Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. These are three existential environmental threats identified by the United Nations. But what if I tell you that the fashion industry can play a major role in turning the tide?
The status quo is unsustainable. Doing business as usual is due for disruption and this does not count just for the fashion industry. All industries need to step up their game, or in some cases perhaps do nothing rather than just patching a temporary Bandaid onto the bleeding wound. Systemic change should be on everyone’s agenda. I know change isn’t easy or free but the alternative is costlier. #collapse
Towards Net Zero
A new report by McKinsey estimates an extra $3.2 Tr in yearly spending is needed to reach Net Zero by 2050. Researchers say that the cost of not doing anything will be far greater, so what are we waiting for? Hi there, impact investors!
The Role of Fashion
We all wear clothes. Some of us have more than we wear. Some brands produce more than they sell. Overproduction and overconsumption are at the core of the pollution problem. Products that are not sold or resold (second-hand) or that are donated eventually end up in landfills. The piles of waste keep growing and it’s doing serious harm to the environment and local communities. One now famous example of this situation is found in Chile.
(Fast) Fashion Graveyards
In this article from the BBC, a grim image is portrayed of the end-of-life state of clothes and other textile products. What used to be a natural place, Chile’s Atacama Desert now is a “fast fashion graveyard”. The world’s driest place is full of used clothes mostly from the US, Europe and Asia. Around 60,000 tons of clothes are imported for the second-hand market but in reality only 15% is sold. The rest ends up in illegal desert landfills. This has dire consequences for the environment as well as for the local community.
Another renowned example is found in Accra, Ghana. The second-hand market is locally named “Dead white man’s clothes”.
Screenshots from ABC NEWS report on “Dead white man’s clothes”
Imagine that this area is where you live or work. You wouldn’t wish that upon your worst enemies. #worldpeaceplease
Did you know that it can take over 200 years for a single garment to disintegrate ?! With the pile getting bigger, it becomes less likely for this graveyard to disappear. So what do we do about it? The good news is that as we all wear clothes, we all make decisions in this space. What you buy and how you treat it matters. Perhaps the first step is to recognize that there is no such thing as “throwing away”. Away is not away, just far away from our wardrobes, perhaps.
Greenhouse gas Methane
Speaking of landfills – What do greenhouse gas emissions have to do with them? Everything.
In particular the GHG Methane is released from landfills. Too much heat being trapped in landfills has been supporting the increase of global warming. Correct me if I’m wrong.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, Sept. 2021) :
Per the most recent Inventory Report, U.S. landfills released an estimated 114.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) of methane into the atmosphere in 2019
A Global Methane Assessment by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by up to 45% this decade. Mind you that we (the entire world) needs to cut CO2 emissions in half before 2030 and currently we are at a tipping point according to climate scientists. A quote from the press release:
This is a concern because methane is a an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, responsible for about 30 per cent of warming since pre-industrial times. The good news is that unlike CO2 which stays in the atmosphere for 100s of years, methane starts breaking down quickly, with most of it gone after a decade. This means cutting methane emissions now can rapidly reduce the rate of warming in the near-term.
For fashion (and basically any textile morphed into a product) this means : no longer contributing to the active increase of Methane from your products ending up on landfills.
Nearly 10% of the annual global carbon budget is claimed by the fashion industry. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Just think about how many other industries have their place in the world…
Clearly this is unsustainable. This is why landfills should be obsolete. Land should be used to grow food, not to leave trash. As the saying goes : in nature there is no such thing as waste. Everything is composed and then decomposes. With synthetic (derived from oil) fibers in our clothes, there is no such thing as a clean environment. Let’s talk about how microplastics end up in the ocean in my next newsletter.
Artificial Intelligence to the rescue?
Responding to trends and then producing more than is sold does not help any reduction of waste. On the contrary, it is what is found in incinerators and landfills, see Exhibit A. Perhaps worse is when accused brands try to shove it under the carpet through PR spin. Please stop. Yet, fashion production is here to stay, let’s face it. Perhaps the best response is not to play defense but offense. Innovative solutions as can be found in AI for example, may just be a handle to latch onto when steady ground seems to evaporate under our feet. I was super curious about this, so I set out to explore what it could mean for (fast) fashion brands to work with AI in the fight against pollution. My first article for The Interline was published last week, titled : Responsive vs. Responsible : Can Fashion Be Both?
Screenshot from the article on www.theinterline.com
I don’t like to name the culprits (the list is too long and I’m confident you know who they are), but what I will share is that any mass producing fashion brand that claims they are going circular has a great sense of humor.
I have one rule to keep in mind, citing my old statistics professor :
Garbage In = Garbage Out.
I won’t mention any names, but I increasingly see product drops that shout circularity and sustainability (these are not the same), yet the reality is that :
- Recycling is not the same as Circular. The Recycling Economy is the step between going from a Linear Economy to a Circular Economy. Recycling basically deals with waste, while in a CE there is no waste #utopia #goals.
- Mixing natural and synthetic fibers does not make a product circular. Recycling is incredibly tough, costly, and energy intensive.
- Using ocean plastic (recycled PET bottles) or fishnets and putting them into activewear or other apparel is not a good use. This is not a form of upcycling, rather it is downcycling as microplastics are released into water streams (eventually our oceans) contributing to ocean acidification, which is bad for coral reefs a.k.a the lungs of our ecosystem.
- Using organic cotton with elastane (made from oil) is not the definition of sustainable fashion. A garment has so many more components than just the fabric. Try harder please.
- Vegan leather is not per definition vegan. Generally speaking, vegan leather is plastic, and the oil drilling causes more often than not oil spills. An image of a bird’s feathers drenched in oil could be inserted here.
What’s needed – if the landfill images didn’t make it clear yet – is new design strategies where the end of a garment is the beginning of the process. Not to plug my startup Positive Fibers®, but…
If you ask me where circularity starts, and ends, my answer is (always) : with the materials. To me circular fashion is defined as a system in which materials circulate without losing their value. This is why in my view it makes no sense to put fossil fuel in our clothes. For a fun read, check out this report called SYNTHETICS ANONYMOUS by the Changing Markets Foundation.
Screenshot from www.changingmarkets.org
Just like how you cook, it is the ingredients that make the difference in taste and the effect it has on your health. Right?
EVENT IN THE NETHERLANDS
For those based in The Netherlands, this week is called “De Week van de Circulaire Economie” (The Week of the Circular Economy) and more information can be found on this website. I’m not involved, but am a fan of this initiative! Making better choices starts with awareness, which comes from better education. It’s as simple as that.
Every day I ask myself this question :
Are you wearing your values?
The answer is still: no. But, I recognize that this is a journey.
In my ideal world, my clothes are made entirely of natural fibers (not necessarily vegan but ethical) and, equally important, in ethical conditions by garment workers who enjoy their job. Without having to compromise on style. For too long, we consumers have been oblivious to the substances of what we wear. And men, may I share a secret with you? You do have something with fashion if you wear clothes. Every item you purchase is a vote for the industry you want. Fashion is a verb, to cite the always inspirational William McDonough (Cradle to Cradle), so can we fashion positive change?
I believe yes.
Every step forward is a step forward so whatever it is you do in support of going into a circular economy, you’re on the right path !
Lastly, I would like to recommend 5 books to read for inspiration and hope:
- Doughnut Economics – 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist (Kate Raworth)
- Project Drawdown (Paul Hawken)
- Less is More (Jason Hickel)
- Loved Clothes Last (Orsola de Castro)
- One I haven’t read yet but sounds promising : Saving Us – a climate scientist’s case for hope and healing in a divided world(Katharine Hayhoe)
Marije de Roos
Marije de Roos is an independent circular fashion researcher, whose work at the intersection of science, design, and technology is directed towards creating a new paradigm for fashion. With a background as an economist, Marije specialises in interrogating the true state of sustainability, challenging brands to move beyond baseless sustainability statements, and empowering consumers to make better-informed choices. She is also a contributor to The Interline.