How do we adopt circularity at scale in fashion and textiles?

Is a circular economy in textiles possible? Dr R Sri Ram, founder of Bags of Ethics and Supreme Creations believes so – but only if international learnings are taken seriously, with wasteful economies like the UK applying practices from regions where circularity is a key part of culture.

How do we adopt circularity at scale in fashion and textiles?

Pictured: Women making Bags of Ethics products at its owned factory in India

The Indian sari is one of the most sustainable items of clothing. At a minimum of six yards in length, it can be draped in over a hundred ways and be upcycled as a head cover, scarf, bag, a sling for a baby, bed sheet, duster or even a lamp shade. The sari is circularity in action, and moreso if it is made from natural materials like cotton.

According to the Circularity Gap Report from Circle Economy and Deloitte, the UK population consumes 15.3 tonnes of materials per person per year with only 7.5% reused, leaving a circularity gap of 92.5%.  Closing this gap means moving away from our current linear system and be open to learning from regions like Asia and Africa where circularity is a part of everyday life and has been for many years.

So, what can a sari teach us about circularity in textiles? And moreover, what can we learn about large supply chains tackling global textile waste, and production, at scale?

My company Bags of Ethics/ Supreme Creations has undertaken two large-scale projects in upcycling to share and provide learnings to our wider industry including the British Fashion Council (BFC), and the Circular Fashion Innovation Network (CFIN). This is new for our business, but we have been chosen as partners because of our background in sustainable textile innovations for major brands.

For more 25 years, we have been manufacturing reusable products, reusable packaging, and merchandise for leading brands: Tesco, Selfridges, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Sephora, Boots, Dior, International Hotels Group and many more.  We’re best known for leading consumer behavioural change from single-use to reuse by helping people switch to reusable alternatives like jute and cotton bags. Remember the ladybird bag from Tesco? That’s us.

Our headquarters are in London, but uniquely, we are one of the only vertically integrated companies as we have 100% ownership of our factory facilities in Pondicherry, India. By having full oversight at the heart of the supply chain means we can really understand all the nitty gritty elements of production. Every stitch, every QC check, every print. We can measure it via time trials with our technicians and get a true understanding of cost from a materials, machinery, and manpower point of view.

Currently, two major British brands have asked us to look at their textile waste. One has a large workforce that has recently changed their uniforms and one is a luxury goods brand, which has deadstock of leather. In both cases, we have been asked to create interesting new products out of the old items: upcycling. Here is how that works in practice.

Responsible design: Start with the end in mind

When you deconstruct a garment, say a blazer, and reconstruct it into a new item, we have found that it takes four times as long, compared to constructing the new item in the first place. Some of the steps include having to unpick the stitches from the outer material to the inner lining; removing buttons, and labels; carefully laying out different shapes of cut fabric to then work out patterns to create something new. If we think of the end of the garment’s life, at the start of the fashion design process, perhaps the upcycling would be less complex. The sari, after all, is one long piece of fabric, wrapped around and around a body.

Pick, pack, ship and customs clearance: Is your garment easy and inexpensive to transport around the world?

When looking at manufacturing at scale, garment waste sites are spread across the world. From people’s homes to laundry units, recycling and sorting plants to warehouses and then shipping containers which transport the goods around the world to factories. How are the garments being packed? Are they the same type of garment using the same fabrics in one box, or are they a jumble of different clothes?

Even if they are sorted, how bulky are they and does that mean they need more shipping boxes, and shipping containers to transport them? Finally, and crucially, what are their commodity codes? Will they incur customs or duties when they get imported if the factories converting them are different from the countries where the waste was generated?

The benefits of saris are that they can be folded neatly like a bedsheet, or rolled so that they does not take up much space. Again, when designing clothing and accessories, thinking of logistics is a part of the fashion process.

Materials matter: Fewer components, less hassle

There is a real challenge when you have blended threads in garments, such as polyester-cotton blends To separate the component parts is very difficult and unlikely to yield a 1:1 result from the original materials in the item.

Blends can also make composting challenging and present pollution challenges upstream. Polyester is plastic.

Circular production systems are about what goes back into circulation or back into the natural environment without causing harm. Incidentally, all of the inks that we use in our production process are REACH compliant which don’t contain phthalates which are very harmful to water life. We are known for creating bold and beautiful products, so natural materials do not mean bland design.

Innovation in machinery for upcycling

The sari can be cut up with a humble pair of scissors and upcycled into other items. However, to ensure at-scale solutions for pattern making from old garments, like shirts, or trousers, we need to invent and invest in finished garment goods cutting machines, so there is consistency in the waste materials that can be upcycled.

Think of a permanent, massive cookie cutter that can cut up shirts so that you get perfectly measured shirt sleeves that can be upcycled into new items.

Governments should be thinking about providing support to innovative manufacturers like us in terms of subsidies for machinery that can advance circularity.

Consumer engagement and empowerment

Finally, the more we educate and empower consumers about the challenges of circularity, the more they can understand which garments they want to buy in the first place. People need to know about the work that goes into producing and upcycling garments, and whether their choices are easy to repurpose once they are used.

We at Bags of Ethics are very proud of showing the people who make our products – 80%+ of our workforce are women, and we share with our clients the behind the scenes of their item being produced in every department of the factory. This brings much joy to our clients as not only can they meet the maker (who are often wearing colourful saris) but they can also understand how a simple-looking product like a tote bag has actually been made, with over 50 processes in our factory, and over 500+ processes across the entire supply chain.

So, circularity at scale is a challenge but is possible if the brand discussion involves all aspects of the supply chain – from manufacturing brands like us, to consumers and governments. If any brands want to challenge us with their upcycling textile projects we are ready and waiting to support.

Dr. R. Sri Ram is the founder of Bags of Ethics/ Supreme Creations

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