Think Tank: Running Circles Around Unsustainable Textile Practices

WOMEN'S WEAR DAILY - June 22, 2016
By Lewis Perkins

Our glamorous business has an unglamorous secret. Fashion has become the second most polluting industry in the world, and it’s time we did something about it. But the solution is not what you may think. Our existing model is based on linear design and production — a one-way street where precious resources dwindle until they’re gone, generating waste as a byproduct. Current problems have less to do with production or consumption than with a fundamental flaw in how we design products. As trends come and go, the clothes they generate linger in our closets, consignment shops and landfills, in vast quantities.

But even if we’re diligent about recycling, the materials used in their creation — from trims, buttons and zippers to yarns and fibers — are not endlessly reusable. Moreover, their environmental impact lives on in long-term consequences to waterways, agriculture and entire communities, the result of toxic dyes, processing chemicals and pesticides used in manufacturing. A “less is more” mind-set can lessen the impact, but does not significantly improve our situation in the long run.

So what’s the better answer? A new model that offers, instead, a regenerative approach to design. A circular system in which materials are safer and more intelligent, intended to be perpetually cycled, ultimately eliminating the very concept of waste. Innovative thinkers and companies around the world are starting to make this concept a reality, in areas as diverse as textiles, chemicals and construction supplies. Just as renewable energy is moving us away from dirty, expensive and dwindling fuels, we’re beginning to see a paradigm shift away from depletion and even conservation and, instead, toward true sustainability in the form of a circular economy.

Fashion companies need to step up and become real pioneers of this circular economy: thinking “fashion forward” in every sense of that phrase. Tomorrow’s consumers (and many of today’s) come into a world in the throes of a climate crisis, and so have a very real desire not just to lighten their footprint but also to actively impart positive change. If companies can, rather than shaming consumers, inspire them to use their purchasing power to foster innovation, we will be successful in creating a “more is more” economy — more resources, more solutions and more products designed with integrity, intelligence and good intentions.

In my role as president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and as a founder of the Institute’s Fashion Positive Initiative, I help companies at various stages on the path to sustainability take a positive approach to designing circular building blocks for fashion. Partners including Maiyet, Stella McCartney, MetaWear, Bionic and others have been working with us over the past few years to innovate materials for circular design, and to verify that work through our Cradle to Cradle Certified standard. And now, thanks to DyStar’s leadership with the first Cradle to Cradle Gold-level material health rating for dyes, there is even more potential to expand industry involvement. Levi, Nike, Adidas and H&M have all announced recent advancements and goals with respect to circular materials and products. In fact, H&M has stated its goal is to become 100 percent circular. That’s not just a vision; it’s a tangible reality.

At Fashion Positive, we’re also tackling big questions beyond materials, such as nurturing a real understanding of what circular fashion design means in the market. While “sustainable clothing” is a buzzy phrase, there’s little agreement on what that really signifies. Trend-setting consumers know they are part of a significant change, at the leading edge of a new economy, and this is beginning to trickle down. It’s up to the industry to come together, through standardization and verification, and promote a shared message around materials, systems, products and impact.

Moreover, thinking fashion-forward goes far beyond “sustainability.” We’re already seeing many disruptions to existing models of apparel design, production, retail and ownership, and witnessing the development of a generation that will use technology to open source design the way a platform like YouTube has democratized education and promoted a DIY culture. Thought leaders are starting to explore these trends — the maker-movement, big data, just-in-time production, 3-D printing, smart-tech fabrics — now. Thanks to recent advances, today we have the technology to turn textiles into second-generation virgin quality yarns; to swap toxic chemicals and harmful dyes for green alternatives. Tomorrow, we may very well be able to 3-D print our clothing at home, in a way that simulates natural fibers and blends, then return the materials to raw form and print next season’s designs from the same upcycleable pellets. In such a future, brands and designers will be free to celebrate unlimited self-expression through endlessly reusable fashion, and consumers can participate without feeling any guilt. And there’s no reason to stop with closing the loop for apparel fibers. We can extend the same thinking to textiles for home goods, carpeting and other products, figuring out ways to turn them into apparel fibers, or vice versa — forging circular partnerships inside and outside of the fashion industry.

We all know that fashion is essential to our human nature. It is self-expression. It is creativity. It is art. It is beauty. It is one of the most meaningful ways in which we communicate our opinions on everything from pop culture to politics. And it has the potential to become a viable solution to enabling our continued existence on this planet. Current and future leaders in the textile and apparel industry have the opportunity to set the most important trend of all: inspiring companies and consumers around the globe to rethink the idea of “throwaway” fashion, designing a circular system in which clothes are both accessible and beautifully designed with a better future in mind.