Source: Made-with-respect.com (2015)
From ‘take, make, waste’…
The average consumer does not wear 40 percent of the clothing they own, and 60 percent of our clothing ends up on landfills within a year after purchase, while still of good quality. In the fashion industry, like in every industry, business models are designed following a linear approach. Based on the assumption that resources are abundant and inexpensive, we are having a ‘take, make, waste’ approachl. For decades, this approach has been extremely successful in terms of growth and profitability.
However, when pricing in environmental externalities, resources are not abundant and inexpensive at all. Our behavior has led us into a situation where we consume 1.7 times the earth carrying capacity, and we will need three planet earths to satisfy our needs by 2050 if we continue like this. To meet the needs of a growing population in this finite world, something has to change. We need to move from a linear to a circular economy, from ‘take, make, waste’ to ‘produce, use, reuse’. What kind of circular solutions can we offer the fashion industry in these three stages?
The fashion industry has a large ecological footprint. The production of clothing needs tremendous amounts of water, energy, and pesticides, which makes the fashion industry one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses, for clothing that is not designed to last or be reused. To illustrate, producing a t-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water. Moreover, synthetic materials, such as nylon and polyester, release huge amounts of microfibers and -plastics during every washing cycle, which pollute our rivers and oceans. The problem is that the price of the t-shirt you are buying, does not reflect the price our environment has to pay.
Substitution of raw materials for sustainable materials, and using different techniques for production, are essential to reduce this ecological footprint. This years’ innovators in the Accenture Innovation Awards for Circular Economy show that the production of clothing can be done differently. Dropel Fabrics, a participant of the Fashion for Good program for example, has developed new fabrics that are water-, stain-, and odor-repellent, extending the lifecycle of clothing. The innovative part about this fabric, is that it has the softness and breathability of cotton and the performance qualities of synthetics, while not releasing the harmful microfibers and -plastics. An example of bio based fabrics, is Algae Fabrics. Algae have multiple functionalities: they produce cellulose, from which yarn can be made, and they can convert large volumes of CO2 to Oxygen. Moreover, algae can make the dying process of fabrics more sustainable as well, a toxic process that still needs a lot of improvement in the production cycle.
For the alternative types of fabrics, huge opportunities lay within the fashion industry. These innovations show that polyester, which is made of plastic; thereby a product of petroleum, can be substituted by bio based materials, while still ensuring the quality of synthetics. Another example is the recent product of Nike’s FlyknitTM Technology. With this technology, Nike produced a shoe upper out of a few single threads; thereby resulting in a production process that is up to 80 percent less harmful for the environment.
The use phase is full of challenges as well. The ‘take, make, waste’ model has led us into a situation where we treat clothing as disposable goods. Women on average own 95 pieces of clothing, and men around 56 pieces. Of this clothing, only around 60 percent is worn regularly, but ends up on landfills within a year after production, while still of great quality. Therefore, it is not enough if only produces change their production process. If consumers do not change their behavior as well, this change of plans will not work.