Here at Plant Chicago, we tend to talk about local circular economies in the context of our favorite topic: food! While food is an integral part of nourishing a local circular economy, there are plenty of other opportunities to contribute, and businesses throughout the Chicago region are working to bring circular economy practices to a variety of industries beyond our favorite focus area. Today, we’re excited to share an example from the textile and clothing industry!
The EPA estimates that the generation of textiles in 2017 equaled approximately *16.9 million tons* and it’s estimated that the US alone sends about 21 million pounds of textile waste to the landfill each year! (EPA, 2017) A 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that “less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing, representing a loss of more than USD 100 billion worth of materials each year.” A key practice in any circular economy is making sure nothing is wasted, keeping valuable materials in circulation for as long as safely possible. It’s clear that the textile and clothing industry has a long way to go to achieve these goals.
The good news is that each one of us can use our purchasing power to affect change in the fashion and waste industry simply by being selective about what goes into our closets.
What Can We Do?
On an individual level, we have many choices when it comes to sustainable fashion. Beyond being creative to make the most of our existing wardrobes, we can participate in clothing swaps with friends or community groups to reduce the amount of clothing we purchase in the first place. We can shop secondhand, either at old standby thrift stores or new online secondhand marketplaces, to reduce our reliance on newly extracted materials. We can also support innovative businesses that are using clothing rental models or designing their clothing with longevity and end-of-life repair and/or recycling in mind. In fact, several popular retailers like H&M, Levi’s and Madewell will even reward customers for bringing in donated clothing.
What Can Businesses Do?
There are many practices that businesses in any industry can implement in order to cultivate circular economies. These circular practices include reusing waste, sourcing materials locally, designing products to last, hiring from their local communities, and giving their employees professional development opportunities related to sustainability (among many others!). We recently talked with Again&Again, a new company based just outside of Chicago on a mission to make jeans more circular.
Again&Again co-founder Marcus Schneider shared that the small company is making jeans that use 20 times less water to produce than cotton jeans and are specifically designed to outlast other jeans on the market. Schneider explained that the company’s jeans are made from Lyocell fabric, which is made using pulverized eucalyptus, oak, or birch wood, and is slowly gaining traction in the retail clothing industry as a durable and practical material. These design, process, and material factors are key to developing any circular product, but they do come with some challenges in the forms of higher product cost and limited availability of the product to a wider audience. At the moment, a pair of Again&Again jeans retail for $125, and the company offers neither a women’s fit jean, nor any jean size larger than a 36” waist.
The company is still in its beginning stages and gauging interest in the market, but Schneider is interested in a preorder model in which customers would be able to request their unique size and fit. Unfortunately, this dilemma between circularity and accessibility is nothing new and is not unique to the textile and clothing industry.
Again&Again makes the return process seamless for customers. Once the worn jeans are ready to be upcycled, consumers can email the company directly, and a pre-paid shipping label will be sent via email. All the customer has to do is print the label and ship the jeans back in exchange for a discounted, upcycled pair.
Making Circular Fashion Accessible
Although eco-friendly clothing brands might be excited to see current trends moving away from fast-fashion and back towards basics and athleisure wear (Washington Post 2020), the reality remains that sustainable brands have their work cut out for them if they expect to reach everyday consumers who are just making ends meet. Efforts to alter consumer habits toward sustainability are a hopeful starting point but will have to evolve and consider diversity within their proposed solutions to our environmental problems.
Until then, I look forward to the day that I am able to wear Again&Again’s “Perennial Slim Fit” women’s jean in size 28. I’m excited to see what the next evolution of fashion and regenerative material holds for us. Green solutions are not a one-size-fits-all and oftentimes there is a lot of educational and equity work that needs to be done so consumers and companies can meet each other halfway. One great way to start might be restructuring the ways we connect the prosperity of the planet to that of our purchasing power.
*This figure represents 6.3% of the total MSW (municipal solid waste) generation that year. Generation estimates for clothing and footwear were baked in part on sales data from American Apparel and Footwear Association.