Written by Christina Dean
My mother always told me “What goes around comes around”. I’ve carried this philosophy through life; even into how I think about how we make and dispose of clothes and how I imagine the circular economy.
The circular economy can sometimes seem confusing. But it’s simple. Think of how Mother Nature does it, she’s the circular economy master. When a tree falls over and decomposes, every part of that tree is put to good use feeding the forest floor and enriching all biodiversity, soil, slugs, fungi and fauna included.
We can simply apply this fallen tree concept to fashion to get a vision of how we can design, produce and use our clothes better within a circular economy for fashion. Just imagine that all ‘waste’ materials created throughout fashion’s complex supply chain were reclaimed and re-used. Cue some examples: secondhand clothes become a source of fibres for ‘new’ clothes; chemicals are extracted from waste-water to be re-used; cut-and-sew waste created during routine manufacturing gets up-cycled back into ‘new’ fabrics and not downcycled to rags and other low value items. This concept of using resources over again puts the circular economy at polar opposites with the linear system - of make, use, dispose – which is catastrophically the cornerstone of our global economy, and indeed most of our mindsets.
So if Mother Nature and my Mother are right (they usually are!), then we need seismic change to the fashion system. We need to ditch linear and embrace circular.
Today, we face vast consumption and production rates, and correspondingly the rapid depletion of natural resources. Just imagine this; every year, the fashion industry consumes nearly 79 billion cubic meters of water (1), which in laymen’s terms is equivalent to around 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. We’re then wallowing in clothing and textile waste – which is thought to be almost 100 per cent recyclable - with an estimated 92 billion tons of textile waste created annually from the industry (2). These ‘waste’ textiles already used precious water, and required many other natural resources (and, often toxic, chemicals) to produce and so not putting them to good use within the circular economy makes no sense at all. Even my seven year old daughter, who naturally receives the same advice from her Grandmother, can see that this doesn’t make sense.
This is why we urgently need to take inspiration from Mother Nature’s fallen tree. We need to divert this so called ‘waste’ away from landfills and back into action, whether this means putting it back in the fashion system or looking for other cross-industry ways to keep it in use.
The good news is that we’re already seeing more circular systems in fashion, particularly here in Hong Kong. Through Redress’ projects, the EcoChic Design Award’s competitors, who are poster-pin-ups for the circular system, up-cycle anything that crosses their creative paths; from tatami mats, old kimonos, end-of-line yarns, old military uniforms, bridal wear scraps to old jute sacks. There is nothing ‘sack-like’ about the outcomes. Our pool of talented Alumni designers are forging circular systems with manufacturers and textile suppliers - effectively positioning themselves under the tree before it falls - to capture their waste in a sustainable business system. Then there is BYT, the daring new up-cycled brand that was born from Redress. BYT rescues luxury brands’ and manufacturers’ waste and converts this into beautifiul products, which have caught the attention of Barneys and Lane Crawford alike. Also making great strides into circular are the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and China Water Risk, who are pushing the agenda radically forward within the industry with their research and innovation projects.
This push for circular isn’t just happening at the industry level; consumers are jumping on the bandwagen too. Globally, more consumers are bringing their unwanted clothes back for recycling. Hong Kongers are changing too with demand driving Redress’ clothing drives to grow year on year.
If you weren’t already convinced, consider the potential financial value of shifting the system. Recent research suggests there’s a potential to create €160 billion (nearly HK$1.4 trillion) every year for the world economy through more efficient use of scarce resources in the fashion industry by making progress on a range of issues up and down the value chain (3).
This new circular system must become the norm and not a niche. Along the world’s supply chain, from mills to garment factories and in retail stores to warehouses, we need to let textile ‘waste’ out of the closet - and ahem this includes our own unworn clothes that are often jammed in our homes - to put them to good use within the circular economy. Mother Nature and my Mother are right, “What goes around comes around” and now’s the time to live this out in fashion.
1, 2, 3 | Global Fashion Agenda and The Boston Consulting Group, Inc. (2017), Pulse of the Fashion Industry
This article originally appeared in the EcoChic Design Award 2017 Magazine.