“We believe it’s just something to do, not something to brag about.” This statement on sustainability in fashion comes from Rebecka Sancho, the new head of sustainability at G-Star RAW, who is quietly working to scale the denim brand’s circular economy initiatives. It’s an ethos that the fashion industry could all too well embrace – especially as the call for sustainability competes with the call for greenwashing, which affects the way both production and marketing are carried out by brands.
This article was written for FashionUnited by Ana Birliga Sutherland, editor at Circle Economy. G-Star collaborates with Circle Economy, a non-profit organization, to improve the circularity of their manufacturing and design processes.
Many people believe that a circular economy for the textile and fashion sector is the only way to reduce the waste and pollution we see in today’s linear take-make-waste economy and help brands achieve ambitious sustainability goals. The circular economy aims to make safe, sustainable and reusable textile products and to keep them in use for as long as possible through repair, reuse and recycling. The strategy goes against the global obsession with new clothes (according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, we produce a whopping 100 billion pieces of clothing a year, many of which don’t even reach consumers). Waste is all too often treated as an afterthought. A British luxury brand made headlines a few years ago after it admitted to destroying nearly £100m of unsold clothing in an attempt to maintain the brand’s exclusivity; while piles of unsold goods have been dumped in Chile’s Atacama desert – where they will lie for the next several hundred years before finally being torn down (source: Chile’s desert dump for fast fashion scraps, Aljazeera).
G-Star wants to do things differently. Since 2018, the company has obtained the prestigious Cradle to Cradle certificate for an ever-growing number of fabrics and products, which, among other things, have radically changed the indigo dyeing process and reduced the use of chemicals by seventy percent. The company is also building repair and recycling programs, recognizing that design for sustainability and cycle is meaningless without the systems that keep its products up and running and in circulation. After a successful pilot in the Netherlands, G-Star is now scaling up its Certified Tailors program: customers in Germany, Belgium, South Africa and the Netherlands can now enjoy free repairs on their denim – with a worldwide expansion planned for next year. Tired of jeans can also choose to have them made into shorts, while G-Star’s Return Your Denim program ensures that old products don’t pollute the coast or landfill – and that they are returned to be recycled into new clothes every day. But despite all efforts, G-Star learns that the road to circularity is difficult: A completely closed cycle from denim to denim can still take a few years.
Now that G-Star has partnered with Amsterdam-based impact organization Circle Economy for team-wide training in circular apparel design, they are also working to further integrate circularity into its ethos and product development processes. Over the past month, G-Star’s design and product development teams have participated in a series of tailored masterclass workshops aimed at building a shared understanding of circularity and redesigning key products according to circular design principles such as sustainability and reusability. Together they are paving the way, but there are still challenges that require attention from other brands, customers and governments.
It’s time to overcome misconceptions about the circular economy: it’s not just about sustainable materials
The difficulties are many: today, for example, cotton is primarily recycled mechanically, a process that shreds fabric back into fibers. Tightly woven fabrics, such as denim, are generally more difficult to recycle than fine knits, resulting in shorter fibers that are less strong than virgin cotton. The higher the percentage of post-consumer recycled denim in the fabric, the more the strength decreases. To overcome this, recycled fibers can be blended with virgin fibers such as cotton or polyester, with polyester adding more strength than virgin cotton fibers – but a polycotton denim is more difficult to recycle. Unfortunately, these paradoxes and trade-offs are the order of the day in the circular design space, and brands have to make tough choices about what to prioritize. Is it better to use recycled cotton, which has the lowest impact of the cotton fibers available on the market, while potentially compromising sustainability and recyclability? Or is it better to use pure cotton, with greater influence on the material?
Using new material brings its own set of problems. A core principle of circularity is the use of regenerative, non-toxic materials, such as organic cotton, which is grown without harmful chemicals that pollute air, water and soil. Yet this is scarce. “Only a small fraction of the cotton grown in the world is organic – less than 1 percent,” says Sancho. “You see so many brands that have committed to using 100 percent sustainable materials, but it just doesn’t match what we have the capacity for globally.” Demand from other brands is likely to boost production, but it is not possible to switch all farms around the world to organic methods. Focusing on more sustainable materials is not enough in itself.
It should be clear that going circular is complex. Drawing on G-Star’s experience, Sancho noted that losing sight of the bigger picture is a big mistake for brands embarking on their sustainability journey. “There is a lot of focus on materials today. But it’s not just about materials, or just about design – it’s about the whole system.” For most brands is a lack of knowledge
nitty-gritty, often highly technical details of the circular economy still represent a major obstacle: therefore, it is crucial to work with experts in this field. They can train employees and get everyone on board – management and marketing as well as team members responsible for sustainability.
To achieve truly ambitious goals, everyone needs to be on board to transform hard-wired linear systems: governments, brands, customers and more…
The conclusion is that it is a huge challenge to work circularly in a linear world, where the necessary logistics, infrastructure and mentality are not yet in place to support the transition. Although the technology required to fiber-to-fiber
recycling exists, the key players in the industry have been slow to invest, so scale-up is not at the pace we would like. The rules also leave a lot to be desired: “Without government support, we won’t get very far – more extensive producer responsibility schemes, more taxes, more funding. And stricter standards that set the bar high for brands that don’t take action.
The ultimate challenge: “We need reliable sorters and recyclers that can run large-scale processes,” explains Sancho, “and they need to be available in the right markets because we don’t want to create even more impact through recycled materials around the world , before the production process has even started.
Using post-consumer ‘waste’ to create new goods is also a challenge: to date, most recycled materials have come from post-industrial cutting waste from the factory floor, which is often collected, sorted and recycled in the country of origin. . The launch of consumer take-back programs raises the question of where to sort, recycle and reproduce. If consumers don’t cooperate quickly, there’s a good chance there won’t be enough engagement to really scale up the denim-to-denim cycle. “We got them [klanten] also necessary,” says Sancho. “So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, but this kind of interaction still comes from a relatively select group. For repair, recycling and resale programs to succeed, we need our customers as much as we need the support of government and other industry players.”
We all know the prisoner’s dilemma: two prisoners, separated by guards, are both personally encouraged to report the other, but the greatest collective benefit comes from both remaining silent. In other words, the greatest reward comes from cooperation. It’s a lesson the industry could learn: to scale up the infrastructure and technology essential to circular fashion, other brands need to get involved and customers need to collaborate.
What is the next step? Roadmap for brands that want to improve their sustainability
“We’re all still learning,” notes Sancho. She has previously emphasized that overcoming knowledge barriers will be the biggest challenge for brands – but that is no excuse for doing nothing. “Don’t be afraid to do something because you don’t know enough – jump in and learn along the way, otherwise we go too slowly. With circularity it’s hard to find a ‘perfect answer’, it will always be better to do something than nothing.”
“Until now, progress across the industry has been too slow,” she laughs. But despite the upcoming challenges, G-Star remains optimistic: customers are starting to ask more questions and look more critically at their consumption. Anecdotally, the covid-19 period seems to have brought about a collective shift in priorities, bringing about a so-called ‘new frugality’: according to The Guardian, people are shopping less or at least increasingly questioning what they buy. . Qualities such as sustainability are seen as increasingly attractive. Is this the end of rampant consumerism? Gen Z and Millennials are certainly driving change: Most of these consumers are eager to buy from sustainable brands, and most are willing to pay more, a NielsenIQ report found.
One aspect of applying circularity may be easier than we thought: mindset. When asked what factor could make large-scale resale, repair and recycling strategies work for the industry as a whole, Sancho did not immediately call for government regulation or more vigorous cooperation. “Most importantly, we understand that this is important – given the influence of the fashion industry, we have no choice.”
Going circular in a world built for linearity can be overwhelming, but it has to be done. Brands looking to adopt circularity can work with Circle Economy’s textile team to train their teams on circular design and business models and determine the strategy and approach that is best for their product, customer and brand. Contact us here.
This article was previously published on FashionUnited UK. Translation and editing into Dutch by Marthe Stroom.