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New Circular Strategy? ‘Sneak it in’ and Make it ‘Authentic’

“I make fiber from trees.”
“I tell everyone to ‘buy less, buy better.’”
“My mommy makes clothes out of trash.”

The panelists at Texworld NYC’s “From Linear to Circular” last week got a laugh at how they, or their kids, explain their sustainability careers to those outside the fashion industry. Unfortunately, comprehension within the industry isn’t always crystal clear, either.

Before the fashion industry can close the loop and ease its 17-million-ton textile landfill problem, it needs to educate companies, and consumers, on the need to focus attention on how extending product life cycles can contribute to a circular economy.

The panel was part of the Lenzing Seminar Series and included: Katie O’Hare, director of sustainability, J.Crew Inc.; Katie Tague, VP sales and global marketing, Artistic Milliners PVT; Sarah Coulter, director of operations, Accelerating Circularity; and Rachel Kibbe, CEO & Founder of Circular Services Group. It was moderated by Ashley Buchalter, business development manager for Lenzing Fibers, Inc.

One of the primary challenges to wide adoption of a circular model is that the current business model is linear, not to mention profit driven. “The definition of profitability doesn’t have to be solely economic,” said Kibbe. “[Profitability] can be environmental, but quarterly earnings don’t match up with that. Something has to change.”

Another challenge with circularity is scaling it up, as many brands are afraid to be a “first mover” in the space, thinking they don’t have a customer for it. But bringing brands together and educating consumers will create both supply and demand.

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Coulter of Accelerating Circularity, a non-profit that creates supply chains for turning textile waste (aka “spent textiles”) into raw materials, said the organization realized it needed a group effort.

“We put everyone in a room to make commitments and incentive those further upstream to start developing products,” said Coulter. “We got a dozen brand partners who have committed to buying standard commercial orders, products with a target of 40 percent recycled content, and half of that from post-consumer fibers. And we’re going full circle—collection, sorting, pre-processing, [chemical and mechanical] recycling to new fibers, then all the way through the supply chain to finished garments. We have about 19 yarns in development for 12 products, and the brands are excited as they haven’t done that scale before.”

Accelerating Circularity deliberately picked basics that can be “reordered tomorrow,” so brands can do a direct substitution from their conventional products with these circular fibers in development.

While examining input swaps and building out circular models, apparel companies must make sure to look at the big picture. Is that natural dye using more water than synthetics? What about mordants, the chemicals commonly using in the dyeing process?

“You can use certain sustainable materials but what’s the carbon footprint to ship it?” said Tague of Artistic Milliners, a denim mill based in Pakistan that views the problem with a highly holistic approach. The company recently created Circular Park, its own internal recycling plant, and has made major investments in solar and wind energy to cut down on energy use. “There are also little touches that can have a huge impact, such as drying jeans on the ceiling using natural planetary heat so jeans don’t have to go into the dryer nearly as long.”

Elongate the use phase

Selling more and more clothing while trying to reduce waste can seem like an oxymoron, and just like recycling didn’t solve the plastics problem, recycling won’t solve the fashion problem. But many companies have found solutions in reuse, aka resale and rental.

Brands are increasingly partnering with third-party resale and rental organizations to profit off vintage stock, produce fewer new items, offer a new entry point to the brand and let consumers utilize trade-in options that help clean out their closets. Consumers are already shopping such resale platforms—which handle the tremendous amount of infrastructure—so why shouldn’t the brands get a piece of the action?

J.Crew is among the latest fashion companies to jump into the mix, having launched vintage resale with ThredUp in January with the tagline ‘Because classics are always in style.’ “We are looking at how we can design something so consumers can love it forever and elongate the use phase,” said O’Hare. “Bring back the heirloom!”

Companies are also looking to engage customers with a circular economy without necessarily bogging them down with circularity speak.

“We are starting to incorporate recycled content in our denim, but the customer might not even know that,” said O’Hare. “Actually, consumers shouldn’t notice that because the quality won’t be different. How can we ‘sneak in’ 5 percent, 10 percent recycled content into our jeans in a way that the customer loves the fit and quality, but it’s still authentic to the brand?”

At the end of the day, policy can help push things forward in a unified way that won’t put companies leading the charge at an economic disadvantage, but it’s not everything.

“We have to look at how we changed every other industry with negative externalities—like energy, like transportation, like tobacco—and it’s a combination of consumer pressure, public pressure, consumer awareness and public awareness,” said Kibbe. “This can  be accomplished to a certain extent through policy… but to change these industries they all have to work in tandem. It’s going to be painful and chaotic but it all starts there.”