As COVID-19 has forced the world to slow down, it has pushed the fashion industry into a new and confronting reality. With retail shops forced to close, cancelled orders up to and down the supply chain and a decreased consumer appetite for shopping, the fashion industry has had to take stock.

Its ethical and sustainability issues have been more exposed than ever alongside a consumer awakening that the traditional linear model of “take-make-waste” is no longer feasible. 

The need for fashion to become more circular has never been more apparent. According to the Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group,  an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually from the fashion industry and is estimated to increase by about 60 per cent between 2015 and 2030.

By 2030, the anticipated total fashion waste is 148 million tons, that’s equivalent to 17.5kg of fashion waste for each person globally.

The emergence of resale platforms has greatly improved the lifespan of products and helped to derive considerably more value from produced goods, however, for true circularity to be achieved it needs to start with the design phase. 

Over 70 per cent of environmental impact occurs at the design stage of a product meaning waste and pollution are the results of design flaws. Choosing and sourcing the right materials for production is the first step when designing for sustainability.

The rise of fast fashion has led to the increased adoption of synthetic materials as they are cheap to produce and durable. However, these materials are produced from fossil fuels and are currently unrecyclable.

Worse still when these fabrics are blended with another fibre making it incredibly hard to separate again into recyclable materials although extensive research and practice by the Hong Kong Research Institute for Textile & Apparel are easing this process.

Also Read: How consumers are prioritising sustainability beyond the single lens of eco-friendly products

A common misconception about recycled polyester is that it comes from preloved polyester clothing, however, it is made from plastic bottles and can in fact be detrimental to the circular economy as it impedes the ability for old plastic bottles to be recycled into new ones. 

Design with end in mind

Product designers need to research and select the best natural fibres for their products. Its carbon output and recyclability need to be as important as its form and function. Determining the carbon output of each material can be difficult as, for example, cotton is grown differently across the world due to different conditions and climates.

However, there are a number of platforms, such as the Higg Index which was created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, that is trying to improve transparency and credibility to carbon emission figures. A longer-term sustainable solution needs to be found to replace fashion’s dependency on these cheap to produce fibres.

Innovative companies, such as Pangaia, have developed brand new fabrics with the same qualities of synthetic fibres but made out of natural ingredients such as eucalyptus and seaweed. These promising developments however have yet to scale.

Product designers also need to design with their end of life in mind. How can the product’s lifespan be maximized? After its first owners, can it be reused? Or perhaps recycled or upcycled? Encouragingly we have seen a huge rise in afterlife repair services.

Luxury brands, such as Hermes and Brunello Cucinelli, have been going back to their traditional values and offering customers repair and restoration services. Patagonia, a leader in sustainable fashion, has the largest repair facility in North America completing 50,000 repairs a year, and actively encourages customers to avoid buying new when they can just be fixed

Digitalisation and resale

Advancements in technology and blockchain are another key component to building a circular fashion ecosystem. Blockchain allows brands to assign a unique code to products at the start of production.

This code is time-stamped, secure, and trackable allowing for the whole product’s supply chain to be recorded from the sourcing, the materials and dyes used, the fabrics, right up to when the product hits the shelf, and then beyond.

Also Read: COVID-19, the environment, and the tech ecosystem: what opportunity is available out there for us?

Such transparency and traceability will force brands to take greater accountability over their design and production.

Once a product sells, the technology doesn’t stop there. Digital authentication platforms will drive resale onto an even greater scale. A product’s unique code will guarantee authentication as consumers will be able to track its production from the start. It will also propel circularity as a product’s ownership will be able to be tracked as it is passed on from one owner to the next.

Pricing will be made more efficient as its original RRP and history will be recorded and resale platforms will generally be able to benefit from improved database management and customer engagement. So revolutionary is this technology that rival fashion houses LVMH, Prada Group, and Richemont decided to come together and launch the Aura Blockchain Consortium.

The single blockchain solution allows consumers to trace and verify a product’s historical data, proof of ownership, warranty, and maintenance service record leaving them with an exclusive product certificate.

Resale is a crucial part of facilitating the extension of a product’s lifespan and dramatically reducing carbon emissions. If everyone bought 1 used item instead of a new one, we would save nearly six billion lbs of CO2e4.

Since our founding in 2016, Retykle has recirculated more than 150,000 items of clothing to date, saving 407,100 lb of carbon and 313 million litres of water!

Brands have a huge opportunity to incorporate resale into their customer offering. By partnering with resale platforms, it provides them with greater control over how their goods are represented on the secondhand market and can also improve customer loyalty and desirability. 

The last part of sustainable design is end-of-life reinvention. Rather than ending up in landfills, can products be broken down into their individual materials and reconstructed with other recycled waste into something brand new again?

Regeneration is a key component to refuelling our nature’s ecosystem and not continually draining resources.

If all our waste can be repurposed then demand for virgin materials will be greatly reduced. Designing with the end in mind is the way forward for an industry in peril. 

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Image credit: yuragolub

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