From top: Photographed by Vincent Van De Winjngaard, photographed by Jack Davison

Darcie Imbert speaks to the McArthur Foundation’s Francois Souchet about their new initiative #WearNext and their ambition to make fashion a truly circular industry.

Launched in 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was set up to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy.  Since it’s conception, the foundation has become a global thought leader, questioning the linear patterns of production and consumption that have dominated for 150 years. It’s promoting a divergence from the ‘take-make-dispose’ mentality. Initiated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Make Fashion Circular is driven by an ambition to ensure clothes are made from non-toxic renewable materials, new business models empower re-use culture, and old clothes are turned into new, creating a textiles economy fit for the 21st century.

One of the most illuminating fragments of this interview with Francois Souchet is the incomprehensible pace in which clothing is being produced. When paired with the depleting life time of garments and widespread irresponsibility of brands, governments and consumers alike, the fashion landscape becomes a macabre myriad of cause and effect. The silver lining to the seemingly infinite plumes of smog, is the emergence of reactive campaigns such as Make Fashion Circular, which drives collaboration between industry leaders and other key stakeholders, working towards a new business model that integrates re-use culture.  Whilst conversation about global environmental decline is ripe at all levels of society, action led responses are not quite as prevalent, perhaps due to fatalistic beliefs or a widespread neglect of responsibility that perpetually shifts blame to other agents. Make Fashion Circular connects all participants in the fashion industry, encouraging them to take bold steps, both small and large, towards a more sustainable future.

In light of their recently launched #WearNext campaign, which encourages New Yorkers to dispose of their un-used clothes at drop off points across the city, we discuss the complexities of making fashion circular with Francis Souchet, Make Fashion Circular lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Where do you think the bulk of responsibility lays for the continuation of harmful practices in fashion, and which agent has the capacity to initiate the most change?

Our 2017 report A New Textiles Economy showed global clothing production has almost doubled in the last 15 years, while the amount of time clothing is worn before it’s thrown away has fallen by around 40%. All too often the industry has looked to customers to fix these issues, telling them to make better choices about what they buy or what they do with clothes when they finish with it. It’s true that customers play an important role in shaping fashion – they have always helped drive trends and innovation – but we need the industry to act and address the problems in the system.

Because the brands and businesses that make and sell our clothing are part of the problem when it comes to issues like waste and pollution, they are uniquely placed to solve many of those issues – more so than other players in the system. Through Make Fashion Circular we are bringing together leaders from across the fashion industry, from material producers and brands, to collectors and recyclers; to create a circular economy for fashion, where innovative business models extend the use of clothing, clothes are made from safe and renewable materials, and they are made to be made again.

By making these changes, we can create a global fashion industry where whatever choice a customer makes, wherever they are in the world, there can be a positive outcome.

Not only do garments deplete finite resources in the latter stages of their life, the production of clothing is incredibly draining and demanding on the environment. In what ways can design processes and production methods alleviate this pressure? And in which ways can these methods be implemented on a large enough scale to reform the industry?

Better design is crucial to making fashion circular. By asking questions about how a product is made, how it will be used and what will happen to it when a customer has finished with it, businesses and designers can ensure clothes never become waste.

There is no circular silver bullet, no single design solution to the industry’s problems, but by adopting the circular principles of designing our waste, keeping materials in use, and regenerating natural systems, the fashion industry can address its vast problems of waste and pollution at scale.

Earlier this month, our Make Fashion Circular participants Adidas unveiled Futurecraft.Loop, a shoe designed from the outset to be made to be made again. When it’s worn out, the customer sends it back to the company, and they use it to make new shoes. Adidas itself has said it needs to go even further, to end the concept of waste entirely, but the approach of Futurecraft.Loop shows how businesses are moving upstream and looking for circular economy solutions at the very inception of a product.

Photographed by Tyler Mitchell

 

How do you select partners to work with? Do you fear that large corporations opt into initiatives like Make Fashion Circular as a marketing tool, with the mind set that through aligning themselves with sustainable organisations this will alleviate their responsibility somewhat?

Businesses who join the initiative must show an alignment in vision with ours – we look at the initiatives they are conducting, their ambitions for the future and a recognition of their share of impact in the current system. We work with them to further develop their ambitions over time and create an ecosystem where all the participants are incentivised to take bold steps forward.

At the risk of appearing fatalist, how viable is it for the fashion industry and the environment to coexist in the future? Can capitalism ever be conscious?

It is not viable for the fashion industry to continue to operate the way it does today. Not only is it damaging to the environment, it is also hugely wasteful on an economic level. More than USD 560 billion are lost to the economy every year because of clothing being worn less and less and rarely being recycled.

We need a system in which customers can access the clothing they want and need, but be confident it’s been made in a way that benefits society and the environment. This comes back to the principles of Make Fashion Circular – making clothing from safe and renewable materials, designing it in a way that it can be reused at the end of its life, and using business models to ensure it’s used more.

Francis Souchet of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation comments ‘Used clothes are turned into new ones’, one might argue that rebranding used clothes as ‘new’ via a ‘regeneration’ scheme perpetuates the human desire for newness, and consequent distaste for used garments.  How integral is the use of language in shifting global perception and encouraging re-use culture? An apt example of the power of language to relieve stigma is terming used furniture as ‘antique’, and second hand clothes as ‘vintage’.

We burn or landfill 73% of the clothing we produce, while less than 1% is recycled into new clothes. Clearly this cannot continue; it is damaging to the environment, customers do not want it, and it costs the global economy billions of dollars every year.

There is an exciting opportunity for resale of used clothing to play a key role in making fashion circular, by helping to increase the use of clothing, and helping the industry recognise that opportunity is an important part of our work. Raising the average number of times clothing is worn is the most direct way to design out waste and pollution and for businesses and customers to capture value. But durability and longevity are only part of the picture. We must make sure that we create clothing from materials that are safe and renewable, and ensure that when that clothing does eventually reach the end of its life, it can easily be used to create new clothes. It is only by doing this that the industry will be able to move away from using the huge levels of non-renewable resources that it currently relies on.

We need to celebrate the opportunities out there to do things differently and break away from the idea of clothes as disposable.  Finding the right language to do that is essential.

We launched the #WearNext project in New York to show there are already many ways we can stop clothes from being burned or landfilled; from repair and resale, to swapping and recycling. The campaign shows how excited people are about finding new lives for their used clothes, but what we need now is a fashion industry that creates even more opportunities.

Do you have any more information to share as to where the ‘donated’ garments will go after they are handed over at collection points?

The map created by our #WearNext partners at the New York Department of Sanitation, allows anyone to not only find out where their nearest drop off point is, but who operates it and go on to learn more about what will happen to the clothing after it is collected.

Some of it will go into the resale market, either through commercial operators like I:Co or ThredUp, or to support causes through organisations like Donate NYC, Goodwill, and Helpsy. A large share of those garments will be resold in emerging economies, which is not ideal. Only by redesigning clothes and business models can we ensure that they are reused and recycled locally, which is why through Make Fashion Circular we are working to change the way clothes are designed and made.

The items that are not suitable for resale, will go for recycling. Sadly we know that because of the way they have been made, or the materials that were used, in many cases this will be downcycling into products like mattress stuffing, cleaning cloths or insulation. This is why we need to think about upstream solutions, so that used clothes can be made in a way that they keep their value, and can be fed back into the system to make new clothes.