We need a new approach to how we consume clothes if we want to prevent obscene volumes of waste, widespread exhaustion of critical resources and the toxic pollution of the environment, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“The textiles industry is a huge industry employing more than 300 million people globally,” says Rob Opsomer, co-author of the report. “It’s also very polluting. We found that the equivalent of one garbage truck full of textiles gets landfilled or burned every single second of every day of the year.”
Then there’s the issue of what we’re making those textiles from. As much as 60 percent of our clothing is made from plastic, according to the report. The problem is, every time we wash our clothes, tiny plastic microfibers get released into the washing machine before escaping into the oceans, where they are eaten by fish. It turns out we’re eating and drinking these microplastics too.
At the end of a long weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday mega-discounts from the likes of H&M and Gap, it’s hard to imagine a world where we’re not just lapping up cheap, disposable fast fashion.
But that’s exactly what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is doing.
Launched in collaboration with sustainable fashion icon Stella McCartney, the report sets out four main ways to create “the new textiles economy”: phase out hazardous materials (including those that contribute to the microplastics problem); make better quality clothes and keep them in the system longer through rental models; improve recycling processes; and use renewable resources in manufacturing.
Key to this is realizing that it’s not just about reducing the textiles industry’s negative impact but creating a positive alternative, says Lewis Perkins, president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
“If you’re driving a car 100 miles an hour in the wrong direction and you slow down to 40, you’re still going in the wrong direction,” he says. Put another way, we’re only going to get so far by convincing shoppers to consume less.
From Rent the Runway to The RealReal, we’re seeing great examples of the new textiles economy emerging in countries such as the U.S., says Opsomer, adding: “People don’t want just three shirts or pairs of pants, so we need to find ways to provide them with access to well-made stuff without necessarily owning it.”
And this isn’t just an evolution in the U.S., as demonstrated by projects such as China’s subscription-based clothes sharing platform YCloset. In a recent funding round, YCloset raised $50 million.
For all the talk of Netflix-inspired models, however, a big question remains: Is this vision accessible for those in lower income brackets for whom monthly subscriptions and luxury rentals might not be feasible?
For Opsomer, the point is to mainstream the circular fashion model so it becomes not just widely accessible but also widely desirable.
“There’s a stigma attached to second-hand fashion,” he says. “But, as projects like Rent the Runway show, even those renting at the luxury end of things are open to the idea of second-hand. Ultimately this model provides a vision for access to ethical and affordable clothing.”
More broadly, this model ― where sustainable resources are not just used but re-used ― is taking hold, says Antonia Gawel, head of the World Economic Forum’s Circular Economy initiative. The challenge, she believes, is to ramp up the public and private sectors’ progress.
With companies such as Nike and H&M Group publicly endorsing the new Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, there are at least signs that some of the giants of the fashion industry are listening.
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