or endangered forests, as around 30 percent of viscose and rayon does, fibers in this closed-loop system, for instance, come from only reused materials. And after being used, those recycled fibers are used again, and again, until finally turning into biodegradable waste and dissolving back into nature.
Widespread adoption of this kind of a more ethical and sustainable system will only come, though, if more businesses and consumers understand the devastating end-to-end impact of fashion’s often messy and reckless production cycle.
After half a lifetime in the apparel industry, former fabric specialist turned social entrepreneur Stacy Flynn wanted to find a way that new could be made from old, where waste could be “designed out” of the manufacturing process.
Her moment of clarity came in 2010 after visiting a clothing recycling enterprise in China that operated under a “cloud of pollution.” She saw that children in the area couldn’t enjoy nature, in part because of the impact of the company’s textile waste and pollution. Flynn connected the dots and realized she was contributing directly to this dirty legacy by thoughtlessly pursuing a high-flying career in an industry obsessed with consumption.
“I began circling around one question,” she says. “Is there a way to break down this waste and turn it into a new fiber, which [could be] a lynchpin in the entire system?”
Flynn’s social enterprise, Evrnu, now makes fiber from cotton garment waste, a fiber she describes as finer than silk but stronger than cotton, and that uses 98 percent less water and 90 percent less carbon emissions than cotton and polyester respectively. “This is a game changer,” she said. “It takes what we perceive as waste and turns it into a modern-day resource.”
Ellen Macarthur, the famed British solo-sailor turned environmental campaigner, is another brave voice. She had an epiphany after setting the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe about the limit of the earth’s resources and our refusal to acknowledge those limits. And so she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation working with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. The Foundation also helps shore up supply chains in the apparel industry to achieve closed loop manufacturing globally.
But she soon realized that “even if every single person changed, it wouldn’t solve the problem.” She figured we needed systems to change as well as individuals. And so she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation—working with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design., and in this case the apparel industry, sure up their supply chains for closed loop manufacturing.
Ramping Up Re-Use
Heavyweight fashion brands with powerful market sway have also begun making significant headway towards circular lines of production, and pushing for wider reform.
Outdoor-wear company Patagonia jumped in the space early on with the launch of its Common Threads initiative in 2005, an ambitious effort to make all Patagonia’s clothes recyclable. The company began with polyester, before it moved on to organic cotton and polertec, breaking down the materials in bulk and reusing them in new products. It has published the details of its impact at each stage of the process in its transparency blog The Cleanest Line, openly assessing its performance and seeking to better its practices.
In 2016, Swedish clothing giant H&M collected around 16,000 tons of discarded clothing, sweetened with the incentive of about US$6 store vouchers for every bag delivered by customers. H&M’s current production stream includes 26 percent recycled materials, and it has pledged to use all recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030, setting an annual collection target of 25,000 tons of disposed clothes.
H&M’s global press officer Inigo Saenz Maestre said the motivation did not come from consumer pressure but rather from a genuine desire to be part of the solution. “We want to lead the industry towards transparent communication and full traceability of the supply chain,” she said. “Our supplier list is public, because transparency means we can hold ourselves and our suppliers accountable on issues such as human rights, fair jobs and environmental protection.”
Fashion Revolution, a global movement of industry workers, is hoping the key to a universal commitment to a closed loop system is this kind of transparency that companies like H&M and Patagonia are promising.
It launched its latest Fashion Transparency Index recently, ranking the top 100 fashion companies on their social and environmental impact, along with how much they disclose about it. H&M ranked between 41 and 50 per cent, in the highest percentile. (Patagonia was not included in the top 100 companies.)
Good work is happening, and there is still much work to be done.
Stacy Flynn believes that one day soon we will consider discarding and reusing clothing in the same casual way that we discard and re-use plastic containers—clothing recycling will be at our fingertips, maybe even at our doorsteps with brightly colored bins. “I do believe things are changing,” she says. “We have to protect air, water and soil at meta levels. That’s a non-negotiable. It’s game over if we don’t do that.”
Emily Braham is a writer from Melbourne, Australia, who loves to hunt out pockets of wild in her adopted city of London.
This article is part of the Fabric of Change Initiative – a three-year partnership between Ashoka and C & A Foundation that is unlocking the unique power and potential of social entrepreneurs and their solutions to transform the apparel industry as a force for good. For more information, head to www.changemakers.com/fabricofchange or join the conversation online at #FabricofChange