4 Lessons From Zero-Waste Pioneers at ReFashion Week

Many dream of zero-waste future for fashion, but few put it into practice.

In a conversation held Friday on scaling the zero-waste movement at the Department of Sanitation New York’s third annual ReFashion Week, experts from Lenzing, Version Tomorrow and more shared their hopes.

Better Together 

One consistent theme was that the industry needs more friendly unity but less duplication.

“I was talking to my business partners where I said to them ‘Look, if we really want to make an impact on the industry as a whole — we can’t hang onto this for ourselves. We need to open this up as a platform and share it with everyone,’” said Alan Mak, founder at Version Tomorrow and managing partner at Public School.

Mak and team don’t want time or financial constraints to inhibit creators, which is why open-sourcing resources has been key. “Now what we’ve done, in a very turnkey type of way, we’ve given other brands and other creators the ability to get Public School quality in this more environmentally responsible package. They can go ahead and get T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts in more environmentally responsible ways — where we’re using a blend of recycled and organic cotton, we’re reducing water usage, we are using nontoxic dyestuff, we’re doing ethical labor. We have all these different certifications here, and we’re [telling] creators of all kinds, ‘Just come on board to our platform,’” Mak added.

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Circular Comes With New KPIs 

“What’s happening in circular fashion is kind of like the changing of the KPI’s,” added Patrick Duffy, founder of Global Fashion Exchange and The SwapChain, a blockchain-enabled clothing swap platform.

Duffy compares record sales to streaming, in the advent of music streaming platforms like Spotify. “The new KPI for the music industry is 500 million listens or downloads. So I think right now we’re in the midst of a transition from the old KPIs of ‘how many items did you sell,’ to now what the circular fashion industry has really opened up is the idea that you can be successful where you’re not just focused on ‘take, make, waste or the linear economy,’” he reiterated.

In his work for Global Fashion Agenda, Duffy ascribes enabling a ‘frictionless’ movement to upcycling, swapping and connecting products, as becoming a new means of measuring success.

Make New Habits Stick

“I think there are a lot of new habits that are being created out of the pandemic,” said Tricia Carey, director of global business development, denim at Lenzing. “When retail stores are closed for four months it does make you reflect on why you were buying so much to begin with — I do think there will be a reset out of all this.”

Noting the shift to buying more quality purchases, Carey asked: “Could we see an end to fast fashion? Can we all shift that mind-set to say, ‘I will spend more, but buy less,’ and that’s okay and that’s a better way to be as a concerned citizen of the world.”

Have brands changed their ways?

“I can say from the brand point of view that our work in sustainability did not slow during COVID-19, if anything, brands are just as committed as they were before, and that will hopefully translate to the consumer,” said Fiona Anastas, materials researcher and cofounder at global materials consultancy Hyloh. She and others believe there is still a need for a consumer “re-education piece” to fully realize widespread progress.

A ‘Fashion Utopia’ Takes Work 

Each panelist also described their own vision of a “fashion utopia,” in a nod to the zero-waste conversation.

Carey wants to see a revamped recycling infrastructure that ensures “recycling of apparel [is] as easy and accessible as it is for recycling paper, glass and plastic,” adding that in her fashion utopia, there would be proper labeling, naturally.

Duffy is launching his first U.S.-based SwapChain store at values-driven retailer The Canvas this week in New York, putting him one step closer to his vision of a “swap department store.”

Meanwhile, Anastas hopes to see extended producer responsibility laws put businesses back in their place for taking ownership of waste.

“I think it’s too easy to pass the problem on to someone else and I think a lot of that has been passed to consumers, and it’s a little unfair,” said Anastas. “The problem that we have is a system, and if they’re responsible for their own thing circling in that system, then I think they’ll perhaps change the way that they’re doing business,” said Anastas, adding that “it’s irresponsible to talk about 2050 [goals]” without accountability.

Building on that, Mak said greater producer responsibility would be a “huge step in the right direction.”

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