Fashion in the United States is struggling to close the loop on itself. Strategic, bipartisan legislation that supports circular business models, according to a new report, can help.
Published Wednesday, the white paper is the brainchild of Rachel Kibbe, founder and executive director of the American Circular Textiles Group, a.k.a. ACT, a coalition of reuse and recycling stakeholders that includes Arrive, Fashionphile, Recurate, Rent the Runway, The RealReal, Thrilling, SuperCircle and ThredUp. The goal of the platform, Kibbe said, is to provide a “glue” for a fragmented and competitive market so it can come together and discuss what it needs to scale its solutions. And one of the levers it’s settled on is public policy. If regulation can promote cleaner transportation, boost jobs and hone national competitiveness, she asks, why can’t it do the same to make clothing more sustainable?
“There is a long history of government action to curb pollutive industries,” said James Reinhart, CEO of ThredUp, the secondhand e-tailer that has inked partnerships with high rollers like Gap, Madewell and Kate Spade. “We have seen regulation and incentives for everything from plastic bags to electric vehicles. We also know that one company alone cannot solve all the world’s fashion problems, which are both humanitarian and environmental.”
Kibbe said that the only parts of circular fashion that can be deemed scaled or scalable are the ones that have existed for “hundreds of years,” meaning resale, repair and rental. These are well and good and should be encouraged, since, she said, it’s beautiful that “clothes can be reused.” End-of-life scenarios for a ratty pair of sneakers or a hole-riddled sweater, however, are more “nuanced,” she said. Garments can’t be recycled the way a yogurt container can, meaning that what you put in is what you get out. Right now, the types of fiber-to-fiber technologies that are bubbling up aren’t being underpinned by the types of policies that can spur their wider adoption. Fixing that will also help reuse, repair and rental in a “rising tides lifts all boats” kind of way, she said.
State and federal governments, according to ACT, which recently welcomed Debrand, H&M Group and Reformation into its fold, could dole out grants or subsidies, provide consumer and business tax incentives, create extended personal responsibility schemes—much like the one California is currently mulling—and increase oversight over waste polluters. There’s infrastructure to be shored up, consumers to be educated and startup costs to defray. The right type of policies will “kill a lot of birds with one stone,” said Kibbe, who is also the founder and CEO of the Circular Services Group, a sustainability consultancy based in New York City.
“I think policy is the biggest gap because there’s no framework laying out a way to make this economically viable to be able to compete with linear fashion,” she said. Encouraging brands, particularly those firmly entrenched in their ways, isn’t easy without supportive policies, she said. Kibbe isn’t so much advocating for “finger-pointing” scrutiny as she is for a “level playing field” where everyone is expected to participate and contribute. Reusing, reselling, renting and recycling clothing should be as easy as dropping an empty Coke can into a blue bin, she added.
“Fashion is complex, textile recovery is complex, and policy-making is complex,” said Amelia Eleiter, CEO and co-founder at Debrand, which specializes in reverse logistics and textile recycling. “ACT is led by passionate and experienced changemakers who are dedicated to developing the most effective and meaningful policy that will enable scalable systems change for textile recovery and end-of-life solutions.”
Kibbe sees ACT’s job as akin to turning an ocean liner around; it requires all hands on deck, whether brands, manufacturers, innovators, philanthropists, lawmakers or consumers.
“We want to engage with the whole industry and outside stakeholders—it’s not just fashion,” she said. “We have a seat at the table with transportation and energy because fashion takes transportation and it takes energy.”
Besides reducing virgin resource extraction and nipping waste in the bud, a circular economy that prioritizes the waste hierarchy also brings with it benefits such as job creation, supply chain protection and better product value and sustainability. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that circular fashion represents a $560 billion economic opportunity. If America “acts swiftly,” Kibbe said, public policy can usher in a “new era of productivity” for an array of skills, including clean chemistry and energy, technology, resale, logistics, sorting, repair, recycling and textile manufacturing while keeping domestic resources in circulation and whittling clothing’s environmental impact. Similar efforts in the European Union can serve as an inspiration, she added.
“This is a huge problem—and it’s a huge opportunity,” Kibbe said. “And I think that the biggest thing I want anyone who reads or skims the paper to take away is that we all want there to be more economic empowerment in this country. We all want customers to have more value. We all want there to be more jobs, and we all want to live on a planet that can sustain itself.”