A Fashion Industry in Recovery

Written and envisioned by
Annie Gullingsrud

The fashion industry is currently in a linear production system, where we take or extract raw materials (anything from oil for polyester or cotton), make it into clothing (sometimes through intensive production processes) and then most of this clothing ends up in landfill or incineration. Then designers and brands start over. They do it through a vicious, repetitive cycle that pumps out the clothing you see in stores and online. I get exhausted just thinking about it.

You might be thinking, “No, not cotton … that’s good” or “[insert every single fiber you can think of]—that’s not bad” or “I donate to Salvation Army.” The reality is that all fibers, all production processes and current systems of take-back have their challenges. I discuss these in my book, Fashion Fibers: Designing for Sustainability.

 Since I was in design school, I have been experimenting and incorporating design and systems concepts that would allow me the freedom to innovate while considering the planet’s boundaries. I have always used the Cradle to Cradle principles which were developed by the founders, William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart— as my guide. This model envisions industrial systems where material flows are continuous and there is no such thing as waste. Incorporating these basic principles into design means envisioning a whole new way of approaching design and business models. In practice, the application of these basic principles is inventive, empowering, complicated and exciting. It is a creative process of discovery, where constraints only become unexpected vehicles for abundance.

The past few years have seen the manifestation of some of these principles in the fashion industry through what we now call circular economy. I will be forever grateful to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the movement they have created to promote  the fashion industry’s shift toward a circular economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines three basic principles in the circular economy: Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. The Foundation rallies industry and policy makers together to make an economical shift toward a fashion industry that supports restorative and regenerative design.

I have personally experienced a fashion industry buzzing with new energy and excitement and the belief that we’ve hit on something big, something that could help the fashion industry recover from its dirty, outdated practices. I have seen the largest apparel companies in the world make public commitments that support this shift. NGOs and conferences that have historically focused on traditional sustainability tactics are suddenly presenting circular ideas and principles. Most of my professional conversations now include  “circular,”“circular fashion” and “circularity”—all terms that were not discussed a mere two years ago.

This is nothing short of extraordinary and exciting. I can feel the shift, personally, emotionally and spiritually.

This vision of the circular economy is about getting to a place where our production is regenerative and not depletive. It’s a place where fashion garments and materials are reprocessed into new materials for future generations and a world where the making and disposal of fashion doesn’t harm the planet and all living things. It’s a place where there’s no negative stigma about secondhand clothes, and we have new words and new outlooks for reuse.

The fashion industry is deep in shit, which is why we need a big, shared vision to save us. To be clear, we are not even within earshot of the whisperings of a circular economy in practice. This is why:

  • Combined, the global apparel and footwear industries account for an estimated 8 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.[1]

  • Total greenhouse-gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion tons annually, exceed those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.[2]

  • Half of fast fashion is disposed of in under a year[3]

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that American landfills received 10.4 million tons of municipal solid waste textiles in 2014.

The fashion industry is key contributor to a rise of the earth’s temperatures, the destruction of the oceans, the extinction of species, sickness in humans and the unjust treatment of human workers. We have harmed the planet and all living things as a result of our desire to provide beautiful clothing.

For now, my friends, it’s about progress not perfection. We are in recovery.

With the acknowledgement that we are in recovery, we will slowly awaken to what is truly needed to make this shift into a circular economy for fashion.

The process of recovery will require an entire mindset shift that will steward the ability to both hold the truth of the problem and the solution we walk toward. When we first acknowledge that we are in recovery, it’s hard to comprehend what we actually need to make this incredible shift—because, it is incredible. We cannot just slap on a tag that says “recyclable” on clothes and think we’ve arrived. We’re talking an entirely different way of doing business, where economic growth does not come first. Rather, it comes in partnership with environmental sustainability and justice for all living things. Business models will need to change. This is fact. We will need to shift away from linear, wasteful business models to discover new ways of earning revenue, not from the continuous extraction of virgin resources. The awakening to this fact is and will happen in recovery.

We will be in recovery for the rest of our lives because we can never forget the problems we caused as an industry. We will hold this past close to us because it will be a reminder of who we were and why we choose not to be that industry anymore. Our dirty past will become our greatest asset because we will have moved on and we will share with others why it doesn’t work anymore.

As newcomers, we might get caught up in the hype of what this means and that is O.K.. But we must also understand that some of us might be naive and lacking experience. It doesn’t matter how experienced one might be, we all still need a guide, which is why we it’s necessary to turn to our so-called “old-timers,” the founders of the movement, to keep us focused and hopeful. For me, these people are Lynda Grose and Timo Rissanen, whom I know personally, and Joanna Macy, who I know through her writings. We link arms together, grow together, fall down together and get back up together. Whenever I feel lost and need a guide, there’s always someone reaching a hand out to me in partnership and support. Lots of other times I am this guide for others. 

In recovery, we stand united in the shared experience of being a human on a planet that’s resilient yet fragile. We stand united in the urgent planetary situation we are in. We stand united in our desire of a healthy, regenerative, functioning planet for our children and our children’s children. We stand for life. We stand united in our solution.

We must muster the patience to make this progress incrementally: by putting one foot in front of the other, one day at time. Since it is a journey, we will learn to enjoy the personal, business, economic, emotional and spiritual benefits of how it feels to find abundance within the planet’s natural boundaries and to work alongside the Earth as a friend and contributing member of the system—a system where fish, trees, bees are just as important as humans, because without them we won’t survive.

In recovery, we fully understand that although we are a small part of a great whole, each of us is an important part that is uniquely qualified to carry out the mission.

We will commit to the maintenance and growth of our individual and collective knowledge base of research and science. We will share knowledge no matter how painful. We won’t look away. We will use that information as an engine for our next steps toward our big vision.

We will maintain a sense of gratitude. When it gets tough, we will be thankful for what we have—clean air, clean water, bright blue skies and a complicated and thoughtful integrated system of balance that the Earth has provided for us.

 As I work as a strategist and guide for companies as a circular fashion consultant, and as I stay informed of the new research and science that is made available to us (and most of the time this research is not positive), instituting a mindset shift and some simple tools, as I detailed above, can be the key to facing our industry-wide problem and finding effective, simple solutions all at the same time.

Welcome to recovery. I’m so glad you’re here.

[1] Measuring Fashion, Quantis and ClimateWorks Foundation

[2] A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future Report, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017

[3]  A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future Report, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017

Annie Gullingsrud