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Cotton

Cotton has been a staple in textile fibers for centuries. What about today?

Cotton is the 2nd most produced fiber in the world. The fiber is held dear for its versatility, comfort, ease of care and appearance. The material fits nice, falls easy and makes for a go-to textile for designers and consumers all over the world.

In 2018/2019, 26.05 million metric tons of cotton were produced; the same as the weight of 38 million Holstein (classic black and white) cows. The number 1 spot is occupied by polyester, in which over 2x more volume was produced (55.1 million mt).

2.5% of cultivated land is dedicated to the growing of cotton. The crop is water intensive as well and grown in arid climates; perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by the disappearance of the Aral Sea over the past decades. Furthermore, cotton requires 16% of the world’s insecticides.

The aforementioned trends and statistics have driven more demand for organic cotton (grown with minimal chemicals) however, much debate surrounds the relative improvement from traditional cotton growing. Organic cotton requires little to no harmful pesticides but needs more land to grow.

What can you and I do? Some impactful actions you can make right now are buying second hand, donating, supporting sustainable companies and taking care of clothes already in your wardrobe. The transition to a more sustainable fashion sector heeds winds from the direction of the consumer.

How would you weave innovation and solutions in cotton?

Source(s):

Daystar, Jesse S. et al. “Sustainability Trends And Natural Resource Use In U.S. Cotton Production”. Bioresources, vol 12, no. 1, 2016. Bioresources, doi:10.15376/biores.12.1.362-392.

Muthu, Subramanian Senthikannan. Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain. WOODHEAD Publishing, 2014.

Muthu, Subramanian Senthilkannan. Roadmap To Sustainable Textiles And Clothing. Springer, 2014, pp. 1-35.

“Preferred Textile And Materials: Market Report 2019”. Textileexchange.Org, 2019, https://textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Textile-Exchange_Preferred-Fiber-Material-Market-Report_2019.pdf. Accessed 30 Nov 2020.

The Front of the Pack in Sustainability

Tackling the challenge of becoming sustainable may take many forms. Leadership, transparency, relevant policies with science-based targets, and commitments to improving impacts in the land-energy-water nexus throughout the supply chain are all ways in which companies are taking steps towards a better tomorrow. Some of the leaders of these initiatives amongst the top fashion companies are Levi Strauss & Co. and Adidas.

For example, Levi Strauss & Co. release an annual sustainability report and were among the only two companies headquartered in the United States to sign the Business Ambition for 1.5˚C pledge in summer 2019. In addition to setting ambitious goals, the company has also implemented practices such as a new finishing technique that has seen 3.5 billion liters of water saved since 2011.

Adidas is another titan that has taken initiative in the industry. In a campaign to reduce plastic pollution, the company partnered with Parley for the Oceans to produce products from recycled waste. In addition, Adidas has set targets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions within its own operations. The brand tracks and audits most of its supply chain as well, aiming to improve accountability in sourcing and ethics.

These two companies are some of the best blueprints for corporate social responsibility for other large brands to follow. While facets of companies’ strategies towards sustainability move in positive directions, the industry still faces an uphill battle. Many smaller brands and companies have arisen with sustainability embedded into their operating models and value propositions—a fact worth mentioning.

Actions such as the aforementioned initiatives are a reflection of a strong demand on fashion companies to do better. However, Levi Strauss & Co. and Adidas are not perfect—and more progress remains. The segmented global supply chain will take more action and further regulation to ensure living wages, fair practice and sustainable interfacing with the environment while still delivering functionality to consumers.

Above all, the power lies with you: the consumer. We get to decide who plays. Your dollar is a vote for the direction of the market.

How would you encourage investment into sustainability that champions the triple bottom line?

Source(s):

Muthu, Subramanian Senthilkannan. Roadmap To Sustainable Textiles And Clothing. Springer, 2014, pp. 1-35.

Roberts-Islam, Brooke. “Is Digitization The Savior Of The Fashion Industry?”. Forbes, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brookerobertsislam/2020/01/07/is-digitisation-the-saviour-of-the-fashion-industry-i-ask-a-cto-who-knows/?sh=7e8b419e7e7a.

Shen, Bin. “Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain: Lessons From H&M”. Sustainability, vol 6, no. 9, 2014, pp. 6236-6249. MDPI AG, doi:10.3390/su6096236.

Thorisdottir, T., & Johannsdottir, L. (2019). Sustainability within Fashion Business Models: A Systematic Literature Review. Sustainability11(8), 2233. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11082233

“2020 Fashion Resale Market And Trend Report”. Thredup.Com, 2020, https://www.thredup.com/resale/#resale-growth.

Fashion Designer Spotlight: Mimi Miller

Mimi Miller is a business owner native to the Washington D.C suburbs. Fed up with the fast, revealing designs saturating the market, she founded her fashion brand Mimi Miller Womenswear in 2015 under a philosophy of “Ethical Production + Quality Fit + Excellent Textiles = Effortless & Modern Pieces”.

Figure 1 via shopmimimiller.com

What inspired you to enter into the fashion business and start your brand?

Mimi: Ever since I was little, I loved art and creating things, especially designing clothes and sewing. I established my clothing brand because I couldn’t find clothing that was longer and looser at an accessible price point. I could only find these styles available from luxury designers and their price point was out of my reach, so I wanted to have a line that was more accessible for women and ethically made.  

What challenges does a small business face in the industry? 

Mimi: From my experience, a few challenges faced by small businesses are meeting production and fabric minimums, and exposure. Many factories overseas have large MOQ’s (minimum order quantities) and as a new and/or small business, you might not have the capital to produce 500 pieces per style or be willing to sink that much capital into inventory that may or may not sell. Finding factories that produce smaller quantities is a real challenge. Sourcing fabric typically poses the same issue, though not as bad. Most novelty fabrics or sustainable fabrics in seasonal colors have high MOQ’s as well. This makes it difficult for small businesses to purchase fabrics that are on trend for the season. Many fabrics available in smaller quantities tend to only come in a few neutral colors or the prints/designs aren’t as engaging. There are so many clothing small businesses out there so standing out can be a real challenge. You really have to be able to find your voice and your niche customer to help propel you forward and stand out from the crowd. 

What do you see as the greatest challenges to ethically produced fashion?

Mimi: I think the greatest challenge in the fight for ethically produced fashion is getting customers to stop buying fast fashion. We need more ethical brands that are easily accessible to customers, something I am working on with my own brand. Right now, fast fashion brands are easier for to customers to access than ethical ones so when they need something in a pinch, they shop with the fast fashion brand. They might only shop there every once in a while, but over time it adds up and is what continues to keep these fast fashion brands in business. We need more ethical clothing brick + mortar stores.  

Have you noticed any differences in interaction with your brand between the physical storefront or online presence? 

Mimi: Yes! Whether I’m at a pop-up, market, etc, interaction and sales are always better than being strictly online. People might like your product, but I believe the ability for the to talk with the designer/maker and to hear the story and have any questions answered is what really sells them; when shopping online you don’t have that same interaction. 
 What kind of customers do you generally attract?

Mimi: My demographic tends to be women to live in/near metropolitan cities and are about 30 years and older. They are supporters of sustainable and ethical fashion.  
 

How have your transparency and sustainability values impacted your brand’s success?

Mimi: Customers are beginning to ask more and more questions about where/how their products are made. Being transparent about my values has allowed me to build trust with my customers which is key for growth. 

For the fashion designers of tomorrow, do you have any advice?

Mimi: My advice is to do what you want, experiment, and have fun! Back in the day, the industry operated on a very rigid model, whether it was how to design/create a collection, how many collections to produce a year, etc. Right now, the industry is going through a big change and I think it’s a great opportunity to experiment since the rules are being rewritten as we speak. It’s younger designers like us that have the power to shape the industry how we want.  

Lastly, where do the greatest opportunities for improvement lie within the current fashion industry?

Mimi: Where to begin! In addition to the common issues of ethical and sustainable fashion, as well as size inclusivity, I’d love to see the U.S. value and appreciate the art of sewing and clothing construction like they do overseas, especially in Europe.  

Mimi Miller’s brand can be found here: https://shopmimimiller.com/. A big thank you to Mimi for her time and graciously answering my questions.  

How would you challenge the norms of the fashion industry?

Human Rights and the Fashion Industry

Producing fashion products requires human capital. From raw material extraction to processing, fashion goods employ countless human hands. An estimated 430 million people work in textile and fashion production across the globe— 1 in 8 workers on Earth. From polyester to cotton to cellulosic fibers, many apparel products have labor intensive supply chains.

Modern production demands incentivize companies to source labor from the most affordable locations; often those with loose workers’ rights or regulations. Much of the workforce in fashion is located in Asia. The total employed by fashion is skewed as well as it does not account for synthetic or cellulosic fiber production (synthetics makeup 65% of global fiber consumption).

Fashion’s labor record has been marred by oversteps on human rights’ and in extreme cases, by slavery (see Campos source). These facts have seen attention onto fashion brands and their supply chains, and driven a surge in consumers demanding transparency, sustainability and accountability from companies.

Figure 1 from https://media.business-humanrights.org/media/documents/files/documents/FashionReport_2019_9-April-19-FINAL.pdf

According to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report, 61% of companies have created gender equality policies (increase of 22%), 35% have remediation plans to redress child or forced labor in supply chains (+17%), and 35% of companies have comprehensive hazardous material lists to protect from adverse effects to workers or the environment (+14%). The progress is slow but seemingly moving in a forward direction.

The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse of 2013 tragically captured the impact that the current industry can have on human and natural communities. One positive to take away from these trends is an increase in participation towards more sustainable practices. 38% of all companies improved their overall grade according to the 2019 Ethical Fashion Report.

What policies, regulations or interventions would you put in place to alleviate human rights abuses?

Source(s):

https://www.business.rutgers.edu/business-insights/labor-remains-wrinkle-fashion-industrys-supply-chain

https://www.commonobjective.co/article/faces-and-figures-who-makes-our-clothes#:~:text=The%20global%20workforce%20is%20estimated,the%20fashion%20and%20textile%20industry.

https://media.business-humanrights.org/media/documents/files/documents/FashionReport_2019_9-April-19-FINAL.pdf

Campos, André. “From Moral Responsibility To Legal Liability? Modern Day Slavery Conditions In The Global Garment Supply Chain And The Need To Strengthen Regulatory Frameworks: The Case Of Inditex-Zara In Brazil”. Researchgate.Net, 2015.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304626215_From_moral_responsibility_to_legal_liability_Modern_day_slavery_conditions_in_the_global_garment_supply_chain_and_the_need_to_strengthen_regulatory_frameworks

How Would Dematerialization in Fashion Look?

Dematerialization refers to using less, or no, physical material to deliver the same functionality in product design. In the context of fashion, dematerialization can include a range of practices such as social marketing, technology and service design. Essentially, the concept aims to deliver the same value to the consumer using little to no materials.

This idea may seem far-fetched—questions arise as to where materials could come from to support a dematerialized approach. As communities become wealthier and consumption rises, the flow of material and resources also increases. This results in an increase in the materials found in the collective reservoir. In Britain alone, an estimated £89 billion worth of clothing is found in the collective wardrobe.

With environmental concerns growing around the fashion industry, using less material to deliver value to the consumer could be a crucial domain of investment. Paired with donation, secondhand markets, recycling and digitization in supply chains; dematerialization could aid in the industry’s transition to a more circular economic flow. Implementation of this concept could see cradle-to-cradle product design where the materials originally extracted remain in the flow of the value system of the economy.

The concept of dematerialization is challenging to grasp and will be even more difficult for companies to implement. The creative opportunity that lies ahead paves the way for innovative companies in creating new markets. Recycled polyester, plastics, and tires are already in use for fashion products—cleverly avoiding resource strain while adding new and unique value. Great opportunity lies within the adoption and implementation of dematerialization to make best use of resources, for the greatest number possible.

How would you implement dematerialization in fashion?

Source(s):

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/01/numbers-economic-social-and-environmental-impacts-fast-fashion

Olatubosun, P., Charles, E., & Omoyele, T. (2021). Rethinking luxury brands and sustainable fashion business models in a risk society. Journal Of Design, Business & Society7(1), 49-81. https://doi.org/10.1386/dbs_00020_1

Santos L.R., Montagna G., Neto M.J.P. (2020) The Virtualization of the Fashion Product. In: Di Bucchianico G., Shin C., Shim S., Fukuda S., Montagna G., Carvalho C. (eds) Advances in Industrial Design. AHFE 2020. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, vol 1202. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-51194-4_106

Whitson-Smith, Jade (2016) A dematerialised approach to fashion design. In: Circular Transitions, 23rd ­24th November 2016, Tate Modern. (Unpublished)

Digitization in the Fashion Industry

Crucial lessons can be drawn from the tumultuous year of 2020. The year saw the global fashion industry’s web of supply and manufacturing disrupted and a sharp decline in physical retail interaction. Fast fashion is characterized by short lead times and quick seasonal trends hitting the shelf, a model that carries many inefficiencies—even more so during a pandemic.

So, what of digitization? Digitization in the fashion industry could take many forms. From product design, modeling, fitting to smart inventories, production and efficient supply chain communication—digital resources can be used to enhance investment returns and resource efficiency.

To combat the effects of the pandemic many brands have expanded their online presence. In an abstract manner, digitization is another avenue to connect consumers to creative designers and the value fashion businesses seek to provide. Smarter inventories could take the form of responsive production: only manufacturing a product if a consumer has expressed a demand (made-to-order; just-in-time production). Companies such as ASOS and Zara have already been experimenting with this model.

The benefits of digitization are shared by consumers and producers alike. Less uncertainty in manufacturing, less waste of resources, greater communication in supply chains and increased connectivity to the consumer are all potentially powerful facets of digitization. Further implications of this concept in fashion could see robotics employed in sewing, software interfaces, and virtual fitting rooms. As with automation in other industries, digitization could shift labor needs within the industry—opening up possibilities in other domains.

With fashion’s massive global footprint, the industry leaves much room for improvement. Digitization is just one of the emerging solutions that could alleviate a dated fashion model of large production stocks and endless product racks—contributing to wasted time, energy and resources.

How would you implement digitization in the fashion industry? 

Source(s):

Hagberg, J., Sundström, M., Nicklas, E-Z. (2016)
The digitalization of retailing: an exploratory framework
International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 44(7): 694-712
https://doi.org/10.1108/IJRDM-09-2015-0140

https://www.forbes.com/sites/brookerobertsislam/2020/01/07/is-digitisation-the-saviour-of-the-fashion-industry-i-ask-a-cto-who-knows/?sh=7e8b419e7e7a

https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/fashions-digital-transformation-now-or-never#

https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/fashion-on-demand

Teunissen, José and Bertola, Paola (2018) Fashion 4.0.
Innovating Fashion Industry Through Digital
Transformation. Research Journal of Textile and Apparel,
22 (4). pp.352-369. ISSN 1560-6074

Secondhand Shopping and the Resale Market in Fashion

When we grow out of clothes, lose interest or desire new styles, the retail front is often the first destination that may jump to mind. However, more than ever, consumers today have been donating, thrifting, and reselling fashion. As depicted in the figure from thredUP, the retail sector is projected to shrink over the next five years while growth surges into the resale and secondhand markets.

Figure 1 (via https://www.thredup.com/resale/#resale-growth)

Here’s an example of how secondhand furthers value: suppose you have grown out of a T-shirt. The garment can be thrown away and disposed of into a waste stream (landfill), in which it may have been bought at $20 and thrown away ($0)—or the same garment could be resold to another consumer. This could see the original $20 go to the retailer and then $10 to the original consumer when reselling to a new consumer. Instead of $20 and a grave, the secondhand market perpetuated value in the economy ($20 + $10 = $30), providing an opportunity for new value to another consumer.

In this sense, one can imagine the economic potential of resale and secondhand. Whereas trashing products prevents adding any further value, resale and thrift sectors in fashion open up potential for abundance from resources already in the market. The argument for sustainability within this approach is strong as well.

Due to the nature of reselling, donation and thrifting, new products do not necessarily need to fill the gap. Towards a better economy, it may behoove us to cleverly devise ways to curb consumption, by way of employing the vast amounts of resources already in circulation. In Britain alone, an estimated £89 billion worth of clothing sits in the collective wardrobe.

The popular operating model of the dominating brands involves numerous, affordable trendy drops with an emphasis on updating wardrobes as often as possible and perceived never-ending supplies. The reality of this model is shared less and less by consumers as education about the negative impacts of the fashion industry becomes more commonplace. Paired with the hand that 2020 dealt the world, this catalyzed immense growth within the secondhand and resale market.

In pursuit of a more efficient economy and relationship to consumption of resources, this market could be a crucial piece.

What are major obstacles to capitalizing on the resale and secondhand markets?

Source(s):
https://www.thredup.com/resale/#resale-growth

Kim, I., Jung, H., & Lee, Y. (2021). Consumers’ Value and Risk Perceptions of Circular Fashion: Comparison between Secondhand, Upcycled, and Recycled Clothing. Sustainability13(3), 1208. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13031208

Whitson-Smith, Jade (2016) A dematerialised approach to fashion design. In: Circular Transition, 23rd ­24th November 2016, Tate Modern. (Unpublished) 

Yang, S., Song, Y., & Tong, S. (2017). Sustainable Retailing in the Fashion Industry: A Systematic Literature Review. Sustainability9(7), 1266. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9071266

Mask off: The Potential for Environmental Impacts from the COVID-19 Pandemic

An undertone of the world’s mobilization in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the widespread, often mandated donning of facemasks. Masks have been identified by the medical community and experts as one of the most cost-effective and widely available solutions to curbing community infection rates (flattening the curve).

Controversy has surrounded masks in the United States largely from inconsistencies from leadership, political affiliations, and general mistrust—especially in the early pandemic. One issue that is undeniable is that the increased production, use and disposal of masks (especially those made with plastic) has the potential to pollute the environment and disrupt natural, foundational ecosystems.

Figure 1 from (Fadare & Okoffo, 2020)

Disposable face masks are produced from polymers like polyurethane, polypropylene, polyester, polyacrylonitrile, polystyrene, polycarbonate, etc. The spinning of nanofibers for production draws many parallels to processes employed across the fashion industry in manufacturing synthetic clothing and products.

How is this relevant? Plastic pollution is silently accumulating in the Earth’s land, waterways and consequently, ecosystems. This stream of waste into the environment has the potential to impact crucial aspects of terrestrial and aquatic trophic systems. The introduction and subsequent breakdown of polymers of masks in the environment has the potential to increase microplastic pollution in natural environments, a problem already intimately linked with both the fashion and petroleum industry. Microplastics may be ingested by aquatic organisms making their way into the trophic levels of an ecosystem—until potentially ending up on your plate.

The issues surrounding plastic pollution go far beyond masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective disposal, waste systems, recycling infrastructure and potential policy intervention could remedy the challenges we face but most importantly; consumers need to understand the ramifications of every action taken.

What can be done? Make, wear and wash reusable masks (e.g. cotton) if necessary, recycle where possible, and do your best to stay informed about the materials found in products and their sources, and as a no brainer—don’t litter.

How would you close the loop for plastic waste?

Source(s):

Anderson Abel de Souza Machado, Chung Wai Lau, Jennifer Till, Werner Kloas, Anika Lehmann, Roland Becker, and Matthias C. Rillig. Impacts of Microplastics on the Soil Biophysical Environment. Environmental Science & Technology 201852 (17), 9656-9665DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02212

Aragaw, Tadele Assefa. “Surgical Face Masks As A Potential Source For Microplastic Pollution In The COVID-19 Scenario”. Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol 159, 2020, p. 111517. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2020.111517.

Dris, R., Gasperi, J., Saad, M., Mirande, C., & Tassin, B. (2016). Synthetic fibers in atmospheric fallout: A source of microplastics in the environment?. Marine Pollution Bulletin104(1-2), 290-293. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.01.006

Fadare, Oluniyi O., and Elvis D. Okoffo. “Covid-19 Face Masks: A Potential Source Of Microplastic Fibers In The Environment”. Science Of The Total Environment, vol 737, 2020, p. 140279. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140279.