Part 2: How to build a better clothing industry, for everyone
Neither you nor I,
but our washed-out clothes:
shirts, kameezes, and briefs
under the starry sky
on the clothesline
whisper with each other…
There is no sugar coating the seismic disruption the pandemic has created for the clothing industry. New Zealand, small and remote, is in a unique position to build a better clothing system and our strengths lie in the very reasons why we have been overlooked by big fast fashion brands until just fairly recently. Our small, contained market makes us ideal for testing new models, not as guinea pigs for big tech as so often happens but as designers of our own bespoke system. NZ is well served by locally based tiny to medium sized businesses providing a range of clothes from cheap fast fashion through to high quality boutique clothing without the luxury price tag. The industry has had to be tenacious and agile, traits it will need to draw on over the next 18 months, for those who weather the storm will have the opportunity to rebuild a fairer, smarter, more sustainable industry.
Textiles production is highly green-house gas intensive, the production of 1kg of textiles emits 20kg of CO2 equivalent. When the garments are consigned to landfill each kg of clothing creates over 3kg of green-house gases as they decompose. Textile waste is one of the country’s fastest growing waste streams, according to Auckland Council it is currently about 9% of landfill in the region and is growing exponentially. Representing a gross waste of a high value resource, and with international export shipments of unwanted clothing if not currently halted then certainly decreasing, NZ urgently needs to improve how clothes are brought to market and managed at end-of-life, herein lies our opportunity.
New Business models
Brand priorities will be upended in response to the closure of stores and the potential of repeated lockdowns in the years to come, the current model of digital sales supporting brick and mortar stores will likely flip to stores as the support act to digital sales. A few brands like Gucci and St Laurent and local brand Maggie Marilyn have recently announced they are going seasonless, to decouple themselves from fashion’s schedule of producing, showing, delivering and then discounting collections.
Before the crisis the reseller sector was one of the few growth areas in the industry and luxury conglomerates spotting the potential at the other end of the value chain were starting to buy up reseller businesses. These alternative business models increase turnover without the environmental draw on virgin resources, plus they offer brands the opportunity to re-engage with customers as they resell garments no longer wanted in their wardrobe. NZ’s designer brands have a natural alignment with the reseller model, high quality production and good quality fabrics offer enduring value for customers. Lessons learnt from the Global Financial Crash a decade ago is that it was the designer sector that came through the crisis first. Many customers will be looking for so-called “investment” pieces —last-forever items — that feel more responsible given the state of the world, “fewer, better things” mantra that many have been advocating for years.
The resell market naturally flows into repair and mending of clothes. In the last couple of years mending stores have been popping up around the country indicating an increase in the demand for repair services. Some front footed brands now offer mending services to their customers, a savvy move building on established sustainability positioning and enhancing the value perception of the garment, that it is of such quality and value that it is worth mending.
Border closures have highlighted the risks of global supply chains, prompting more onshoring of production to de-risk supply, lower carbon emissions from global shipping and fewer potential ethical concerns as local garment workers are protected by NZ’s labour laws. As the market moves to extract more value from our clothes through reselling and mending we may well also see a rise of more bespoke services. As an example Wellington menswear brand Mandatory has been providing bespoke services since their inception two decades ago – customers can buy off the rack or have any of their garments made to measure for the same price. Offering enduring value for customers, when garments fit well, they look better and are more comfortable to wear and as a result are more likely to be retained in the owner’s wardrobe.
Financial pressure will strain a brands commitment to sustainability, simultaneously they can expect increased public pressure to validate their environmental and ethical positioning in the wake of the humanitarian crisis in garment producing countries. Bespoke company specific sustainability programmes can be seen as nice to have but not critical at times like this. Growing public expectation of sustainable and ethical production can be met by shifting individual initiatives to shared industry programmes. Collaboration is a solution at times like this assisting brands to meet the challenges facing the sector as a whole. For the change makers who have been collaborating and leading industry-wide sustainability initiatives, like Barkers Menswear, Alsco NZ and Deane Apparel, their vision and action will accelerate transformation within the entire sector.
Fashion has been dominated for decades by the powerful cotton and synthetic industries and this duopoly has severely restricted the market share of other textiles and this dominance has resulted in considerable environmental impacts. Cotton requires vast amounts of water to produce – a single tee shirt requires about 2,700 litres to make (about 3 years worth of drinking water for one person) meanwhile synthetic clothing sheds micro fibres and accounts for about 30% of marine plastic pollution. To reduce environmental impacts forward facing brands are breaking from narrowed textile offerings to more diverse fabrics. The lion’s share of textile fibres used by our fashion industry are produced offshore, NZ’s wool industry and its fluctuating fortunes provides local high quality textile fibre and for some time there has also been discussion about investment in a local hemp industry presenting an opportunity to align regenerative agriculture in NZ with our fashion industry.
Digital technology can now track garments through their life cycle into their second and third lives, providing metrics on environmental and financial impacts and the tools to better manage clothing resources. Investment in these new technologies and in circular economy initiatives can rapidly reduce the environmental impacts of the industry while providing new jobs in the low carbon economy. Recent technology advances make this possible, like fibre-to-fibre processes for synthetic and natural fibres converting used clothing and textiles through green chemistry back to their molecular parts and then into feedstock reusable back into textile production or into broader industries. Cross industry collaborative research into applications for used textile fibres by the Textile Reuse Programme is resulting in products that not only reduce the waste of textile fibres but also creates revenue generating opportunities for clothing once it is no longer usable as a garment.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) transfers the responsibility and cost of product disposal from central government, local authorities and ratepayers to a user pays model. The upfront fees paid at time of purchase finance the costs of end-of-use management, the collection, recycling and reusing of textile resources. Research has found that for every 10,000 tonnes of textiles waste some 36 jobs are created in recycling, but if we re-engineer and reuse textiles then 296 jobs could be created. For NZ that could equate to over 4,000 jobs in the textile low carbon sector. Although introduced into the market as voluntary, schemes like Product Stewardship assist brands to front foot policy and regulatory changes on the horizon, positioning them as market leaders.
How fast companies respond and evolve to meet the new environment will determine their survival, businesses that were shaky before the pandemic will likely fold. Moving beyond the churn of new products and its associated draw on virgin resources it is the higher quality end of the market that is well positioned to both deliver and extract more value through the adoption of new business models that extend the life of clothing. Challenges that face the industry will be best met through collaboration and the sharing of resources and information.
Influential fashion trend forecaster Li Edelkoort declared in 2015 that ‘fashion was dead’
That the industry had dangerously placed itself outside society.
The pandemic has shone a light on just how outside society and broken our fashion system is. The COVID-19 virus has presented us with an opportunity to slow down, to rethink and change our ways. To redesign a new clothing system, one that works better for everyone, for our planet and all the life forms on it, we have little time to waste.