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Start to Scale: Tackling Fashion Waste

Is green the new black?

Did you know that all the innovation we need to get to net zero already exists? The challenge is how we overcome the blockers and scale those great ideas. And that’s where business has a key role to play.

Start to Scale is a new educational series where we explore a key area in sustainability where change is needed – and fast. We look at how to get started, how to find momentum and how others are doing it already.

In this feature, we explore something that individuals, business and innovators can all do something about – fashion waste.

When we think of fashion, our minds immediately go to the glitz and glamour, the latest trends and your favourite pair of jeans. But did you know 87% of all clothes made in any given year will end up in incinerators or landfills?

We’re buying 60% more clothing than we did in 2008 and the fashion industry alone now accounts for 10% of global greenhouse emissions.

So, what can you and I do about this? And how can businesses help? Let’s shine a spotlight on some of the solutions that aren’t just good for the runway, but good for our planet too.

Let’s go back to your favourite pair of jeans. You can see the cost to your purse from its receipt, but what about the carbon or planetary cost? We’ve found the data for you: one pair of jeans alone takes up to 3,781 litres of water to make – from cotton production on the farm all the way to delivery in-store. The carbon cost: 33.4kg of carbon equivalent.

We don’t need to go into the rest of our wardrobes to make the point. The volume of clothes we buy, how we maintain them and the frequency at which we cycle through or dispose of them certainly matters. But it’s also about what happens at every stage of the clothing’s lifecycle, from how it’s made and how it arrives to us, to how we buy it and how we dispose of it.

Our linear take-make-waste model is clearly epitomised in the world of fast fashion. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Fortunately, there are plenty of inspiring initiatives that are tackling fashion waste throughout the whole value chain.

A large part of the problem originates from the unsustainable nature of our clothes’ materials – a complex blend of natural and man-made fibres, plastics and metals – and insufficient recycling solutions.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at three initiatives that we can draw inspiration from.

Bio-hacking raw materials

Hermès are making waves by generating fashion from what may have otherwise become ‘deadstock’. They have been trialling innovative smart materials working with MycoWorks to develop a new mushroom-based alternative to leather.

New material innovations also include new ingredient innovations such as that of The Earthshot Prize finalist, Colorifix. They are producing sustainable fabric dyes by genetically modifying microorganisms to produce naturally occurring fabric colourings. Solutions like this have the power to reverse the 5 trillion litres of water consumption used during industrial fabric dyeing processes.

DNA-tagging our outfits

What if there was a way to trace every material and product’s movement through the supply chain to help people know that their latest T-shirt really does come from ethically sourced, greener materials?

COTTON USA, a cotton apparel provider, has found a way to do just that, creating DNA bio tracers embedded into cotton fibres. Tracking cotton garments from farm to factory at such a granular level not only surfaces data insights that can be used to streamline transport routing, costs, and emissions, but it also serves as an ethical transparency tracker.

Joining a global ‘shared’ wardrobe

Part of fixing the problem is quantifying which part of the fashion lifecycle emits the largest emissions. With only 1% of our clothing currently being recycled and 5 billion pounds of returned clothing ending up in landfill each year, moving from a linear to a circular fashion industry depends on implementing an effective reverse logistics infrastructure.

A startup who has done a great job of incentivising consumers to think of second-hand as smart fashion rather than charity is UK-based clothing resale and rental app, By Rotation. They recently released a new feature, ‘Rentals Near You’, that allows you to discover and book rentals from known brands based on your location.

These examples, and many more like them, illustrate that combining science and data with innovative thinking and new business models can help us address processes and behaviours to transition to a net zero economy. In turn, this has inspired yet more initiatives that can help to scale individual solutions at the systems level.

Here are some final takeaways from us:

  • For individuals, consider reselling to or purchasing from second-hand or rental platforms. The rise of circular and second-hand fashion platforms like Depop is undeniable – Depop alone has 5.5 million users, a clear statement against the throwaway culture of fast fashion. And companies, take note: one in three consumers refuse to buy from fashion companies if their packaging isn’t eco-friendly.
  • Another idea is to consider investing in brands that are prioritising digital clothing tags. These share the material’s footprints as well as the product’s authenticity, which is useful for tackling the sale of counterfeit products on second-hand markets and allowing effective sorting of dyes and buttons at recycling units.
  • For businesses and retailers, consider investing in effective infrastructure for the collection and recycling of post-consumer textiles. This is where novel recycling solutions and industry coalitions like Digital Catapult’s Made Smarter Innovation programme are stepping in: piloting a reverse supply chain for bulk collection and chemical recycling of textiles in the UK.

While the solutions described may be nascent and are yet to scale, we are certainly en route to a whole new style of fashion wardrobe and business.

This article has been contributed by Simran Mohnani  and Dr Sadia Ahmed in our Sustainability and Climate Market innovation team.

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