Ev­ery­body’s talk­ing about the cir­cu­lar fash­ion sys­tem. But what is it, and can it work?

VOGUE Australia - - CONTENTS -

We know what we need to do,” says Dame Ellen MacArthur, fix­ing me with her in­tense grey-blue stare. “We have to re­design the in­dus­try so that it’s restora­tive and re­gen­er­a­tive.” Her tone says that this is en­tirely achiev­able and there’s no need to make a song and dance about it. Still. It does seem rather … mon­u­men­tal.

“Isn’t that a bit of a tall or­der?” I ven­ture. “To re­design the whole fash­ion in­dus­try?” “Not just the fash­ion in­dus­try,” she says, “but the global econ­omy.”

We are con­vers­ing at the Copen­hagen Fash­ion Sum­mit, where in­dus­try heavy­weights come to­gether each May to try to fig­ure out how to make fash­ion more sus­tain­able. This is the sec­ond year run­ning that MacArthur has been a draw­card speaker.

A Brit who found fame as a record-break­ing yachtswoman, in 2005 MacArthur be­came the fastest per­son to sail solo non-stop around the world. This she fol­lowed with some­thing ar­guably more ex­tra­or­di­nary: she gave up her pas­sion in or­der to pro­mote the cir­cu­lar econ­omy.

Her light­bulb mo­ment hap­pened at sea, when deal­ing with fi­nite re­sources. That round-the-world voy­age took her 71 days, 14 hours and 18 min­utes. “I wrote in my logs: ‘What I have on this boat is all I have.’” Ex­tend­ing that think­ing to the global econ­omy was the next step.

To­day her epony­mous foun­da­tion works with busi­ness, academia and or­gan­i­sa­tions like the UN En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme, Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and World Eco­nomic Forum to fa­cil­i­tate the tran­si­tion to a cir­cu­lar econ­omy, that is: one that de­signs out waste and pol­lu­tion, keeps ma­te­ri­als in use and re­gen­er­ates nat­u­ral sys­tems.

Change is over­due. The UK is run­ning out of land­fill space. In Aus­tralia, we’ve re­lied on ex­port­ing most of our re­cy­cling, and China’s re­cent “ban on for­eign waste” is caus­ing headaches – we sim­ply don’t have the sys­tems in place to deal with it all here.

Ac­cord­ing to the ABC’s War on Waste, Aus­tralians throw away 6,000 ki­los of fash­ion and tex­tile waste ev­ery 10 min­utes, while some es­ti­mates sug­gest that up to a third of all the gar­ments pro­duced an­nu­ally around the world are never sold. Where do they go? The Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion’s 2017 re­port A New Tex­tiles Econ­omy states that less than one per cent is re­cy­cled into new cloth­ing. Down-cy­cling into things like in­dus­trial rags or fur­ni­ture stuff­ing is more likely. Used cloth­ing is on-sold via recom­merce sites and flea mar­kets, and do­nated to char­i­ties. It’s also ex­ported by the bale to mi­tumba (sec­ond-hand) mar­kets in Kenya, Tan­za­nia, Uganda and else­where. Ox­fam es­ti­mates that 70 per cent of used cloth­ing do­nated to char­i­ties glob­ally ends up in Africa, where moun­tains of cheap old clothes are killing lo­cal tex­tile in­dus­tries. Sev­eral East African coun­tries are cur­rently push­ing for a ban.

Fig­ures for how much pre-con­sumer fash­ion waste is de­stroyed are harder to come by. Burberry was in the news at the end of the fi­nan­cial year for ad­mit­ting to de­stroy­ing A$49 mil­lion worth of un­sold goods, but they’re not alone; it’s com­mon prac­tice. Last year a Swedish tele­vi­sion pro­gram re­vealed that a power plant in Vasteras had been burn­ing un­sold H&M clothes as fuel, while the New York Times re­ported that sneak­ers from a SoHo Nike store had been mu­ti­lated and dumped on the side­walk.

In­ter­est­ingly, these three com­pa­nies are at the fore­front of search­ing for so­lu­tions. Nike and H&M are global part­ners of the Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion. Burberry joins them, along with Stella Mc­Cart­ney and PVH (which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hil­figer) as core part­ners for MacArthur’s new Make Fash­ion Cir­cu­lar ini­tia­tive.

At the pro­duc­tion level, Burberry works with Lon­don­based com­pany Elvis & Kresse to re­pur­pose leather waste from the cut­ting-room floor. Nike’s Flyknit sneak­ers use waste-re­duc­tion de­sign prin­ci­ples, while the brand’s ReuseA-Shoe pro­gram turns worn-out shoes into Nike Grind, a ma­te­rial used to sur­face sports courts and play­grounds. H&M in­tro­duced its first in-store cloth­ing re­cy­cling bins back in 2012, invit­ing cus­tomers to do­nate un­wanted

cloth­ing from any brand. H&M Group’s head of sus­tain­abil­ity Anna Gedda ex­pects the in­dus­try’s tex­tile re­cy­cling ca­pa­bil­i­ties to im­prove within the next five years.

No-one as­pires to squan­der. We’ve got­ten our­selves into this mess un­think­ingly but all of us must shoul­der some of the blame. The is­sue calls for bold new think­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion and a will­ing­ness to let go of what we’re used to.

Back in 2002, cir­cu­lar econ­omy thought lead­ers Michael Braun­gart and Wil­liam Mc­Donough noted in their book, Cra­dle to Cra­dle: Re­mak­ing the Way We Make Things, that “nei­ther the health of nat­u­ral sys­tems, nor an aware­ness of their del­i­cacy, com­plex­ity and in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness, have been part of the in­dus­trial de­sign agenda”. Six­teen years on, MacArthur says with dev­as­tat­ing sim­plic­ity: “Our cur­rent sys­tem is bro­ken. It can’t work in the long term.”

Ad­vo­cates for a cir­cu­lar econ­omy be­lieve we must change the way that we de­sign, make, sell and con­sume prod­ucts and, in the process, re­frame how we think about ma­te­ri­als and re­sources, dura­bil­ity, longevity and end-of-use. Lit­er­ally, it’s about mov­ing from a line to a cir­cle: clos­ing the loop. For­get ‘ take, make, dis­pose’. In its place? Keep re­sources in the sys­tem, thereby re­tain­ing their value.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, since the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion our sys­tem has been lin­ear: we ex­tract, har­vest, hunt, mine or other­wise ob­tain re­sources from na­ture, and of­ten use them to man­u­fac­ture goods with built-in ob­so­les­cence. We dis­pose of these goods to make room for new ones. Mostly, that means land­fill. Some­times, worse: only 14 per cent of plas­tic pack­ag­ing, for ex­am­ple, is col­lected for re­cy­cling, and eight mil­lion tonnes of plas­tics en­ter the oceans each year.

That’s ob­vi­ously bad for the en­vi­ron­ment, but it’s now look­ing bad for the bot­tom line, too. Wal­ter Sta­hel is a Swiss ar­chi­tect and aca­demic who is cred­ited with be­ing the first per­son to use the term “cra­dle to cra­dle” in the 1970s. He ar­gues that, for the last cen­tury, we’ve been able to get away with our waste­ful lin­ear ap­proach be­cause re­source prices for en­ergy and ma­te­ri­als have con­stantly de­creased, but in the fu­ture the trend is to­wards prices con­stantly in­creas­ing. When waste no longer adds up, it must be re­de­fined as a re­source. In such a con­text, busi­nesses will need to care­fully man­age, and keep hold of, their ex­ist­ing fi­nite ma­te­ri­als.

Global Fash­ion Agenda (the not-for-profit arm of the Copen­hagen Fash­ion Sum­mit) warns: “If the fash­ion in­dus­try does not start act­ing now, the lin­ear model will soon reach its phys­i­cal lim­its. Ac­cord­ing to cur­rent fore­casts, the world pop­u­la­tion will ex­ceed 8.5 bil­lion by 2030, and global gar­ment pro­duc­tion will in­crease by 63 per cent.” As the eco meme goes: “There is no Planet B.”

So how might we prac­ti­cally ap­ply cir­cu­lar prin­ci­ples to fash­ion? Ac­cord­ing to the UK-based char­ity WRAP (Waste Re­sources Ac­tion Pro­gramme), as much as 80 per cent of a prod­uct’s en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact is de­ter­mined at the de­sign stage. That gives brands and de­sign­ers power to re­shape the sys­tem. So to­mor­row’s de­sign­ers will con­sider what hap­pens to that dress af­ter its first wearer is done with it.

In Cra­dle to Cra­dle, Mc­Donough and Braun­gart ex­plain how ma­te­ri­als fall broadly into two cat­e­gories: they can “be com­posed ei­ther of ma­te­ri­als that biode­grade and be­come food for bi­o­log­i­cal cy­cles” – think about a tree that sheds its au­tumn leaves, which then be­come food for the soil – “or of tech­ni­cal ma­te­ri­als that stay in closed-loop cy­cles”. Here lies your plas­tic and metal, non-biodegrad­able pack­ag­ing, your phone, your car. In a cir­cu­lar sys­tem, these tech­ni­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal nu­tri­ents are kept sep­a­rate. A pair of poly-cot­ton yoga pants pro­vides a good ex­am­ple: in its nat­u­ral state the cot­ton com­po­nent is biodegrad­able, but the ad­di­tion of the plas­tic fi­bre turns the gar­ment into what Mc­Donough calls “a Franken­stein prod­uct” that’s dif­fi­cult to dis­as­sem­ble and re­use. Un­der a lin­ear sys­tem, there’s lit­tle in­cen­tive to care if some­thing is tricky to re­cy­cle, but if the brand re­tains re­spon­si­bil­ity for its prod­ucts at the end of the value chain, that’s a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion.

“Let’s look at au­to­mo­tive,” sug­gests MacArthur. Not long ago, own­ing a car was a cul­tural norm. Every­one who could af­ford one, bought one. “That is no longer the case. Peo­ple have leases, or they ac­cess a car when they need one through a car-shar­ing scheme.” Mil­len­ni­als are less in­ter­ested in car own­er­ship than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions and that trend will deepen. “Man­u­fac­tur­ers know things are chang­ing and that they’re go­ing to be build­ing dif­fer­ent cars in the fu­ture. Cars will be re-man­u­fac­turable and re­pairable, be­cause users won’t own them; the man­u­fac­tur­ers will own them and it will be in their in­ter­ests to de­sign them so that all the ma­te­ri­als will be re­cov­er­able.” She be­lieves that fash­ion is also poised to fo­cus on ac­cess over own­er­ship. De­signer sub­scrip­tion wardrobes al­ready ex­ist. Bei­jing­based YCloset works on a sub­scrip­tion model whereby for around $100 a month, sub­scribers get un­lim­ited ac­cess to a vir­tual closet. Kenzo and Acne be­gan work­ing with the plat­form last year.

US leader Rent the Run­way’s tagline is “save time, save money, save the planet”. On the site, you can rent all sorts of de­signer items for a frac­tion of their re­tail price. CEO Jen­nifer Hyman told Glossy last year that she plans to put Zara out of busi­ness. Rent the Run­way hit US$100 mil­lion in rev­enue in 2016 and the com­pany is grow­ing. With nine mil­lion mem­bers on­line, they are branch­ing out with phys­i­cal stores in five US cities. Ac­cord­ing to the Wash­ing­ton Post (re­port­ing on data from third par­ties), only around six per cent of fash­ion fans have rented cloth­ing in the US but Gen Z has a to­tally dif­fer­ent view: “Fifty­seven per cent of teenagers wish brands of­fered more ways to rent or bor­row items.”

In Aus­tralia, Glam Cor­ner is the mar­ket leader. The com­pany has been in the game for six years, and rents pieces by Zim­mer­mann, Camilla and Marc and Alice McCall. Co-founder and COO Au­drey Khaing-Jones says the mar­ket is evolv­ing. “Most of our cus­tomers [still] dis­cover us when look­ing for a one-off item that they’d have spent a lot of money on but only worn once – think ball­go­wns, wed­ding guest out­fits, brides­maids … [But they are] look­ing for an in­creas­ingly wide range of prod­ucts.”

A thriv­ing new cir­cu­lar econ­omy will be as com­plex as the old lin­ear one, in­cor­po­rat­ing cir­cu­lar ma­te­ri­als, re­source ef­fi­ciency, re­new­able en­ergy and de­sign for longevity and mul­ti­ple own­ers, as well as things like lo­cal sourc­ing, detox­i­fy­ing sup­ply chains and de­vel­op­ing new ways to ac­cess prod­ucts.

Sys­tem change re­quires un­prece­dented col­lab­o­ra­tion. Anne Gedda says these goals ex­ist “be­yond com­pe­ti­tion”. As of July 2018, 94 com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing H&M, Ker­ing (which owns Gucci, Ba­len­ci­aga and Alexan­der McQueen), PVH, Nike and Adi­das, have signed up to Global Fash­ion Agenda’s 2020 Cir­cu­lar Fash­ion Com­mit­ment. The aims is to work on cir­cu­lar de­sign strate­gies, in­crease the amount of used prod­uct that’s col­lected and resold, and step up the use of re­cy­cled, post-con­sumer fi­bres.

“This is about op­por­tu­nity,” says MacArthur. “It’s about re­design­ing things to be bet­ter, it’s about in­no­va­tion, cre­ativ­ity and pos­i­tiv­ity. We can do things bet­ter. Isn’t that a great thing to run to­wards?”

Only 14 per cent of plas­tic pack­ag­ing is col­lected for re­cy­cling, and eight mil­lion tonnes of plas­tics en­ter the oceans each year

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