The Netherlands have pledged to go fully circular by 2050. The 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge was signed by brands from around the world to bend the industry from a linear to circular model. Burger King is testing-driving reusable packaging in New York and Tokyo to close the reusability and recycling loop.
Circles, bends, and loops may sound like a grade 7 geometry class but are key parts of the prevalent theory of a circular economy. A theory that is being adopted by nations and companies with an aim to bend the economy in a balance with nature all the while allowing growth to continue.
At the crux of the circular model is the reduction of carbon emissions. The classic linear model to which the economy runs on is “take, make, use, and toss”, whereas a circular version operates based on the regenerative flow of the natural world.
How did we get into a situation that has binging on resources like some of us on a new season of Selling Sunset?
“The ‘circularity gap,’ as de Wit [director of the Circle Economy] and his colleagues dubbed it when they presented their report at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018, is relatively new in human history. It dates back to our industrial use of fossil fuels in the 18th century. Until then, most of what humans did was done with muscle power, whether human or animal. Growing things, making things, shipping things took hard labor, which made them valuable. Our limited physical energy also restricted how big a dent we could put in the planet. However, it kept most of poor.
Cheap fossil energy, concentrated by geologic time and pressure in seams of coal or pools of oil, changed all that. It made it easier to extract raw materials anywhere, ship them to factories, and send the merchandise everywhere. Fossil fuels exploded our possibilities—and the process keeps intensifying. In the past half century, while the world’s population has more than doubled, the amount of material flowing through the economy has more than tripled."
- National Geographic “Is a World Without Trash Possible?”
So how can this be done? By pinpointing energy leaks and minimizing these leaks through long-lasting design, recycling, remanufacturing, and repair. There are plenty of examples of ways in which companies big and small are listening to the science behind the system and coming up with ways to integrate these regenerative measures into their development goals. Here is a taste of how some direct-to-consumer companies are staying linked to the circularity loop.
Ganni: The Influencer Brand
With the motto of "Confidence, Community, Responsibility" and a mission to "hack the fashion system" Ganni, the Swedish-based brand, is a fashion cult favourite amongst the Instagram-savvy crowd that wants avant-garde pieces at a relatively accessible price point.
Via Ganni's 'gram, where they curate an aesthetic of sustainably, responsibility, and contemporary fashion
“We don't identify as a sustainable brand. We recognize the inherent contradiction between the current fashion industry that thrives off newness and consumption, and the concept of sustainability. So instead, we're focused on becoming the most responsible version of ourselves. Committed to making better choices every day across the business to minimize our social and environmental impact. We see this as our moral obligation.”
- From Ganni
Ganni has taken a few attainable steps towards increasing brand circularity. For a label of their size, their sustainability report, dubbed the Responsible Report, is commendable. For not being a household name like Adidas or Lululemon they have worked transparent goals into their current and future initiatives. Customers respond to authenticity and working sustainability into a brand should be the bare minimum.
- With their carbon footprint in mind, they have launched a “take-back scheme” in a select few flag ship stores where customers can drop off unwanted clothing. This isn’t particularly revolutionary and many brands have done this before (see our previous post on Nudie Jeans).
They have also created a customisation and repair station at their flagship store in Copenhagen where customers can get their goods repaired and tailored in-house.
- In 2020, They changed their standard collection ‘drop calendar away from the traditional seasonal structure in the fashion industry. They have started to launch smaller and more curated product drops more frequently throughout the years as opposed to two large drops a year. Instead of manufacturing massive collections well in advance and before trends are clear, these smaller drops allow them to monitor what the customer is buying and produce goods that reflect these demands.
“A positive learning is that by changing our collection drop structure, we have a higher level of reorders from our own Ecommerce and Retail Channels as well as our Wholesale partners, as opposed to larger initial stock orders. This means buying much closer to demand than previously and reducing the risk of wastage.”
- They have launched 44 Responsibility Goals which they will expand upon over the next three years. This is an internal set of goals to which responsibility targets all areas that they need to address for full sustainability including traceability, prosperity, circularity and one of our favourites, which Ganni calls, "the elephant in the room" –greenwashing: “As a fashion brand we’re the first to admit that we’re behind, in the past, we haven’t shouted about our efforts to be more responsible, because we’ve been scared of being called out for greenwashing. Fashion is problematic and driven by newness and opaque supply chains. We want to help out those problems and challenges. Some are systemic industry issues we all need to tackle together, while others are the elephant in the room in the industry that we need to stop being embarrassed about and address.” Props.
44 problems and responsibility goals ain't one
- And because art is a powerful communicative tool to increase awareness, Ganni commissioned artist Hayley Blomquist to create installation pieces woven out of deadstock fabric (the industry term for the leftover fabric from a production run) from their stores for a Copenhagen Fashion Week exhibition. They have also used deadstock fabric from previous collections to make masks, bucket hats, and toiletry bags.
Image of Hayley Blomquist's installation of reclaimed and recycled fabrics.
Alohas: Bringing Bespoke Back
Alohas is a Barcelona-based footwear brand with an on-demand sustainable system of production. They have a “zero-stock policy” meaning they don’t make more than what the customer orders, and in turn, can charge less out of the gate because their supply cost and overhead is lower.
A glimpse into the Alohas factory in Alicante, Spain where every piece is responsibly and locally produced.
“Overproduction in fashion is one of the world’s biggest environmental threats. We refuse to make that problem worse. Our pre-order system allows us to accurately anticipate demand levels prior to production, so we only produce the amount of shoes we’re really going to sell. For you, this means getting to order next season’s must haves early on and at a discount while participating in the movement towards more sustainable fashion. In terms of pricing, on-demand reverts the sales cycle and waves goodbye to the traditional fashion calendar.”
- From Alohas
No matter how fashionable the shoe, the cradle-to-gate impact (the carbon impact of a product from production to it hitting the shelves) of the leather from the livestock industry leaves a nasty of carbon hoofprint (sorry not sorry, the set-up was too good). All goods from Alohas are made-to-order in Alicante, on the coast of Spain with the Leather Working Group, a collective set up to audit the environmental practices of leather manufacturers and to monitor their compliance with environmental standards and sway them towards more sustainable initiatives.
Within a circular model, the focus is restorative and recyclable design, and aims to keep whatever is produced and the materials used at their high utility and value even after they are no longer in use to the consumer. Footwear in particular is tricky to sustainably recycle as it is made from a barrage of materials such as rubber for their soles, leather uppers, metallic eyelets for laces, zippers, and polymers (plastics). According to one study that looked at the footwear consumption rate of globalized nations, the average US citizen buys an average of seven new pairs per year compared to the per capita figures of India and Vietnam where the average rate per person is one new pair every two years.
This on-demand system by Alohas is like tracking your takeout order. You see when the restaurant receives the order, when, say, the pizza goes into the oven, and when the driver is en route. Your pizza isn’t pre-frozen but made fresh for each customer, so why can’t your shoes be? A bit of a reach as far as analogies go, but you get the point. The on-demand system is slower to get the goods to the customer, but in turn, strengthens the relationship between the products and purchaser. This process sticks within our current manufacturing paradigm all the while giving a glimpse into the purchasing behaviour of the sustainability-savvy consumer. In this process, the brand has a competitive advantage for designing goods that end with a favourable advantage to the environment. Everyone wins.
Emme Studios & Brother’s Vellies: Fashion as Social Justice
*hops up on soap box* Repeat after us:
“Full and radical sustainability isn’t possible without the intersection of social justice and equality”
Got it? Great.
Brooklyn-based Emme Studios, founded by designer and Indigenous activist, Korina Emmrich, blends fashion and culture with a “strong focus on social and climate justice while speaking out about industry responsibility and accountability: Emmerich works to expose and dismantle systems of oppression and challenge colonial ways of thinking."
- Climate and social justice are woven into the fabric of Emme Studios. The brand is known for reusing Pendleton fabrics –a settler-founded company based in Oregon, - where Emmerich originated from– into their designs. The identifiable Pendleton jacquard print was taken for the nations in Oregon and the recycling and reuse of these fabrics is not only inherently circular by highlighting the lifetime value of the goods but adds to the loop the integral link of Indigenous reclamation.
Reclaimed Pendleton fabrics but make it fashion, not appropriation
“Today the blankets and designs have become synonymous with the visual identity of Indigenous people. And its history does not come without controversy. While they’ve maintained a sort of symbiotic relationship, many Indigenous creatives have called attention to the company’s vapid cultural appropriation, by taking symbols, art and ideas from Indigenous people without immediate credit or compensation. Indigenous people who choose to use Pendleton’s pan-Indigenous cultural indicators walk a fine line between representation and appropriation. I don’t want that conversation to be dismissed, because it’s something I unpack daily in my own work.”
- Korrine Emmerich
- Circularity’s inherent connection to the conduct of the natural world arguably requires society and brands to understand that repatriation of land and the respect for Indigenous knowledge of land use are inseparable from the concept. Emme Studios is associated with the Indigenous Kinship Collective, an organization of urban communities of Indigenous women, femme, and non-binary people who define their efforts as a circular by working together in harmony with the world and each other to bring down the colonial and oppressive power structures that put resource extraction and profit above the people and the planet.
Korina Emmrich of Emme Studios. Image credit Minik Bidstrup ( @bidstrupp)
- Emme Studio’s stands with “The 17 Goals” of sustainable development as defined by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
“[A] blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future…An urgent call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”
- From the 17 Goals
- Korina Emmrich also sits on the board of directors for Slow Factory, a non-profit organization to "advance collective liberation for people and nature by preparing historically marginalized people to become climate leaders through regenerative design, open education, and narrative change." (We have more about that up on the blog here)
- For our diehard climate and social justice nerds out there, here is Korina Emmrich, on the Podcast, Climate Talks, talking about Circularity.
We have touched on Brother Vellies on our blog before, but they deserve a greater recognition in this category. Founded in 2013 with the intent to create a brand that keeps traditional African design techniques in play and gives prolonged employment to artisans, their collections are made in South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Italy, Haiti and in their home-base of New York City.
What does Brother Vellies mean? "We are not just creating products - we are making notes on culture, creating symbols, collaborating for personal freedoms and capturing moments. Brother Vellies is a collection of items that reinforce the best parts of who we all are and hope to be. Sometimes just existing as you are is a revolutionary act."
How else does Brother Vellies set themselves apart? For starters, they never put their products on sale. Each item is assigned a monetary value based on the materials used and fair labour practices. This price is a reflection of the work and cost that went into it and doesn’t include the standard industry mark-up that anticipates the goods going on sale down the road –which increases the cycle of consumption as it pushes consumers to buy the discounted goods to make room for the new goods at a comparably inflated price.
Basing the final cost of goods on the work that went into the production is a key part of the circular model because it involves designing and promoting products that last and that encourage consumers to think about the functional value of each item. It breaks through the sometimes narrow view of circularity that focuses on just recovering the energy used to make goods or materials they contain by highlighting human components.
The founder of Brother Vellies, Aurora James, created the Fifteen Percent Pledge –we chat about the Pledge in our Company Spotlight post about Sephora. The campaign was launched as an Instagram call-out to get retailers to finally take a stance to end the racial wealth gap on their shelves and in one year, got 385 Black-owned brands in major stores like Sephora, Macy’s and the Gap.
In a circular world, corporate and brand responsibility needs to shift away from affluence as the only means of economic prosperity. To get there, we need to face the challenges of sustainable development that are as diverse as the people, cultures, and ecosystems involved. Fashion is no exception to this and can be a powerful catalyst to close the loop towards a system where the environment, society and the economy coexist in an equilibrium.
This list is just a taste of the shops, brands, people, and leaders who are out there making up this united front for systemic change. Have a brand you would like us to feature? Comment below, we would love to hear from you.