The idea came up in 2017, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, a global event dedicated to the fashion industry. It was subsequently promoted not by a fashion trade association or brand, but by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, created in 2009 to support the circular economy. The Foundation takes its name from the retired English sailor who, in 2005, broke the world record for fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe: 71 days, 14 hours and some minutes. That same year, MacArthur was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, one of the highest distinctions in Great Britain. She retired and funded a trust for cancer research, devoting her life, wealth and (high-ranking) personal acquaintances to create one of the most active companies in the world for the promotion of the circular economy. The Foundation funds research studies and disseminates information, as well as offering training. Its many strategic partners include Philips and Ikea, Renault and Google, Unilever and H&M. All trendy brands, in essence, just like the ones who sat around the table in Denmark in 2017, the main actors in an industry that has a great impact on both the environment and our daily life: fashion.
Until now, fashion isn’t being focused on the circular economy
The numbers say it all. According to the World Bank, the textile industry generates about 10% of global CO2 emissions. At least 12% of the fabrics is discarded during production, due to the cutting and sawing required to make a pair of jeans or a T-shirt. To that can be added the mountain of clothes weighting 15 million tonnes that ends up in landfills every year. “More or less a truck per second”, reckons the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. We need only take into account that the industry’s consumption of non-renewable energy resources amounts to at least 98 million tonnes per year (and that pre-Covid estimates see consumption increase threefold by 2050), to get the complete picture of fashion’s impact on the environment. An impact largely determined by a formula that’s been driving its production for centuries: “Take, make, waste”, as an extremely interesting video available on the Foundation’s website sums it up: take some natural resources, make a product, and once it’s been used, throw it away. This also explains why, in that same video, Evet Sanchez, American designer, concludes that “The truth is that the pace with which we try to ‘stay in fashion’ is no longer sustainable. This industry has just become too fast.”
Change the operative model
Hence, that first brainstorming in Copenhagen, and then months of research and ideas. The following year, a project was presented and chosen by the Foundation as a key part of its programme, alongside other schemes aimed at reducing food waste or increasing plastic recovery: the Make Fashion Circular initiative. “In order to grow, rather than merely survive, the fashion industry needs to radically change its operating model,” reads the project’s presentation paper. And the industry is responding. The programme brings together brands such as Gap and Burberry, Inditex (i.e. Zara) and H&M, Stella McCartney and PVH (that is, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and others). They all share research and projects revolving around three mantras: wear clothes for longer, make them so that they can be recycled, manufacture them with reusable – or at least sustainable – material. “We need to think differently and move towards the circular economy” asserts Francois Souchet, head of the programme. And this from the very first steps, starting from the design that, not by coincidence, is yet another area the Foundation is very much focusing on, financing projects and encouraging cross-sector alliances.
Let’s start with denim
It’s not just about good intentions. One by one, other major fashion brands have joined the table. And the first results of this fascinating global exchange of ideas and experiences are already landing on the markets, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic: the circular jeans. Thanks to the Jeans Redesign project, which involves about sixty brands, factories and manufacturers (including historical names such as Wrangler, Lee and Banana Republic), who have now committed to produce garments according to three main principles: jeans must be made to last longer, they must be recyclable and they must be manufactured in the best possible way for workers, customers and the environment – that is, avoiding chemicals and pollutants. A multi-voice video shows the ongoing work in different factories and the project purposefully started with one of the most universal, yet probably least green, items. Indeed, nowadays, manufacturing jeans requires a large amount of cotton, pesticides, fertilisers and water, as well as chemicals needed to achieve that aging effect. So, how to make them circular? Axen, designer for Weekday (Swedish brand belonging to the H&M family), tells us that they worked on the fabric’s cotton and seams, “which are now completely biodegradable.” Pyoumi Perera, of Hirdaramani (a multinational based in Sri Lanka), explains that “98% of the water used in the wash process is now filtered and recycled.” The back label, too, has been replaced by a printed one, and the buttons are now made of plastic and easily detachable so that they can be recycled. The aging process is carried out with a laser technology that leaves no pollutants behind, rather than the traditional stone wash method, heavy on water and solvents. No more metal parts and plenty of unisex models, for wider usability and reduced waste. Finally, “we use old denim to make new denim” adds Perera. And one last step to close the circle: many brands now allow you to take old garments to their shops, in order to recycle the fabric. A virtuous circle, basically, that’s increasingly getting wider. On Circle Round, the section on the Tommy Hilfiger’s website dedicated to the relationship between businesses and the circular economy, Ömer Aksoy (designer for the Turkish company Kipas, which contributes to the Jeans Redesign project by researching materials) quotes “a famous saying, which often comes to my mind: ‘We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’ This is why we need to do more, in every area.” Hence, trousers made entirely from production waste: those fabric scraps that used to be thrown away after cutting, which are now reworked and incorporated back in the circle. “We are on the verge of a real revolution” adds Aksoy: “Soon, sustainability will no longer be a distinguishing factor for companies, it will become the standard.”
Ethical and environmental issues
And it’ll be increasingly normal to find on the market garments like the Weekday swimwear, made entirely with PET and recycled plastic bottles. Or like the AppleSkin trainers, leisure shoes made of 25% material derived from apple peels: it’s a technology conceived by Frumat, an Italian company based in Bolzano, founded with the aim of creating faux leather products made from recycled materials. “In future, people will become increasingly more aware of which materials are used for their clothes, and of how they could be more sustainable” asserts, on the same website, Hannes Parth, CEO of Frumat. And it’s not just about the environment: “It’s a question of ethics. Young people, especially, demand transparency and traceability. They ask themselves who made their clothes. The fashion industry needs to realise this and adapt.” These are just examples, gleams of a reality that is taking hold, also thanks to technological innovation. In the past few weeks, in order to launch the Global Technology Governance Summit scheduled in Japan at the beginning of April, the World Economic Forum has been sharing stories and examples of approaches that reduce waste on its digital channels. One of these is a machine manufactured in Japan by Shima Seiki: a 3D weaving machine that eliminates seams, test garments and, especially, fabric cuttings. The result? No more scraps or waste material. Brands such as Uniqlo and H&M are already using it. But there are many other similar instances, some showcased in the Make Fashion Show, a fully-fledged talk show also available on the MacArthur Foundation’s website: five episodes brimming with examples, facts and notions. Under the banner of a belief that Souchet, the head of the project, summarises as follows: “We will make fashion circular. It’ll take time, creativity, investments. But we’ll make it.”
The author: Davide Perillo
Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L'Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.
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