Decentralization as a beacon of truly sustainable and circular clothing & fashion
Why we need circular fashion communities & cooperatives
As we are transitioning from global warming to global boiling, we can only understand that the worst days are far from being behind us and we need to be prepared to face the most detrimental effects of climate change. Our planet has faced the hottest 7 days of the past 100,000 years only this summer (!!!) and hence solutions to mitigate this upcoming disaster are being explored. Sustainable development is the key to all solutions, with energy bearing the lion’s share of carbon emissions, which needs to be decarbonized.
However, solutions in other sectors are also an eminent need, with the clothing and textiles industry contributing to 10% of global GHG emissions and being highly intensive with regard to water use. The main challenges to decarbonizing the energy industry are deemed to be the lack of raw materials and financing to construct suitable infrastructure. In this fight, decentralization can be a key ally, as renewable energy communities and mini-grids are expected to bring a revolution in the clean energy sector. Taking this into consideration, one can only wonder: can we bring the same decentralized revolution to the textiles industry? The answer can only be positive; however in order to bring a complete revolution in reducing the environmental footprint, one has to think of the loopholes and challenges, by considering the characteristics that make a truly sustainable and circular decentralized unit for sustainable fashion.
Applying circular economy practices to cooperatives has been found to have a tremendous positive impact on all segments of society. It has been found that cooperatives contribute comprehensively to a circular economy, not only on downstream categories of repurposing and revalorization but also to upstream categories of rethinking production and responsible consumption and durable use. Finally, they can substantially contribute to embedding a circular economy into all communities globally. It presents great interest to examine separately their environmental, societal and economic value.
Reflecting on the fact that the first thing we need to do in the fashion industry is reduce the carbon footprint and environmental degradation, we have to rethink our supply chains. The issue with fashion is not the clothes manufacturing itself, it is fast fashion. Clothes, accessories and other apparel are manufactured at a considerably high speed, but this, by itself, is not the cause. Around 85% of all clothes are being thrown into dumps each year, depleting water resources, packing landfills and resulting in waste mayhem.
This issue has two dimensions. The first one is related to behavioral change. For this, decentralization alone cannot work, as behavioral change can only come either through financial or societal incentives. Considering that fashion is an issue of becoming a part of a community/society, societal incentives such as campaigns from influencers would be considered the best bet. The second one is related to the quality of the products, as most of them come from low-quality plastic, which pollutes the environment and wears out easily. Decentralized production can remedy this issue. Clothing cooperatives in rural areas, for example, can tackle the issue of fast fashion, as their raw materials are usually of high quality and last much more than all fast fashion products. They are organic products, which can be wool, cashmere or fur, all of which, if they come from farming operations that follow sustainable practices, they can have virtually no environmental footprint.
Another issue related to fast fashion is the fact that it results in large-scale production that promotes offshoring and nearshoring activities in countries that can support economies of scale, where cheap labor comes often and human rights are in some cases not respected, as there have been reported even cases of child labor. Clothing cooperatives and decentralized sustainable fashion can again bring a revolution. Produced locally, several costs can be eliminated and the cooperative can also organize its production line to be most competitive. As this is a job that can be obtained through vocational training, people can learn to sew or make clothes in general relatively easy and this can also contribute to reducing unemployment and help people learn a very useful trade.
Many countries, such as in Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, but also Latin America, depend highly on remittances, where their families’ loved ones will go to another country for a blue-collar job, just to send back funding. These families are usually unskilled and lack financial literacy, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and other calamities as they emigrate to provide for the family members who stay at home. This can all be eliminated as, by creating a successful cooperative, they can gain revenue at home and find their true career calling, taking into account that a sound cooperative functions as a business, with roles in all potential sectors.
Characteristics of a circular economy clothing cooperative
Formulating a circular economy clothing cooperative is not a simple task, though. Rural settings can be the best ones, as there are farmers with animals who can provide very good raw materials. As mentioned, wool, cashmere and fur are all perfect options, as they can create long-lasting products of all sorts, such as accessories. Their organic content makes them biodegradable, whilst all parts of the animal can be valorized, from food to animal feed. These raw materials can then, based on the business strategy developed by the cooperative, be valorized into clothes, accessories, linen/sheets or anything fabric-related that the materials can be accommodated Urban dwellers, however, also have major opportunities. In cities, a large amount of textiles is being thrown to waste, either because people have to move from their dwellings or because of purchasing other products. They can, instead of throwing, provide their textiles to their neighborhood cooperative, which can create any type of product, from bags to towels. The end product, again, will be decided based on a thorough and comprehensive business analysis.
A sound strategy for the circular economy in the clothing industry should include the following steps:
- Building collaborative networks of stakeholders in every community
- Integrating waste pickers (both rural and urban) into the formal economy
- Building waste pickers’ capacity for business and entrepreneurship
- Provide tools for all stakeholders so that they can manufacture upcycled products
The biggest challenge, as already mentioned, is how to turn these clothes again from unwanted to fashionable. This is exactly where the biggest strength of the cooperative should lie. Cooperative should formulate their own department of marketing that will be in charge of finding the best social media and other strategies to convert garments back into fashion. Local influencers should be harnessed for that part and other sorts of media, such as TV or radio, depending on the context, ought to also be recruited. The campaign on climate change mitigation has included some very powerful strategies that have shifted behaviors across the globe. By collaborating with these actors and sharing best practices there can only be positive outcomes.
Another major challenge is the regulatory framework for waste pickers. In a rural setting, this becomes inherently easier, in some cases, as farmers can come into direct agreement with waste pickers and provide them with the materials under a common business framework. In an urban setting, however, this becomes more challenging, as the waste-picking authority comes into play and, in some cases, it is not operated by the city or the government. This framework has to be simplified for circular economy purposes and this will only happen through inclusive policymaking practices and an adaptive waste management framework.
One final challenge is capacity development. Scaling vocational training and teaching each community would require capacity building across three axes, namely technical, soft skills but also business skills. In this part, the government can provide subsidized training services, similar to the green skills training in the EU. Another way would be for local NGOs to take action, by working with people that have the expertise to develop educational curricula and then applying them to the local communities’ context.
In effect, the fashion and clothing industry is the most difficult to decarbonize and make sustainable, as it depends largely upon behavioral change. However, local communities have enormous strength to shift the tides. The only way to do this is through coordinated action and formulation of an ecosystem of circular clothing cooperatives. An ecosystem like that will require stakeholders from all parts of every society and sophisticated business models will be required to accommodate everyone involved. In this ecosystem, nobody should be left behind. The ones that will face the biggest challenges will be the initial ecosystem builders. However, the reward, a reshaped fashion industry, will be colossal. Hence, this opinion piece is also a major call for everyone to join this cause and decentralize all our production, for a reshaped fashion industry that will know no limits to its sustainability and circularity!
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Dimitris Symeonidis is a geopolitical risk and energy policy analyst, with a focus on the geopolitics of the energy transition in Eurasia. He holds an MSc in Engineering & Policy Analysis from TU Delft. He works as an energy market analyst at VaasaETT, as well as a project manager at Afforest4Future, where he works on innovative nature-based solutions to reverse climate change. He is also an entrepreneur, working on startups to solve issues such as food waste.