Clean Clothes is a series examining the fashion industry’s impact on our planet, and the brands, technologies, and people helping us toward a cleaner, more environmentally conscious future.
It's no secret that consumerism is trashing the planet, and the fashion industry is a big part of the problem. There's a growing corner of the industry that's committed to less harmful practices, but as it stands, that's not really enough — not only is global warming and pollution spiraling out of control, but we're running out of resources too.
We're currently consuming resources at 1.6x the world's capacity. Industry experts at Boston Consulting Group and the Global Fashion Agenda predict that clothing consumption will increase by over 60 percent by 2030, and by then we'll be using two planets worth of resources. Manufacturers aren't stupid — they've realized that if things don't change, they won't actually have anything left to actually make stuff with. Many brands and producers are slowly coming around to what's called circular manufacturing, and it's likely to have knock-on effects on how we consume clothing in the future.
Currently, most products are designed with a linear lifespan. We make things, and when they're no longer needed, they're thrown away, likely ending up in a landfill or incinerated. If all, or part, of a product gets recycled, then most of the time it goes further down the value chain — T-shirts end up as rags or insulation, for example. It's massively wasteful, and it means manufacturers are losing ownership of valuable resources when they could be keeping hold of them.
In a circular system, products are designed from the very beginning to be recycled, without moving down the value chain. Take a running shoe, for example. Due to the huge amount of stress the body puts on it while it's in use, it's a product with a limited lifespan. When the shoe reaches the end of its lifespan, instead of being thrown away, it could theoretically have its upper reprocessed and sole melted down, so those components could then be used in making another running shoe.
The idea is that we'd reach a point where consumption and production doesn't result in any waste at all, as every used or unwanted product is recovered, then fully recycled.
The Global Fashion Agenda recently announced that 64 leading brands and corporations, which make up 7.5 percent of the total value of the global fashion industry, signed a commitment to move towards a more circular system. The signatories include adidas, ASOS, Lacoste, H&M, Kering (owners of Balenciaga, Gucci and Saint Laurent), and VF Corp (which owns Timberland, Vans and The North Face).
It basically means that companies will commit to collecting and re-selling a higher volume of used garments, while using more recycled fibers in their products. Most importantly, it urges companies to design products to be recycled — which is the beginning of a truly circular system.
Of course, this isn't going to save the world overnight, but things are already happening behind the scenes. For example, Nike designers aren't allowed to mix materials together if it will make the end product harder to recycle.
But what does this all have to do with us, the end consumers?
Well, a truly circular economy would create a culture where we use products, rather than own them. Currently, manufacturers make things, then sell them and forget about them — that's what's creating so much waste. If manufacturers were instead recovering, recycling and reprocessing their products, then it makes much more sense for them to rent them rather than sell them.
That way, they still own all of the materials, and can ensure they're recovered and recycled correctly. With resources becoming scarcer and increasingly valuable, this business model makes much more sense in the long run.
It's not hard to imagine a future where clothing is rented rather then owned, as part of some kind of subscription service — like Spotify or Netflix for your wardrobe. It'd be especially useful for garments with short lifespans or limited uses — kids' clothing, running shoes, wedding suits, that kind of thing.
But it also suits modern consumption habits. Social media has made trends move faster than ever, and it's simply not feasible for us to be consuming more and more resources just to keep up with what's hot at a given moment. If clothing was kept inside a closed loop, we'd be able to easily pass garments on once we're bored of them — one man's trash is another man's treasure, as the saying goes. Plus, think of all that wardrobe space you'd save.
If you think this idea is far-fetched, just look at the market for hyped streetwear — it's about as circular as it gets. Guys buy clothes the day they're released, and when they're bored of them, they're sold for equal — if not more — than what they paid for. It might not be framed as borrowing per se, but it's essentially the same thing. Stains and signs of wear aren't a big deal, because everyone understands that if you take good care of your gear, you can make your money back later — and then some.
Of course, this is very much "blue sky" thinking right now, but manufacturers are recognizing the need for circularity, so the future might be coming sooner than you think. Spotify, Netflix and Airbnb have shown that businesses built around using rather than owning can be utterly revolutionary, and while there's a lot more potential headaches when it comes to renting and borrowing clothing, as it stands right now, the human race can't afford to just carry on making more throwaway T-shirts.
German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough have already set out a vision of a circular economy in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. It's a must-read for anyone who's interested in the subject.
For further reading, here are some mind-blowing facts that'll change the way you think about fashion.