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The Future of Fast Fashion and Sustainable Apparel

By Ruth Lee, Vice President Sustainable Business Consulting

Imagine this. Each year 25 billion pounds of textiles are produced. Many thousands have adopted the Marie Kondo organizing method and have purged clothing that no longer provides joy, aiming to simplify. But where do those items go? About 15% of those originally mentioned textiles gets donated or recycled and 85% goes to landfill. Today, consumer options are to either donate items or throw away and in the past, retailers were even known to incinerate products to protect their brand. But what’s next for fast fashion?

Recently, a Sustainable Apparel – Retail Deep Dive session at the 2019 Sustainable Packaging Coalition Impact Conference offered insight into how companies are integrating a circular economy approach to close the loop on materials, showcase innovation, and reach their sustainability goals.

Re-commerce: I’m Gonna Pop Some Tags, Only Got Twenty Dollars in my Pocket…

Thrift stores aren’t just cool for rappers like Macklemore: traditional donation programs like Goodwill and Salvation Army have been around for ages. Today, the sustainable business re-commerce movement has taken a new approach by providing opportunities for consumers to control their part of the re-commerce movement. Peer-to-peer online marketplaces merge sustainability and business to empower individuals to resell items online through platforms such as thredUP, Poshmark and our old pal, eBay.

Not surprisingly, millennials and Gen Z are leading this green business movement as thrifty spenders, giving way to another quickly expanding industry – clothing rental subscriptions. As panelist Peter Whitcomb, director of new business development for REI explained, 64% of millennials prefer renting versus buying because they prefer the experience rather than the items – in addition to having less space to house gear. Companies such as Le Tote and Rent the Runway offer a sustainable business solution: allowing consumers access to thousands of products, many of which at a higher price point than they would normally be able to afford, with the ability to return an item and move on to selecting the next.

Retailer Circular Economy Business Models: You’re Still the One!

On the retail side, companies are quickly starting to embrace second-hand as a green business innovation that reduces waste and boosts revenue. Eileen Fisher’s Renew Program has been providing its customers with opportunities to bring back clothing for a small financial incentive ($5 rewards card for each item) since 2009. Since the start of the program, the company has taken back 1.2 million items and generated $17.7 million revenue through the resale of gently used items. Kerri Ulloa, a brand and marketing specialist for Eileen Fisher, says the sustainable program works not only because it brings customers back to the physical store, but also because it opens a new channel for customers at a different price point.

As an answer to fast fashion’s excessive waste problem, Patagonia, a longtime leader in the circular economy space, has forged innovative corporate responsibility campaigns to keep gear in action longer after a materiality assessment revealed that 85% of their company’s carbon footprint came from materials, as Elena Egorova, an environmental researcher with Patagonia, explained. Their durable clothing business model and sustainable policies expanded into their Worn Wear program, which focuses on repairing items and accepting Patagonia products to be recycled or repurposed into new fibers or fabric.

Recycling Materials for Reuse Innovations: The Times They Are A-Changin’

What’s next for sustainable fashion? There are a slew of companies working to recycle materials to lower the percentage of clothes that end up in the landfill, offering sustainable strategies for reducing impact. One of the breakout sessions, led by James Ewell of GreenBlue, showcased a few companies that are working to help retailers break down textiles that cannot be recycled or resold, into new material again. Some of these green business changemakers include:

  • Worn Again Technologies - Pioneering polymer recycling technology that can separate, decontaminate and extract polyester polymers, and cellulose from cotton, from non-reusable textiles and PET bottles and packaging and turn back into new textile raw materials as part of a continual cycle.
  • Gr3n – Invented a new process which depolymerizes the PET (Polyethylene Terephtalate) or polyester textile allowing others to use those molecules to produce virgin PET, instead of using oil to do so\
  • Carbios - Developed an environmentally-friendly method to break down the PET plastic fibers in textile waste into original monomers using enzymes.
  • Mango Materials - Produces a naturally occurring biopolymer from waste biogas (methane) that is economically competitive with conventional petroleum-based plastics.

The future of fashion will rely on innovative recycling methods, circular economy methods, and re-commerce systems. This will create a better world for consumers, employees, and the planet. Now that’s something that sparks joy.

Ruth Lee has 10+ years’ experience helping clients develop and implement sustainability strategy, conduct stakeholder engagement to assess materiality, navigate executive level buy-in and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Ruth is a valued partner to her clients and various non-profit organizations and supports her local community as a board member of Sustainable West Seattle. When she isn’t trying out to be SBC’s mascot, she spends her time discovering new recipes, travelling and exploring the world of water coloring.