By Lucy Seigle
Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. At last the industry is acting – but more has to be done
Facebook users will be familiar with the On This Day feature. From time to time it greets you with a blast from your relatively recent past. Some find it unnerving, especially if it’s a picture with an ex, for example. But my eye is always drawn to the clothes. Whatever happened to that handbag? Do you still wear those jeans?
If it’s an image from more than three years ago, then the answer is probably “no”. According to a recent report from Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years. For a younger demographic, you can probably halve that. A UK-based fashion company tells its buyers to remember that a dress will stay in the owner’s wardrobe for only five weeks.
The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK. While an estimated £30bn-worth hangs about gathering dust – Tinie Tempah’s refrain “I have so many clothes, I keep some at my aunt’s house” was spot on – an unpalatable quantity goes in the bin. A survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s last spring found that 235m items ended up on landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer. Surely we can do better than this?
Vivienne Westwood – never one to miss an opportunity to call her legion of fans to action – thinks we can. “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill,” she said recently at one of her own shows. Hot on her heels, Vetements, very much the “it” brand of our times, made its own statement last week. The label filled the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the commercial hotspots of global fashion retail – not with its latest collection, but with waste garments en route to a recycling charity.
But it was Stella McCartney who really upped the ante, electing to shoot her latest collection on a Scottish landfill site. Models lay across the rusted husks of old cars and languished on top of household waste. From a sustainability perspective, Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top-performing brand. Much of this success is based on McCartney’s own personal resolve. It’s clear that the landfill backdrop is not just an interesting aesthetic to her.
Now there’s an obvious contradiction between selling fashion and instructing us to buy less, but what these designers are calling for is some sanity in an industry now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet.
The fashion industry has developed a pretty terrible reputation – not least for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies. Four years ago, 1,133 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while producing clothing for high-street brands and their subsidiaries. After that, many worried what was next.
For those in and around the industry, garment waste has long been rumoured to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecast to increase as fashion waste becomes an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans. This is a tale of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionised both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced – and not often for the better.
Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and doesn’t make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory (and a large factory in Dhaka can produce 240m pieces a year).
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced globally each year (predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka without waste management systems) but my own research puts it between 80bn and 100bn garments. That means a lot of hidden fashion waste.
Where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of big production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting room (called jhut) often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires a regular occurrence. But what happens to all the rest?
“You don’t even want to know,” says Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus, who spends a lot of time following unwanted garments out of factory gates. “You see it by the side of the road being sold, or just dumped, but a lot is burned,” she says. “I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can’t really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste.”
Meanwhile, the urge to buy grows stronger as clothes shopping takes on a quasi-addictive quality. And let’s be honest here, are the fast-fashion corporations with their extraordinary profits likely to do anything about consumption, the driver of waste and the driver of the industry’s impact? Their business model, after all, depends on it.
Increasingly these brands are signposting a way of allowing us to have our cake and eat it. They are buying into recycling schemes and investing in competitions to close the loop on textile fibres. The idea is that if they can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments, the impact of fast fashion can be negated.
The trouble is, it’s hard to buy into. I have been critical of brands overclaiming in this area before, particularly when I looked at the numbers around H&M’s recycling week in 2016. In truth, there are quite a few technical barriers to closing the fashion loop – that is, regenerating fibre from an old, unloved outfit, spinning and making it into something else, all within a timeframe and quality that’s interesting to the consumer.
“Every fabric is different,” says Aus, “so one garment might contain a blend of different fabrics. On top of that, you have to strip out the zippers and buttons inherent in post-consumer fashion waste.” So while a consumer may believe that a loved jumper or sundress is going to be magically regenerated into a new item, in practice your old T-shirt is probably going into a well-worn recycling network.
She and her team have developed software to keep track of potential garment waste data during production, which she is trialling with a large manufacturer: Beximco in Bangladesh. By getting information about the volume and material of leftover textiles, she can design that material back into a product before it becomes waste. “I’d rather not produce waste in the first place,” she reasons. “Plus, this is a better system for large brands who find recycling and regeneration difficult. That is easier for smaller, more agile companies.” This means some of fashion’s big lessons about its waste may come from unlikely parts of the apparel world. For once, the smaller companies have a chance to steal.
Tom Kay, the founder of Cornish outdoor brand Finisterre, is addressing a waste problem highly relevant to his customer and doesn’t care that it might seem niche to the rest of us. “The average neoprene wetsuit only lasts two years,” he says. “We’ve redesigned with wider seam tape and better stitching but it still only lasts probably for three. It would be disastrous for these things to be dumped, but there’s nowhere for them to go. That’s why you see them piled up in people’s garages.”
Last week, he launched an intriguing job advert in partnership with Exeter University: a £26,000-a-year position, paid by Finisterre, to be filled by a materials scientist who shares his dream of making wetsuits from wetsuits. “We don’t know how it will go, but I’m excited,” he said.
■ Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing was purchased in the UK – an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012.
■ Fashion in the UK lasts an average of 3.3 years before a garment is discarded.
■ Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.
■ Providing one tonne of clothing for direct re-use by giving it to a charity shop or selling it online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
*This story first appeared on The Guardian
We Don’t Know Enough About The Impact Our Clothing Has On People And Planet, Fashion Revolution Warns
Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index reveals that the top 100 global fashion brands still have a long way to go towards transparency
Many of the biggest global brands that make our clothes still don’t disclose enough information about their impact on the lives of workers in their supply chain and on the environment, new research reveals.
The way fashion is made, sourced and consumed continues to cause suffering and pollution. Fashion Revolution believes that this urgently needs to change and that the first step is greater transparency.
Transparent disclosure makes it easier for brands, suppliers and workers, trade unions and NGOs to understand what went wrong when human rights and environmental abuses occur, who is responsible and how to fix it.
The Fashion Transparency Index 2017, released today, reviews and ranks how much information 100 of the biggest global fashion companies publish about their social and environmental policies, practices and impacts.
The research found that even the highest scoring brands on the list still have a long way to go towards being transparent. The average score brands achieved was 49 out of 250, less than 20% of the total possible points, and none of the companies on the list scored above 50%.
Adidas and Reebok achieved the highest score of 121.5 out of 250 (49% of the total possible points), followed by Marks & Spencer with 120 points and H&M with 119.5 points. However, only 8 brands scored higher than 40%, while a further 9 brands scored 4% or less out of 250 possible points, of which Dior, Heilan Home and s.Oliver scored 0 because they disclose nothing at all.
Out of the premium and luxury brands reviewed, 9 scored between 21-30% of the total possible points, which was higher than the average. The other 10 scored 15% or less.
The good news is that 31 brands are publishing supplier lists (tier 1) including ASOS, Benetton, C&A, Esprit, Gap, Marks & Spencer, Uniqlo, and VF Corporation brands since April 2016. This is an increase from last year when Fashion Revolution surveyed 40 big fashion companies and only five were publishing supplier lists. This year 14 brands are publishing their processing facilities where their clothes are dyed, laundered, printed or treated. However, no brand is publishing its raw material suppliers. Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy scored highest on traceability (44%) because their supplier list includes detailed information such as types of products or services and approximate number of workers in each supplier facility.
Meanwhile few brands disclose efforts on living wages, collective bargaining, and reducing consumption of resources (on average 9% of the information required in these categories was disclosed), sending a strong signal to brands to urgently look at their own business models and purchasing practices.
There is a long way to go in order for the industry to pay a living wage, as only 34 brands have made public commitments to paying living wages to workers in the supply chain, and only four brands — H&M, Marks & Spencer, New Look and Puma — are reporting on progress towards achieving this aim. This shows that much more needs to be done and faster by brands to ensure that workers, from farm to retail, are paid fairly.
Fashion Revolution Co-founder Carry Somers said: “People have the right to know that their money is not supporting exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental destruction. There is no way to hold companies and governments to account if we can’t see what is truly happening behind the scenes. This is why transparency is so essential.”
“Through publishing this research, we hope brands will be pushed in a more positive direction towards a fundamental shift in the way the system works, beginning with being more transparent.”
Dr. Mark Anner, Director, Centre for Global Workers’ Rights Penn State University said: “The time has come for brands and retailers to make their entire supply chains transparent. The time has also come to establish sourcing practices that are conducive to the human development and empowerment of the workers who work so hard every day to make the clothes we wear.”
Brands were awarded points based on their level of transparency across 5 categories, including: policy & commitments, governance, traceability, supplier assessment and remediation and spotlight issues which looks at living wages, collective bargaining and business model innovation. Brands were selected to represent a cross section of market segments including high street, luxury, sportswear, accessories, footwear and denim sectors.
The data revealed that:
- Policy & Commitments – overall score = 49%
The highest concentration of brands scored in the 71-80% range with 11 brands scoring between 81-90% and 16 brands scoring 20% or less. By and large, brands are disclosing the most about their policies and commitments on social and environmental issues.
- Governance – overall score = 34%
The largest number of brands (37) score 10% or less. 13 brands fall in the 41-50% range. Marks & Spencer is the only brand to score 100% meaning that they’re disclosing who in the team is responsible for social and environmental issues, along with their contact details, board level accountability, and how other staff and suppliers are incentivised to improve performance.
- Traceability – overall score = 7%
Overall brands are disclosing few details about their suppliers. 31 brands are publishing supplier lists (tier 1). 14 brands are publishing their processing facilities. No brand is publishing its raw material suppliers. 23 brands disclose having updated their supplier list at least in the past 12 months, while Target says it uploads its supplier list quarterly and ASOS promises to do so every two months.
- Know, Show & Fix – overall score = 16%
The highest concentration of brands (36) fall in the 11-20% range whilst another 31 score less than 10%. Adidas and Reebok score highest at 39%, with 7 other brands joining them in the 31-40% range. Brands often disclose their supplier assessment processes and procedures. However brands share little information about the results of their supplier assessments, and brands don’t publish much about the results of the efforts made to fix problems in factories.
- Spotlight Issues – overall score = 9%
Overall, brands are disclosing little about their efforts to pay living wages or to support collective bargaining and unionisation. Few brands are disclosing their efforts to address overconsumption of resources. Marks & Spencer, New Look and H&M scored in the 41-50% range, and no brand scored above 50%. The majority of brands scored less than 10%.
The report provides recommendations for how consumers, brands and retailers, governments and policy makers, NGOs, unions and workers can use the information contained in the Fashion Transparency Index to make a positive difference.
You can find more information at FashionRevolution.org
The oceans are choked with discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, that are estimated to kill 300,000 whales, dolphins and seals each year. It’s a grotesque and avoidable toll on nature, and one that Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, hopes to reduce using an unlikely ally – fashion.
The Italian firm is pioneering the use of “ghost” or discarded fishing nets to make a synthetic fabric marketed under the name Econyl that’s currently being used by several apparel brands, including Speedo and California surfer Kelly Slater’s Outerknown.
Last year, Aquafil regenerated more than 5,000 tons of discarded nets at its factory in Slovenia. With the exception of some fish farming nets, which are coated with copper oxide to prevent algae and cannot be used, the company receives the majority of its nets directly from fishermen, or through partnerships with two firms, Healthy Seas and Net-Works.
By breaking down the nets to a molecular level, the plastics are then recreated as yarn in a process the sustainability industry calls recommercialization. “If they know us, they contact us and we pay for the waste. They have to have a motivation to contact us. So they call us from all over. From California, from Australia. We take them from all over the world,” says Bonazzi, a former scuba diver.
The environmental problem of discarded fishing nets, or ghost nets, is well-documented. Some are accidentally lost during storms, or dumped deliberately. By some estimates, ghost netting and other discarded fishing gear makes up 10% of all marine litter. The cost to marine life is devastating.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reports an average of 11 entangled large whales per year from 2000 to 2012 along the US west coast. Between 2002 and 2010, 870 nets recovered from Washington state alone contained more than 32,000 marine animals.
Other initiatives include Fishing for Energy, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Marine Debris Program, Covanta and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Schnitzer Steel to collect old fishing gear and reuse it either in recycling or to produce energy.
Aquafil’s proposition is to turn ocean waste into higher-value products. “If you can reach people with higher income then they’re always ready to pay something more for a product that responds to their needs and to their desires. And everybody wants some kind of exclusive product, and they feel that wasting is no longer connected to luxury.”
But fashion is fickle. Currently the fashion for nostalgia, and for an era before the advent of mass luxury is more apparent than ever. Warnings of a slump have been issued recently by luxury goods companies including Hermès and Richemont and there are fears that the industry could be forced into a fundamental shift in values.
The big question for the luxury market, say analysts, is whether the values of fashion and luxury can begin to acquire values that align with sustainability in a meaningful way.
Of course, the cost of the material is also a factor. And it depends which cost is most important to you. Recommercialized nylon is up to 6% more expensive to produce than new nylon. But creating fibre from recycled nets and carpet waste produces 50% less CO2 than typical, petroleum-based fibre production.
As the luxury industry reports a gloomy outlook, many companies are looking to reconfigure their notions of luxury to meet new consumer ideals around the ideas of recycling, repurposing and reclaiming.
“The more the fashion industry hears about us, the more they call when they need nylon as raw material,” says Bonazzi. Slowly, he says, “we are becoming more conscious and more aware. Of course, we all want to be rich but we also want to live.”
Some of the spirit of “ethical fashion” was on view at the periphery of New York’s fashion week last month where men’s clothing designer Heron Preston staged an event in a department of sanitation salt shed to draw attention to ways New Yorkers can reduce landfill waste, in this instance, by “upcycling” department uniforms into designer clothes.
Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution and a leading campaigner for sustainable fashion, says any effort to reduce the environmental cost of clothes production and steer toward closed-loop technology in which 100% of fibres are recycled must be embraced.
“We have created an environmental crisis in the oceans of spectacular degree so any solution that helps us begin to redress the imbalance is a good solution,” she says.
But, she continues: “We’re coming off 25 years of product, product, product. And this is what people understand. It all needs to be seen as a part of a concerted effort to clean up to embrace technology to allow us to enjoy clothes again without necessarily feeling that it’s at the cost of the Earth.”
*This story first appeared on The Guardian
Learn more about the impact of fashion on our oceans here
As part of Circulate’s collaboration with the Disruptive Innovation Festival, we’re featuring insight from some of this year’s Open Mic contributors in advance of their performance at the DIF. Find out more at thinkdif.co, and don’t forget to tune into this session live at 18:00 GMT on November 11th.
The problem in the fashion industry isn’t fashion itself: it’s the harmful impact of creating that fashion and the waste generated when that fashion is landfilled instead of circulated indefinitely.
So for those of you who love clothes there is hope. We don’t have to fear fashion as an ugly bad habit, but something that can be reinvented through innovation and dedication.
What if the clothes we wore improved the lives of the people who made them and the environment in which they were produced? What if when we were done with our clothes they continued to live long and full lives with others until one day they were turned into new resources?
Fashion is going through a transformative change right now. More than ever before, brands, customers and the media are highlighting the problems and solutions the industry is grappling with. Ever since the 1990’s the stories of human rights abuses have been brought to light, and each year apparel companies are attacked for those abuses. Now environmental and animal welfare issues are included in those stories. The more transparent the supply chain gets, the more customers are demanding to know “who made my clothes”. Campaigns like Fashion Revolution drive continued attention to the subject. This is a good thing.The more each of us learn about the issue and what we can do to update our buying behaviors to promote better supply chain practices, the more the industry will shift.
As the options for buying more ethical clothing increases, the attention is also moving towards the amount of clothing we buy and what do we do with our clothes when we are done with them. Currently Americans now buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980. That’s a lot of clothes.
Trying to fix the apparel industry is more than a daunting task. It is a systemic change that needs to happen. But it isn’t quite as scary when you look at it through a circular economy lens. In fact, looking at it through this lens creates a beautiful, simplistic path for design, production and use of a product. Now we have to integrate that beautiful simplicity into an archaic industry. Luckily there are many working on this, slowly creating solutions that patched together will produce an incredible web of change. Designing differently is already happening as companies start to create products that can actually get recycled. The Cradle to Cradle’s Fashion Positive program is creating a library of Cradle to Cradle materials. Apparel brands are creating systems for collection and processing, and recycling technologies are evolving from ideas to implementable solutions.
The Renewal Workshop fits into this new model well, providing brands and retailers the infrastructure and manufacturing ability to create a new model of business. One where clothing is assessed at its highest utility and kept there. All the resources that went into making a dress in the first place should be conserved and maintained. The renewal process does this assessment and identifies clothing that through cleaning and repair are resold again to a certified standard. While higher priced items like cars and electronics have a history of strong used sales channels, we are now in a time where other products can begin exploring this.
Fashion is a statement of who we are. We make conscious choices every day about what to wear. Some of that based on function, and some of it is a statement of our personalities. The need and interest to wear clothing is not going away, so new innovations need to happen to ensure that there is an industry to provide us these clothes.
The way we make clothes is one part, the next part is the care and thought about how we use the clothes made, then we must innovate what we do with those clothes when we are done. While we might get bored of a piece of clothing, the clothing itself might not be done and so with an investment in circular systems we will ensure the value of those products are able to live on.
*This story first appeared on Circulate News
If they told us more, would we listen?
Consider the clothing label. Not fashion label, as in Chanel or Gucci, but the itchy, annoying little tag hiding inside every single piece of clothing you’ve ever worn.
That tag is the closest thing we’ve got to a legend, a guide to whatever it is we’re wearing. In many cases, it tells us what the item is made from and how to wash it. Unfortunately, labels leave out some pretty important information about our clothes and how they’re produced. In their understated way, clothing tags keep some of the garment industry’s most troubling secrets.
You may not have a burning desire to know your turtleneck’s or your favorite jeans’ life story ― fair enough. But a number of label-obsessed clothing industry players want labels to be more informative and even empowering, to tell us more about how our clothes are made and help us discard them responsibly when we’re done with them.
“The label is a place where we already to go access information, but we don’t get what we want,” Marianne Caroline Hughes, a United Kingdom-based sustainable fashion advocate and entrepreneur, told The Huffington Post. “It’s hugely underutilized as a place to access information and act upon information as well.”
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission enforces labeling requirements. That’s why the tag on your shirt tells you its country of origin, fiber content and the name of the manufacturer or dealer.
Still, in many places, it’s optional to include the country of origin. For example, Hong Kong, home to one of the world’s largest textile industries, doesn’t require it. Same for the U.K., Sweden, Germany and several other European nations.
Wherever they’re based, clothing companies certainly aren’t in the business of oversharing (if they even know all the details of their own supply chains, which they often don’t).
Christina Dean, founder of the fashion waste reduction organization Redress, says that, ideally, every label would include information about an item’s environmental impact. And since garments aren’t necessarily made in just one place, labels should say where the garment was manufactured and where the fabric comes from.
She’s not optimistic that brands would voluntarily offer this. Her more modest wish is for some kind of global standard, requiring every garment to state its country of origin. “It’s like a 101 of transparency,” she told HuffPost.
Others believe clothing tags should acknowledge the people who toil unseen to make our clothes. The garment industry employs at least 60 million people worldwide ― from Bangladesh and Cambodia, to Europe and Los Angeles ― most of them women. In countries where poverty is rampant, companies involved in various stages of garment production have been known to employ young children and subject them to dangerous and unfair working conditions.
After more than 1,100 garment workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, Sean McHugh and his colleagues at the Canadian Fair Trade Network set out to raise awareness about garment workers’ lives, using clothing tags to tell their stories.
The group’s 2015 ad campaign, “The Label Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story,” featured sweaters and jackets with oversized tags crammed with information, based on the group’s research abroad. Each tag aimed to capture the experiences of a person who might have made the garment pictured. Here’s one of those stories:
The label reads:
100% cotton. Made in Cambodia by Behnly, 9 years old. He gets up at 5:00 am every morning to make his way to the garment factory where he works. It will be dark when he arrives and dark when he leaves. He dresses lightly because the temperature in the room he works reaches 30 degrees [86 degrees Fahrenheit]. The dust in the room fills his nose and mouth. He will make less than a dollar, for a day spent slowly suffocating. A mask would cost the company ten cents.
The label doesn’t tell the whole story.
McHugh, the Canadian Fair Trade Network’s executive director, said the labels campaign was one of the group’s most successful ever. Facebook followers doubled, website traffic tripled and the campaign was covered in 15 countries and in eight languages.
But the Network struggled to move from awareness to action. “The part that was lacking, the challenging bit, was the tangible next step for consumers to take,” McHugh told HuffPost.
The nonprofit Fashion Revolution also sees clothing labels as a gateway to more accountability. Its signature campaign, “Who Made My Clothes,” asks people to photograph labels on their clothing and post them on social media, to pressure brands into sharing the human stories behind the items they make ― stories that would otherwise never be told.
During the group’s annual awareness event in April, more than 1,200 brands, including Zara, American Apparel and Levi’s, responded to the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, according to a Fashion Revolution spokeswoman. Some replies even included photos and names of actual garment workers.
And if labels were to tell us the best way to get rid of our old clothes, what would that look like?
Levi’s has been doing this since 2009. Its “Care Tag for Our Planet” label, in partnership with Goodwill, is now sewn into every Levi’s product. This tag tells you not only how to properly wash and dry items, but also suggests you donate them at the end of their life cycle, instead of throwing them out.
“This is the first major step to begin to engage consumers in their environmental impact and what they can do reduce it,” Michael Kobori, a vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, said at the time of the Care Tag’s launch.
As HuffPost has reported, Goodwill takes in millions of pounds of used clothing a year and makes a monumental effort to keep them out of landfills, even though every donated item doesn’t necessarily make it to needy people.
By suggesting people donate their old items, Levi’s is taking a step toward encouraging customers to treat their clothes in an environmentally responsible way. It’s good advice, considering the clothes we as Americans throw out ― dozens of pounds a year, per person ― end up breaking down in landfills and polluting the atmosphere in dangerous and preventable ways.
Since ordinary people can’t just tell brands what to do, they understandably feel powerless, said Hughes, the U.K. entrepreneur. That’s why she and her label-loving counterparts see informative tags as a useful tool ― even a weapon ― in the quest for more transparency about the things we wear.
“I think the label, and making products a source of information, is the key to it all, really,” she said.
*This story first appeared on Huffington Post
Upcycling is a creative design solution to an environmental crisis – it is also the single most effective way at slowing down fashion without resorting to boycotting brands.
Because we don’t need to stop buying clothes, we need to learn how to buy better, and by buying clothes made with pre-existing materials we would save an enormous amounts of water, slow down unnecessary virgin textile production and drastically reduce landfill mass with its associated emissions burden.
What upcycling does is encourage creativity, problem solving, a sense of humour, and the understanding of efficiency and common sense.
There is a kind of poetry in taking the unwanted and giving it another life – as a design process it has its own aesthetic signature, its own set of values, its unique method. It may not be for everyone, but those who love it can become passionately addicted.
It encourages time, the single most undervalued word in fashion’s modern history.
It also encourages patience, which, along with time, is part of an ancient fashion lexicon.
It encourages a journey of discovery whereby sources of fashion waste are located, materials are ‘saved’ and reintroduced into the system via the intelligent use of creativity and manual abilities.
Let’s put it into context. Upcycling may be a new definition (first coined by Reiner Pilz in 1994: “Recycling,” he said, “I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling – where old products are given more value, not less.” ) but we have been upcycling for millennia in all forms of art and design, from mosaic to Wabi-Sabi, quilting to Boro fabric, modern art to interior design.
We just have to look at food to understand how steeped repurposing is in our culture. Almost every country will have a much loved national dish that derives from leftovers: Paella in Spain, stale bread for Bread and Butter Pudding, Minestrone, Broth… there are way too many to mention all.
And in fashion it’s second nature: in fact, it’s so trendy right now that designers are borrowing the look without actually implementing the technique. From Galliano at Margiela to Christopher Kane, catwalks are awash with the ‘looks upcycled’ aesthetic, its vibrant, patchy, colourful, often idiosyncratic juxtapositions look great online, a breath of fresh air to contrast black minimalism.
Back then when clothes didn’t cost the same as a sandwich, people made the effort to keep them, customising them to suit the changing trends. So when we went from hippy to glamrock to punk, kids didn’t go to New Look to buy their skinnies and ripped t-shirt. They learned how to sew (or asked their mum) and ripped away purposefully. Clothes had value and weren’t thrown away, providing a creative canvas for change. It was a challenge, it was disruptive, it was iconoclastic: grannies’ tartan skirts ending up ripped and safetypinned on the Sex Pistols; Victorian underwear, such as drawers and petticoats, becoming ruffles on a New Romantic shirt.
Unfortunately, in fashion, upcycling makes little sense in today’s culture, now that we have been taught by this gigantic industry that it’s easier to throw something away if it isn’t perfect, given that it has become so easy, quick and cheap to go out and buy something else, something new.
Despite the fact that it is estimated that the industry is producing approximately 150 billion items of clothing annually, closed loop technology is nowhere near 100% effective. Although we can recycle single fibres such as wool or cotton, we are still far from being able to recycle clothes made by blended fibres (that’s the majority of the stuff we wear) not to mention clothing implements such as zips, buttons, labels and sewing threads, or accessories, like hair clips, shoes and handbags.
So, while we wait for technology to save us, why not upscale upcycling instead?
It’s the best bet we’ve got to still make wonderful clothes whilst slowing down the industry.
Upcycling should be taught as a design technique, and as a technical method for production.
Young fashion designers interested to know more should be shown zero waste pattern cutting; how to follow a waste-stream; how to look for second hand clothing at scale; how to approach manufacturers for factory remnants. They should be taught how to disassemble garments and transform them into something else; how to sort surplus, how to store it and how to design to include surplus.
Garment workers should be taught disassembling and reassembling and trained ‘waste engineers’ inside both brands and manufacturers sourcing and production departments should be aware of where the surplus is kept, whether it is stock fabric, defected fabrics, unsold clothes or defective runs; they should know which types of waste are reusable and how to offer it to their clients to reincorporate it in their collections. There should be upcycling lines in factories, ready to produce new stuff from stuff that is deemed unusable.
It has been done before, plenty of times, the knowledge is there. It has been done as a result of poverty and need (women scouring factory floor off-cuts during the wars); it’s been done by the industry to maximise factory resource efficiency and it’s been done more recently by design pioneers who see it as a creative way to combat mass production and mass consumption. Just like the materials we reuse, its nothing new. But it’s not been upscaled, yet.
As resources will become more scarce and expensive, as the issue of fashion and textile waste drowning the planet will become more obvious following a global call for brand transparency, what we are looking at is a viable alternative, one that would be creating new skills and new jobs, and move us towards an efficient industry where surplus is addressed long before it becomes waste.
In a fashion moment where our prêt-à-porter has become much more like a prêt-à-jeter, we need to look back to move forward: we have the answer, now all we have to do is start asking the question.
Here you can find a video of Fashion Revolution’s upcycling workshops which took place in April during Fashion Revolution week, where you can find out more about upcycling, some amazing designers, and why it’s so important to become involved in looking for solutions for fashion.
Photographer Montana Lowery
Styling, Hair and Make up: Novel Beings
Models: Sienna Somers and Nancy Morris
All outfits created by students at the Upcycling Workshops.
*This story first appeared on Huffington Post
What product you buy can determine the quality of life the maker leads. Fairtrade-certified clothes ensure that those associated with the garment are given what they rightly deserve.
Ever looked at a stylish, sequined maxi dress draped on a mannequin at the mall, glanced at the price tag and thought it was a suspiciously low price? You were probably right. Behind the rock-bottom rates of fast fashion, there are often unregulated supply chains that make no efforts to pay a living wage, and also ignore the basic rights of the people who make these clothes. Price is not the only indicator, though — several luxury brands are as guilty as their lower-priced counterparts. From child labour to unsafe working conditions and low wages, the multi-billion-dollar profits of many large apparel brands often come at a human cost.
Fortunately, there is a growing awareness and demand for ethically produced clothing, fuelled by consumers. The week leading up to April 24 every year has been declared Fashion Revolution Week, in memory of the Rana Plaza tragedy and to keep the spotlight on the issue.
“Brands need to commit to ethical fashion”, says Devina Singh, Campaigns and Outreach Manager of Fairtrade India. “Fashion revolution is about celebrating ethical practices in fashion and asking more brands to give the consumer an option of fashion that is fair. When brands opt for the Fairtrade certification, you can be sure that the people behind your clothing and style statement were treated fairly throughout the supply chain. This includes the people who grew and made your clothes. I’ve seen transparent supply chains – it’s possible and it’s easy; all it takes is a commitment from the brand.” Devina elaborates that the Fairtrade certification is given to organisations that follow Fairtrade guidelines. Behind Fairtrade clothing lies a fair price for cotton, fair wages for the garment factory workers, empowerment of women farmers, respect for the environment and the commitment to invest Fairtrade premiums into the community that made the clothing.
“It’s fashionable to be non-exploitative. Our clothes are the skin that we put on and reflect who we are,” she says. She speaks of the resounding success of the Show Your Label week that Fairtrade India organises to support the international Fashion Revolution movement, which raises awareness about the workers who made the clothes and farmers who grew the cotton. All over India, everyone from students to celebrities wore their clothes inside out, took a picture of their favourite labels and uploaded it on social media, asking their brands — “Who made my clothes? Who grew my clothes?”
As awareness surges, so does the market for ethical brands that are rising to the occasion with designs that are both beautiful and durable. Safia Minney, founder and director of U.K.-based fair trade clothing brand People Tree, and author of the critically acclaimed book Slow Fashion – Aesthetics Meets Ethics, is a staunch advocate of the Slow Fashion movement. “Fast fashion needs to slow down,” she says. “If it slows down, true responsibility is possible through better trading practices. Make it your business to shop in line with your values. Consumers want to know the real story behind who made what they wear and they don’t want to continue to be part of the problem. Many ethical brands are coming into the market and People Tree is innovating with designer and retailer collaborations and further strengthening its clothing offer. The ethical fashion market is an exciting space to watch!”
Technology, too, is propelling this movement forward. The app Shop Ethical! (available on android and iPhones) is a handy list (that’s regularly updated) of companies and their practices, relating to both raw material sourcing as well as worker rights. With a single click, you can find out how ethical their supply chain is, and support the brands with good ratings by opting for their products.
While consumers are increasingly asking questions before they buy their clothes, there is also a growing movement against the trend of high consumption. “Buy less fast fashion, clean up your wardrobe, re-style, swap clothes, re-make your clothes and buy second-hand. If you need to buy new, buy fair trade, ethical and organic-certified clothing,” says Safia.
Joshua Fields Millburn, bestselling author and co-founder of http://www.theminimalists.com, believes that consumers have the power to look past the sale sign and make a deeper, more conscious decision. “We all need some stuff. Many of us have taken it too far, though. Consumption isn’t the problem; compulsory consumption is. The solution is to consume deliberately — to ignore the inane advertisements so we can determine what we need based on our lives, not on what we’ve been told.”
Devina signs off with the reminder that clothing isn’t a trivial purchase, but one that impacts the lives of many: “Every time you buy a product, you’re voting for the kind of world you want to live in.”
*This first appeared on The Hindu