Did you know that textile waste is present at all levels of the fashion industry? With attention on fashion companies to adopt sustainable initiatives, some of them have been transparent about the fact that when garments are cut out as patterns, about 15% of the material ends up on the cutting room floor — an astonishing but true fact because in an ideal world there would be no waste.
In the ‘Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability’ report, published on 19 February 2019, Phoebe English, a designer who is known for experimenting with zero-waste pattern cutting techniques revealed: “For those of you who are not familiar with the production process of a garment, you have your flat fabric laid out on the table, you have your pattern pieces—your sleeve piece, your front piece and your back piece—you lay them on the fabric, you cut around your pattern piece, you get your garment pieces and you put them together, but you are left with waste fabric”. She continued, “If you imagine every shop on Oxford Street and every garment that is hanging on a hanger in those shops, then imagine that the space around that garment, every single garment, is waste.”
Most wasteful practices are systematically underreported. Reverse Resources, a company that offers a one-point software solution, has estimated that one-quarter of fashion manufacturers’ purchased materials are wasted every year. Aspiring to close the loop for fabrics and fibres from garment production, Reverse Resources believes that it is in the hands of the factories to provide the remanufacturing and recycling solutions for their buyers. Can’t argue with that.
Making The Shift Toward A Circular Economy
In recent years it has become clear that one of the problems with the fashion industry is its textile waste. It is a waste that is mainly due to the way our clothes are designed and produced. It is a practice that generates a lot of textile excess that adds to the problem rather than solve it. So what is the solution? How can we unleash new business opportunities from the circular economy and boost remanufacturing and recycling best practices? Well, first of all, the fashion industry needs to start acknowledging not only consumer textile waste but also waste created by the majority of brands. One of the people leading the charge for change is Camille Diane Tagle.
Tagle is the Director of Reuse Partnerships for FabScrap, a non-profit fashion waste management organisation that is a one-stop textile reuse and recycling resource. Focused on empowering the next generation through mentorship, sustainable awareness, and access to reusable materials, Tagle has been taking the waste generated by fashion design offices across Manhattan’s five boroughs and making sure it gets reused. So far FabScrap has reportedly picked up about 400,000 pounds of fashion waste in the past three years. Spread over 3 years, that is about 133,000 pounds per year! I am sure that is a number that drives the ‘trash nerds’ to continue doing their bit to help clean up the fashion industry.
Lack of Policy Pressure to Incentivise Best Practice
Besides the work that Tagle and her team are doing, change needs to also come in how we operate. Many brands are currently using a linear model of ‘make, use, dispose of’. It is a school of thought that is fed by industry ‘habits’ like the minimum order requirement expected by suppliers, unrealistic pricing throughout the supply chain and the need to reduce the time scheduled for the turn around of products. As technology investment grows, companies should rely on technology to help them minimise the water and carbon footprints in the textile industry.
Dr Mark Sumner, a lecturer in Fashion and Sustainability, believes that companies are failing. He is quoted in ‘Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability’ report as saying: “To make significant reductions to the waste produced across the product life cycle of their products with a reduction of just 1.1% per tonne of clothing since 2012”. I think that the resolution could be the creation of a secondary market for our material waste. Currently, there are a few organisations, like FabScrap, that are successfully targeting fashion operators at different points in the supply chain but we need to do more or else I fear the frowned upon Burberry incident of incinerating unsold garments will become more commonplace.
Wasteful Operations Should Never be Justified
There is nothing wrong with reusing, repairing, donating or recycling excess stock. Fashion companies need to future proof their supply chain to ensure that they are not adding to the growing textile wastage problem. Stephanie Benedetto, who founded Queen of Raw in 2014, told Supply Chain Dive, “When it comes to pre-consumer waste, I think the big problem is a lack of real-time data.”
She continued: “Ideally, organisations would use the data to change their operations and waste less — but so far that result hasn’t come to fruition since, as brands get used to the program, they tend to broaden the types of waste they turn over as they use it, and volume increases”. Benedetto also recognises that the waste problem is just the tip of the iceberg. She believes that this is because most companies don’t know the waste that they have or what it’s worth. This is why Benedetto has been helping brands understand what raw materials they have, where they are, and what’s going to waste.
The bottom line is the fashion businesses need to improve their supply chain practices by taking a proactive approach to identify and resolve problems — also, transparency in supply chains is a must. Basically, we need to reinvent fashion. We need to embrace a more circular business model that concentrates on extending the life of a garment. We need to create an ecosystem of sustainable fashion businesses, researchers and designers. We must forge a new vision for the fashion industry. Let it be one that introduces the kind of supply chain that is not built on wasteful practices but instead makes sure that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric is not wasted at the design and production stage.