Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Cradle to Cradle: Fashion’s Grave Reality

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The circular economy.

Closing the loop.

Cradle to cradle.

These are all phrases you may well have heard of. If not, best to familiarise yourself with them a.s.a.p. As our increasingly consumerist lifestyles reach tipping point, organisations are desperately trying to gather and reuse our rubbish, because otherwise, we may have nothing left to make anything with.

This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit was kicked off by someone I had, until that moment, not heard of: Bill McDonough. If you are as clueless as I was, take the next 14 minutes and 30 seconds to get to know him and his ideas a little better. You won’t regret it.

Interesting, right?

People were still clapping by the time I’d completed my purchase of his book, Cradle to Cradle.

Fashion’s grave reality

McDonough’s work is clearly applicable to the creation of many, if not all, products. But it is particularly relevant to clothing because this industry has arguably one of the most linear and wasteful cycles in modern society. And this cycle’s impact on the environment is exacerbated by its speed and the quantities involved.

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The fashion cycle: cradle to grave

With 92 million tonnes of textile waste being produced by the global fashion industry in 2015, corresponding to more than 12 kg per person, it’s clear that we are hemorrhaging valuable resources every second of every day.

So What Exactly is Being Wasted?

I recently wrote about the differences between natural and man-made fibres, and the importance, as a consumer, of understanding where these different fibres come from.

In particular, I highlighted popular man-made fibre polyester as the most used in clothing production today.

Polyester is derived from fossil fuels, one of our planet’s none renewable resources. A resource so valuable in fact, that it should be treated as a ‘nest egg’ McDonough suggests.

And yet, not only do we buy cheap, poorly made clothing using this precious resource, but we throw it out in such a way that these valuable materials cannot be retrieved.

Perhaps excavating landfill sites will be a common activity in the future?

How insanely backward would that be?

How Can the Fashion Industry Do It Better?

How can this regressive fashion industry transform itself into a regenerative one?

When it comes to fashion, and the materials we use, we can work to achieve a circular system in two ways:

By creating a “biological” cycle, whereby an item made with 100% natural fibres (wool for example), able to be broken down by bacteria, is reclaimed by nature into its vast ecosystem when we no longer want or require it.

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The fashion cycle: cradle to cradle (biological)

Or a “technical” one, whereby the clothing we buy made of man-made fibres is designed in such a way that the fibres can be separated and reused in a never-ending production cycle, whilst not degrading in quality.

 

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The fashion cycle: cradle to cradle (technical)

Some organisations are themselves working on large-scale collection schemes in their shops. These schemes provide them with the raw materials to experiment with ways of recycling fibres.TT

Unintelligent and Inelegant Things…

My favourite phrase from ‘Cradle to Cradle’ is: ‘products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant –what we call crude products

Everything we buy, and everything we do, is part of a bigger process.

We can’t know everything. But know this: as a wearer of clothes, what you chose to buy and wear really matters. Because with every purchase, you are telling the world who and what you support.

Choose not to buy cheap clothes from people who cannot tell you how or where their products are made.

Chose not to buy clothing from companies who ignore our collective responsibility to address the issues the fashion industry and, by default, we all face.

A product without background, without craftsmanship, made without thought or purpose or regard for the future is a product without beauty, without meaning and without worth.

It’s a crude purchase. Simple.

*This story first appeared on Study 34

How NOT to Make the Fashion Industry More Sustainable

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This week, representatives from all the major brands – from fast fashion retailers like H&M, Asos and Zara, through to luxury labels like Burberry and Swarowski – are gathering in Copenhagen to discuss sustainability in the global fashion industry.

The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative and destructive industries on earth. It generates €1.5 trillion every year and produces over a billion clothes every year. With global garment production set to increase by 63% by 2030, this model is reaching its physical limit.

This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit is focusing  on “circularity” – an industry buzzword that promises relief to the problem of limited resources within one of the world’s most resource intensive industries. In 2015, the fashion industry consumed nearly 80 billion cubic meters of fresh water, emitted over a million tonnes of CO2 and produced 92 million tonnes of waste. The Summit admits that the industry has a disastrous environmental impact and that we face “increasingly higher risk of destabilising the state of the planet, which would result in sudden and irreversible environmental changes”.

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Panelists at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 10 May 2017. Credit: Copenhagen Fashion Summit

While their focus on circularity sounds promising, it’s simply not enough.

Industry leaders rarely talk about the real solution: reducing the overall volume of production. All their talk about sustainable investing and innovative new materials and technologies comes under the assumption that the industry continues to grow. But unlimited growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources.

The industry wants to place the responsibility on consumers to educate themselves and recycle their own clothes, while continuing to heavily market cheap fast fashion at us.

Real change is not going to happen without investing in designs and strategies to extend the life of clothing and reduce the environmental impact of production at the design stage. Fashion brands need to redefine their marketing strategies and start involving customers in a new narrative where people buy less and clothes are more durable and repairable. We need to slow down.

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Trash queen street performance in Taipei, November 2016
It’s not enough to sell customers placebo solutions that ultimately leave shopping patterns untouched and guilt free. Even if we encourage people to recycle more, we have to remember that recycling is a resource intensive process relying on chemicals and vast amounts of energy, with many unsolved problems making it far from commercially viable.

We already know that we own more clothes than we can wear. Shopping doesn’t make us happy in the long run. High volumes of fast fashion and rapidly changing trends aren’t catering to our real needs.

If the Fashion industry really wants to be “an engine for a global and sustainable development”, it needs to think about how to shift the business model beyond the current paradigm of continuous economic growth. We hope that the fashion industry doesn’t wait until 2030 to realise that.

*This story first appeared on Greenpeace.org