The wasteful cycle of the fashion industry

Safia Minney and Aisling Byrne Circular Fashion Conference

Dr Dorothy Maxwell has long been frustrated by the fashion industry’s waste. She explains why it must take action, writes Ruth O’Connor.

At the Rediscovery Centre, an award-winning eco-centre in a former civic boiler house in Ballymun, Dublin, a wide ranging audience gathered recently for Ireland’s first Circular Fashion Conference.

The event took place during ‘Fashion Revolution Week’ - an annual event in memory of the Rana Plaza incident, six years ago, in which over 1,000 garment workers were killed, and thousands more injured, in a factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Dr Dorothy Maxwell holds a PhD and MSc in Environmental Science and is a lecturer, author and advisor on the subject of sustainability having worked for the likes of Nike, Walmart and House of Fraser.

Dr Maxwell recently took on the role of Sustainability Director at Brown Thomas and Arnotts and appeared alongside representatives of Proudly Made in Africa, Rediscover Fashion, sustainable change agency circular. fashion, Eastern-Midlands Waste and The Nu Wardrobe as well as social media influencer and stylist Courtney Smith.

Put simply, the current model of fashion and clothing consumption is a linear one: the fibres (for example cotton or flax) are grown or extracted from oil in the case of polyester, they are spun into fabrics, they are dyed and embellished, they are made into clothing, they are sold, worn and dumped.

A circular fashion economy on the other hand is regenerative and restorative — it uses resources in a way that they can be reused and kept in the system.

A circular fashion economy is based on a system that values the resources that go into the clothes on our backs or the shoes on our feet. It examines how brands can make clothes that use fibres that are less harmful to the environment but also that are more easily recyclable when they come to their end-of-life. A circular fashion economy also looks at ways of keeping existing items out of landfill through up-cycling, resale and clothing rental systems.

Speaking at the event Aisling Byrne, founder of online community and clothes sharing platform The Nu Wardrobe, said that the current model of fashion supply and demand is broken and unsustainable.

“People are focused on saving fast fashion brands, even though their business model of making clothes cheaply and selling them in increasing volumes is inherently unsustainable,” said Byrne.

“Why, when we are running out of time to limit the effects of climate change, are we haemorrhaging our resources and talent into fixing a broken system, rather than focusing on completely new models?”

Sustainability Director at Arnotts and Brown Thomas, Dr Dorothy Maxwell, spoke to the Irish Examiner at the event and said she finally feels that stakeholders are coming together to obtain the critical mass needed to affect real change.

I’ve been frustrated by these issues for 20 years but it’s finally coming to the point where you can walk into a store and buy something that is sustainable but also beautiful and at the right price point.

A speaker that many in the audience had turned out to see was Safia Minney— an expert in sustainable, fair trade and ethical supply chains in fashion. Minney is the founder of ethical clothing brand People Tree although she is no longer involved in the business.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the event Minney said: “The urgency with which we need to tackle climate change and environmental collapse is the issue and the circular economy is part of that. Since the 1970s we have lost 60% of the species on the planet.

"Thirty years after talking about sustainability, climate change and social and environmental justice I am deeply frustrated, but, at the same time I am excited by movements such as the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion because it is putting front of mind the urgency with which we need to change things.”

“I applaud designers and business people getting involved but we need to be thinking about wholesale changes in the system. If we want a future for the planet we need to spending time looking at the structure that is deeply broken in our system. I am concerned that we don’t get stuck tinkering around the edges.

"We should not expect civil society [the people, the consumer] to change the things that need to be changed in 12 years. We need to do the right thing as individuals but we also need to force business and politicians to act now.”

Five days after our meeting at the Rediscovery Centre, the UK government approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency— a step in the right direction. The Welsh and Scottish governments, as well as several towns and cities in the UK, including London, have already declared a climate emergency.

The Irish government is the second country to declare a climate emergency.

For information on this and other events go to: www.rediscoverycentre.ie

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