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(Re)defining sustainability: Closing the loop & Slow Fashion

By Vivian Hendriksz


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London - Once seen as a niche part of the fashion industry, being eco-conscious has rapidly become one of the hottest 'topics' of our time. From luxury fashion houses to fast-fashion retailers, and everything in between - more and more fashion companies are responding to mounting consumer interest and 'going green.' However, in spite of all the efforts being made the fact remains that the global fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting and damaging industry in the world after oil. “The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives," proclaimed Safia Minney MBE, founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand People Tree in the documentary 'The True Cost'. So we ask, what does it mean to be sustainable within the fashion industry? How can fashion companies become sustainable? In the second episode of a new series looking at sustainability and the fashion industry, FashionUnited takes a closer look at sustainable business models and their potential issues and benefits.

“We have to work in all areas of sustainability, from design to manufacturing to business"

One of the most discussed sustainable business models is the circular economy. A circular economy is one which produces no waste pollution by design or intention in which the materials used follow two types: biological nutrients and technical nutrients. The biological nutrients are materials which can reenter the earth’s biosphere safely while the technical nutrients are materials designated to be used in a circular production lifecycle, without entering the biosphere. Examples of biological nutrients used within the fashion industry include linen, tencel, wool and hemp and examples of technical nutrients include synthetic polymers, such as PET and metals like copper, steel and aluminium. “We have to work in all areas of sustainability, from design to manufacturing to business and look at the lifecycle of a product,” said Professor Shahin Rahimifar, founder and director of the centre for Sustainable Manufacturing and Recycling Technologies,(SMART) at a recent seminar. A number of high street fashion retailers have already begun to take steps towards establishing a circular economy, including Filippa K, G-Star Raw and H&M.

In particular, H&M’s commitment to becoming a 100 percent circular company and closing the loop within the fashion is quite noticeable, as the fashion retailer is known for its fast-fashion business practices, much like Spanish high street giant Zara, which revolves around getting large volumes of fashionable items to store are quickly as possible. The Swedish fashion retailer has acknowledged that it will no longer be possible to continue to make and use fashion the way is does now and states that sustainability is a “prerequisite to securing the future of its business success and growth.” Although only 20 percent of it total material use is currently sustainably sourced, according to its latest sustainability report, H&M aims to 100 percent sustainable materials in the future, starting with using 100 percent organic cotton by 2020. The high street retailer has increased its share of renewable electricity to 78 percent of its total global electricity usage in 2015, whilst reducing its emission by 56 percent, which suggest H&M is moving in the right direction toward a circular economy.

Sustainability is a "prerequisite to securing the future" of business success and growth"

In addition, its global recycling scheme has helped the retailer produce closed loop products - new clothing pieces made from recycled fibres taken from old clothing. “H&M sees recycling old garments as a way to minimise the impact on the environment,” explained Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s Sustainability Expert, during its Conscious Exclusive collection launch. “We want to raise consumer awareness so they see all clothing as a resource and requisition recycled clothing.” Encouraging consumers to recycle unwanted clothing rather than just discarding them is an important step towards embracing a circular economy, alongside of repairing and reusing what consumers own and repairing and reusing clothing already owned. However, some industry experts wonder if H&M and other fashion companies alike are merely using greenwashing tactics to draw attention away from their fast fashion business practices. “It is very easy to get dupe by the ‘greenwashing’ tactics some companies use, so we do need to be a little more conscious and more savvy when it comes to that,” warned Safia Minney MBE to FashionUnited. Sanne Dungen, consultant at Mesh-works, RTB and FB-Basics, also raised a few issues with the recycled garments made by the likes of G-Star RAW and H&M.

“At the moment there are 7 times more particles of fine plastic than plankton in the ocean which is causing a big problem,” she pointed out in a recent talk. Although G-Star Raw has developed several collections containing recycled plastic yarns made from waste gathered from the oceans, “each wash of a single garment can release up to 1900 fibres,” noted Dungen. Which means that each time these garment are washed they release the recycled plastic particles back into the ocean - not a very circular system which “still cause harm to the oceans. Fleece, another synthetic material which can be made from recycled PET bottle, is worse still, releasing up to 1.9 million particles with each wash. Although G-Star Raw has stepped forward and acknowledged this issue, and is working on developing a solution with other companies, the technology to either stop the release of plastic particles or capture them has yet to be invented. "We need to rethink the way we make things...if we can produce items with a positive impact than consumption can be a good thing."

Issues with a Circular Economy and enhanced product lifecycle

Another issue faced by companies using a circular economy is securing the products lifecycle. “The first and second life of a product is easy enough to do, but what about the third, fourth and so on?,” questioned Professor Rahimifar in his talk. “Waste is always there, so why not find a way to use it and take a proactive approach to recycling by selecting and using materials which support a circular economy?” Although H&M has developed several collection under its Conscious label which contain recycled materials such as cotton and wool, at the moment is not possible to recycle items made from blended materials or synthetic ones. This means that once the recycled garment is made, it is nearly impossible to give it a third life afterwards. The Swedish retailer has also acknowledged the limitations surrounding recycling unwanted garments and textiles, stating they are investing in innovation in many ways, including its newly launched Global Change Award.

“We need to come together and work together and to realise that this is a problem that needs to be addressed now,” stressed Professor Rahimifar. In order to overcome some of the limitations currently faced in the recycling processes of clothing and shoes he suggests designers should invest in creating patterns for product designs which are easily constructed and deconstructed. This is a challenge which Swedish fashion label Filippa K has taken on and incorporated into its goals for 2030. “We challenge ourselves to think in new ways, such as making clothing patterns in such a way that the garment is easily deconstructed for recycling,” said Elin Larsson, sustainability director at Filippa K. As brand, Filippa K realised early on that producing cheap clothing in the search of profits was not what fashion is about and that they needed to think differently. “We just started on our sustainability journey and these are small initiatives, but we need to dare and to try.”

Benefits of a Circular Economy

So why should fashion companies adopt a more sustainable business model, what are the potential benefits? Other than safeguarding the future of the company success and growth, whilst becoming less dependent on dwindling limited resources, customer loyalty is one. “Increased customer loyalty is benefit, which is very important in this day and age,” said Minney MBE to FashionUnited, who has experienced this first hand through her fair-wear fashion brand People Tree. “I think they will enjoy much more customer satisfaction as well as a higher motivation within the company itself as employees will know that their company is doing the right thing. Staff are likely to work much, much harder and check Facebook much less. You will see all these benefits coming through in terms of the long-term sustainability efforts of the brand.” She adds that it is also important to convey sustainable initiatives to the consumers in a way they can understand. “Storytelling is extremely powerful and I think people are also expecting it from fashion companies they buy as they did with fair trade foods, so that is important tool in conveying their sustainability efforts.”

Other fashion companies outside of the high street are also acknowledging the need to rethink the current state of fashion and its increasing turnover rate. One of the most surprising instances which occurred within the industry took place when Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz both left their respective roles as creative directors at fashion houses Dior and Lanvin. Both designers have spoken on the increasing, tenacious pace the fashion industry is taken on and how they felt they needed more time. “Actually everything is done in three weeks, maximum five,” said Simons in an interview with Cathy Horyn for System magazine. “And when I think back to the first couture show for Dior, in July 2012, I was concerned because we only had eight weeks. And now we never have time like that.” Elbaz echoed his thoughts during an acceptance speech he made during the Fashion Group International Night of Stars event: ’“I need more time.’ And I think everybody in fashion these days – needs just a little more time.”

Is Slow Fashion the answer to the industry's need for more time?

With designers and brands alike feeling more and more pressure to churn out as many collections as possible, many are rethinking the business models in place, which tend to revolve around profits rather than the products, designers or workers. Consumers around the world are also starting to question the need for fast fashion. More and more often people are choosing to spend more on personal services and experiences, such as holidays or dining out than clothing. “People are starting to think about their physiological and physical health and what's needed to sustain that,” said Minney MBE. “If we were a bit happier would we need to consume that much? What is this an outlet for? There are some philosophical and spiritual issues here as well that we need to deal with.”

Photos: H&M, G-Star Raw, Filippa K, Bionic Yarn: Facebook.

Stay tuned for part III of the series, out May 25th

alber elvaz
Circular Economy
Raf Simons
redefining sustainability
safia minney