About a month ago, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, some big names in fashion and apparel announced they were joining forces to create an apparel industry based on the principles of a circular economy. This effort, called “Make Fashion Circular” will unite some big name fashion designers, producers, and brands along with city authorities, NGO’s and innovators to deliver sustainable improvement based on three key principles:
· Business models that keep clothes in use
· Materials that are renewable and safe
· Solutions that turn used clothes into new clothes.
The core partners are H&M, Burberry, Gap Inc., HSBC, Nike and Stella McCartney. Other participants include DuPont, Lenzing, VF, and several others.
The stated belief is the fashion industry can capture $460 billion currently lost due to underutilization of clothing. But what does that really mean? The answer comes from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future”. In Appendix B and the End Notes the genesis of this number is clarified:
“Calculation based on Circular Fibers initiative materials flow analysis and Euromonitor International Apparel and Footwear 2016 Edition (volume sales trends 2005-2015). In 2015, 46% (in mass) of collected garments were reused. If 100% of discarded clothing were collected, 22.2 million tonnes would be reused instead of 5.6 million tonnes as at present, meaning 16.6 million tonnes of new garment sales would be avoided (emphasis added by author), with a value of USD 460 Billion.”
So the message is some very large players in the textile and apparel industry, which has annual global industry revenues of about $1.3 trillion, are signing on to an effort to eliminate about 35% of industry sales to make the industry more environmentally sustainable. I ran a public company for many years. I wouldn’t want to try to explain the rationale for that to my shareholders.
The only way I see this having a chance to provide real and measurable improvement is if consumers see value in sustainability and are willing to pay for it. And I mean all consumers, not just the outdoor adventure enthusiasts. Otherwise the brands and retailers have 460 billion reasons not to want to do anything other than pay lip service for the sake of marketing. H&M’s clothing recycling program comes to mind. The program is heavily promoted and marketed and H&M are cheered in some quarters for their environmental responsibility, yet only about 1-2% of the clothing they sell actually gets recycled. Great marketing, but not much real impact.
In my last blog, I provided some concrete ideas about driving consumer awareness and demand for change. Let’s see if action is taken in this arena. If it is not, achieving anything remotely approaching a circular economy for apparel is a pipedream.
As an aside, I was happy to see Burberry as a participant. The industry could learn something from them. They produce garments which are well made and durable. Although they have strayed some from all classic style, their clothes are well made, durable and priced as such. Because of that, people typically own and wear them for years. That, in itself, is sustainability in practice. Frankly, in my opinion, producing and selling high quality garments, even if made from virgin materials, is significantly more sustainable than a fast fashion producer making garments from organic cotton or recycled polyester, only to have them thrown away after a few uses.