SDGs: Sustainable style and the rise of circular fashion

Harvesting cotton. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

When luxury fashion brand Burberry admitted to destroying more than $35 million worth of fashion and cosmetics products last year, there was outcry around the world over the amount of wastage created by the fashion industry for the sake of protecting their brand from counterfeits and discounting.

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after oil and gas. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton needed for just one t-shirt; add a single pair of jeans to that and you need 20,000 litres of water in total.  Moreover, the pesticides, fertilisers and chemical dyes and manufacturing methods have polluted the freshwater supplies of hundreds of villages in places like Indonesia where on the banks of the Citarum River are some 400 factories that release toxic chemicals into the river every day.

To combat the impact on the environment, the fashion industry is beginning to focus on sustainability and one solution is the sharing economy.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) the sharing economy will be worth $670 billion by 2025 as people become more comfortable with renting and leasing goods and services for a short period of time instead of buying them outright.

Fashion rental companies already exist, but the concept is likely to evolve to more subscription and brand-based models and according to GlobalData, the online clothing rental market is set to grow to $2.5 billion by 2023.

US-based fashion chain Urban Outfitters, which also counts Levi’s, Anthropologie and Fila in its portfolio of brands plans to launch a subscription service, allowing customers to rent six items each month before choosing to buy them or swap them. The service, called Nuuly, will be launched in the US later this year.

The Luxury Closet (TLC), a Dubai-based marketplace for pre-owned fashion will soon begin piloting something similar with a fashion brand in the UAE.

“Brands will enable their customers to give old items back to them and then take new items. We’re working with this brand [to be announced soon] to allow their customers to resell their items in exchange for store credit,” says Kunal Kapoor, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) at The Luxury Closet. “Ownership and rights as a concept will go away.”

Creating this circular economy in fashion will help to make it more sustainable. TLC has seen a rise in people selling and buying pre-owned goods on its platform and is embarking on a global expansion strategy after closing an additional round of investment.

For Maya Talih Khatoun and Tima Hamadeh, encouraging people to buy pre-owned goods was the easiest option and one of the most ethical. According to the Thread Up Sustainability Report 2018, consumers can increase the life of an upcycled piece by more than two years, thereby reducing its carbon, waste and water footprint by about 73 per cent.

They launched RIOT, a circular fashion online boutique and movement after noticing the value of items sitting in their wardrobes.

“Saying I have a closet full of clothes, but I have nothing to wear is no longer acceptable given the state of the planet,” says Khatoun. “We wanted to give customers more and more reason to wear pre-loved, but there is a massive stigma especially in the region.”

Part of the reason why RIOT refers to the items on its website as “pre-loved” instead of “pre-owned” is one way to help change the perception of second-hand items.

“In the fashion industry, you’re looking at the runway, there is all this beauty, the last thing you’re thinking about is water, gas emissions and dyes,” says Khatoun.

The influence of social media and Instagram has further increased demand for fast fashion and now a third of women wear an item on average five times before they throw it away.

“We’re buying twice as much and wearing it for half as long. That alone is crazy,” says Khatoun. “There is definitely more awareness and education. It is trickling down to the region, but not as fast.”

Kapoor believes that the fashion brands will soon begin to think like car manufacturers, who design and build cars with the understanding that it will have more than one owner during the product lifecycle. This, he believes, will push clothing manufacturers to create higher quality and more durable products.

Creating such quality clothes requires the right materials and for Mathew Benjamin, co-founder and managing director at Benjamin Siggers, a Dubai-based company that produces bespoke men’s suits, these materials need to be sustainable and organic, free from the use of pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals.

“The largest impact we can have is through raw materials and choosing the most sustainable for the conventional materials that are used which saves water and is better for everyone involved,” says Benjamin. “From our point of view, it’s the right thing to do. Building the company for the future is the way it has to go, it benefits everyone in the long-term.”

While the demand for such products is still limited in the Middle East, there are several startups that have emerged over the past few years that are pushing the message of environmental impact and sustainability.

Egypt’s Green Fashion collects and salvages clothes from landfills to create unique items of clothing. In Lebanon, NK by Nour Kays repurposes plastic carrier bags into a new material to make bags and accessories, while Dubai’s Ohoy Swim uses recycled plastics for its swimsuits.

Plastic is one particularly toxic material that has great potential to be refashioned into clothing. Every minute one million plastic bottles are purchased worldwide, totalling almost one and a half billion bottles per day. Since 91 per cent of all plastic is not recycled, they end up in landfills or the ocean and take 400 years to decompose.

But it will take a while before people feel truly comfortable wearing plastic and so perhaps the most compelling model at the moment is the circular and sharing economy. While the stigma associated with buying and wearing pre-owned goods still exists, many in the region feel comfortable with selling their wardrobe items as a way to make some money, thereby becoming important contributors to the sustainability of the products.

“Consumers are becoming more and more conscious, they hold the power to make the change. More and more they are checking labels and manufacturing process,” says Khatoun. “Circular fashion is the easiest option and arguably the most sustainable and has the most direct impact.”

Wamda Capital has invested in The Luxury Closet