Bad sustainability?

Bad sustainability? – Controversial paths towards the circularity of fashion.

* Written by Alice Beyer Schuch to Slow Fashion Next (Spanish) – November 2017.

Many times, I have heard the sentence: “the most sustainable garment is that one that already exists”. Could it be? I’ve heard it mainly in presentations on fashion and sustainability in places / countries where it is now starting presenting alternatives such as valuing second-hand stores, promoting the upcycle of products and creating with what is considered discard. However, mentioning @AlexLemille, “rethinking and redesigning our economic model based on the constant reuse of our already extracted resources, is a definitive modernization and a positive evolution of the standard economy”. But beware! Just to propose the reuse of materials or products is not, in the long term, sustainable. We must pay attention to the fibres/processes and their environmental impacts, to the connection with the design of products, and to the end of the cycle when we think of new products – so that effectively sustainability, and consequently circularity, occurs.

Second-hand markets: the reuse of our already extracted resources is a definitive modernization and a positive evolution of the standard economy. Pic: B. Schuch, Alice

In fact, if we consider the definition of the word sustainable – which can be maintained for a long time without exhausting resources or causing serious damage to the environment – we cannot say, for example, that the clothes that were made with conventional cotton are the most sustainable option only because there are being reused… It is in fact an extension of current linear models, a loop in the path that, in the end, will most likely end up in a landfill or incinerator. The study “Textiles Market Situation” from WRAP already indicates that the situation of the market for collection and reuse/recycling of textiles in the UK is rapidly contracting, which runs the risk of increasing the proportion sent to landfill and incineration, wasting opportunities for environmental and economic benefits.

And thinking about that, the strategies that companies take and their real sustainable background, I could remember a conversation I had a few years ago about a collection of a large brand of jeans made with synthetic fibres produced from plastics collected from the ocean (or other so many with similar practices). The brand acts exemplarily in many aspects and I do not question here its multiple sustainable alternatives. What I questioned was, in general, (i) the defined resources; (ii) the design applied; and (iii) the future considerations presented by fashion brands on their way to sustainability (or, even more recently, towards circularity).

1. The resources and the real responsibility of the competent sector on its own discard.

From my perspective, the big responsible for the plastic trash on our planet is the industry of packaging and similar plastic products – which recycles only 14% of its production according to the study of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation “The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing action. ” The fashion industry, taking advantage of this unfortunately abundant and easily accessible resource, collaborates with the “cleaning” of our planet, albeit in an insignificant way. Actions like that does not directly attack the problem at its roots and ends up trusting on waste streams from other sectors for its sustainable actions and, at the same time, solving the discard issue for an industry or system that is the real cause of that trash. My wish is that we develop, in our sector, methods to recycle our own materials, avoiding a future dependence on the irresponsibility of others.

2. Design and use of synthetic and natural textile fibres in the composition of fabrics.

However, it is better to choose low impact fibres/textiles whenever possible. Here, recycled fibres can be presented as an alternative, given that reusing waste streams instead of virgin non-renewable materials (as in the case of polyester) can be a positive point. But mixing synthetic fibres with other textiles such as cotton, which is a natural fibre, is not the best Design strategy to be applied in my opinion. In the book Cradle-2-Cradle, which is one of the bases of the concept of the Circular Economy, two clear segments were defined – the technical and the biological – and they must be kept apart to enable future recycling and/or safe return to the nature at the end of their service cycles. To verify the real need to combine these matters is extremely necessary when we think about sustainability, long term, and circularity.

Bionic Yarn: yarn made with recycled plastic filaments (rPET) which can be covered with natural fibres such as cotton. Source: Bionic Yarn

3. The end of the service-cycle and the next-life that could be given to pieces of mixed fibres.

Working sustainability is to do not cause serious damage to the environment in the long term. But what has the brand planned at the end of the cycle of its products? What would the brand do with its own clothes if it were responsible for its own discard flow – in ex. to the “Extended Producer Responsibility” already active in France? What would be its future dependence on non-renewable resources – such as PET bottles not properly collected and recycled by the responsible sector? Currently, we know that there are companies able to offer textile threads made with mixed materials through their mechanical recycling processes and that chemical recycling is being developed, but that was not the case a few years ago. Misguided design strategies – which with the lack of objectives and appropriate connections to the end of a product cycle do not allow anything more than the textile downcycle – are contradictory and questionable actions in my vision of the sustainability and circularity of fashion, although materials of lower impact or recycled are one of the bases of the products (and communication).

Summarily, brands and designers taking the way to the circularity of fashion, should have in mind (and even better in their web pages) a systematic vision and future plans, communicating them in a consistent manner. Because, finally, information and how advertising is presented to us, is the part that effectively touches us as a fashion market/user. It is important to be attentive … Are you developing products thinking about the future and at the end of your service time, presenting a clear and transparent strategy? Or are they using current environmental arguments and appeals to promote publicity, create in us (customers) the feeling that now it can be bought without remorse and thus increase sales?

raw wtf
G-Star Raw for the Oceans: a collection with recycled fibres. Fuente: Plug In Magazine

As mentioned in Greenpeace’s report “Fashion at the Crossroads” (pg.30): projects like these should be seen as a communication tool to raise public awareness about pollution […], but they cannot be regarded as a serious step towards the circularity […]. Any corporate communication that fails to acknowledge this is misleading their customers and could be seen as greenwashing and [going] in “bad direction”.

So, please, let’s pay attention, question and do not let bad sustainability get broader!


Alice is a Circular Fashion Strategist, supporting businesses on their next-step towards circularity. She is also working on education, as a mentor at Slow Fashion Next and Circular Economy Club.

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