Conservation charity WWF and the fashion industry aim to make desirable clothes that have zero impact on the environment
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
Kering — which owns luxury brands including Gucci, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta, Christopher Kane, Sergio Rossi and Saint Laurent — has just been confirmed as the industry leader for the textiles, apparel and luxury goods sectors by the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes.
“This top ranking reflects the tangible benefits of our pioneering Environmental Profit and Loss Account rollout and our overall strategy to implement a sustainable business model in our own operations and across our supply chain,” Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of institutional affairs at Kering, told WWD.
Kering has been working hard to ensure sustainability for some time now. The luxury holding group also received the same honor from the DJSI — which tracks the performance of the 2,500 companies — last year.
According to Daveu, Kering has been working to implement a smart sustainable store program at many of its boutiques. The company is also innovating its manufacturing process to reduce environmental impacts and ensure responsible and sustainable sourcing of raw materials.
Back in May, Kering presented its first-ever Environmental Profit and Loss Report for 2013, which was published in an effort to expose the environmental issues facing the fashion industry.
The report revealed that Kering’s environmental impact was 40 percent less than expected of a company producing at its scale. It also included statistics from every step of the production process, which stretches to over 1,000 suppliers in 126 countries. Unfortunately, the research revealed that 93 percent of the worst environmental deterioration came from these early processes and, therefore, over 50 percent of the damage happens at companies that Kering cannot control.
“Just Kering, per se, we won’t be able to change supply chains as much as is needed,” Kering CEO and chairman François-Henri Pinault said at the time. “This is why sharing our methodology, sharing our way of thinking, as Marie-Claire [Daveu] mentioned — most of our suppliers are working with many companies like us, so by joining forces and seeing things in the same way, we’ll be much more stronger to be able to change those practices.”
*This story appeared on Fashion Times
Through the next two months, GreenStitched sits down with the finalists of EcoChic Design Award 2015/16. EcoChic Design Award is a sustainable fashion design competition organised by Redress, inspiring emerging fashion designers and students to create mainstream clothing with minimal textile waste.
The interviews with these young designers will be posted every Wednesday on GreenStitched.
Today we meet Fan Yu, a Fashion Design student at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
What brought you into the world of fashion? That ‘aha’ moment which opened doors to sustainable fashion?
Fan Yu: I believe in Zen philosophy, and so I respect the balance between nature and human lives. When Zen philosophy is then combined with sustainable fashion, both concept and design style should enhance the overall quality of the product. This helps to maintain sustainable fashion in simple and high-end styles – much like the concept of “wabi-sabi” which is an aesthetic that accepts and celebrates imperfection. As a fashion designer, I believe less is more.
What was your inspiration for the EcoChic Design Award collection?
Fan Yu: “SAN(さん)” in Japanese is a title of a person, much like “Mr/Ms” in English. In this collection, the “SAN” is representing a Zen master Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木俊隆). The collection is inspired from his book called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”.
The soul of book is about an attitude called “Beginner’s Mind”. It emphasised that stay initial as beginner when you face every challenge, then you can feel real and enjoy lives in details. As a modern, energetic Chinese lady, contemporary sustainable fashion serves as good accessories to help them to stay true and stay initial; and displaying their beauty towards others.
3 things you learnt from of the challenge?
– Sustainable fashion design techniques
– Sustainable materials/textile
– Sustainable technology application
How do you think sustainable fashion can move from a niche to the mainstream?
Fan Yu: Sustainable fashion is a trend around the world.
Education and promotion is the most important factor, such as carrying out workshops, talks, competitions, flea markets and second-hand pop-up stores etc. It will be easier to spread the message of sustainable fashion to the public through these activities.
It is also important to encourage popular fashion brands to become leaders of sustainable fashion in the industry. For example, brands such as H&M, Stella McCartney play a huge role.
What is the biggest misconception about sustainable fashion?
Fan Yu: People think that sustainable fashion is rubbish, for example, they would think the clothes are old, dirty, damage, second-hand, uncomfortable, disgraceful or have poor finishing (patching everywhere).
What is your advice for the next breed of fashion designers?
Fan Yu: Be yourself. Do not be the kind of person you hated when you were young.
What is next in store for you?
Fan Yu: Preparing for my fashion label. Keep explore sustain fashion techniques and promote to my friend of designer.
Watch Frontline Fashion, a documentary following these talented Asian and European emerging fashion designers determined to change the future of fashion. As they descend into Hong Kong for the design battle of their lives, all eyes are on the first prize; to design an up-cycled collection for China’s leading luxury brand, Shanghai Tang. This documentary is available on iTunes here.
The next cycle of the EcoChic Design Awards is open for application from 3 January to 3 April 2017. Interested students can find more details here.
The higher wages and management costs of the “Made in USA” label, although ethical, come at a very expensive price. Midrange brands trying to maintain that status have met with obstacles that fast-fashion competitors can sidestep by offering similar designs with minimum financial hassle.
The global fashion market is now an almost $3 trillion annual industry. While one may think that high-end designers with their expensive price tags are the prime contributors, most of the profits can be attributed to the fast fashion industry. TJX companies, a discount and off-price retailer, for example, generated nearly $31 billion in revenue in its 2015 fiscal year alone. It comes as no surprise then that one in every six people alive in the world today work in some part of the global fashion industry. This makes it the most labor-dependent industry on earth, majority of which is outsourced into the developing world, particularly in Asia, where Western household names dominate. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh.
Until the 1960s, America was still making 95 percent of its clothes. In 2015, only 3 percent was produced in the United States and a staggering 97 percent was outsourced. Most fast-fashion retailers see much sense in offshoring their manufacturing practices to countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam because of their low wages, lax local labor laws and agreements of free trade.
“The cheaper the price, the more the profit” rhetoric also stems from the fact that most Americans don’t really care about how the clothes are made as long they’re cheap. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup poll stated that over 55 percent of American consumers make absolutely no effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of that and hence paranoid about taking the financial risk of local manufacturing. “The entire industry is asking for cheaper prices. Brands will publicly state that that’s not the case, but, off the record, if you ask any factory its biggest issue right now, I don’t care what country they’re in, they’re going to say ‘intense pressure from their clients to lower the price,’ ” Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal Online, a trade publication covering the apparel & textile supply chain, told Business of Fashion.
With something new coming into the stores every week, instead of two seasons, brands now have 52 seasons a year. In order to support this mass production efficiently while maintaining their low prices, they see sweatshops and fashion factories in third world nations as a viable and profitable option. “When the Western retailers lower their prices, we are forced to comply and lower our prices and this directly affects what our workers make,” a disgruntled garment factory owner in Bangladesh told Observer on the condition of anonymity.
Currently, over 4 million people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, makes about $67 a month, which comes up to only a little over $2 a day. Today, they are amongst the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Additionally, over 85 percent of these workers are primarily women who have no health benefits or any form of financial security. Unionization is illegal and working conditions only get intolerable. But these low wages and unsafe working conditions are all excused by most large companies under the assumption that they ultimately “provide jobs” to those who need one. Unfortunately, even tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,000 workers, has done little to change their point of view.
“Opportunities were missed to reinvent the supply chain and I cannot say with any confidence that there will not be a repeat of Rana Plaza in terms of scale. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, been injured or had their health compromised by producing garments since Rana Plaza and the garment industry remains dangerous, polluting and energy intensive when it need not be any of these things. Retailers were allowed to control and lead negotiations in the aftermath and were not selfless enough in the way that they approached them,” British author and journalist on 2015 fast-fashion documentary The True Cost Lucy Siegle said in an interview.
But how hard is it for a multitrillion dollar industry to ensure fair living wages of its workers and guarantee the most basic of human rights?
“So many of us have been told the sweatshop story based on a false zero sum ratio. It’s explained as either improve conditions or take away jobs. We can build better systems to keep these jobs while also implementing conditions that respect the most basic human dignity of the workers and longterm health of this planet we all call home,” said Andrew Morgan, post production — he was director of The True Cost. “I can think of no other industry today that so clearly forces us to face the implications of globalization, human rights, women’s rights, and the environmental collision course we’re on,” he added.
The risks of the flawed supply chain are ultimately carried by those most vulnerable and at the bottom, who have no alternative but to be a part of it. They are the ones paying the price for the cheap clothing we buy. However, the industry is slowly but surely changing, starting at the top. There has been an apparent, albeit slow, shift in the effort to change these manufacturing practices. Kering, the company behind top designers including Stella McCartney have paved a new path in the fashion world, to sustainability. Earlier this year, Burberry announced plans to invest £50 million to expand and move most of its production to the North of England. People Tree, Brooks Brothers and Zady are brands catching up with category leader Reformation in the sustainable style race.
Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade fair companies, organizes the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and praises the fact that sustainability is now becoming a cornerstone for a growing number of shoppers. “Consumers now have a broad range of contemporary fashion brands rooted in sustainability to choose from. For instance, at our trade fairs, more than 160 labels exhibit their collections every season and work in a sustainable and transparent manner.”
Because the biggest step towards sustainability and humanitarian-inspired shopping can only be taken by the consumer. The “Made In USA” label may come at a higher price, but it definitely is the more ethical one.
*This story first appeared on Observer
Irene-Marie Seelig, Iciar Bravo Tomboly, Ana Pasalic, Agraj Jain, and Elise Comrie have plenty to wax triumphant about. On Monday evening, the five London College of Fashion students found themselves crowned the winners of the 2016 Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, an annual competition born of a five-year partnership between the lifestyle and luxury conglomerate and the university’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Designed to inspire the next generation of ethical designers, the contest whittled 400 applicants to 10 finalists before determining who best fulfilled briefs for two of Kering’s subsidiary brands: Seelig, Tomboly, and Pasalic for Stella McCartney, along with Jain and Comrie for Brioni.
“All students, coming from different academic disciplines and personal backgrounds, showed a deep commitment to fashion and the environment, along with a strong interest to more sustainable practices in business in general,” a spokesperson for the organizers said. “By taking part in the 2016 Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, they were looking to merge their passions and illustrate the economic relevance of a more sustainable fashion industry.”
Most of the applicants developed their projects by “rethinking the whole production cycle and value chain in fashion,” from material sourcing to end-of-life management.
“This echoes Kering’s own commitment to drive luxury fashion toward higher levels of economic, environmental, ethical and social performance,” the spokesperson added.
Meet—and hear from—the winners below.
By utilizing a “master batch” solution for dyeing, her “Uncoloured Colours” project could help cut back on water use while avoiding the human risk involved during the synthetic dyeing process.
“Reflecting on my own work made me understand that if I want to change the fashion industry I have to do it right at the beginning, on a business level and on a personal level,” she said. “Albert Einstein once said ‘We can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking as when we created it.’ Through the knowledge and the experience I gained during MA Fashion Futures I understood how I, as a designer, could influence and change the fashion industry, starting with materials.
ICIAR BRAVO TOMBOLY
Tomboly, a postgraduate student specializing in fashion-design management, centered her project around measuring a company’s social impact based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and Kering’s own code of conduct.
Sustainability, she said, needs to take into account “all the human beings” involved in the supply chain and the impact our actions have on social values.
“I believe we cannot change our environment without renewing humanity,” Tomboly said. “So we should achieve an integral ecology that focuses not only on environmental and financial issues, but also on social issues.”
Seelig first researched the holistic properties of mushrooms after her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. While studying fashion entrepreneurship and innovation at the university, she developed a renewable, biodegradable, and vegan-friendly leather alternative using the skin of amadou mushrooms.
After testing the material for durability and aesthetics—both prime considerations for viability in the luxury industry—the California native unveiled two shoe prototypes as part of her presentation.
“Going through that journey with my mother made me realize that sustainability was no longer just about what the composition of the material was to ensure sustainability within the fashion industry,” she said. “It is about the whole ecosystem of a supply chain, from the well-being of the workers within that supply chain to the well-being of its consumers, what components we allow into the production and processing phase, and how we can begin to design products around the cradle to cradle concept through renewable, biodegradable materials with well-being qualities.”
Comrie was inspired by her upbringing in Saskatchewan in Canada to develop a dye derived from tobacco, a fast-growing plant that takes only 90 days from seed to harvest.
“I grew up with a close-knit relationship to indigenous peoples of the region that I’m from and at a young age I learned the spiritual and healing benefits of the sacred tobacco plant,” she said. “It was of prime importance to me that my history and who I am spoke clearly in my proposal. So much of the fashion industry is removed from people and their stories and I felt this to be an important aspect of my project.”
Working with Dimora Colours, which specializes in the development of nontoxic tobacco dyes and fibers, Comrie proposed a line of Brioni smoking jackets composed of the tobacco-dyed textiles.
“I felt it necessary to have a masculine and yet innovative solution that the Brioni man could relate to,” she said. “I felt strongly about the innovative tobacco dye as a platform to help the Brioni client relate and see the importance of sustainability but still have the ‘cool’ factor.”
Jain, who is pursuing a degree in fashion design technology for menswear, drew upon his Jainism roots to present Ahimsa or “peace” silk as a cruelty-free alternative material for Brioni.
Rather than boil the silk cocoon to prematurely release strands of filament-like fiber, Ahimsa silk is extracted only after a metamorphosing worm has emerged from its cocoon.
Since silk is used in the linings of most of Brioni’s suits, as well as its shirts, ties, and scarves, Jain saw an opportunity for the firm to not only boost its ethical profile but also have a “beautiful story to tell.”
“For me, sustainability is a ‘healthy’ positive lifestyle,” he said. “That’s what I try to consider during my work: along with outer beauty a product should have a beautiful soul and the process of its production should be beautiful, too.”
*This story first appeared on Ecouterre
Glossy 101: Circular fashion, explained
As fashion brands continue to identify ways to use recycled materials and curb emissions, the term “circular fashion” has been popping up more and more. So, what in the world is it?
In a nutshell, circular fashion is a product of the circular process, which involves integrating recycled resources into supply chains. It’s a nice idea, but for a lot of brands, going there is easier said than done. Levi’s has been successful at converting plastic bottles to denim, but most fashion brands have experienced great difficulty navigating the circular fashion model. Many have offered standalone recycled fashion lines—think Eileen Fisher’s Remade line, which is produced using discarded designs, and TopShop’s Reclaim effort—but very few have actually started integrating recycled materials into production.
The reason? It’s complicated. That’s why we decided to break it down: Here’s what you should know about the circular fashion movement—specifically, how brands are working to join it in order to change the system.
What is a circular material, exactly?
A circular material is a recycled material, part of the larger circular economy founded upon the traditional concept of “reduce, reuse, recycling.” These materials are designed to prevent the introduction of new resources into the supply chain by reimagining those already in the mix as new garments—high-quality garments, that is—using volume collaboration.
Volume collaboration? Give me the short version.
Volume collaboration is the result of multiple brands sharing materials—such as dyes, chemicals, trims, yarns and base fabrics—that they use to create fully designed garments. H&M, Stella McCartney and Tommy Hilfiger are among brands that are working together by sharing materials. In doing so, they are ensuring that those they use are as environmentally friendly and recyclable as possible.
Last week in a webinar hosted by Fashion Positive, H&M sustainability expert Cecilia Brannsten said that working together is vital to instigating change, since it can often be difficult for one brand to move the needle on issues like dye pollution. “The change will happen a lot quicker if there are more of us trying to do it, working on this in parallel, because we can do a lot of good together,” Brannsten said.
Who writes the rules on circular fashion?
Fashion Positive Plus—it’s an extension of an initiative led by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which was founded in 2014 to increase the use of circular materials by identifying, certifying and scaling them for the fashion industry. It’s focused on sharing insights and best practices around circular materials as well as integrating them into supply chains.
What does it take to get the “circular” label?
Fashion Positive has a Critical Materials list featuring the “high-priority, critical materials needed for circular fashion,” according to the site. These materials are assessed with five categories in mind: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.
“We have set a vision at H&M—a really bold vision—to be 100 percent circular”
– Cecilia Brannsten, H&M sustainability expert
Does Fashion Positive work with any big-name designers?
Stella McCartney, a designer who has been a vocal proponent of sustainable fashion, is working to create a Cradle to Cradle Certified material to use in her knitwear collections. Likewise, participating brands like H&M, are working with the group to introduce such materials into production in order to reach lofty goals, like becoming a fully sustainable company. “We have set a vision at H&M—a really bold vision—to be 100 percent circular,” Brannsten said in the webinar last week. “What that means is we want to have a circular approach to how products are produced and will only use circular or sustainably sourced materials.”
What’s next for circular fashion?
Recycled fashion can be difficult to scale, since most garments aren’t designed with circular materials in mind. In the future, organizations like Fashion Positive, in tandem with brands dedicated to the mission, may be able to help promote the use of materials that are most conducive to recycling.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
Visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City on April 4, 2016, were confronted by a pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling. A T.S. Eliot quote stenciled on the wall (“In my end is my beginning”) gave the showroom the air of an art gallery or museum. In the next room, reporters and fashion bloggers sipped wine while studying the half-dozen mannequins wearing bespoke creations pieced together from old jeans, patches of jackets and cut-up blouses.
This cocktail party was to celebrate the launch of H&M’s most recent Conscious Collection. The actress Olivia Wilde, spokeswoman and model for H&M’s forays into sustainable fashion, was there wearing a new dress from the line. But the fast-fashion giant, which has almost 4,000 stores worldwide and earned over $25 billion in sales in 2015, wanted participants to also take notice of its latest initiative: getting customers to recycle their clothes. Or, rather, convincing them to bring in their old clothes (from any brand) and put them in bins in H&M’s stores worldwide. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a gross oversimplification. Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager, Henrik Lampa, who was at the cocktail party answering questions from the press. And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.
Picture yourself with a trash bag of old clothes you’ve just cleaned out of your closet. You think you could get some money out of them, so you take them to a consignment or thrift store, or sell them via one of the new online equivalents, like ThredUp. But they’ll probably reject most of your old clothes, even the ones you paid dearly for, because of small flaws or no longer being in season. With fast fashion speeding up trends and shortening seasons, your clothing is quite likely dated if it’s more than a year old. Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.
If you’re an American, your next step is likely to throw those old clothes in the trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
When natural fibers, like cotton, linen and silk, or semi-synthetic fibers created from plant-based cellulose, like rayon, Tencel and modal, are buried in a landfill, in one sense they act like food waste, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane as they degrade. But unlike banana peels, you can’t compost old clothes, even if they’re made of natural materials. “Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing,” says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “They’ve been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths.” Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.
Meanwhile, synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
Despite these ugly statistics, Americans are blithely trashing more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.
Trashing the clothes is also a huge waste of money. Nationwide, a municipality pays $45 per ton of waste sent to a landfill. It costs New York City $20.6 million annually to ship textiles to landfills and incinerators—a major reason it has become especially interested in diverting unwanted clothing out of the waste stream. The Department of Sanitation’s Re-FashioNYC program, for example, provides large collection bins to buildings with 10 or more units. Housing Works (a New York–based nonprofit that operates used-clothing stores to fund AIDS and homelessness programs) receives the goods, paying Re-FashioNYC for each ton collected, which in turn puts the money toward more bins. Since it launched in 2011, the program has diverted 6.4 million pounds of textiles from landfills, and Housing Works has opened up several new secondhand clothing sales locations.
But that’s only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of textiles going to the dump every year from the city. Just 690 out of the estimated 35,000 or so qualified buildings in the city participate.
Smaller municipalities have tried curbside collection programs, but most go underpublicized and unused. The best bet in most places is to take your old clothing to a charity. Haul your bag to the back door of Goodwill, the Salvation Army or a smaller local shop, get a tax receipt and congratulate yourself on your largess. The clothes are out of your life and off your mind. But their long, international journey may be just beginning.
Made to Not Last
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities overall sell only 20 percent of the clothing donated to them at their retail outlets. All the big charities I contacted asserted that they sell more than that—30 percent at Goodwill, 45 to 75 percent at the Salvation Army and 40 percent at Housing Works, to give a few examples. This disparity is probably because, unlike small charity shops, these larger organizations have well-developed systems for processing clothing. If items don’t sell in the main retail store, they can send them to their outlets, where customers can walk out with a bag full of clothing for just a few dollars. But even at that laughably cheap price, they can’t sell everything.
“When it doesn’t sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it,” says Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International. So Goodwill—and others—“bale up” the remaining unwanted clothing into shrink-wrapped cubes taller than a person and sell them to textile recyclers.
“What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?”
“Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
This outrages people who believe the role of thrift shop charities is to transfer clothes to the needy. “What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?” read a Fashionista headline earlier this year. The story hinted, “Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
“People like to feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don’t have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing,“ says Pietra Rivoli, a professor of economics at Georgetown University. The nonprofit N Street Village in Washington, D.C., which provides services to homeless and low-income women,says in its wish list that “due to overwhelming support,” it can’t accept any clothing, with the exception of a few particularly useful and hard-to-come-by items like bras and rain ponchos.
Fast fashion is forcing charities to process larger amounts of garments in less time to get the same amount of revenue—like an even more down-market fast-fashion retailer. “We need to go through more and more donations to find those great pieces, which can make it more costly to find those pieces and get them to customers,” says David Raper, senior vice president of business enterprises at Housing Works. Goodwill’s strategy is much the same, says Meyer: “If I can get more fresh product more quickly on the floor, I can extract more value.”
This strategy—advertising new product on a weekly basis—is remarkably similar to that of Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara, which upended the entire fashion game by restocking new designs twice a week instead of once or twice a season. And so clothing moves through the system faster and faster, seeking somebody, anybody, who will pay a few cents for it.
If you donate your clothing anywhere in the New York City area and the items aren’t sold at a secondhand store, they’re likely to end up at Trans-Americas Trading Co. Workers at this large warehouse in Clifton, New Jersey, receive and process about 80,000 pounds of clothing a day.
When Eric Stubin, owner of Trans-Americas, president of the Council for Textile Recycling and president of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, takes me on a tour of the warehouse, he pauses while a forklift scurries around the corner with a bale of garments and neatly stacks it in a tall, dense wall of clothing, before shooting back around the corner to grab another from a semi that’s backed up to the loading bay. Workers stand in front of conveyor belts making split-second assessments as they mine the castoffs for valuable pieces. Sometimes, they find a gem—a pair of vintage Levi’s, an ugly Christmas sweater, an army jacket—and toss it into a small bin full of other covetable items, which Trans-Americas can sell at a markup to vintage stores in Brooklyn. But that’s just about 2 percent of what they get. The rest is sorted into broad categories, like T-shirts, pants or cold-weather items, then divided again by quality and material.
Forty percent of the clothing will be baled and shipped all over the globe to be resold as is. Japan gets the second nicest vintage items after the U.S. stores, South American countries get the mid-grade stuff, Eastern European countries get the cold-weather clothes, and African countries get the low-grade stuff no one else will take. In the 1980s, secondhand clothing began flowing into African countries that had dropped their protectionist economic policies. And because it was cheaper and seen as higher quality than domestically produced clothing, it dominated the market. By 2004, 81 percent of clothing purchased in Uganda was secondhand. In 2005, according to an Oxfam report, secondhand clothing made up half of the volume of clothing imports in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, starting in the 1990s, textile industries in those African countries cratered.
Early last year, at a summit of East African heads of state, some of the regional leaders proposed a ban on the importation of secondhand clothing; English-speaking news sites such as Voices of Africa and CNN followed up by positing that old clothing from the U.K. and U.S. was creating a post-colonial economic mess. “Exporting low-quality clothing that has no value in our own society forges a relationship of dependency,” says Andrew Brooks at Kings College London. “You can call me idealistic, but I don’t really want to live in a world where people who are in the global south, the only clothes they can afford to buy are clothes you and I don’t want.”
Not everyone agrees. Georgetown University’s Rivoli, for example, says the secondhand clothing trade creates jobs in not only selling but also cleaning, repairing and tailoring. Karen Tranberg Hansen, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, has argued that secondhand clothing in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho and Uganda fills a different niche than the textile industry. “There are different segments of the population that have different desires,” she says. “It is not a direct competition.” Secondhand clothing, traditional clothing that is made locally, Asian imports—different people buy different things, she asserts.
But what everyone agrees on is that Africans buy cast-off clothing from the U.S. because they see it as high quality and good value. This might not be true much longer. The 2005 Oxfam report found that in Kenya up to a quarter of clothing in imported secondhand bales was unsalable due to poor quality. Since then, fast fashion’s market share has expanded, even as it has become synonymous with “falls apart after two wears” for Western consumers. It’s possible that Africans might eventually recognize that the secondhand fashion is just cheap, old imported clothing from Asia that made a quick pit stop in the U.K. and U.S. And like Americans, they might decide to just buy it new.
On the Brink of Collapse
Thirty percent of the clothing that comes into Trans-Americas is T-shirts and polos that will be cut into wiping rags for auto shops and other industrial uses. Another 20 percent of the clothing—the ripped and stained items—will be shipped out to processors that will chop it up into “shoddy,” to be used in building insulation or carpet padding or floor mats for the auto industry. These are the least profitable types of clothing recycling for Trans-Americas.
The surge of fast-fashion garments poses a problem for Trans-Americas too. “More garments are made with polyester [or] poly-cotton blend,” Stubin says. “If you have clothing that is lower quality, you’re going to end up with more wiping rags and more material for the fiber market. The market for fiber is pennies these days. Half of the clothing we sell for less than the acquisition value.”
Though it’s better to downcycle clothes—turn them into less valuable consumer goods like auto-shop rags—than to send them straight to the landfill, it’s not a complete solution. Those rags will still find their way to the landfill after a few uses; insulation will be thrown in the dumpster when it’s torn out of a wall or old car. Everything is broken down further and further until it eventually reaches the landfill.
The cost to the planet isn’t just what the stuff does when it’s put in the ground, though that’s bad enough. The wasted resources it took to create a textile are devastating for the planet. “When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” says Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
International companies like Adidas, Levi’s, Nike and H&M don’t want you to stop buying their products, but they also don’t want to give up on their fast-fashion business models. “The holy grail for sustainability in fashion is closed-loop sourcing,” Marie-Claire Daveu of the global luxury holding company Kering told Vogue. (Kering owns companies like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, among many others.) “Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers.”
Closed-loop technology, where a product is recycled back into almost the same product, is a tantalizing prospect for sustainability advocates, because it essentially mimics the natural process of life. A plant grows out of dirt, dies, is incorporated back into dirt, and then another plant grows from that dirt. Rain falls, moves through the forest and into a river, flows to the sea, evaporates into the sky and falls again. There’s no waste. If closed-loop technology could be achieved for fashion, nothing would ever go the landfill—it would just be endlessly looped through textile factories, garment factories, stores, your closet, secondhand retailers, textile recyclers and back to textile factories again. Polyester thread would be created, woven into a textile, made into a garment, broken down into pure polyester and woven into a textile again. Same for natural fibers.
But commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, at best. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there is closed-loop technology for pure cotton that could take a garment, break it down and reweave—but once cotton is dyed, treated or blended with other materials, the process no longer works. Treated cotton, linen, silk and wool can be mechanically chopped up for recycling, but they yield a low-quality, short fiber that must be mixed with virgin fiber for clothing. At 20 percent reused cotton, H&M’s recycled denim line released last summer pushed the limits of what’s possible today—a higher percentage of recycled cotton results in a lower-quality textile that tears too easily to be wearable.
A hopeful note appeared in May when Levi’s debuted a prototype of jeans in partnership with the textile technology startup Evrnu, made with 52 percent chemically recycled cotton from old T-shirts. Evrnu says its technology isn’t sensitive to certain dyes, and it hopes to eventually make jeans from 100 percent post-consumer cotton waste. But there’s no timeline available yet for when these jeans will become available.
Closed-loop recycling of synthetic textiles like elastane-nylon blends is even further away from commercial feasibility. The technology exists to chemically process polyester into its core components and spin it back into polyester thread, and Patagonia is already using it to recycle its clothing. But Patagonia is doing it out of principle, not for profit; the process is prohibitively expensive and finicky, requiring high-quality polyester textile (Patagonia’s own fleeces) as an input, instead of the cheap polyester textiles typically used by fast-fashion retailers.
Then there are popular blended fabrics with both polyester and natural fibers that, currently, can’t be closed-loop recycled at all. Because the manufacture of polyester textiles is soaring—from 5.8 million tons in 1980 to 34 million in 1997 and an estimated 100 million in 2015— we won’t be able to handle our output of old clothing until that problem is solved.
H&M knows this, which is why in February it handed out $1.1 millionthrough its charity, Conscious Foundation, to five “innovation teams” working on textile recycling technologies. One team will be working on a process to dissolve old cotton clothing into a cotton-like material that can be spun into new fibers. Another is developing a microbe that can digest polyester, even if it’s blended with a natural fiber, and break it down into its basic components for resale back to polyester manufacturers.
These processes need to be developed in tandem with a sorting technology that can easily tell apart pure cotton, synthetic fabric and blended fiber, or recognize that a jacket has cotton on the outside and polyester on the inside. “If we’re going to try to get 24 billion pounds out of the landfill, we can’t be hand sorting,” says Jennifer Gilbert of the international secondhand clothing collection company I:CO.
There’s a special sense of urgency to these brands’ efforts to close the loop, which would create a new and—hopefully—profitable market for old textiles. In the past year, the market for secondhand textiles has tanked, pushing this entire system to the brink of collapse.
At the moment your old clothing is baled for sale to a textile recycler, it ceases to be discrete items whose value is determined by the label, quality or trendiness. Instead, it becomes a commodity with a per-pound price governed by global supply and demand. In the past 18 months, that price has dropped to a few cents per pound, shoved down by the strength of the dollar, weak demand due to unrest in the Middle East (where much of the secondhand clothing is processed), upward economic mobility in Eastern European countries and a fire in the largest secondhand market in East Africa.
Some percentage of that price drop could be attributed to a steady increase in the supply of lower-quality secondhand clothing, as charities race to process more clothes faster. “The used-clothing industry is going through an extremely difficult period both here in the U.K. and globally,” Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association in the U.K., told Sourcing Journal in April. “Yet consumption of new clothing is continuing to rise, with clothing prices still generally much lower than they used to be. Continuing downward pressure on prices for used clothing is inevitable for some time to come.” With little financial incentive for recyclers, collection rates have dropped by 4 percent in the past year, after rising steadily during the years after the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
If clothing quality continues to fall, demand from the international market drops even further and the closed-loop recycling technology doesn’t come through, we might have a secondhand clothing crisis. And then there wouldn’t be any place at all to take your cheap, old clothes.
*This story first appeared on Newsweek
With first access to Kering’s 2016 sustainability report, BoF speaks to chief sustainability officer Marie-Claire Daveu to unpick the data and what it reveals about luxury supply chains.
BY KATE ABNETTMAY 3, 2016 05:55
LONDON, United Kingdom — Today, French conglomerate Kering will publicly report its performance vis-à-vis sustainability targets voluntarily set in 2012 to reduce the group’s negative environmental and social impact, covering areas including CO2 emissions, hazardous chemicals and the way the company sources gold, leather and precious skins.
The report reveals a mixed picture of progress and pain points. The company has only reached 15 percent of its target to source 100 percent of its gold from verified responsible sources, for example, yet has achieved 99 percent of its target to make its collections PVC-free by 2016. Across its supply chains, the company has also managed to reduce carbon emissions by 11 percent, decrease its waste output by 16 percent and cut its water usage by 19 percent since 2012, falling short of its stated targets to slash all three by 25 percent.
“We have really made big changes,” Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering, told BoF. Daveu, a trained engineer and former senior civil servant in the French ministry for ecology, joined Kering in 2012. “If we want to change the paradigm, it’s really key to exchange not only our successes, but to share why and where we have an issue to tackle,” she continued.
Kering, which owns a number of luxury fashion brands, including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta and Stella McCartney, has received recognition from third parties for its sustainability efforts, including the 2015 Dow Jones Sustainability Index and RobecoSAM, a global investments company with a specific focus on sustainability.
The report marks the first time a luxury group of this size has released a public report on the environmental and social impact of its supply chain. (Kering’s Environment Profit and Loss account, Kering’s analysis of its environmental impact, has also been made publicly available.) As such, it provides rare insight into the social and environmental impact a luxury conglomerate’s supply chain can have on the world, and why reducing that impact is tougher in some areas than others.
The production of raw materials accounts for 50 percent of Kering’s overall environmental impact, while processing those materials counts for an additional 25 percent.
Kering’s report demonstrates the varying scale of challenges within raw materials. In some areas, progress has been fast: the group reached 99 percent of its target to have PVC-free products by 2016, while 81 percent of Kering’s paper and packaging is now from certified sustainably managed forests, with a minimum of 50 percent recycled content. “The certification is already quite advanced. It’s straightforward for a company to purchase paper and packaging from certified sources,” explains Daveu.
Other areas present bigger challenges: against an aim to source 100 percent of its gold from verified sources that don’t harm ecosystems, wildlife or communities by 2016, the group achieved only 15 percent of its target.
“I am very proud of what we were able to do with gold,” said Daveu. In 2015, Kering brands bought 220 kgs of Responsible Jewelry Council Chain of Custody-certified gold, a figure Kering predicts will double this year. “At the beginning, it was about what we can define as ethical, and this kind of sourcing, and what does it mean operationally? You have to have a clear understanding of not only what’s happening in your company, but what’s happening all over the world: sourcing, legislation, best practices,” she continued.
Kering reached only 64 percent of its target to source 100 percent of its leather from responsible and verified sources that don’t result in converting sensitive ecosystems into agricultural land (within this, luxury bovine leather, which is sourced mostly in Europe, and therefore subject to EU regulations, reached 91 percent). Kering also aimed to source 100 percent of its crocodile, fur and precious skins from verified captive breeding or sustainably managed wild populations by 2016: it has reached 91 percent of its target for crocodile skin; 78 percent for shearling fur and 41 percent for precious skins. While the crocodile trade has had welfare and ecological standards in place for the last three decades, there are still “very few sources that are transparent enough and up to our standards” for precious skins, according to the report.
Indeed, some sustainability targets — say, switching to recycled packaging — can be tackled “inside the brands, inside the companies,” explained Daveu, while gold or precious skins sourcing, which occur in emerging markets with less industry regulation than Europe, require collaboration. “You need to meet with NGOs, experts, with other industries,” she continued. On skins, Kering has formed the Python Conservation Partnership, with the International Trade Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature; on gold sourcing, it is being advised by NGOs including Solidaridad.
Another way to tackle these issues is vertical integration — by owning its facilities, a company can exercise more control over the welfare and environmental standards implemented there. As a conglomerate, Kering has some advantages in this area — as well as having its own distribution and logistics firm, Kering owns the Blutonic leather tannery in Tuscany — where it has implemented an IT tool to trace the tannery’s leather back to the farm or country of origin, and also developed metal-free tanning for Gucci products — as well as France Croco, a French tannery specialising in crocodile, and the Italian Caravel tannery, which specialises in precious skins.
Back in 2012, Kering committed to reduce the carbon emissions, waste and water use throughout its supply chains by 25 percent by 2016. To date, it has reduced emissions by 11 percent, waste by 16 percent and water by 19 percent, missing all three targets.
Progress on waste includes a “no box” policy, which swapped its primary shipment packaging for bags and suitcases from cartons to recyclable bags; a new process that turns its luxury brands’ leather offcuts into organic fertiliser: since 2013, the Bottega Veneta sites involved in the programme have generated almost 120 tonnes of offcuts, recycling two-thirds of this. Kering also operates a programme at Gucci to use crocodile offcuts to make shoes: in 2013 alone, 1,825 pairs were made this way.
On energy savings, the group has rolled out LED lights in its stores, installed energy monitoring systems at nearly 500 of its sites, and since 2012, more-than quadrupled the amount of renewable energy it bought, meaning 24.5 percent of Kering’s energy was renewable in 2015.
However, according to Daveu, for a company of Kering’s size, zero emissions would be “physically impossible.” While Kering has zoned in on where its supply chain has the biggest impact — 69 percent of its emissions in its supply chain come from raw material production — the company “offsets” its remaining scope 1 and 2 emissions (which cover Kering’s own emissions, but not those of outsourced activities, such as emissions from factories the group does not own), meaning it contributes funds to environmental projects proportional to the level of its own environmental impact, an alternative to actually reducing emissions. “You have to adapt to the best practices, and at the end of the day, if you are not able to emit zero emissions, we think it is our responsibility to offset that,” said Daveu.
For hazardous chemicals, Kering set a target for 2020, rather than 2016 and hasn’t reported how close it is to achieving this target. “When it was decided in 2012, we were very conscious that it will need work, research,” said Daveu, of why this target required more time. Better “green” chemical products still need to be developed, she added, in order to remove hazardous chemicals completely and ensure that swapping out existing chemicals will still achieve a luxury-level quality of product. “We need to have more research to be sure that when you substitute, you have the same quality, the same colour, the same sensation, touch.”
The final part of Kering’s report looks at its social impact. Kering’s set target was to evaluate all key suppliers at least once every two years, and the company has since performed 6,000 supplier audits, which according to the company, covers most of its direct and indirect suppliers. The results of these audits are made publicly available in the company’s annual Reference Document.
“It’s an ongoing process. You have to be sure first that all the compliance standards are applied, all over the world,” said Daveu, of why the data is presented differently here to in other areas of the report. “When you are speaking about audits, you are checking your requests are really applied in the factories. It’s another kind of KPI.”
“When it’s linked with the social side, zero risk doesn’t exist,” she added. “The most important work you can do with your supplier is to explain why it’s key and why in the future, for them, it’s not only to be pleasant to the requests of Kering, but it’s also key for them for their own development.”
Kering declined to reveal the financial cost of its sustainability programmes and whether these initiatives were good for the bottom line. However, small points of data in the report — for example, in 2015, Gucci earmarked €2.4 million to replace lights in stores with energy-efficient LEDs — suggest the total sum spent on these activities is significant.
“I don’t have a number to say thanks to sustainability, our business is growing by ABC percent. I can’t say that. But again, we don’t do it for that. We do sustainability because we believe in it and we think that if we want to continue our business, it’s not an option, it’s a necessity,” said Daveu. In a report released in 2015 with non-profit consultancy Business for Social Responsibility, Kering laid out how climate change posed a significant threat to the sourcing of raw materials like cashmere and cotton, which the group relies on to make its products.
“You have to accept a different kind of payback, different kind of ROI. That’s why the most important thing is the commitment of the top management,” concluded Daveu.
*This story first appeared on The Business of Fashion
Patagonia and another “ethical” clothing brand are being accused of a new kind of animal cruelty
This post has been updated.
You don’t generally think of wool as a material involved in debates on animal cruelty, like fur or leather. But a new investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) just put it at the center of one involving two big brands.
PETA uncovered what it calls “routine mutilations” of sheep and lambs on two Argentine ranches in a network—of about 50—supplying wool to Patagonia and Stella McCartney. Both labels are known for their public commitments to ethical sourcing—McCartney, a committed vegetarian, doesn’t even use glue made with animal products.
Both Patagonia and Stella McCartney use the ranch network, called Ovis 21, as part of its sustainable wool program. But PETA recorded workers on the ranches abusing the sheep in a variety of ways, the most shocking and cruel including skinning them while still alive (that link includes a graphic video), in full view of other sheep, who bleat in distress.
“This video should mean that millions of people will think twice about ever buying wool socks and sweaters again,” PETA states on the video page.
Indeed, McCartney has suspended all purchases of wool from Ovis 21 since viewing the video. “We are now even more determined to continue our fight for animal rights in fashion together and monitor even more closely all the suppliers involved in this industry,” McCartney said in a statement released through PETA.
“We are also looking into vegan wool as well, in the same manner we were able to develop and incorporate high-end alternatives to leather and fur over the years,” she added.
Patagonia released its own statement, as well as a detailed timeline of its involvement with Ovis 21 and which products its wool appears in, such as socks and baselayers. In 2011, it began sourcing from Ovis 21’s sustainable wool program, which is designed to help preserve the grasslands of Argentina by using only regenerative practices. “We accept responsibility for everything done by our suppliers at any level, but especially in this case,” Patagonia said.
It hasn’t announced any course of action, but in the timeline, it says it is committed to “working with Ovis 21 to make needed improvements, reporting back to our customers and the public on steps we are taking.”
Update, August 17, 4:45pm EST: In a statement, Patagonia announced today that it will cease buying wool from Ovis 21. “We’ve spent the past several days looking deep into our wool supply chain, shocked by the disturbing footage of animal cruelty that came to light last week,” the company said. “In light of this, we’ve made a frank and open-eyed assessment of the Ovis program. Our conclusion: it is impossible to ensure immediate changes to objectionable practices on Ovis 21 ranches, and we have therefore made the decision that we will no longer buy wool from them.”
Patagonia added that it will not buy wool again until it has found a source offering “a verifiable process that ensures the humane treatment of animals.”
PETA’s investigation points to just how difficult it is for brands to monitor their supply chains, even when their supply chains claim to be ethical. It gets even harder when you start dealing with practices such as subcontracting, which is rampant in countries like Bangladesh and leads people to argue that it’s no longer even possible to be an ethical consumer.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Patagonia has run into this sort of problem before. It changed the way it sources goose down after a different animal-rights group accused it of cruelty. On the matter of wool, PETA is taking a hard line. It says “the only way to ensure that a company does not contribute to the horrors of sheep rearing, shearing, transport, and slaughter is to switch to vegan wool.” But Patagonia isn’t willing to go that far.
“PETA does not believe in the use of animals for any human purpose; this is a belief we respect but do not share,” the company said in its statement.
**This post first appeared on Quartz here.