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Out With the New and in With the Old: The Innovators Shifting Sustainable Fashion into the Mainstream
circular economy
Circular Economy

Out With the New and in With the Old: The Innovators Shifting Sustainable Fashion into the Mainstream

By Arielle Domb
20th Jul 2022

If you live in the UK, it’s hard not to be acquainted with the British reality TV show Love Island

Each June, as the weather creeps above 20 degrees and a jungle of Pimms-drinking Brits swarm in every green space in sight, the love lives of a dozen toned, young adults are beamed into TV screens across the UK. Since 2015, Love Island has been one of the most watched shows for 16-34 year olds, and in 2018 it became ITV2’s most watched program ever.  

But it’s not just the on-screen flings that keep viewers coming back. It’s also the show’s commercial partnerships. From the beginning, Love Island has transformed its contestants into walking advertorials, dressing the islanders head-to-toe in the latest trend-chasing clothes from fast-fashion sponsors.

Because of the show’s immense popularity, the impact of these deals play out in real time. Sales of a crochet patchwork dress soared by over 9000% when worn by 2018 winner Danni Dyer (making it Missguided’s overall bestseller that year), while the following year, a yellow maxi dress flaunted by contestant Molly Mae sold out from I Saw It First in under 10 minutes.

But this year, rather than feeding our love for all things new and shiny, the reality TV show has taken a step in a new direction. Breaking a three year partnership with the self-proclaimed “fastest fashion website”, I Saw It First (a deal which brought a 60% week to week increase in traffic to the site in 2019), the reality show has partnered with the second-hand online site, eBay. In a bid to promote sustainable buying habits, the class of Love Island ‘23 are boasting a new style: vintage. 

Is this move indicative of a wider cultural shift? Is ‘sustainable’ fashion truly moving into the mainstream? And will the industry be able to revolutionise before it’s too late, and drastically reduce environmental damage?

Breaking up with fast fashion

Fashion is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions annually – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Yet despite the damaging effect that fashion production has on the environment, clothing sales just keep increasing. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that in the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled while clothing use has shrunk by over a third. Meanwhile, one in three young women consider clothes worn more than twice to be old. 

“The current fashion system is broken,” Juliet Lennon, Programme Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, tells me. “We use resources to make products that are worn very little and ultimately thrown away. It’s not working for our planet, and it’s not working for our growing population.”

1 in 3 young women consider clothes worn more than twice to be old. 

“We use resources to make products that are worn very little and ultimately thrown away. It’s not working for our planet, and it’s not working for our growing population.”

Yet the tide is turning. Research conducted by ThredUp, found that 70% of women were prepared to buy secondhand fashion in 2019 – up from 45% four years earlier, while clothing rental services are soaring in popularity (CNBC named Rent The Runway and The RealReal as two of the most disruptive companies in the world in 2018). What’s more, a report from ThredUp and Global Data finds that the secondhand market is expected to see sales double from $36 billion to $77 billion by 2025; 11 times faster than the broader clothing sector. 

For Jordache Horne, founder of the clothes rental platform One Wear Freedom, this shift is embodied in ‘Thrift Shop’, a rap track released by American hip hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. “It completely blew up in 2012,” she recalls. “It was all about picking up old clothes in thrift shops or stealing them from your grandparents and trying to look vintage (“I’m digging, I’m digging, I’m searching right through that luggage / One man’s trash, that’s another man’s come up”).”

“It had a really big impact, particularly on my generation, on changing the perception of rewearing clothes, and making it seem a bit more cool.”

In recent years, vintage clothing has moved well-beyond an aesthetic niche, as high-street brands have begun to recognise that there is a real retail opportunity here too. Earlier this year, Asda announced it would trial second hand clothing in 50 supermarkets, while John Lewis and Ikea are launching schemes to sell pre-owned furniture and apparel. Meanwhile, fashion website ASOS reported that its vintage sales rose by 92% in 2021. “When we started to talk about circular business models, initially a lot of companies dismissed it as niche, or not scalable,” recalls Francois Souchet, Global Head of Sustainability and Impact at creative communications agency Modus BPCM. “Today, a lot of them are trying to integrate it into their offering.”

45%
of women prepared to buy secondhand clothes in 2015
70%
of women prepared to buy secondhand clothes in 2019
11x
more growth expected from the secondhand market than broader clothing sector by 2019.

“When we started to talk about circular business models, initially a lot of companies dismissed it as niche, or not scalable. Today, a lot of them are trying to integrate it into their offering.”

Out with the new, in with the old

Yet there is still a long way to go before shopping old matches shopping new. That’s certainly how entrepreneur Ryan Rowe, co-founder of Archive, sees it. “I look at it very similar to a Tesla,” he reflects. “Elon Musk recognised that humanity needed electric vehicles to stop polluting at the scale we currently are. But at the same time, he knew that you can’t just convince people to buy things because it’s the right thing to do; you need to create something that people want.”

And this is exactly what he set out to do with Archive. The company works with brands to launch their own secondhand marketplaces within their website, creating a smooth second-hand experience with all the perks of buying new: free returns, next day shipping, technical information about the items, and more.

“CEOs in the apparel industry are starting to think about resale in a very similar way to how eCommerce was thought about 20 years ago,” Rowe reflects. “People were slow to get it. They were saying: ‘nobody’s going to buy clothes online. You need to feel it. You need to touch it.’ It’s very clear to me that this is where the future’s going with resale.”

“CEOs in the apparel industry are starting to think about resale in a very similar way to how eCommerce was thought about 20 years ago.”

As well as giving price-sensitive customers the opportunity to purchase apparel for reduced rates, it also enables brands to tell stories about unique archive items. “The amazing thing about a luxury brand is that a lot of them have been around for a very long time; they have catalogues going back to for decades,” he explains. “You can tell an incredible story about a little black dress from the seventies. It’s just about changing the narrative.” 

With the help of Archive, Oscar de la Renta became one of the first luxury brands to embark into the world of resale. Since then, other luxury brands have followed. Jean Paul Gaultier opened up its archives of over 30,000 designs for customers to either purchase or rent in October, while the same month, Valentino set up ‘Valentino Vintage’ locations in Milan, New York City, Los Angeles and Tokyo, inviting customers to trade in pre-worn Valentino clothing for store credit.

“This isn’t just a moral choice companies should be making because they want to do good things for the environment. It’s just smart business.”

Resale, in Rowe’s opinion, is a no-brainer, enabling brands to profit from multiple transactions on one item, without having to produce anything new. “The smartest brands are the ones that are thinking about their entire product catalogue rather than just what’s coming out this spring,” Rowe asserts. “This isn’t just a moral choice companies should be making because they want to do good things for the environment. It’s just smart business.” 

The Mars Test 

Yet focusing on rental or resale alone is not enough. Like any systemic issue, fixing it requires recognising a whole web of interconnected challenges. And sometimes it’s an unexpected life event that shifts our perspective, and thrusts us into bird’s eye view.

For aeronautical engineer Ryan Mario Yasin, this was the birth of his nephew, Viggo, and his failed attempt to buy him a present. He’d ordered a piece of clothing for him online, yet by the time it arrived, it was already too small. “I’d spent so much time trying to find the perfect gift for him,” he recalls. “It seemed like such a wasted opportunity.” 

But Yasin had an idea. It seemed absurd that the only solution to clothe growing children was buying more and more items each month. When designing for space travel, clothing had to pass the ‘Mars Test’, meaning that they’d be versatile and durable enough to last for years and years. Why couldn’t children’s clothing be designed in the same way? 

After months of experimenting with groundbreaking material technologies, he had created an innovative outerwear garment made from recycled water bottles, able to expand bi-directionally to grow as the child grows too. The idea is that buying one garment will be financially profitable in the long-run: instead of buying seven clothing sizes; just one is needed.

Yasin’s time spent as an exchange student in Japan is a clear influence here. As well as his clothes’ trademark pleats (inspired by the folds of origami), he was enchanted by the mindset of people who met – knife makers, ceramicists, and fashion designers – artisans who had honed their skill and become an expert in their field. “It taught me the power of obsession,” he relays. “If you go to a restaurant in Tokyo, they usually focus on mastering just a couple of dishes. They don’t bother with a really wide menu, but they take these dishes to the next level.”

“It taught me the power of obsession. If you go to a restaurant in Tokyo, they usually focus on mastering just a couple of dishes. They don’t bother with a really wide menu, but they take these dishes to the next level.”

Petit Pli (French for little fold) has since expanded to offer clothing for ‘newborn’, ‘minihuman’, ‘littlehuman’ and ‘adult’ categories, however products remain limited, specialising in a few pieces that are highly refined and extremely versatile. “There’s definitely an element of function first,” Yasin says. “The aesthetic is engineered exactly the way it needs to be to allow for the growth between those ages.” 

With an emphasis on function, Petit Pli is able to concentrate primarily on how to best serve a wide-range of consumers. During the pandemic, they released a face mask that wraps around the neck, an invention which people with hearing difficulties have been buying in bulk since they avoid interference with hearing aids.

“I quickly realised that this solution wasn’t just for the user,” Yasin explains.“You can actually solve problems holistically along the entire value chain, and streamline the manufacturing process. And most importantly, we’re creating something that benefits the environment, because it creates long lasting behaviour change.”

Designing for disassembly

Unveiling a knock-on of positive effects seemed to be a rite of passage when addressing sustainability issues, at any point in the supply chain. However, according to Cédric Vanhoeck, co-founder of Resortecs, attention is missing in one critical area: a product’s afterlife. “There’s been a lot of investment in recycling technologies, but what must happen before we can recycle is often overlooked”.

Today, less than 1% of clothes are currently recycled, and three out of five fast fashion garments will find themselves in a landfill within a year of purchase. A big part of the problem is that clothes are not designed to be recycled: cotton and polyester blends are extremely difficult to separate, while components like zips and buttons must be removed before the recycling process can take place. 

This is where Resortecs comes in. Creating heat-dissolvable stitching threads and thermal disassembly systems, the idea is that clothing items can be dismantled with little or no manual interference. In other words, textile recycling becomes easy, affordable and scalable. This means that waste goes back into the supply chain, and old fabric can be used again and again.

Like the other pioneers of the circular economy I spoke to for this piece, Cedric is adamant that it makes financial sense for companies to invest in disassembly technology. “Brands think it’s going to be expensive. We know it’s going to save them money.”

3 out of 5 fast fashion garments will find themselves in a landfill within a year of purchase.

“On average, the materials of a garment are roughly five times more valuable than the leftover garment itself, and so you can make money by recuperating garments. It makes complete business sense, because instead of having one transaction on a product, you can have three.”

Considering a product’s end of life is becoming increasingly prescient, with new legislation for textile waste due to be implemented in the European Union by 2025. Resortecs’ Communications and Branding Lead, Davidson Leite, has no doubt that this will make designing for disassembly an industry norm. “In the future it will not be an option. It will be a must,” he states. “Thinking about a product’s end of life will be mandatory for its conception.

The future of circularity

Across fashion’s value chain, individuals are unanimous that problems are deep-rooted, and the industry’s take-make-waste mindset will be difficult to overturn. Yet the recognition of the interconnectivity of stakeholders, and the proven ability to minimise environmental damage while being financially profitable at the same time, is a promising step in the right direction.

“When we talk about the circular economy, we are talking about the root cause, not the symptoms,” Juliet, Programme Manager at EMF, specifies. “We need to fundamentally redesign – not just the product itself – but also the services, the supply chain, the business models that keep it in use. If we want to create a thriving nature-positive fashion industry we need to radically rethink the entire process.”

These innovators point towards a future where the value chain is scrutinised at every stage, where processes are reinvented, and solutions are disruptive. Whether that be heat-dissolvable threads, growing clothes, or vintage playsuits paraded on Love Island, seeing the creativity of the fashion industry harnessed to resell, rent, recycle and refurbish garments is a dazzling sign of hope.

“If we want to create a thriving nature-positive fashion industry we need to radically rethink the entire process.”