The Zero Waste Revolution

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Before the mid-1700s, new clothing wasn’t easy to come by. Garments were worn for years, enduring the repair process on more than a few occasions and, in most cases, outliving the original owners. Fashion wasn’t a powerful influencer because in those times longevity was key due to the long production process and costs required to create just one piece. One style tended to stick around for decades, rather than a season, and the fate of each piece ended with purpose. Repurpose. Dresses became quilts. Jackets became coverlets. Blouses became curtains. And everyone wore hand-me-downs.

Fashion has come a long way since the pre-Industrial Revolution era, picking up a few bad habits along the way. The increased demand for clothing has spiraled out of control and predecessors couldn’t have predicted that clothing would become one of the biggest threats to our world. Quantity has surpassed quality by more than a few light years and now we are left to solve yet another issue—fashion waste.

There have been countless studies reporting that customers want to support brands that share their ethics and ethos. This reaches far beyond just making a statement to become more sustainable. Making minor adjustments to the supply chain or making massive donations are not viable solutions for reducing waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2018, 17 million tons of new textiles were generated with only 2.5 million tons being recycled. In the same year, 11 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills.

With so much clothing going to waste, is there anything fashion retailers can do to help the situation without sacrificing profits?

Fashion Waste Begets Circular Business Models …but That’s Not the Whole Story

Circular business models are increasing in popularity. But what is it exactly and how does it apply to the fast-fashion market? Can retailers who are in too deep with the non-circular model still make the switch?

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Circular business models serve to reduce the extraction and use of natural resources and the generation of industrial and consumer wastes.” So, circular business models are focused on minimizing waste and pollution; reusing materials and products; and nurturing and allowing the environment to thrive.

There are B2B companies that can help like SuperCircle that handles the heavy circular lifting for retailers. They recover, recycle, and reuse textiles from consumers on behalf of the retailer to make the support of a circular business easier. Other companies like Patagonia and The North Face have internal circular programs that have been, for the most part, successful.

On the surface, options like SuperCircle seem like the perfect solution…and to some extent those support services can be a good solution but not the best solution. Where things get complicated is eliminating the root problem—decreasing mass production of clothes that get discarded. In order to achieve the end goals of a circular economy, production must be managed. If it’s not, recycling, and reusing clothes becomes more of a burden than it’s worth.

Decreasing Production Is a Painful Truth

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, more than $500 billion in clothing is lost to landfills every year. This number is expected to rise because clothing production is estimated to reach 160 million tons by 2050.

As of 2021, Berkshire Hathaway’s Business Wire predicted that the fast-fashion market is expected to reach $99 billion worldwide. Fast-fashion corporations are potentially contributing to the multi-billion-dollar problem of landfills. Overproduction of merchandise that becomes waste is a plague of fast fashion. Other flashpoint issues that the fast-fashion industry faces, such as copyright infringement, have less impact, whereas excess inventory directly affects the vast majority of the world. If a retailer is truly committed to becoming sustainable, they must have an actionable plan to decrease inventory production over time.

The financial model also needs to shift from revenue that is solely driven by selling too much disposable merchandise. Other forms of fast-fashion revenue include licensing deals but these do not amass the same amount of revenue as production of too much stuff. Granted, fast fashion was birthed from the idea that consumers demand more trendy clothing drops at cheaper prices. Unfortunately, consumers are complicit in an unsustainable contract with fast fashion, demanding more and more, and fast fashion is only too eager to comply. But times are changing, whether it’s guilt, peer pressure or a legitimate sense of responsibility, young consumers have changed their tune. It’s a well-known fact that consumers, especially Gen Z, are now becoming more aware and educated on the fact that fast fashion is helping to destroy the planet. Next-gens are more critical of big brands and are spending their dollars with companies that are committed to fighting climate change. A report from the Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company showed that 26 percent of millennial consumers and 31 percent of Gen Z consumers are willing to pay more for products that have the least negative impacts on the environment. By taking this in consideration, retailers can still have the best of both worlds—increasing profits that aren’t riddled with the guilt of environmental catastrophe. Yes, but although next-gens say sustainability is important, they are still insatiable for the new, often at the expense of the environment, as evidenced by the ongoing growth of Shein and H&M.

Greenwashing?

Shein’s website states We harness our fully integrated digital supply chain to limit excess inventory, reducing the possibility of production waste. In addition, we attempt to sell unsold or returned inventory at wholesale pricing before donating it to populations in need.”

Ok, it acknowledges the role the brand plays in environmental waste … but their solution isn’t backed by effective action. Sheng Lu, a global textile and apparel professor at the University of Delaware, reports that Shein adds an estimated 6,000 new styles to their website daily. That is an estimated 1.3 million new styles per year sold at record low prices.

Others like Zara and H&M echo similar sustainability missions that tout using “recycled materials” or being more transparent about their practices, but do not specifically mention a commitment to reducing overall production.

Fast-fashion retailers can and should be held accountable as co-partners in the downward eco-spiral of consumerism. They have skeletons in their closets, including deep discounts to offload unsold merchandise, an excess of low-quality throwaway clothes, and encouraging consumers to fill their closets with cheap, unworn clothes that find their way to landfills in countries like Ghana.

Retailers Changing the Game

Many retailers have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon to mitigate their fast-fashion profiles. They tout the use of “environmentally friendly” materials or brag about reducing their “carbon footprint.” But if we’re being honest, for many this is just a marketing ploy to exploit the shift in the consumer zeitgeist.

Most major retailers take the easy way out by spending more money to create new eco-friendly textiles or donating unused clothing, both practices that give the appearance of a circular business model. But these actions are far from a real solution and fail to build the basic foundation of a circular model.

As widely reported, Patagonia is one of few global retailers who has always questioned traditional consumerism. Its approach has stood the test of time, and with sales exceeding one billion dollars per year, it’s hard to believe that a brand that can encourage their consumers to “buy less” of its product still thrives. This was the basis of their most successful campaign “Buy Less, Demand More,” which invited customers to buy only what was necessary and repair their garments to help the brand keep production in check.

In a similar campaign, Levi’s launched the “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign that highlights how their quality items are made to be “worn for generations, not seasons.” The brand is dedicated to encouraging consumers to wear their items for as long as possible to reduce waste. Levi’s is also committed to saving water. Their proprietary techniques have saved over 4 billion liters of water and recycled more than 10 billion gallons of water.

Zero waste, circular fashion brands like For Days encourage consumers to return their worn-out clothes to be recycled into yarn. Niche luxury brand Stòffa, a maker of classic luxury menswear, has a made-to-order business model that only creates garments after customers place the order and pay – a brilliant way to manage inventory.

Other brands like Vetta are homing in on helping customers “create mini capsule wardrobes” that can be “mixed and matched to create a month’s worth of outfits.” To create their garments, the Los Angeles-based brand uses organic cotton and Tencel, a textile harvested from wood pulp.

It Takes a Village

There have been countless studies reporting that customers want to support brands that share their ethics and ethos. This reaches far beyond just making a statement to become more sustainable. Making minor adjustments to the supply chain or making massive donations are not viable solutions for reducing waste.

To achieve the goal of zero waste, retailers must become more dedicated to adopting circular business models while simultaneously reducing orders of mass production. Rethinking profits also comes into play. Instead of reducing success to just a dollar sign, retailers can reimagine profits to reflect their progress on giving their customers exactly what they desire and by making positive impacts on the environment the new standard of success. Retailers hold the responsibility for pioneering this new era of zero waste in fashion, and customers need to cling to their stated values for saving the planet.

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