Zero-waste is the new black: How SMEs are disrupting fashion’s waste crisis

In the second of a two-part feature, edie's senior reporter Sarah George spotlights the businesses working to combat fashion's growing waste problem by pioneering truly circular systems in what is widely regarded as one of the world's most linear sectors.

Zero-waste is the new black: How SMEs are disrupting fashion’s waste crisis

A bin lorry of fashion waste is landfilled or burned every second globally. But brands striving to buck this trend are emerging and growing rapidly. Image: E&K

The first part of this two-part feature (‘How Online Retailing is Allowing Fast Fashion to Thrive’) is unapologetically bleak.

Fashion, for all the creativity it sparks, all the passion and joy it generates, is filled with cold, hard numbers; A bin lorry full of clothing is landfilled globally every second, Boohoo launches more than 700 lines every week, many women consider their clothes ‘old’ after three wears, most fast fashion items are worn seven times and then binned. At a glance, the fashion sector’s waste problems are too large and entrenched to eliminate. The production pipeline is insurmountably big, the end-of-pipe solutions desperately small.

In the face of such statistics, it is very easy to assume that nothing any one person or business, unless they are Inditex or H&M Group, could do could possibly make a dent in the numbers.

Whether you’re an environment professional or a member of the public, you can use these feelings as an excuse for inaction. Or you can, as Mary Robinson advises, use them as fuel for anger at policymakers and corporations with more influence than you and as a passion to support those working to champion radically different systems.

That is why the second part of this feature is not bleak. Instead, it is deep dive into the changemakers emerging – from a sleepy village in Kent to a production line in the Isle of Wight – that are disrupting the business as usual approach to fashion.

Cherishing waste

In the village of Tonge, boasting little more than a pond, some small farms, a church and a converted mill, might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of a disruptive approach to a global sector stuck in its linear ways.

The converted, Grade-II listed building houses stacks upon stacks of leather offcuts, discarded parachute panels and rubber mats soiled with ink. It is home to Elvis and Kresse (E&K) – a small business working to create luxury fashion accessories from materials historically classed as waste.

“Our entire design ethic comes from the waste itself,” co-founder and director Kresse Wesling tells edie. “We’re not being dictated to by trends – it’s the waste, the material, that we want to cherish.”

Kresse founded the business in 2005 with her partner after what she describes as a “chance encounter” with the London Fire Brigade, whereby she realised the organisation had no option but to landfill its end-of-life hoses. Gripped by a desire to reclaim the material (she calls it “beautiful and durable”) Kresse began developing systems and processes to incorporate it into accessories.

The process of turning a hose into a luxury fashion product, according to Kresse involves “a mix of high and low tech”.

After the hoses’ metal components are removed and the edges strimmed (with offcuts set aside for use in handles), they are run through an industrial-sized Electrolux washer. Staff decide whether to use the cleaned material for belts or bags and, if it is the latter, use a splitter machine to thin it down. A hand-operated clicking press is then used to cut patterns before the products are constructed by hand and packaged using waste newspapers which Kresse collects from trains and dust bags made from failed parachute panels. “I’m not going to order virgin packaging materials or even recycled materials for packaging when the perfect opportunities for reuse already exist,” she says, as she folds copies of last week’s Metro.

To date, these processes have seen more than 200 tonnes of fire hose reclaimed. On a personal level, Kresse’s circular economy work has earned her an MBE and, on a business level, has enabled her to hire 10 UK-based and 15 Istanbul-based staff. The B-Corp-certified E&K donates half of its profits to charity.

“For us, the last three or four years, the company has been growing rapidly without us really needing to do extensive marketing,” Kresse adds, noting that the stock room is still not fully replenished after Christmas. “I think it’s because more people aren’t buying things – especially fashion and especially luxury – if they don’t know where it’s from, who made it, what their values are and what their vision for a sustainable world is.

“Even for people that don’t consider social and environmental factors that much, people increasingly don’t want to buy something that means nothing.”

2017 was a “landmark” year for the brand – when it began its partnership with Burberry. The partnership sees E&K receive 120 tonnes of leather offcuts too small to be repurposed traditionally through to 2022. Using a “Lego-like” faux weaving design, the offcuts are incorporated into modular bag panels which, aside from bearing a striking design, enable easy repair. Pieces too small for this process are used as stuffing for doorstops.

“The UN estimates that 800,000 tonnes of leather are wasted by corporates every year – and that’s just by those that report,” Kresse concludes. “So we didn’t want to just design bags – we wanted to design this system that lets you take small pieces of leather and build them into new hides and make them usable again in perpetuity.”

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A post shared by Sustainable Luxury since 2005 (@elvisandkresse) on Nov 19, 2019 at 1:28pm PST

Trash to treasure

E&K is far from the only luxury brand which has built itself around circular economy principles. A Google search for ‘trashion’ – the term used to describe innovative luxury goods made using discarded materials – generates more than 600,000 results.

Upcycled goods are no longer framed as the territory of costume designers and low-income families. Now, the likes of Ahluwalia, E Tautz, Phoebe English, which produces small made-to-order batches in the UK, often using deadstock or recycled fabrics, RAEBURN, which makes bags from discarded tents and Rothys, the Californian shoe brand often sported by Meghan Markle, creating ballet flats from recycled plastic bottles, all serve to deliver an overarching message that “‘trashion” – and by extension the circular economy – is no longer eccentric, undesirable or unsightly – it’s desirable, luxurious even.

It’s worth noting that, far from existing on the fringes of the luxury fashion conversation, many of these brands are now stocked by Selfridges, Net-A-Porter and Farfetch; showcased at fashion weeks, and invited to partake in national-level policy discussions.

Discussions that involve the circular economy and clothes tend to conclude that the luxury fashion sub-sector is arguably better suited to most emerging circular economy models than fast fashion.

In addition to the initial design of luxury products, luxury firms often benefit from avoiding tight margins, giving them the finance to experiment with repair, rental and resale models. “Experiment”, indeed, is the wrong term for many fashion houses; Burberry and Mulberry have offered lifetime repairs as standard for decades.

And that’s before you come on to the cultural and social implications of luxury fashion. While charity shops are turning away fast fashion items simply because they will not sell, many luxury items increase in value over time, purely because of their ‘rarity’ and their social connotations.  

This is all great news for existing luxury brands scouting for innovation opportunities, or for those looking to found new luxury brands that have a planetary and economic future in an age of resource scarcity and low consumer trust. But where does it leave the majority of shoppers that are swimming in eco-anxiety but can’t afford to buy a Chanel handbag on a whim?

The good news is that businesses that view circular economy principles as compatible – not only with luxury but with efficiency and, by extension, value-for-money – are emerging at a pace.

Circular economically viable

Among them is TeeMill – an Isle-of-Wight-based fashion brand which manufactures T-shirts using a mix of organic and recycled cotton In order to combat overproduction, AI is used to print T-shirts to order and, to stop products leaking into landfill at their end-of-life, each garment contains a QR code enabling the owner to send it back for recycling in exchange for store credit.

“Sustainability is about everybody, so it should be affordable,” Teemill’s co-founder Martin Drake says. “I feel like that’s a fairly reasonable ask, but when we first started, we realised that products like that didn’t really exist.”

Drake tells, in colourful detail, how trying to plug sustainable materials, clean energy and ethical practices into a “business-as-usual” fashion model resulted in higher costs – which he and his brother, who founded the firm as a two-man business in their parents’ shed in 2009, didn’t need.

“Waste, for us, wasn’t a CSR problem, but something we couldn’t afford – because trying to do the right thing as a business is often the more expensive thing,” he summarises. “So we had to design it out… to make our model economically viable.”

And economically viable it has become. TeeMill produces uniforms for dozens of big-name corporates and merchandise for media giants such as BBC and National Geographic. Last year, it received a six-figure funding package and hire purchase facility through Lloyds Bank’s Clean Growth Finance Scheme, which is being used to expand its manufacturing capacity and – in line with this – its onsite solar farm.

Drake’s hope for the future is that other lower-cost fashion brands see Teemill as “living proof that a circular economy is possible” and use its example to frame circular economy shifts as an opportunity rather than a burden.

Some already seem to be dipping their toe in this mindset. Adidas’ ocean plastic shoes are flying off shelves. Nike’s ‘space hippie’ sneakers, made using recycled plastic water bottles, rubber, foam,
t-shirts and yarn scraps, made headlines during London Fashion Week. Levi Strauss has begun sending denim offcuts to Italian social enterprise Porto Alegre to be turned into bags.

The challenge now, as Drake puts it, is getting these innovations implemented as standard across whole collections, to avoid them being used as a front for “an incrementally more sustainable version of business-as-usual”. 

The seeds to disrupt the fashion sector haven’t just been planted, they are starting to bear fruit. As these innovative brands penetrate markets, businesses both big and small have an opportunity to re-examine business models and retell the story of sustainable fashion from bleak beginnings to bright and green futures.  

Sarah George

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