Can fashion be a force for good in the fight against global warming?
Relive our discussion on fashion sustainability from Epicenter in Stockholm, featuring four leading minds in the industry.
Panel members were Johan Graffner (founder of Dedicated), Annie Thorell (founder of Re:Leased), August Bard Bringeus (founder of Asket), Anna Blom (fashion journalist) and curator Konrad Olsson (editor-in-chief Scandinavian MAN).
Konrad — I would like to start with framing this challenge that we are facing. I'm going to start with you, Johan. What's wrong with the fashion industry?
Johan — The bigger players are very buying‑driven rather than sales‑driven, which creates a huge problem with overproduction. This year, 2019, we're looking at 100 billion garments. Naturally, the majority are sourced in very low‑cost countries, developing countries, and with the cheapest fabrics possible. Today, that's polyester. We produce polyester. For example, fast fashion, that's usually produced in China where they use high‑sulfur coal. We have a problem with that as well. 65 percent of all clothing today is made of polyester. Prior to year 2000, cotton was the preferred fiber. Around the millennial shift, it was on par. Today, polyester surpassed cotton three times, three times bigger than cotton. Without regulation, that's not changing because the consumer won't be able to make the right decision and the industry won't self‑regulate. We need grown‑ups in the room to set some boundaries and regulate the business. That's a big opportunity for EU. EU being the biggest market in terms of buying power. If we set those standards, the world will follow. That's part of it.
Konrad — Did you say 100 million garments per year?
Johan — Billion.
Konrad — Billion?
Johan — Yeah.
Konrad — How much of that is being used or reused after one year?
Johan — With the fast fashion garments, they're made to be very trendy and not been produced to last. You don't pass those clothes down to other people to use. People use them, after one or two washes, they don't look the way they expect their garment to look, so they just throw that in the bin. There's a lot of talk about circular fashion, but we don't have it. It's one to two percent of garments that are being recycled and then upcycled into new garments. Despite all this talk about the so‑called circular economy, it's one to two percent.
Konrad — Anna, from your perspective as a journalist and someone who's covering this issue, is this in line with your findings and what you've covered?
Anna — Yes, it is. First of all, I would like to say that I think fashion is something positive. I think clothes, they protect us, but also they help us express our unique styles. I think that's important to this discussion. There are a lot of problems as you mentioned. One of them is that I think it's almost half of all fast fashion is thrown away within one year. Also, the utilization of clothing has decreased a lot. The last 15 years, it has actually gone down 36 percent. I think we use the clothes, we could use them much more. It's a waste of resources, for sure.
Swedish researcher Sandra Roos, who works with Mistra Future Fashion here in Sweden, has a life cycle analysis. She has found that the biggest negative environmental impact in the life of a garment occurs in production. That is actually 80 percent. This is new numbers. When you and I travel to the store, it's 11 percent. In Sweden, washing clothes is actually only three percent. By using a garment twice as long, we can cut the negative environmental impact of that garment by half, we can do a lot, but it requires dedication.
Konrad — Those are powerful numbers. August, I think you have an interesting program you've been working on with your brand over the past few years. There's a traceability program where you actually created new types of tags for the garments. Instead of just writing Made in Portugal, you actually source every thread, everything and where you bought it. Why has this been so important for you guys to do?
August — The main reason is that we've seen that we are using clothing less and less — or buying more and more clothing but using it less and less. We've lost the appreciation for clothing that’s been handcrafted, requiring enormous amounts of natural resources and human labor in delicate positions. Yet, because we can get clothing for less than the cost of a lunch, it's easier to toss it than to repair it basically. There are so many factors that are driving this behaviour that are basically depreciating the perceived value of clothing. One of the hygiene factors that could prevent this is just knowledge of what it actually takes. We need to educate the consumer what it takes to create clothing today.
Diving into the fashion industry four years ago to create a permanent collection of timeless wardrobe essentials, we found that the only standard out there required by law or by customs to put a country of origin in a piece of clothing is so oversimplified. It is dangerously oversimplified. It tells us this is clothing, it comes from one country. One country, we think it's one location basically, that's it. But a piece of clothing passes through hundreds of hands, multiple countries. It's very rarely made in a single country.
To actually tell the tale of our garments and to restore the value and nudge our customers into appreciation for what it took to create it, we decided to trace our garments all the way back to the farm, or from farm to final garment. Put that information into the tags and onto the website, more importantly, before you make the purchase, so that you can actually consider the trail that your purchase is about to embark on and what you're contributing by buying that garment.
Konrad — It must be a massive research process. In doing this, did something surprise you? Did you even change suppliers because you found out that some sub‑supplier was from a place you didn't like?
August — Yeah. One of the biggest problems is that because fashion is constantly striving for renewal — that's the nature of seasonal collections and trends — basically it wants us to renew ourselves constantly as consumers, but also as brands we need to renew ourselves. With cost pressure and competition, the fashion supply chain has globalized and has been fragmented all across the world, which means that it's hard to trace garments. As a brand, it's quite normal that you just order your final garment from one factory and then that factory will cover all the subcontractors, and subcontractors of the subcontractors, and so brands don't actually know what it takes to create their clothing.
I think that 92 percent of brands don't know where raw materials come from. 83 percent of brands don't know their tier two suppliers, meaning where the fabrics come from. As much as third on a global level don't actually even know where cutting and sewing is because they're buying through an agent somewhere.
Konrad: — Wow.
August — So knowledge is lost in the industry, and suppliers and manufacturers across all tiers are not used to getting these requests. Both from a business secrecy point of view and simply from a structural point of view, the information is not there. The information is really hard to get. You basically need to start at the farm, look at the raw materials and see where can I find good raw materials, and what can I make of that. Rather than saying each plan of a hundred pieces that I'm going to launch in eight months' time, who can make this in the cheapest possible way. We basically need to turn around the supply chain to see what do we have, what are our resources, and what can we make of them in a balanced way.
Konrad — Johan, you've been working with this issue 14, 15 years or something within the Dedicated brand, and you've gone out of your way to find the suppliers. One thing that I thought interesting with you is it's not necessarily better to make it in Europe. Can you elaborate on that?
Johan — Depending on the fabrics you use. We don't grow cotton in Europe, for instance. That's grown in a lot of countries, what we've found for the most sustainably and most responsibly grown cotton, we find in Turkey and in India. But in India, there are some places they have the monsoon rain. Cotton, being so heavy on water usage, it's quite good to have rain‑fed cotton because one t‑shirt is 2,700 liters in usage.
We have sourced that with a collective called the Chetna Group, which consists of 35,000 small family farmers that are in a cooperative. All got certified, which is the highest standard of organic cotton, and also fair trade certified. There we have a very good traceability and accountability in the supply chain, and then only working with certified ginning, spinning, cut and sew, fabric factories.
You can also ship the cotton to Portugal, for instance. A lot of Swedish brands do and produce there, where you have super good technological level, workmanship, and tradition, fairly close to the market. But we find that if you ship by truck from Porto to Stockholm, that CO2 footprint is actually higher than by sea from India to Sweden.
Konrad — Right.
Johan: — So we try to look at different factors, but the main thing is that brands look into these issues and they make educated decisions based on what they find. There are pros and cons, depending on what price level you're able to work in. We want to be a very inclusive brand because that way, we can scale to matter. As a small player, you can be an irritating fly in the room and make some points, but you don't have any power. That will be the mission going forward to create the vehicle that has real power to change, but as a long‑term proposition.
Konrad — We're going to take more about what brands can do, or perhaps should do on this matter, but I want to talk to you, Annie. You have a different take on this. You've recently launched a service, Re:Leased, which lets users rent clothes instead of buying them. I know you see this as a sort of adjust in existing behaviour. What do you mean by that?
Annie — Well, it's basically what we've been talking here today, like you use garments less and less in order to basically save our planet. We need that to change. We see that the behaviour that you have today is you buy, I don't know, a couple of pieces of clothing a month. You use them for a couple months or so and then you hang them in the back of your closet. You don't want to see them anymore, or you give them away to nonprofits. Basically, what our service is doing is providing you with this service, only you don't have to hang the clothes at the back of your closet. You can sell them back to us, and we can wash them and mend them and then send them on to the next person to love them for a couple of months more.
Our thought behind this is, as we see it, what we're talking about here, brands have a big responsibility to produce goods in environmentally‑friendly ways in logistics, and supply chains, and production or whatever. But what we can do is actually make sure that when the garment is produced, we can make the most use out of it. We hope that that will give the brands some relief.
We can continue keeping them in business, and they can spend some time on actually solving these things because it's not easy. Maybe we can also foster feedback on the materials they're trying out and what's working or not. Yeah, we think that these two things need to happen together to solve the problem basically.
Konrad — You are now working with a few, select Scandinavian womenswear brands. Do you think this will also work for the brands themselves? Will the brands start to lease out their clothes rather than to sell them?
Annie — I think they will because I think it will be expected behaviour from the consumer. Starting now, I think it's good to go with one of these multi‑brand leasers because that's where the consumer gets the most out of trying the new behaviour.
Konrad — In terms of communicating the sustainability aspect of it, I think that's interesting. Is that something that you push forward in your communication, that this is a much more sustainable way of consuming clothes?
Annie — This is our reason for being. It's why we started, and we do talk about it, but we also know that that's not actually what makes the customer swipe the card. If it was that simple, they would just stop buying clothes and we will be fine. We've built ourselves into this corner right now. We expect new drops every week in the store. We expect to have a new garment at every function we go to. I don't think that we're going to stop that behaviour, and I don't think that we should have to. Like you said Anna, clothes are something positive. You can express yourself.
We have this vision. Yeah, we're only into women at the moment. What would happen in the salary negotiation if a woman could walk in wearing the suit that she actually want to wear? We think it has a big impact, and we want to give that to our customers. We think it 100 percent. Do we just have to adjust to a circular way of doing it, instead of linear? It's better for the customer as well. You get more value for money. We can open up the brands that are really good quality brands to more people. Everybody wins, basically.
Konrad — You work only with womenswear. Do you think there's a market for menswear as well?
Annie — I do, but women's consumer behaviour and men's consumer behaviour are very different from each other. I think the service that is aimed to men needs to be totally different and crafted in a different way by someone who knows the behaviour. Hint, hint.
Konrad — We'll see. Maybe, August, this is something you would look at? Does it fit your wardrobe essentials concept?
August — The honest answer is I think it doesn't, because we're looking at everyday garments that have a lot of wear and tear.
Konrad — Right.
August — We're aiming to make those withstand five years' of wear instead of five washes, so that we really need fewer items. I think those pieces are quite hard to expose to a rental service because of the frequent wash and wear. You're not going to want to rent a pair of underwear that someone's had before, basically.
We're looking at the essential wardrobe, that for men, at least, speaking stereotypically, that will probably 80 percent of your needs, and then you have maybe 20 percent which is occasional wear. For that segment, I think rental could definitely work. I think that in womenswear, the occasional wear ratio is larger than it is for men, so I think it's a smart way to start with womenswear. We also need a solution for the everyday, high frequency pieces, and the only way to go forward there is to buy fewer pieces, buy better pieces, and make them last a lot longer than we are right now.
Annie — If I can just jump in, that's exactly how we view it. We view our wardrobe as a house. The base is your staples, your black t‑shirts and whatever you can easily define them. For the women, there are two stories above it where the things that you need for work that you can combine with your staples, then there's the occasional you go to a wedding. Basically, you should invest in good quality pieces in your staples but then rent the rest. There is actually a subscription service you should look into in the States called For Days. They rent out basic clothes.
Konrad — Interesting.
Anna: What they do is that they take responsibility of the piece after the customer feels that it's maybe dirty or something, then you just send it back to them. In the long run, they make it into a new t‑shirt.
August — That's interesting. I think that if we look at menswear in general right now, the problem is that the bulk of garments out there are just not high quality enough to be rented out because they will fade and they will wear. We need to make better pieces from the start themselves, so I said no, too soon. Our garments do last five years, which is our standard. They should last a minimum of five years, up to 300 wears for a t‑shirt, then maybe that should be able to be rented out.
Anna — You can secure that.
August — Exactly. You can take it back, so I think that is the big upside with the rental service. Again, maybe I did speak a little bit too soon that as a brand, you can assume accountability for the end of life. If you start making things with better fibers from the very start, they last longer, and you can also make stuff out of them at the end of life. With the current quality of clothing out there, fiber length is too short. It's impossible to recycle most the natural fibers out there.
Anna — There are brands renting clothes today. In the US, I think Banana Republic just started, so it's coming.
Konrad — Anna, when you talk to brands and I know you're doing lectures for brands, are you also delivering any solutions, any recommendations, tips on how they should think or steps they should take?
Anna — I think I follow the process with interest and passion. I can't give them advice, but based on my research, I can find things that seem to work. Where I can feel is a big lack right now, is that I think the media has a big responsibility there to paint the picture of what happens before the garment is in the store, and what happens when we don't use it anymore.
That's kind of the missing link. There are a lot of stories about people behind the clothes that is not being told. Also, I think taking responsibility for the garment as a brand from the whole life cycle to end of life, that's the future. To take it back, or recycle it, or follow the garment along the way, it's like a lifelong love story, I would say. I would also say we need to look into the usership in different ways... I think stopping free returns would be a great thing to do.
Konrad — Speaking about that, we're talking about storytelling. We're talking about information. Johan, I think you are perhaps the most militant on the issues of regulation. Do you think that actually we need to regulate the market in a way? Do we need to define rules about free returns, should there be new laws written?
Johan — Yeah, to solve the problem, it has to be that way. Education is super important, and every consumer should learn to vote with their dollar, with their spending power. But people, we get easily distracted and act on impulse, and that's what makes fashion fun. I found this today and I bought it on a whim. I think for something to be able to be bought without a bad conscience, without guilt, it needs to be strictly regulated.
We don't need virgin polyester, for instance. We use one million PET bottles and that's the same as polyester. We only recycle globally nine percent of that. Of course, in Sweden, that's way higher, but globally, it's only nine percent. We have all the polyester we need, so virgin polyester should be banned in fashion in the EU. That's a market that the investor world could impact.
One other thing I want to mention about upcycling natural fiber products that I find exciting is the Swedish company, Renewcell. They have possibly cracked the code with creating lyocell out of post‑consumer cotton. The biggest lyocell manufacturer today is the Austrian company Lenzing Group and they have their brand there, Tencel. These guys are now producing 70 tons of lyocell out of post‑consumer cotton per year and are doubling that this year.
If that open source technology is available across the world, imagine in Asia all the clothing that goes to the landfills. That's a really valuable resource that should be used. It's a no‑brainer. When H&M then collects post‑consumer clothing that's not sold — is being burnt. That could be made into lyocell clothing, basically a viscose, but a viscose that emits zero chemicals. Also, H&M is a main investor into Renewcell, so hopefully that's happening in the future, but it needs to be open source to have real global impact.
Konrad — Right. Guys, I feel like we can talk about this forever and we should. At Scandinavian MAN we're definitely committed to cover this subject in our platform, in the days and years to come. Thank you so much for your thoughts and insights, thank you to all the panelists, and thank you guys for coming today.Johan GraffnerAugust Bard BringéusDEDICATEDAsketAnnie Thorell