ESG Voices: Circular Fashion - You Are What You Wear

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by Richard Turner, Chief Editor at KnowESG

We have been living in a world with an accelerating linear economy in tandem with the rate of globalisation. Fashion is no different from any other economic sector, and perhaps epitomises the maximisation of production and consumption model that drives ‘endless’ growth. Most clothing, and especially with the advent of plastic-based polymers, is not designed with recyclable materials, and is thus linear. You wear, you dispose, we landfill. 

However, the great thing about fashion is its inherent visibility. We all care, to some degree, about how we perceive ourselves in what we wear, and very often how others see us. Whereas, for example, it’s difficult to develop a relationship around products like household energy, and therefore challenging to make consumers aware of choices, fashion is different. Our clothes are close to us both literally and figuratively, and this has implications for promoting industry-wide circularity as the aspirational near-future, if not yet the new norm.

We spoke to Marianne McLean-Atkins, Education Director at Redress, an environmental NGO reducing waste in the fashion industry. As a seasoned fashion supply chain expert who, through an extensive international career has gained a deep insight into the reality of the manufacturing capabilities behind retail fashion, Marianne shares her views on the fashionable promise of circularity.

How would you introduce yourself?

My role as Education Director at Redress exists to bridge knowledge between what the industry needs now and in the near future and what the academia currently offers. We want to help academia to integrate circular fashion in the curriculum.

What is your sustainability story?

Redress’ mission is to educate and empower the fashion industry and consumers to reduce clothing's negative environmental impact by shifting to circular solutions. With 80% of a product’s environmental impact locked in at the design stage, circular design techniques including zero-waste, upcycling, and reconstruction are key to creating a more sustainable future for fashion. We have also identified four key circular strategies for sustainable design: 

  • Design for low waste tackles the waste issue at source by using zero-waste design methods, and by reusing and repurposing both pre and post-consumer textile waste into designs through upcycling and reconstruction.

  • Design for low-impact materials and processes reduces energy and water consumption and minimises the discharge of chemicals in entering and re-entering the fashion system.

  • Design for longevity and reducing fashion’s footprint at the use phase helps to establish customers’ emotional connection to their clothing through quality, durability and/or education in consumer care.

  • Design for recyclability approaches fashion products with end-of-life in mind, implementing a closed-loop system to maintain the value and quality of the fibres and all materials to be recycled safely and infinitely as the ultimate goal.

At Redress, we work directly with designers and focus much of our efforts on educating the next generation of designers on these circular techniques and strategies, because they are the future of the fashion industry.

Why did you join Redress?

I worked within the fashion industry supply chain for 20 years. I actively encouraged sampling because my role as a designer and product developer meant I had to create collections in order to present to customers to choose from. I visited factories all over Asia and saw the over-production, over-sampling, overworked workers, and under-appreciated values. 

But I did not know how to get out. I was not the brand and I was not the supplier. I was in the middle. To bring about change, I studied, doing an MSc in supply chain management, procurement and logistics, an area that needed disruption. My network and focus became about seeking out those who reduced their environmental impact, took responsibility for waste, and basically made me feel good to work with.

I knew about Redress as it was the source of all my clothing. I mentored one of Redress’ "Rising Talent" students and jumped on the opportunity to work here when I saw the position on Linkedin.

What is the most crucial aspect of the transition to sustainability?

One of the biggest challenges is convincing consumers that they actually have a responsibility to change. The problem with clothes is that they communicate who we are to the world and so we have a bit of an ethical blind spot when it comes to clothing, i.e. we want to buy and change our clothes frequently to satisfy complex emotional needs. So, convincing people is just that little bit harder, when fashion is ‘supposed’ to be fun, creative, and a form of expression, which it is, alongside also being a major global polluter. 

That said, we’re all more eyes wide open on our impact, which is stimulated by the ongoing tragic environmental catastrophes that we see every time we turn the news on, as well as social issues and disparities that keep our hearts open. So I believe we all want to do better, and this is changing our attitude towards our closets; we’re now willing to look deeper into what we buy and what our wardrobes say about the world we live in.

How can we reduce the ‘noise’ in ESG?

We chose SDG 12 and we aim to be the best at what we can do. We cannot tackle every goal and we cannot do it alone. 

We cannot do this alone. It is important to map and then focus in on where you can make the most impact – it's easy to get lost in the noise of how many facets there are to environmental and sustainable governance and the key is just making a start and being honest about progress.

One wish - what would it be?

The future of the fashion industry holds the potential opportunity to be a force for good - in far reaching areas like biodiversity conservation, poverty alleviation, climate change and so much more. So powerful is fashion, that over half of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be positively impacted by fashion.  So every year, we may see more damning reports about fashion’s costly planetary toll, but at Redress, we will still be cheerleaders!

Access the Redress 2021 Impact Report here.

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