Isn't it a crying shame that an industry responsible for producing so many beautiful products, simultaneously has such an incredible impact on both people and the planet? Anyone who decides to take a somewhat more detailed look into the ‘ugly’ side of the fashion industry will not be able to help but lose sleep over this, according to Jasmien Wynants. She has spent the last seven years conducting research into sustainable entrepreneurship and the circular economy at Flanders DC (the umbrella organisation for creative individuals in Flanders), with one single goal in mind: to improve the fashion industry.
It was starting to become abundantly clear to her that changes in both the industry and consumer choices simply wouldn’t be enough. “Legislation and policies are essential for removing a number of barriers and accelerating the transition to a circular economy”, Wynants states. She recently completed her Master’s in Environmental Science at the University of Antwerp and wrote her master thesis on textiles and European policy. FashionUnited spoke to her about this research and about the recommendations which resulted from this.
How did your interest in sustainable fashion first come about?
I was given the opportunity to inform and guide Flemish fashion companies towards a better way of working during my time at Flanders DC, via the Close The Loop programme. I spoke to numerous inspiring entrepreneurs and innovative start-ups and came to the conclusion that we were dealing with a sustainability revolution. Only a few players were involved with this in the past, now virtually everyone is losing sleep over this subject.
An increasing number of companies, from small to large, are now looking for ways to change their business model and work with respect for both people and the environment. However, I’ve also noticed that companies are all faced with the exact same hurdles. There is a growing interest in sustainable fashion among consumers too, but many people find making the right choices anything but easy. And that’s simply because the system behind it isn’t right.
The fast fashion model, which once stood for positive development, i.e. the democratisation of fashion, has been completely derailed over the last 15 years. An item of clothing's life cycle has become shorter and shorter. The fashion industry is largely based on rapidly changing trends with overconsumption at the root of the issue. This has major consequences for both people and the planet.
Enormous volumes of non-renewable resources are used to produce clothing that is only worn for a very short period of time, only to then be dumped or incinerated. A huge amount of water is used during this process and a fair amount of pollution is involved too. The complex production chains are well known for their exploitation in the producing countries.
What is needed to change this system?
This is almost impossible for a company. Policies and legislation are needed for this. If a change to a system is required, a government can take on a guiding role in order to accelerate this process. This can be done both by imposing obligations and by providing positive incentives, for example, by rewarding companies with tax benefits if they introduce sustainable measures.
Are you more in favour of negative or positive incentives?
I tend to choose the latter from a consumer perspective. You can compare it to the food industry. You’re not going to make anyone happy by telling them they can’t eat meat anymore. People will feel attacked and this can lead to defensive behaviour. You would be much better off trying to convince people with inspiring vegetarian recipes. So a positive incentive will certainly prove useful if you're trying to convince companies to opt for sustainable materials.
You can make it economically interesting for them to make responsible choices by making sure they can maintain their margins and that their product remains profitable. Whilst at the same time, it’s certainly also a good idea to impose a number of obligations on the industry. This could include, for example, a ban on harmful chemicals or a minimum quality for textiles. It will therefore always be about a combination of those two methods. The art and the difficulty is in finding the right mix in policymaking.
You have certainly timed your master thesis very well: the research perfectly fits within the European Commission’s Green Deal context.
That’s right, the European Commission launched a new action plan for the circular economy in March 2020. It will become one of the most important building blocks of the new European Green Deal, the plan with which the EU wants to make the economy sustainable, with the main objective being to realise a climate-neutral union by 2050. Extra attention will be devoted to certain sectors as a result of their impact on the environment or the circular opportunities and one of these sectors is… textiles!
What is going to be addressed in this action plan?
It contains measures aimed at the entire life cycle of products. Specific actions are being worked out for textiles and a comprehensive European strategy with measures will be drawn up. The focus will be on creating a framework for sustainable products, but also on improving the business and regulatory climate for sustainable textiles.
Even though your master thesis is based on a Flemish perspective, your recommendations definitely look at things from within a broader Belgian and European context. Why is that important?
Demarcation is crucial, you’ve got to start somewhere. Eventually, everything is connected. For example, we are currently looking into how a reduction in VAT on certain products or services could play a role in convincing and stimulating consumers and companies to buy sustainably. A measure that is anchored in national legislation, but for which the European VAT Directive will first need to be revised. Flanders, therefore, formed the starting point for my research, but you can naturally repeat this exercise for other countries or parts of other countries too.
What was the biggest challenge you came across during your research?
The complexity of policies and legislation. As I said, it’s a huge tangle of connected little radars in a big hole. Laws, regulations, guidelines… it’s so important for these matters to be effectively established and written up, with input provided by the sector. But not every company is going to have time to provide input, let alone actually get immersed in the complexity of the material.
You managed to bring those two worlds of policy and industry together through round table discussions.
Yes and I'm very pleased with the excellent industry stakeholders’ attendance during these round table discussions. Once again proof that the sector itself wants to move forward. One of the aspects which came to the surface during the discussions with policymakers is that it’s quite exceptional for a sector to ask for more legislation.
What are the most important recommendations in your master thesis?
Firstly, there’s a need for clarity and demarcations. One of the things which emerged from the round table discussions is that there is no clear definition for circular textiles. And this is absolutely crucial to be able to prepare an effective policy. It starts with all of us measuring with the exact same measurements. After all, everyone uses different criteria where sustainability is concerned and there’s a proliferation of quality marks and certificates.
Another recommendation is the importance of quality. There are always plenty of discussions about animal welfare, lower CO² emissions and less water consumption, but the products’ lifespan is definitely essential too. We must encourage companies to produce products that will last a long time and are recyclable, in order to do something about the growing mountain of waste, full of non-recyclable textiles. And to avoid low-grade qualities.
Uniformity is once again important here, in order for us to realise a minimum quality standard: you can’t draw up a policy and subsequently enforce it too until everyone is speaking the exact same language.
And finally, you state that subsidies are important, providing there’s a sales market for them too.
It’s obviously fantastic that governments are investing in innovation, but in practice there often isn’t enough insight into where that money goes. Four comparable projects were recently approved instead of centralising these and stimulating collaborations. More coherence, that’s what it should start with. Not just turning on the money tap, but instead streamlining and coordinating the subsidies more effectively. And then specifically focusing on creating a sales market for the innovations which will arise from this.
The course awarded your master thesis with a mark of ‘great distinction’. Does this encourage you to continue with academic research?
There’s certainly plenty of potential for further research. Even though I have now actually headed off in a different direction. I now work as a Sustainability Coordinator at Xandres two days a week, a Belgian fashion house with a long history and where quality has always been a central focus point. The company was looking for someone who could turn the sustainability objectives, a long-term strategy, into concrete short-term actions.
And I work at Flanders DC three days a week too. A fantastic combination, as any issues we’re faced with at Xandres, and undoubtedly other fashion companies too, can subsequently be tackled at Flanders DC. This can definitely work the other way round too, as I certainly come across organisations at Flanders DC which could potentially be of interest to Xandres. I truly believe working together is the only way for us to realise real progress.
This article was previously published in Dutch