How to create a circular economy for fashion
There is massive-scale waste in fashion, and less than 1 per cent of recycled textiles are converted into new, wearable materials. But very gradually, that may be changing. The FT’s Madison Darbyshire takes a closer look at three companies moving toward a circular economy for fashion, each in a different way
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Waste in fashion is on a massive scale. It's an industry where less than 1 per cent of recycled textiles are converted into new, wearable materials. Even more ends up in landfills, but very gradually that may be changing. I'm travelling to the Isle of Wight off the UK southern coast to find out more.
We're on our way to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is a non-profit that focuses on the circular economy.
The foundation promotes a vision for a fashion economy in which nothing ends up as waste. I'm meeting Laura Balmond, a project manager.
Hi. I'm Laura. Welcome to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Every second the equivalent of one rubbish truck load of clothing is landfilled or incinerated globally. In a circular economy, instead of it operating in this one-way system, we, from the very outset, look at creating something that designs out the waste from the beginning. So in terms of business opportunity, there's a huge spectrum for companies to actually move towards a circular economy.
One company working towards a circular model is in nearby Freshwater.
Welcome to Teemill. I'm Martin.
Madison. Nice to meet you.
Teemill is an online platform built by the clothing company Rapanui. It allows brands to print and create their own sustainable garments. All of its products are made from organic cotton, and central to its business model is combating the inefficiency built into the fashion industry.
So one of the big problems with fashion as well as the material wastage is actually over-production to start with. We only actually make what people need when they need it, which means making products in the seconds after they're ordered.
In 2018, Teemill shipped 1m shirts. The company estimates that using sustainable materials adds about 25 per cent to cost but says it offsets that by maximising efficiencies in other places.
It costs more money, so what we need to do is find savings.
Teemill minimises waste and streamlines production using its own creative engineering.
The whole factory is powered by renewable energy. Everything that we make is designed from the start to come back to us when it's worn out.
So every Teemill T-shirt has this barcode on the care label which, when you're done with your T-shirt, you can scan it and it'll generate a postage label and allows you to send the shirt back for free. And then Teemill will give customers a discount on their next order in order to incentivise people to recycle instead of throw their clothes in the trash.
There are of course a variety of approaches being used to move closer to a circular economy. In central London, I'm meeting with Cindi Rhoades of Worn Again Technologies which focuses on recycling textiles at the molecular level.
So we've developed a process that can take polyester and cotton, dissolve it in a vat, separate both the polyester and cotton.
Blended fabrics tend to be harder to recycle.
This here is a polyester pellet, which is the building block that then gets melted down, extruded into fibre, yarn, and textiles. Then what we're able to do with the leftover cotton is dissolve that, separate out all the dyes which then get separated and spun back into a fibre.
Worn Again plans to licence its technology to other businesses, crucially at an affordable price.
It was really important that the process itself is low cost, that we're not creating a premium product that the industry has to pay more for and that consumers ultimately have to pay more for.
In nearby Islington, Jonathan Mitchell, founder of Brothers We Stand, is tackling the challenge from a different angle.
brotherswestand.com is basically an online retailer where you can shop menswear that's made more sustainably, often made from recycled materials but crucially also made to last.
The company makes a small amount of clothing itself and vets all of its suppliers.
We have a six-point standard and every product on our site must meet that standard. And it includes points like designed to please, made to last, and also stand out social and environmental impact.
Brothers We Stand sets production costs using sustainable materials are around one and a half times higher for basic T-shirts, and customers do pay a premium. But despite that sales have grown by more than 50 per cent each of the last two years, albeit from a small base.
More and more people wanting to consume clothes and other things more sustainably, and I want to provide a solution to these people.
A recent study by McKinsey found that 78 per cent of sourcing managers said that, by 2025, sustainability would be a significant factor for consumers purchasing mass market apparel. It will not be quick or easy, but as we saw in the Isle of Wight, companies are already beginning to build circular models on a large scale, a sign of things to come.