Redesigning Fashion Pt 2. Circular Fashion

How I love long dresses. I really do. They are on my list of ‘things’ that make me happy.

Along with ceramics, cookbooks, crystal jewellery… Does that mean I can just buy these things continuously and that would make me happy? No. I recognise that. You can not buy happiness. But I also am aware that there is a “spark of joy” as Marie Condo puts it… but with her wisdom, is also that less is more. To learn to be content with less quantity but more quality… in all of life but especially with fashion.

Like everything, it is about getting clear on the why’s.
Why should we even stop to consider the story behind our fashion choices? I mean, it is all so easy to buy it now. It’s cheap. And pretty. And there are new, pretty and cheap flowy dresses hitting shelves, or even better, my inbox daily. And they are vegan… but despite all the subtle signs urging us to buy more, we must consider the sustainability of our fashion choices because from start to finish, our fashion choices now are costing the Earth.

This month saw Vogue Australia theme their issue around sustainability, and was guest edited by actress Emma Watson and you know once Vogue is talking about it, that it is on the agenda in the fashion industry…

“To be modern,[Vogue] needs to embrace the things that matter to the next generation of fashion fans and one of those things is clearly sustainability,” says Press, guest editor.

To become sustainable, the fashion industry will have to reinvent itself. Resign itself. From all angles. Why?

We have created an almost completely linear operation of our textile system where we take large amounts of non-renewable resources to make clothes that are more-often-than-not used for only a short time, generally less than half a year now, after which they are added to the ever increasing landfill or incinerated at a rate of one garbage truck of textiles every second. 

We are producing, distributing, and using clothing in only one direction, and it is leading to a disaster, with already the total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production is at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, which is more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It begins with the materials we are relying on. These materials are draining non-renewable resources – 98 million tonnes in total per year – including oil, to produce synthetic fibres, and because we use huge amounts of fertilisers to grow cotton, and the top it off with chemicals to produce, dye, and finish the materials.

Above - Ellen Mac Carther Foundation

Cotton represents nearly half of the total fibre used to make clothing today. Cotton itself is a natural fibre, but the problems that we are now seeing around its dominance is due to the way in which it is grown - with more than 90% genetically modified. GM cotton seeds, graft into the DNA some genes from a common bacterium which make them toxic to the insects that normally consume them, with the idea that then you need to use less pesticides. It works, for a while. But each year the targeted bugs build up resistance and when we kill off one bug, sometimes other bugs become problems, so the farmers then still have to spray the chemicals, being confirmed that with the industry still now responsible for 18% of worldwide pesticide use and 25% of total insecticide use.

Unfortunately the way we are currently growing cotton is also is destroying ecosystem sustainability and biodiversity, by killing beneficial organisms including soil inhabiting organisms, that convert organic matter into nutrients for the plant, which then is preventing the regeneration of soil nutrients for future crops. These ‘health’ concerns are not only for our soil but also to the farmers and community around the farms, as well as the wearers of the end product and the wider environment around.  Pesticides are designed to kill, and while we dont die immediately, studies show when exposed to them long-term, a much higher rate of diseases including cancer. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that pesticides unintentionally kill at least 67 million birds annually in the U.S alone and these chemicals seep into run-off water after heavy rains, poisoning lakes, rivers and waterways with pesticide residue increasingly being discovered in unrelated foods, farm animals and even breast milk. When we spray the land with a chemical, or grow it in plants, it will not only affect one part of life. Nothing in life works this way…

Then there is also the monopoly of power with the seed company - Monsanto- who also owns the pesticide company. They price the seed super high, and then the cotton farmers have to pay the prices every year for the new seeds, as the insects develop a resistance. India is one of the highest growers, but also saw over 12600 farmers committed suicide in the India area of cotton farming in 2015 as they grew more and more in debt and saw no way out.

The manner in which we can overcome this is by turning back to organic cotton…which is growing at a rate of 50% per year as consumers and brands become aware of the need for sustainability. Organic farmers grow a diversity of crops to maintain healthy and fertile soils and fight off pests naturally. By diversifying crops, farmers can also diversify their income and means they dont have all their eggs in one basket incase of crop failure, climate variability, price volatility and changes in market demand. Organic cotton also does not pollute the water like GM or pesticide ridden cotton crops do.

Cotton is not the only textile we use, and alternative synthetic materials have their own negatives and positives to way up. They use less water and land to make but then we are well aware now that textiles made from plastic-based fibres shed plastic microfibres when washed, that can end up in the environment or the ocean. These plastic-based fibres are not biodegradable and are a nightmare for our marine life. We are innovating new materials and learning how to recycle old ones, as continuing to make these synthetic fibres is not possible to continue with no end.

There are other fabrics designers are starting to use more due to their lighter footprint. One of the worldís oldest fabrics, linen is woven from the fibres of the flax plant and is a completely natural resource. No part of the flax plant is wasted - whilst only the best fibres are used for fabric production, the left over linseeds, oil, straw and fibre are all used in other ways. The production of linen fabric uses less water and energy than cotton and synthetic fibres. Tencel is a natural, man-made fibre made from cellulose in wood pulp harvested from eucalyptus trees and they are very low in toxic impact on fresh water and soil in comparison to other fibres, also using 80% less water than cotton in production, and there are more exciting designs coming in terms of textiles.

After focusing on the materials themselves, then we look at how the material is turned into clothes, and it is no surprise that over half of times you turn your dress or shirt inside out to look at the tag, it will not say MADE IN YOUR HOME COUNTRY, but rather made in China, Vietnam, India or Bangladesh, the four largest produces of garments.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with sourcing work globally, especially in countries where employment is the difference between life and death. However there is fair employment and then there is a blurry line between sweatshops and slavery.

Ridiculous hours, no health care, unsafe working conditions, no union or no workers rights, and wages so low that they can barely survive on a bowl of rice in a shanty shack, is insane and unethical… If we get clear about how our clothes are getting sold to us so cheaply, we realise that something must have been squeezed to lower the price… and generally it is the workers wages. Crossing the line closer and closer to slavery…

You - and me and our kids - wear their blood sweat and tears to save a buck when we buy those $5 t-shirts, with an Oxfam report finding that just 4% of the amount Australians spend on clothing goes to the garment workers - and when you see how many of them live in developing countries, it really does feel like slave labour.

These factories and the people working in them, are so desperate for the work, that if the fashion company threatens to go somewhere else for a lower price, they cave and accept the price cuts to their already low wages.

What positive alternatives do we have? There are companies that make a significant effort to make sure they are supporting the makers - the people - of the garments no matter where they live. They establish relationships with the factories and their workers, and have greater transparency in their chain from start to finish, and take responsibility for the environmental policies of these factories too. Making sure there is correct water processing and waste removal. Does it mean you pay more. Probably. Can you feel good about the pretty dress. Much more. Isn’t that what luxury is actually meant to be about? Feeling good in our outfit? I would argue that this is really base line of how we should treat other humans… especially who are providing us with a product!

The last part of the loop is what we do with the dress once we no longer wear it. Throw it in landfill? Generally this means it will take years to break down and emit greenhouse gases while it does…

Australians on average buy 27 kilograms of new textiles each year, and then discarding 23 kilograms into landfill, which ABC's War on Waste in 2017 revealed equates to;

Australians throwing away 6000 kilograms of fashion and textile waste every 10 minutes.

Internationally, of the total fibre input used for clothing, 87% is landfilled

Or we give it to charity. Which is nice. It is. I do it.

But then I found out that Australian charities, spend $13 million on waste management, sending 60,000 tonnes of unusable donations to landfill every year. On average globally, only 20% of clothes given to charity actually sells and according to Oxfam, more than 70% of the clothes donated globally end up in Africa, and the rest to other developing countries. This is done with the best of intentions, but that once it is there, there is so much that then they end up burning it or adding it to their landfill. So our fast-fashion choices, end up being their garbage to dispose of and at the same time it destroys their own local textile industry as people can get cheaper options.

With these three main points of the fashion industry in mind, we then must look to the future. If the global population rises to 8.5 billion people by 2030 as the United Nations estimates it will, overall consumption of fashion will increase by 63 percent from 62 million tonnes to 102 million tonnes - which means we need to look ASAP at how can we fix it - rework it - redesign it.

Find a solution for the problem.

It is getting examined much more now by many groups and initiatives for change are happening - the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment was adopted by dozens of brands at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May 2017. You can read up more also on the Pulse Fashion Report which summarises where the industry is at and helps set standards to move towards, and the Ellan MacCarther Foundation who works with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

Briefly now are the three main compassionate roads to explore with fashion for the future;

  1. Consume less to start with.

    Like so many of the big lessons that can help us, it is sooooo simple. But a hard habit to establish. I liken it to not worrying when we feel stressed. Being mindful and not getting caught up with the stories in our heads. Eating less shit food. All easy said. But damn it takes self control and a constant rebringing ourselves into the present to make mindful choices.

    To buy less fashion means to go against the constant messages we are being told subtly, and loud, through social media, through magazines, through our peers. The messages that we need to keep up with trends, that wearing something new equates to feeling “fresh”. Rather, we want to consume less and get content with less - one of the keys to happiness, so many studies have concluded. Simplify our lives, and be content with less.

  2. Innovating new materials or new ways that we can recycle pre-used materials.

    Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing currently but players in the industry say collaboration and innovation is key and it will happen. It IS happening - as we are developing new technology to seperate mixed fibres, or plastics in clothes, to break them down and reuse them. We are coming up with turning waste products into new fibres… One example is the group, Kering, who has built innovation labs dedicated to creating new materials from recycled nylon using fishing nets and regenerated cashmere, which it already uses in production. The company has also invested in start-ups including Worn Again, who have developed “closed loop” recycling techniques, separating cotton and polyester fibres. Newlife by Sinterama is a polyester yarn processed and spun in Italy from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles and it requires 94 percent less water and 60 percent less energy, while producing 32 percent fewer carbon emissions than virgin polyester.

Individual companies recognize that they cannot create this disruptive change on their own – the industry as a whole must develop partnerships and ecosystems that can commercialize and scale the most promising innovations on the horizon. This type of collaboration is what will achieve the speed of change needed to boost the fashion industry’s environmental and social performance – and profitability – in the long run. PULSE

  1. Circular Fashion.

    This will expand exponentially in the near-future, like Uber changed the way we get around (and Google driverless cars will next!) Unlike a traditional, linear model — in which raw materials are extracted, made into goods, used and eventually discarded by consumers — a circular model works by reusing, or breaking down products at the end of their life cycle and reworking them into the building blocks of new products, hopefully to continue the cycle as many times as possible. Noting that consuming less and innovating materials we can recycle is also part of circular fashion!

Above- Pulse Fashion Report

Redesigning the wheel is happening already, slowly, but our global awareness has been sparked and we are understanding this needs to be an overhaul and quick. Already, H&M one of the worlds largest fashion groups, have started a campaign which allows consumers to drop off unwanted clothes for recycling and they are now the worlds largest user of organic cotton and have a “sustainable range” (although much is to be said about workers rights so far of their factories according to some reports - but it is a BIG step in the right direction) Some other interesting examples to give us hope rather make us feel like we should run around naked because all clothes are bad, included C&A. They developed the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certified tshirt , making sure that they only work with materials that allow reutilisation, releasing only clean water, renewable energy sources, made in safe working conditions. Brands like M&S incentivise consumers to recycle goods with store vouchers and Patagonia offers free repairs and recycling to all customers. Australian designers such as KitX, Spell Designs, Tluxe, Nagnata, and Ginger and Smart are also committed to sustainable and ethical fashion, and this list is growing.

“Just using less is not a solution [though]; it just buys you time,” says fashion consultant Julie Gilhart, one of the passionate pioneers who introduced many in the fashion industry to sustainability issues in the early years. “Itʼs like a crisis situation right now. The way we do things has to change and it isnʼt going to be comfortable.”

On home soil, Camilla Reed founder of the Australian Circular Fashion Conference (ACFC) and a former textile designer, is bringing the industry together to work on implementing the uncomfortable discussions and forging actionable steps. She also wants to open a factory in Australia to assess the fabric content and transform it into recycled clothing or plastic pellets, as without somewhere to do this, recycling becomes much harder. And it is a no-brainer, we already have soooo much plastic on our planet, it is madness to not be reusing it rather than making more!

The players in the industry must take big steps. And fast. It comes with being in the game. We likely, should -and can - also do the same to our own personal capacity as conscious consumers; to begin from where we are is a great first step…anyone else keen? Yeah, it will take a little effort. And like any change, probably be a little annoying… but when I remember why I am doing it, it will be worth it.

“In my opinion, T-shirts canʼt be sold for $5. It doesnʼt reflect the true cost of the ethical and environmental impact,” Camille Reed