Apologetic sustainability is dead, we need to close the loop on waste
If you asked me three years ago what ‘closing the loop’ meant, I probably would have guessed a trick with a guitar effects pedal or slang for kissing so many boys in your hometown it becomes increasingly risky they know each other. Today, I work for an enterprise organisation which engages with entrepreneurs around the world, and stories of bold, imaginative, problem-solving business minds find their way to my desk almost every day. ‘Closing the loop’, or Circular Economy to give it its better name, has become a source of optimism for the future, changed the way I think about my choices as a consumer and has proven to be a significantly harder concept to explain after 2 am than expected (for a whiskey nightcap kind of girl at least).
When my best friend got married, close family and friends took part in a tradition passed down through her German heritage - gathering to throw china at a wall behind the couple, adding nice words to every clatter of china – a quirky expression of love for the bride and groom to be. The couple are required to clean up the debris, enjoying the metaphor marriage will involve working to together to clean up after themselves and their community. A metaphor undoubtedly better enjoyed in modern day with the help of a Dyson V6.
This old-fashioned but none-the-less well-meaning tradition captures the old-fashioned but none-the-less well-meaning approach to sustainability, “we clean up (most of) the mess we make”. Fast-forward to less naive times, managing the waste of resources has moved on from a brand reputation motivated company courtesy. The world has a better academic understanding of the consequences of mass-production and mass-consumption, and, through a democratizing of media via the internet, consumers are accessing this greater knowledge and allowing it to inform their purchase decisions. Now, more than ever before, businesses are incentivized to provide solutions to prevent waste and innovate new ways to repurpose their resources.
The ultimate goal? A collaborative economy that respects resources and celebrates the versatility and endurance of materials by employing creative processes to prevent waste.
This could also be described as the opposite of the eighties, the poster decade of consumerism during which the best programme on television was a quiz show rewarding people who lived in city high-rise flats with speed boats and people who couldn’t afford a holiday with luggage sets -because owning expensive things was better than not owning expensive things even if they are completely useless.
Who are the poster brands for a circular fashion economy?
Patagonia has been making headlines recently, as a leader in the integration of circular economy into their business model. Under the simple but effective slogan ‘If it’s Broke, Fix It’, they offer lifetime guarantees on all their garments, supporting wearers to preserve and restore their Patagonia items and, in the event they are no longer usable, recycling them through their own repair and recycle facility, which processes over 45,000 items a year. They even send trucks out across Europe to patch up your gear gratis, a gesture above and beyond the £150 price tag.
Taking complete responsibility for the life-cycle of a product is one business model approach to the circular economy. If we want an economy that is completely empowered to reuse and recycle its resources collaboration will be the key, a one man’s waste is another man’s Cruise Collection approach, but more complicated. This is the ethos behind Reverse Resources, a start-up connecting brands with textile waste. Co-founders Ann Runnel and Shaikh Khalid Raihan saw a space for a reliable middleman in the fashion industry, connecting those who need fibres and fabrics to those with excess destined for landfill, an idea so simple you wonder where it has been all this time. Their business mission is built around the idea that there’s no such thing as waste, just unexplored business opportunities.
Businesses breaking the mould of how consumers purchase their products include Mud Jeans, who lease their classic jeans to customers on a monthly basis, offering swaps and free repairs when needed. After 14 months leased use, you can keep the jeans free of charge and when you no longer need them you can return them for a part-refund. This ‘access over ownership’ model is becoming more and more prevalent for businesses using durable, long-life materials such as denim, leather and synthetics.
The Met Costume Institute’s 2016 Spring exhibition Manus x Machina highlighted the significant role 3D printing is set to play, introduced in store or maybe one-day in our own homes. Trusst Lingerie have introduced a 3D printing service for women seeking to find the perfect support for their busts, producing underwiring bespoke to the individuals which have real healthcare benefits as well as being more cosmetically flattering. Last year, Nike experimented with creating bespoke 3D printed running shoes for athlete Allyson Felix and partnered with HP to help it speed-up the integration of the technique into its manufacturing processes, aiming to offer a combination of custom athletic support and style choice. Even cosmetics is getting in on things, with start-up Mink allowing you to capture any colour from the world around you and produce a piece of make-up with that exact pigment via an innovative cartridge ink system. Case studies such as these indicate an improved product tailored to the client and greater aesthetic choice are the direction 3D printing is taking fashion. In the future, it seems, it is likely we will see creative control in the hands of the consumer like never before and, if we are lucky, a move away from mass consumerism as our involvement with our garments becomes more important.
These sensible approaches to respecting and repurposing resources are an incredible step in the right direction and far cry from responsibility ending at a clean-up mission. But what does a truly circular economy look like, how different will it be from today’s landscape? However the fashion experience changes, if bold, imaginative, problem-solving entrepreneurs keep pushing for change, I’m very excited to be part of it.