Redesigning fashion, for good

Fashion has been labelled the second most polluting industry after oil. But this does not have to be the case. A new initiative, Fashion for Good, is accelerating change towards a more circular industry, one in which even fast fashion can be sustainable.

Shopper looks longingly at more clothes
A shopper looks at a shopfront display. Fashion is the second-most polluting industry in the world, after oil. Image: diy.disco, CC BY 2.0

The fashion industry is no stranger to controversy for its polluting and exploitative practices, but a new initiative wants to change the industry so that it will create “more good” instead of simply being “less bad”.

Fashion for Good, launched last month in Amsterdam, wants the industry to design, produce and reuse clothing and accessories in such a way that the raw materials can be endlessly recycled without wasting resources.

It is driven by circular economy advocate, designer and co-founder of the initiative, William McDonough, and the Dutch apparel maker C&A’s corporate foundation, C&A Foundation, which provided the initial funding.

The fashion industry must find ways to become more circular, McDonough tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.

The idea for Fashion for Good started with a speech he gave a few years ago proposing how the industry could “fashion endlessly” and be designed in such a way that would be more beneficial and not just “less bad”.

Leslie Johnston, executive director of C&A Foundation, had heard the speech and started brainstorming with her team about how they could help bring that idea to life.

“We worked together to create the concept of Fashion for Good and the guiding philosophy for the initiative - what I call the Five Goods,” McDonough explains.

The Five Goods – Good Materials, Good Economy, Good Energy, Good Water, and Good Lives – form an “aspirational framework” for the industry to refashion their practices into more circular ones, he adds.

To help achieve this, Fashion for Good last week announced the first 12 sustainable fashion start-ups in its accelerator programme.

Under this programme, partner organisations Silicon Valley start-up accelerator platform Plug and Play and French luxury group Kering will provide mentoring, training and networking opportunities over a three-month period to help these designers scale up their solutions.

Among the 12 are Finland’s RePack, a new type of packaging and business model that could slash emissions from e-commerce packaging by up to 80 per cent, by having customers mail back their packaging for reuse after receiving their items.

Others include ICA Bremen, from Germany, which introduces tracers into organic cotton fibers via nano-technology to identify organic to conventional cotton ratios in textiles; and Amadou, from London, which makes a vegetarian, biodegradable alternative to leather from the skin of amadou mushrooms.

Fashion for Good has started accepting submissions for the second round of its accelerator programme to take place later this year.

The lessons learnt in designing and producing the clothing are documented and shared on Fashion for Good’s Good Fashion Guide, an open-source resource showing concrete steps brands can take towards more sustainable production.

Fashion for Good features a total of six initiatives, including the Guide and its two accelerator programmes, one for early-stage innovation and one for late-stage innovation.

The Apparel Acceleration Fund will also provide easier access to financial support to enable companies to adopt more sustainable production methods with help from IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, an organisation that facilitates partnerships for sustainable business.

The two other programmes are the Circular Apparel Community, a coalition to encourage partnership for circular fashion, and The Launchpad Exhibition to highlight and inspire guests to think about how clothes are made.

Fashion, policed

The initiative comes as the fashion industry has been under scrutiny in recent years for its environmentally-destructive ways and exploitative labour practices – from polluting leather tanneries to the toxic impact of pesticides on cotton farmers.

Repressed production costs and shorter fashion cycles have given rise to “fast fashion” – popularised by brands such as Mango, Forever 21, H&M and Topshop – that generates more textile waste as cheaper clothes means consumers are quicker to discard of them.

Media attention has driven consumer action, as seen in boycotts of fast fashion brands that produce clothing at factories with lax safety standards such as Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.

The industry has also responded by policing itself, with brands such as H&M setting sustainability policies for suppliers.

Organisations such as the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals – started in 2011 with six major apparel brands such as Nike and H&M – has also set targets for the industry to achieve zero toxic discharge from clothing production by 2020 globally.

But such measures are not enough for McDonough, who says that there is a need accelerate the industry transition because fashion companies that work to reduce their negative impacts often find themselves “operating within a narrow perspective”.

For instance, a clothing company might switch to using organic cotton in their products but neglect to reduce their water or energy consumption, he observes.

“So many ‘sustainability’ initiatives in apparel minimise short-term losses rather than eliminating the kinds of complex and interrelated problems that hinder permanent benefits,” he says. 

Rather than this piecemeal approach, McDonough says Fashion For Good wants to go back to the drawing board and stitch sustainability into the core of fashion’s design and processes in partnership with other industry players.

The initiative has already attracted a host of partners and produced its first case study in partner organisation C&A’s first “circular collection” of fully compostable t-shirts.

The line of women’s wear is the world’s first Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM GOLD T-shirt and were launched on the same day as Fashion for Good. They will be available for purchase from June in 18 European countries.

Other organisations that have also signed on include the Cradle to Cradle accreditation body Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition that works towards sustainable clothing production, circular economy thought leader the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and co-working space Impact Hub Amsterdam.

So many ‘sustainability’ initiatives in apparel minimise short-term losses rather than eliminating the kinds of complex and interrelated problems that hinder permanent benefits.

William McDonough, circular economy advocate, designer and co-founder of Fashion for Good

There are signs that the industry is responding. Beyond Fashion for Good, the world’s oldest jeans manufacturer Levi’s has plans to close the loop on its supply chain and it has also pledged to use only sustainable cotton by 2020.

Swedish fast fashion giant H&M also runs an annual Global Change Award to choose the best circular fashion start-ups for a year-long accelerator programme. 

McDonough says: “If all resources are safe and reused effectively, it doesn’t matter how long a garment lasts. It’s still a good product in a good system.”

“In such a system, even fast fashion can be sustainable.”

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