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(Re)defining sustainability: Repair, Recycle, Reuse and Reduce

By Vivian Hendriksz


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London - Once seen as a niche part of the fashion industry, being eco-conscious has rapidly become one of the hottest 'topics' of our time. From luxury fashion houses to fast-fashion retailers, and everything in between - more and more fashion companies are responding to mounting consumer interest and 'going green.' However, in spite of all the efforts being made the fact remains that the global fashion and textile industry is the second most polluting and damaging industry in the world after oil. “The fashion business model is broken and we urgently need to find alternatives," proclaimed Safia Minney MBE, founder and CEO of eco-fashion brand People Tree in the documentary 'The True Cost'. So we ask, what does it mean to be sustainable within the fashion industry? In the third episode of a new series looking at sustainability and the fashion industry, FashionUnited focuses on the emergence of the 4 R’s - repair, recycle, reuse/resell and reduce, which brands embrace them and why they are vital for the future of a responsible fashion industry.

One of the first brands to create its values and commitments as a company around the 4 ‘s is Patagonia. As an avid rock climber and hiker, Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Public Engagement at Patagonia, saw the ongoing effects the industry had on the environment. This degradation of the land he and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard loved so much contributed to their goals for the brand, their values and their commitment to produce the best possible product they can which causes no unnecessary harm to the environment. But why no unnecessary harm, rather than no harm? Because, as Ridgeway pointed out during the 4th edition of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit "there is harm in making apparel, and that core recognition is the way to sustainability."

The first R: Repair

The 4 R's stand central to Patagonia's core values, as well as its infrastructure. The first R, Repair is an vital aspect of the brand’s customer service as well as overall shopping experience. Patagonia actively designs their products with durability and performance in mind to ensure they last the user as long as possible. The brand offers product care guidelines to shoppers to help ensure that their purchase lasts as long as possible, as well as handy, eco-friendly stain remover tips. However, if a product from Patagonia does happen to break or rip or tear, then customers are encouraged to follow repair instructions online and mend the said item. Or, alternatively they bring it back to a Patagonia store where a member of staff can fix it or send it off to their garment repair facility, which is said to be the largest in North America (where they conduct over 40,000 individual repairs a year.) "As the usable lifetime of our products increases, the lifetime environmental footprint decreases,” noted Ridgeway during his speech at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit

In order to ensure that customers across the United States and Europe are also given access to Patagonia's repair facilities, the apparel retailer has launched 'Worn Wear Tours'. During these tours, Patagonia drives a repair truck through a number of states and cities, offering free repairs on Patagonia products, as well as quality, second hand items for sale. Patagonia is not the only brand to offer free repairs on their products, other fashion retailers such as Nudie Jeans and Denham feature custom denim bars in store which offer repairs, Levi's Tailor Shop offers repairs and customising and Filippa K offers free care advice, but the majority of high streets brands do not offer repairs. "Why is repair such a radical act?," argues Rose Marcario, Chief Executive Officer at Patagonia. "Fixing something we might otherwise throw away is almost inconceivable to many in the heyday of fast fashion and rapidly advancing technology, but the impact is enormous."

Patagonia: "Why is repair such a radical act"

Of course, in an industry that revolves around speed, efficiency and coaxing consumers purchase the latest trends before they are gone, encouraging them to mend old garments rather than buy new ones may sound like a contradiction. “Brands competing with Zara create a huge paradox when it comes to sustainability,” said Edward Gribbin, industry veteran and President of global apparel business expert Alvanon to FashionUnited. Why? On the one hand Zara’s fast fashion business models sees the Spanish retailer product less garments per design in order to promote their appeal (Buy it now, or it will be gone in less than two weeks!) and to have the on the shop floor as quickly as possible. Now, this means that the retailer is more likely to sell out of a product completely and not waste energy as well as other resources shipping it elsewhere to be stored in a warehouse until sale season. This makes the fashion retailer more conscious when it comes to their products, which are usually manufacturers in factories closer to home to ensure maximum efficiency and minimal waste emissions.

However, on the other hand, because Zara produces so many different garments, in numerous styles and trends at such a low price, every other week, it has contributed to the consumer opinion that fast fashion is expendable as well. “This business philosophy, which values newness and scarcity has fuelled the idea of disposable fashion,” added Gribbin, making it problematic. In addition, the product development and testing phase, which Gribbin believes is one of the most inefficient parts of the production line, sees retailers like Zara design, test and retest product sample several times over, shipping them back for numerous changes or scrapping them all together - making it one of the most resource intensive and usage stages of the fast fashion business model and not sustainable. Although Zara’s business philosophy is evolving, as is H&M’s and C&A’s and other mass market retailers values, it will take time for them to rethink a business model which is based on selling more and more for monetary gain. The larger the company is, the longer it takes for any sort of change to take place.

The second R: Recycling

In the meantime, whilst searching for other business models, these retailers have embraced another of Patagonia’s favoured R’s - Recycling. Patagonia asks that customers return their products once they are truly worn out, so they can recycling the fibres and materials as they see best. An increasing number of high street retailers have ranging from H&M (and sister brands & Other Stories, Weekday, Monki) to Marks & Spencer to Columbia Sportswear, to Levi's, have teamed up with I:CO (I:Collect), a solutions provider for clothing and shoes recycling. The company gathers unwanted garments collected in stored across the globe and helps give them a second life by reselling clothing in a good condition; reusing clothing in poor condition to create other items; recycling leftover materials into textile fibres to be reused. Then, when the previous three options are not viable, the unwanted textile are used to produce energy. At the moment there are a few technological humps when it comes to recycling, such as the separation of the fibres, as well as import laws shipping unwanted garments from countries like China and India, but clothing recycling is rapidly becoming a norm within the fashion industry.

Other retailers, like G-Star Raw, have been working with organizations such as Bionic Yarn and Parley of the Oceans to gather plastics from the ocean and transform it into yarns to make new clothing from. The ‘Raw for the Oceans’ collections have become so popular over the past years that they have become a permanent addition to the brand’s collection and the brand is currently replacing the 10 percent of the conventional polyester in its collections with recycled plastics. However, the technology used to recycle plastic has yet to be perfected, as garments made from synthetic materials such as recycled plastic and polyester release microplastic fibres when washed, which end up polluting the oceans once more. G-Star Raw is working together with several institutions and organizations under the initiative Ocean Clean Wash to create a solution, but encourages more innovations and technological corporations to partner with them. Collaboration is key to ensuring sustainability becomes the norm throughout all aspects of the industry, including recycling.

Nike: Renewable resources to combat climate change

Recycling unwanted garments and reusing the resources is key paramount to ensuring the industry does not take more from the planet than it can give, as is using renewable energy sources for the production and shipping of clothing. For example, H&M aims to use 100 percent renewable electricity in all its own operations, whilst pushing for renewable energy schemes in Asia Pacific and Latin America. In 2015, 78 percent of the fast fashion retailer total energy usage was renewable, up from 27 percent in 2014. Nike has also made an RE 100 commitment to source 100 percent of its electricity from sources of energy by 2025. “We know that the effects of climate change have an impact on the athletes we serve and can pose challenges to our business,” commented Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator at Nike on their commitment. “Actively moving toward 100 percent renewable energy will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will also enable Nike to pursue a reliable, stable energy supply and allow us to continue to grow our business without relying on resources that are becoming increasingly scarce.”

The third R: Reuse

Another way some fashion companies have been expanding their business it through the third R - Reuse or Resell. Swedish fashion label Filippa K, who recently announced a new strategy which incorporates all 4 R’s into its business plan, was one of the first brands to open up its own second hand store. Located at Hornsgatan 77, Stockholm, Sweden, the store offers second hand and vintage items from Filippa K for both men and women, as well as one off sample items. Elin Larsson, Sustainability Director for Filippa K, revealed that she frequently visits the store for items herself during a recent lecture in Amsterdam and hopes to expand the concept to other cities. “I found this beautiful leather jacket, which I have worn so many times, in our second hand store,” she exclaimed, adding that her shirt was one of her mother’s. Although buying second hand clothing is not a new concept, over the years it has become more positive in consumers minds, spurred by the emergence of vintage websites such as Vestiaire Collective and Styletribute.

In addition to selling previously owned items, Filippa K also offers customers the opportunity to rent its collections in store rather than buy them for 20 percent of the full-retail price. Known as ‘Lease the Look,’ the initiative encourages customers to rent items in-store for 4 days as an alternative way of updating their wardrobes and looks. “Renting clothes, like swapping and upcycling, is a service on the rise,” said Larsson. Another high street fashion brand famous for promoting clothing leasing is Mud Jeans, which actively encourages customers to first rent a pair and then buy it or exchange them for another pair. A firm believer in the pros of a circular economy, the Dutch brand offers customers the choice to become a leaser and rent a pair a jeans for 12 months, for 7,50 euros a month before deciding to keep them or return them and choose a new pair.

Filippa K: “Renting clothes, like swapping and upcycling, is a service on the rise”

Other online websites, such as Rent the Runway, which offers a subscription based lease service to rent the latest designer products, have become increasingly popular over the years. This is in part because it gives customers the opportunity to own a luxury or design item for a limited amount of time at a much lower cost than purchasing it right out. In addition, by allowing consumers the freedom to rent or lease clothing, fashion retailers are able to make a profit, if a slightly smaller one, and continue to make a sale several times over from the same, one single item, rather than one sale from one item. In this sense, retailers are also able to maintain ownership of the raw resources used when manufacturing the item and them are able to recycling them much easier if and when needed, making the reuse concept all the more appealing.

The fourth R: Reduce

From all the 4 R’s, it is perhaps the last one which is seen as the most radical one of all: Reduce. “The most controversial R is the last one, Reduce” said Ridgeway at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. The majority of the world’s fashion labels and manufacturers are banding together with governments to reduce carbon emissions, energy usage, water consumption, waste outage, and their overall environmental impact. Many fashion companies, such as Kering, Inditex and H&M have all set goals to reduce their greenhouse emissions and cut down on their energy usage and water consumption. However, when Ridgeway speaks of Reducing, is it not energy, or waste or water he is concerned about.

“Now, to get the conversation going around this inconvenient truth we ran that now famous ad, full page in the New York Times, on Black Friday with headline ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’,” said Ridgeway, who added they aimed for the ad to really halt people in their tracks. “We did this so they would take the time to read the copy. There we told them that no matter how hard we tried to make that jacket and cause no unnecessary harm, that guess what? The jacket still required over 135 liters of water, still released 20 pounds of CO2 gas emissions and still left behind about two-thirds of its weight in waste.” By highlighting the inevitable fact that the industry does harm the planet with its manufacturing, Ridgeway focuses on one of the main issues facing sustainability: over consumption of clothing.

“All of us have to realise that sustainability innovation may not get us back to only taking from the earth what it can give back. To achieve true sustainability, we have to start thinking about adjusting our businesses and our business models to accommodate the inevitable reduction of global compounded annual consumption,” concluded Ridgeway. For fast fashion companies such as Zara, H&M and Mango, who have built their businesses models around an ever growing cycle of consumption this is a clear message for them to stop - and to consumers as well. “The majority of adults in Western societies will have purchased enough clothing by the age of 22 to last them for life,” pointed out Gribbin. But does this stop them from buying? Reducing fashion consumption is perhaps the single, most important message the industry and the public can and should take heed of, which in turn means creating new systems which promote other values than monetary gain and capitalism. By creating a holistic view of well being, promoting the social security of all its workers and protecting global health, the industry ensure sustainability becomes the standard for all.

Stay tuned for part IV of the series, out June 8th

Photo 1: H&M website
Photos 2-8, 11,12: Patagonia website
Photos 9, 10: Filippa K website
Photo 12: Mud Jeans website

Copenhagen Fashion Summit
Filippa K
redefining sustainability