“Today we largely operate in the ‘take, make and throw culture’. We throw away 350,000 tonnes of clothing worth £140 million in the UK alone, every year! It’s unsustainable!”
Can you please tell about yourself briefly, in what areas of fashion you had worked, what are you doing now as a consultant.
I started off as a textile designer and now am a sustainable materials and supply chain sourcing and strategy specialist.
My journey started over 20 years ago in India, where I gained hands-on experience working within the supply chain, designing and manufacturing of beautiful fabrications, for range of amazing brands in the US and Europe. I have since worked in the UK, over the last 12 years, with various business models including leading suppliers and beautiful brands. These brands include Jaeger, M&S, VF/Timberland (my favourite) and recently Asos which is a completely online fashion brand. I also studied the CISL (Cambridge University), a course on Business Sustainability Management, which has empowered me further.
I have set up my own consultancy SMAC- Sustainable Materials, Agility and Circularity. At SMAC we focus on helping apparel and home brands formulate a sustainable sourcing & circular business strategy and roadmap. What will emerge, as a result, is a circular closed-looped pattern of ‘considered use, reuse, upcycled, recycled and regenerated’ business models.
Then we help them to implement it. Right down to identifying the sustainable materials, innovations and then leveraging our relationships to help brands source the right materials at the right prices and quantities to fit their needs. We also advise on chain of custody certifications and chemical compliance for materials. Our particular focus is on startups and sme’s. (see fig 1&2)
Does luxury fashion conflict with ethical fashion, why?
It often does. But it doesn’t have to. I think the difference lies in the vision of the leadership of the brand. Luxury brands have always had more money to spend on their materials; and they design their clothes to last longer. In a way, that is one aspect of being sustainable.
However, many materials used, are selected for their ‘luxurious aspects’ where their source is not visible or transparent. Probably, not even looked at and often ignored. Angora and leather are some examples. Merino sourced from sheep subjected to the horrendous practice of mulesing could be in the mix. There are many such examples, some of which are now banned for use by a few brands, like Cashmere for example.
The traditional routes to source the materials and clothing also create a lack of transparency on ethical and environmental impacts. The brands need to engage with their sources to understand their practices and challenges and invest in these value chains to be part of the change rather than just walk away. Systemic change can only be effected when all players strive to make things better in collaboration.
You had worked in various leading fashion brands. Do the startups have any advantages compared to those brands?
Yes, startups have a big advantage. They can do things right the first time and so, every time thereafter. Don’t get me wrong in, that it’s not easy or effortless. There is still need for that vision, ability and commitment to stick to that value of ethical and sustainable sourcing at the heart of their strategies. At SMAC we call this ‘Considered Material Sourcing’. But it’s a lot easier than trying turn around a big established brand and unlearn all the bad habits and practices. Systems change is crucial but not without huge challenges. With the right mentoring, guidance and expertise, smaller brands can formulate the ideal strategy and implement it right from the start.
They also have the advantage of less or no hierarchy getting in the way of decision making- as the decision makers are also the visionaries and, the structure of the brand does not get in the way of itself. But there are also challenges because they are smaller and cannot leverage the kind of power a large and established brand can. At SMAC, we can help leverage our relationships in the value chain to their advantage.
Also, larger brands are often public ltd companies - very focused on growth and shareholder ROI’s. That makes it a lot harder for them to take difficult decisions to effect systems change, even when well intentioned.
How could fashion became the 2nd polluting sector in the world? What was the main reason for you?
The industrial age in the 50’s and 60’s brought great change and progress in manufacturing processes. It became possible to make more and make fast. Together with progress in transportation technology, the advent of cheaper global sourcing became possible. Pollution levels rose directly in line with these activities. Textiles largely come from either natural fibre (animal or plant) or are petroleum based. These natural fibres too can impact the environment due to water usage for example in Cotton. Or deforestation for sheep/wool farms. This impacts the environment negatively.
Chemical fertilisers and use of GM crops have created soil toxicity and underground and river water pollution all over the world. This has knock on effects on human and animal health and prosperity. Petroleum is the most polluting industry so fibres like polyester and nylon will obviously have a negative impact, including microplastics in our oceans, most of which come from end customer use/wash of apparel.
Textile processes especially dyeing, and finishing have a huge impact on the ecology due to the chemicals used and released blatantly into the rivers and land. Today we largely operate in the ‘take, make and throw culture’. We throw away 350,000 tonnes of clothing worth £140 million (Wrap.org) in the UK alone, every year! It’s unsustainable.
“I am an optimistic realist! I do believe that people are a lot more aware of the negative impact of their ‘desire for convenience’ and its effect on the environment and on biodiversity.”
We have this “new normal” concept came with the Pandemic. Do you think people will change their habits as a consumer after this pandemic, why?
Yes, some people will. They already are. But this advantage gain has to be sustained. I am an optimistic realist! I do believe that people are a lot more aware of the negative impact of their ‘desire for convenience’ and its effect on the environment and on biodiversity. We are beginning to understand that our actions, as a whole, directly or indirectly, have put our way of life and in fact, our very existence, in jeopardy.
Having said that, it is very easy to slip back into the ‘old normal’ once this is behind us. If it ever is! The possibility that we may never go back to what we knew, coupled with the knowledge that we have survived a very different ‘locked down’ way of life, opens up many possibilities for policy makers. They must use this huge opportunity to keep us faced in the direction of an ethical and sustainable way of life. Adversity and peace are not ideal bedfellows. We will have to deal with further and bigger social impacts, and we have to learn to value the one Earth we have.
If we do not change now, the environment will make us. We have seen this in our current crisis. I always say that we cannot survive without a healthy Earth; but Earth can thrive without us!
If brands produce only sustainable products with much longer lifetime and we all consume much less, can this create unemployment problem?
Big question this! The short answer is no. It will create new employment opportunities that are accessible to a larger population. For example, the second hand ‘new’ clothing industry is growing at breakneck speed. The recycling and regenerating industry will grow too. This will create huge opportunities for employment to fulfil these shades of the new sustainable, circular, agile, zero-carbon economy.
We are fast running out of raw materials in today’s throw-away culture. Natural capital is not infinite, it will run out or become inaccessible and expensive. This will directly impact cheap fast fashion and employment anyway! Biodiversity loss has caused Covid19 in large part, look at what that has done to our economy.
Regional manufacturing will also restart as people move away from the ultra-globalised economies of now. Sustainable products will have material value beyond just the transitory need of the ‘take, use and throw’ culture of today.
The ugly truth is that there is already rampant poverty and it is getting worse- it’s just that we don’t see it because it exists way down in the supply chain. Its invisible. It’s unfair and its discriminatory. Sustainability will bring prosperity to those forgotten people as well. It will ensure supply security and preserve natural and human capital for a healthy future for us all in a more equitable way.
As per the World Bank, over 736 million people live on less than $1.90 or less a day! Climate change, inequality and marginalisation, lack of access to healthcare and clean drinking water, along with conflict are some of the top causes of poverty. (Concern Worldwide concernusa.org). In this context, sustainable products and their value chains have a big part to play in ensuring prosperity to all and not just the few.
“Second-hand clothing is already becoming a source of ‘renewed fashion’ and customers will adopt more of that. Big, fast fashion brands will lead the way in making their product sustainable. They will ensure none of their clothing goes to the landfill. This will call for huge collaboration beyond the competition.”
Can you please tell a short dystopia or utopia scenario for the future of fashion based your estimations.
Dystopia is already here! It hides in our value chains. It exists in the destruction of biodiversity and rise in pandemics like Covid19. It’s not the first and won’t be the last.
Raw materials will run out and become very expensive and businesses will collapse as customers won’t afford them anymore. Unemployment will be the inevitable result. There will be conflict when those that are suffering due to the inequity in our world will rise up and defend their rights and there will be disruption of our economies and therefore our prosperity. It’s already beginning to happen even in western economies. Disease will become rampant as biodiversity is further impacted and climate change effects hit hard. Life will become strange and very hard for all of us.
The utopian view and one that I am realistically optimistic about, is that sustainable materials and value chains will become the ‘business as usual’ this will be the norm in the near future, starting now. Big brands will shift from just incremental to ‘systems change’ and sustainable and ethical sourcing will be the strategic activity for all of them. Governments will weigh in with policy and funding and hold business’ accountable. Customers will become more willing to do their part in everything they consume and, their behaviours for end of life of their clothing and other goods. They will feel as responsible as the brands they buy from. They will be willing to pay more for sustainable fashion.
Second-hand clothing is already becoming a source of ‘renewed fashion’ and customers will adopt more of that. Big, fast fashion brands will lead the way in making their product sustainable. They will ensure none of their clothing goes to the landfill. This will call for huge ‘collaboration beyond the competition.’
Brands will work together and innovate to create the infrastructure consumers need to return, recycle, upcycle fashion. They will work with their value chains, their customers and with civil society and sustainability experts to make the innovations and the systems change happen. Brands will pivot at least 80% of their advertising budgets to educate the consumers and their internal and external stakeholders.
We need huge collection and recycling networks, global, regional and local. Digitisation and innovative green technology and green finance will further empower this dream economy. The need for green transport and travel will force innovation as will new circular models and technologies to enable this model. I think employment opportunities are huge. Nothing should go waste.
Which innovations in sustainable material technology excites you most?
Ones that are desperately needed and are being worked upon behind the scenes, like separating blended fibre clothing to recover all materials without wasting any one component. Currently, most clothing that is blended for example polyester and cotton, cannot be chemically recycled to separate and recover both these elements. This leads to waste and tonnes of clothing ending up in the landfill. This would be a game changer!
Together with designing out waste right at the beginning designing materials and construction methods that can easily be repurposed, upcycled or recycled and recovered or regenerated.
The other innovation desperately needed is the recycling infrastructure (to divert clothing from the landfill) and, the willingness of corporations to work together, to make this a reality.