Reduce, reuse, recycle, but first redesign

“Woman’s clothing being modeled at the spring fashion show of the National Retail Garment Association in the Hotel Commodore, New York City,” 1921. Source: Library of Congress, This photograph has no known restrictions on publication.

What’s new?

The collar on one of my partner’s favorite shirts was wearing out, so I recovered the collar with similar fabric and it looks quite nice. The popular European fashion store H&M has created its first in-store center that shreds old clothing to create yarn, then fabric, and finally new clothing. The fashion industry has been cited as being second after the oil industry for creating pollution. Also noted is that “we as consumers can impact the environment by making smart decisions on how and where we shop.” Tech Crunch reports that Thousand Fell is one of several shoe manufacturers “that are experimenting with various strategies to incorporate reuse into the life cycle of their products.” They also note that several companies offer recycling of denim clothing.

One of my favorite tech web sites, Modern Machine Shop Online, has a new post on “The Circular Economy, Sustainability, and Recycling.”

What does it mean?

Probably arising about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” reminds consumers of three strategies for reducing waste and reducing environmental harm.  The first strategy is, of course, to reduce consumption: just don’t buy more clothing. Several bloggers have written about a year with no new clothes (“or at least no `new-new’ clothes”): here, here, and here (two years!). Lessons learned: take care of your clothes and they will last longer, not buying clothes becomes easier over time, and it is easy to do if you start off the year owning a lot of clothes. Irony abounds, however, in the plethora of Earth Day clothing and other swag that you can buy.

Reuse of clothing is increasingly chic with many sites that will give you ideas for upcycling clothing yourself (here, here, and here, for examples) or other sites that will sell you upcycled clothes. I never knew my father’s father, who was a tailor, but I learned to sew early and still enjoying doing so. The maker movement supports people in discovering the pleasure of making – or remaking – as an alternative to buying (but the success of stores like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and Joann’s makes clear that making involves a lot of buying). Used clothing has had a fashion resurgence with companies like thredUP.

But consumers can only do so much. Searching for and buying cotton clothing where the cotton fabric is grown in an environmentally sound way (growing cotton takes a lot of water) and then is sewn in a socially responsible way (the fashion industry is accused of being a leading exploiter of workers) leaves little leeway for considering whether one even likes the resulting clothing. Hemp fabric and clothing are arguably more environmentally friendly, but not yet as available, and also more expensive. I used hemp fabric to recover the collar of my partner’s shirt. And this whole paragraph (even the whole post) reeks of privilege: I am lucky enough to be able to implement a self-imposed ban on shopping at Walmart and Amazon because I abhor their social impacts. Buying green is often more expensive. What are real people supposed to do, Jane?

If the choices aren’t offered by the market place, what is a consumer to do? Those “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” strategies are always targeted at consumers; the EPA’s advice omits any reference to the role of manufacturers. On the other hand, pity the manufacturers who produce products that are better for the environment and can’t get people to buy them. So some go back to more sophisticated ways to motivate “the elusive green consumer” and others take on the task of persuading consumers that green products actually do work. An argument can be made that changing the behaviors of the few, extremely wealthy people would have the largest effect on reducing environmental harm.

The situation is, of course, typical of a systems approach: the best strategy is not a single strategy. It’s not “or” but rather “and.” Consumers need to reduce, reuse, and recycle; they need to purchase more wisely when they do, but manufacturers and retailers also need to do their part: stop selling environmentally disastrous products.

What does it mean for you?

The Modern Machine Shop Online article has some advice: think circular, not linear. We cannot continue to dig stuff out of the ground, use it, and throw it back in the ground; we need to reuse the stuff we dig out of the ground. The key to circularity, they argue, is the design phase. Using an example from Steelcase business office furniture, MMSOnline describes how design decisions can support a reduction in material use and an improvement in the ease of recycling. They also point out that additive manufacturing is helping make these redesigns possible. Another of my favorite technology topics, new materials, is also relevant, with panels made from recycled products (for example, ECOR) potentially capable of replacing virgin material in construction.

The circular economy is not a new idea, as this 2014 article from Industry Week makes clear.

Where can you learn more?

Modern Machine Shop Online recommends, and I agree, the resources at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They describe three principles for the circular economy: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. They cite three focus areas for textiles and clothing: new business models that increase clothing use, safe and renewable inputs, and solutions so used clothes are turned into new. They note: “To be able to capture the value of all materials once garments are no longer worn, it is necessary to ensure that design aligns with recycling processes that are available today.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation supports the initiative Make Fashion Circular.

An article at Forbes expresses skepticism about the potential impact of such changes and, with good reason, advocates for simply less: “In the fight for our future, the fashion has to be circular but first and foremost it has to slow its growth, forecast what shoppers actually want and cut the overproduction.”

The word “circular” or the phrase “circular economy” coupled with the name of your industry sector may uncover helpful resources, as in “circular fashion.”

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