Moderator Shilla Kim-Parker (CEO and Co-Founder of Thrilling – a marketplace for independent mom n’ pop secondhand and vintage shops across the country) led three panelists through a discussion of what makes fashion’s impact on the environment so dire and what can be done going forward.
Rachel Kibbe, founder of the advisory firm Circular Services Group, addressed the question of why we should care about fashion’s impact on the environment and why it is so problematic? “Apparel/textiles is the fastest growing waste stream in the United States. They are about 7% of our landfills now. In the last 25 years, textile waste has grown 80%, meanwhile, every other waste stream (electronics, food, organics, paper) has only grown about 25%.” In addition to these alarming statistics, she reminded us, “With globalization, it’s kind of been a race to the bottom and a huge supply chain issue – you may be growing cotton in one place, spinning and weaving it in another, dying it in another and cutting and sewing it in another. Just the shipping alone to chase cheaper and cheaper cost of production has become really problematic from an environmental and labor standpoint.”
“We’re also creating garments that aren’t re-sellable, they are disposable. How do we produce for durability, for resale, for repair?” – Rachel Kibbe
Plastics also exacerbate the problem, according to Alexis Jackson of The Nature Conservancy. She serves as the Ocean Policy and Plastics Lead for TNC’s California Oceans Program and is working on how plastics enter the environment from all sources – including the fashion industry where plastic looks like nylon, polyester, and acrylics. “Throughout the lifecycle of all these materials, when they’re being woven, designed into clothes and we’re washing and wearing them, they’re letting off these small fragments which are known as microfibers. That water that we are dying and washing these clothes with, that water can carry these microfibers into the environment”, Jackson pointed out. The microfibers then “end up in our oceans, in our food, and in our bodies”. She stated, “… just from clothes washing. And that’s not even the upstream side of what’s happening in textile mills. It’s opened our eyes that plastic comes in many shapes and forms and what can we do.” Furthermore, “we know that fibers are one of the most prolific shapes of plastic found in the environment that kind of work their way up the food chain – they’ve been found in carrots and apples. We know their impact on smaller wildlife – can impact their reproduction and their feeding behavior.”
Panelist Devin Gilmartin has created a platform for small emerging brands from around the world called The Canvas. Most clothing brands don’t have access to the vast physical spaces that an H&M, for example, might have. In addition, most malls or shopping areas have empty retail spaces and this is where The Canvas comes in – they reach out to landlords and ask them to revenue share with the emerging brands. Each small brand also comes in on the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals. In this way, Gilmartin “believes that small brands can help break through the fast fashion barrier.”
The question then becomes, what kind of policy responses have been made to the fashion industry? Although this is a global issue, there is not one global answer. According to Kibbe, “I’ll focus mainly on waste policy because that’s my area of focus and I think I can speak to it best. In France, they have banned the destruction of unsold goods. In Holland, the policy on deck for I believe 2023, where brands would be responsible for paying for the collection of used clothing which is really interesting to me because that’s been a focus in my career – trying to get brands to support the waste management of our used clothing. I know in Scotland, I think they have a similar bill on deck to France that would ban the destruction of unsold clothing. You’re seeing different policies globally mainly coming out of Europe focusing on waste. In Boston, in Massachusetts, they are outlawing textiles to landfills.” In New York, she referred to a bill that is going through the process of public response now that would require any company doing business in New York with revenues over $100 million to disclose their environmental impact maps, about 40-50% of their supply chains, make science based target commitments and track those commitments. When asked, she also said that her dream bill would include a production cap on fashion companies.
“What does that look like to build an innovation contest that allows us to think more creatively about getting the technology on the market or thinking about redesigning clothing the things that we need to get the markets there, and the end goal is that capture component.” – Alexis Jackson
Jackson also believes policy is essential, but it might not be applicable because of the global nature of fashion and how each local and regional area is so different. Her suggestion was a more streamlined approach, like “let’s get policies in place to put filter in washing machines. The policy doesn’t have to be perfect.” Jackson is an advocate of setting goals and letting innovation get there since some of the technology is already on the market, including in the manufacturing space.
When asked what we can do as individuals, Gilmartin had one very concrete suggestion, “From a shopping perspective, I think we need to move away from shopping with the fast fashion giants, I think there are more and more alternatives, yours (Thrilling) being one of them, I think the resale platforms for the issues they’re still figuring out are amazing and growing very quickly and will probably start taking a market share from the bigger companies.” Jackson had a couple of ideas about care of garments: “The first is wash your clothes less often which is not always the most popular solution. Colder loads, shorter loads. If you’re in the market for a new washing machine, buying a front loading washing machine. And then you can think about buying a filter to include on your hose capturing some of these microfibers.”
When asked which companies are close to getting it right, Kibbe responded, “Everybody wants to know where to shop and who to shop from. The thing is, I don’t have a great answer because it’s always buy used.” Gilmartin did have a couple of suggestions:
“On the production side, footwear is a huge contributor to these issues and there’s a company based in Germany called Zellerfeld. They are building 3D printing boxes basically where you can scan your foot with an app and in ten minutes, have a perfectly printed pair of shoes custom to your foot. They’re building these amazing printing farms, they’re going to be in the US soon, but when you’re done with that footwear, you’ll be able to send it back to them. They’ll shred it up and create an entirely brand new piece of shoe from your previous shoes. You basically subscribe to their service one time and you’re wearing that same shoe for the rest of your life. I think this is an amazing physical material fashion innovation.
On the media side, there’s a New York-based editorial agency called Monad Agency. I think a lot of the issues when it comes to sustainable fashion is it needs to be aesthetically appealing, it needs to be desirable and Monad is creating great content around sustainable fashion. They’re working with small brands and giving them Vogue-level content production and I think that’s kind of what we need on the media side. More focus and larger reach for the small brands.”
“It will really take all of us working together to solve the problem.” – Alexis Jackson