Designed For Life

“There is no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place” Duncan Baker Brown.

Resource, the UK’s first ever conference for the circular economy took place this week at London’s Excel Conference Centre. Sitting alongside its big sister EcoBuild - a conference for the sustainable building industry now in its 10th year – Resource is a multi-industry event focused on, yes you guessed it, resources. Leaders from the fields of fashion and furniture to eco consultancy and electrical repair exhibited their projects and led workshops, all sharing the common belief that ‘there is no such thing as waste’, it is just a very valuable resource.

I first came across this ‘circular’ concept a few years ago when I read Cradle To Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. This book opened my eyes to the reality that every day products are designed for obsolescence – businesses rely on us needing to buy a new TV, fridge, or sewing machine so they use components that they know will wear out in a few years. In past decades when household goods and clothes were more expensive, if something broke we would opt for repairing over  replacing, but as prices have plummeted we simply buy a new one, and throw the old one away, with little regard for where exactly ‘away’ may be.

That is the old style economy that has reigned almost since the dawn of the industrial revolution. It is based on manufacturing things, buying things and then buying more things to replace the old things. The circular economy, in contrast to the current disposable and linear model is based on designing with environmental impact and end of life in mind: a fridge would be designed for longevity so it could be easily repaired and, when it reaches the end of its useful life, it could be efficiently disassembled, thus the components could be recovered for reuse or recycling.

What has all this got to do with fashion? According to Ross Barry, workshop speaker and Manager of LMB Textiles "the UK alone throws away over 1.5 million tonnes of clothing per year. As an industry we recover around 1 million tonnes, so that's still around 1/2 a million tonnes going to landfill". This means that a third of the clothes we dispose of are wasted – financially this equates to us throwing away £140million each year. The sad fact, though also the opportunity, is that this could all be reused or recycled, if only the systems were set up for collection, and the consumers were game.

Mark Shayler, Founder of environmental consultancy Tickety Boo, facilitated an RSA workshop yesterday morning entitled The Great Recovery: Textiles teardown & design up, at which he commented how “fashion is irritatingly linear...we churn through stuff and that is why 30% of the clothing in our wardrobe is unworn”. Fashion today can be so cheap and so poorly made that repairs are rarely considered, but if they are, they cost more than the original retail price of the garment. Shayler also referred to the “interesting dynamic at the moment – there are clothes that last a week and are then recycled, and then there are the heritage pieces”, that we invest in, repair and cherish. One example cited by Shayler is Howies (top and below) who not only design products that are low impact and will last, but also aims to be transparent about what the collections are made of and where they are made.

Made to last: Limited edition Men's Cone Mills Soda Pop Jeans, £89 by ethical womenswear and menswear brand Howies.

However, in the current system, it’s very difficult for clothing components to be recovered at the end of a garments’ life because so many elements and materials are used in production. Clothes today are simply not designed for disassembly and reuse – our systems are not set up for (nor cannot keep up with) the linear fashion and fleeting trends that Shayler references. Not to mention the fact that this earth only has finite resources - something has got to give.

In the ‘teardown & design up’ workshop we were given items that had found their way into the recycling stream and asked to take them apart to discover how well-made they were, how hard they were to disassemble and find out what we could about the materials. What was the fabric made of - was it a blended fibre? What are the fixings – buttons, zips, velcro? Could that garment have been repaired or was it such poor quality that it would be hard to mend? Some items were easier to take apart than others – zips and buttons could be removed and reused; polyester linings could be taken out and recycled; but what about blended fabrics, how can they be recovered and reprocessed?

The afternoon panel discussion ‘Communicating the circular economy’ picked up on this very point: “The difficulty is that most textiles are blends these days”, explained Cindy Rhoades, Founder and Closed-loop Executive at Worn Again. “We set out in 2005 with the vision to eradicate textile waste...through our work we soon realised that upcycling alone wasn’t going to solve the problem. We have spent the last two years working on a technology to separate polyester and cotton”.

Worldwide the rate of textiles recycling is far below the two thirds of clothing we recover in the UK, so it's clear that Worn Again set themselves quite a task: “Globally we [the recycling industry] are only collecting 20% of end of life textiles’, explains Rhoades, the rest is being incinerated or landfilled. As Rhoades noted the challenge here in communicating to the consumer the need for recycling is “around changing perception – it’s not waste, it’s a resource”. She also stated the importance of incentives – just as Marks and Spencer has enticed customers with a £5 voucher to spend in their store if they donate their pre-loved M&S clothing to Oxfam, the circular economy industry leaders must find a way to encourage responsible disposal.

If this is sounding to you a little like the sustainability movement, then you are right, there are overlaps, but as Rhoades pointed out at yesterday’s conference, cost is a major factor for companies who produce clothing: “the difference between the circular economy and sustainability is the economic driver that can make it work”. In general brands will not pay a premium for sustainable materials. Worn Again have spent the last two years looking at how they can ‘recapture’ textile waste that previously couldn’t be used because it was blended. The resulting recycled fibres will be the same cost to the manufacturer as the virgin fibre and the same quality – its win win.

However, there is also an interesting business case for reuse: disassembly, recycling or upcycling isn’t always the best option. Contrary to popular belief, the clothes that are collected up by textiles recycling companies and charities and shipped to developing countries are not simply given away, they are sold. As Ross Barry explained in the morning workshop: “The main business opportunity is reuse...two thirds of the world wear second-hand clothing – it is a multi-billion pound industry.” 

According to Barry only “about 40% of what we [LMB] recover will be recycled. If it is cotton-based it will be cut up to be used as a wiping wrag...if it is wool or synthetic-based it will be shredded to use as stuffing” for car seats or similar. LMB also work with fashion designers and students, providing them with waste textiles to use in their collections - in this case, one person’s waste certainly is another person's treasure.

Regardless of whether the textiles we discard are ultimately reused or recycled, Rhoades made one request in the closing moments of the discussion; don’t just throw away your textiles. Instead take them to a recycling facility or charity shop so they can be reused or processed for recycling. That way the valuable resources can be recaptured, environmental impact will be reduced and money can also be saved. The benefits are well-illustrated on the Resource website:

‘If businesses are able to embrace circular economy models, two problems could be solved. The first of these is the problem of rising commodity prices – that threaten the profitability of businesses. The second is the shocking amounts of resource that end up in landfill (177 million tonnes in England alone every year).

The circular economy is not a new idea. But it represents a fundamental shift in the way products are sold and the way we consume them. A more circular economy will have winners and losers, the successful businesses that are able to understand and see the new opportunities will win big in the long term.’

What do you think is the answers for fashion? How can designers make it easier for us to repair garments? What would incentivise you to take back an old garment to the store where you bought it or to take a trip to the textiles recycling bank?

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Founder and Director of The Good Wardrobe. Lover of charity shops and mending stuff. New to Bristol. Follow on Twitter

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