July 22, 2022

G-Star Head of Sustainability exclusive: Is a circular fashion industry achievable? ‘Only if we're all on board’

The opportunities and risks for brands eyeing the circular economy
Ana Birliga Sutherland
Ana Birliga Sutherland
Editor
Ana Birliga Sutherland
'We believe it's just something you should do—not something you should brag about.'

This statement on sustainability in fashion comes from Rebecka Sancho, G-Star RAW's new Head of Sustainability, who is quietly working to scale the denim brand's circular economy initiatives. This is an ethos the fashion industry would do well to embrace—especially as cries for sustainability compete with greenwashing claims, both influencing how brands are making their clothes and marketing to their customers.

Many believe that a circular economy for the textiles and fashion sector is the only way to limit the rampant waste, resource use and pollution we're seeing from today's linear 'take-make-waste' economy—and help brands meet ambitious sustainability targets. The circular economy aims to create safe, durable and recyclable textile products—and keep them in use for as long as possible through repair, reuse and recycling. It's the antithesis to the world's obsession with new clothes: we produce a staggering 100 billion garments every year—a huge portion of which don't even reach the consumer. Waste is all-too-often treated as an afterthought. A British luxury brand made headlines a few years ago after admitting to destroying nearly €102 million's worth of unsold clothing in an effort to maintain the brand's exclusivity, for example; while mountains of unsold goods have been dumped in Chile's Atacama Desert—where they'll sit for the next couple hundred years before eventually breaking down.

G-Star aims to do things differently. It's boasted prestigious Cradle to Cradle certification since 2018 for a continuously growing number of fabrics and products, which amongst other wins revolutionised the indigo dying process, cutting chemical use by 70%. It's also working to build up repair and recycling programmes, recognising that designing for durability and cyclability is futile without the systems in place to ensure that its products are kept in use and kept in the loop. Following a successful pilot in the Netherlands, G-Star is now scaling its Certified Tailors programme: customers across Germany, Belgium, South Africa and the Netherlands can now benefit from free repairs for their denim—with worldwide expansion planned for next year. Those that are tired of their jeans can also opt to have them transformed into shorts, while G-Star's Return Your Denim programme ensures that old products don't end up clogging coastlines or landfills—and that some day, they'll be recycled back into new clothing. But in spite of its efforts, G-Star is learning that the road to circularity is rocky: a full denim-to-denim closed loop could still be a couple of years off.

Now collaborating with Amsterdam-based impact organisation Circle Economy for team-wide training on circular apparel design, it's working to further embed circularity in its ethos and product development processes. Over the past month, G-Star's design and product development teams have been following a series of bespoke masterclass workshops, focussed on building a common understanding of circularity, and redesigning key products according to circular design principles, such as durability and recyclability. Together, they're paving the way—but challenges still remain that demand attention from other brands, customers and governments alike.

G-Star is working with Circle Economy to embed circularity in its product design. Source: Circle Economy

It’s time to overcome misconceptions about the circular economy: it’s not only about sustainable materials

Caveats are abundant: for example, today cotton is primarily mechanically recycled, a process that shreds fabric back into fibre. Tightly woven fabrics—like denim—are generally harder to recycle than finely knitted fabrics, creating shorter fibres, which have reduced strength compared to virgin cotton. The higher the percentage of post-consumer recycled denim in the fabric, the more strength is reduced. To overcome this, recycled fibres can be blended with virgin fibres, such as cotton or polyester, with polyester adding more strength than virgin cotton fibres—but a polycotton denim is harder to recycle. Unfortunately, these paradoxes and trade-offs are common in the circular design space—and brands have to make difficult choices on what to prioritise. Is it better to use recycled cotton, which has the lowest impact of cotton fibres available on the market, while potentially compromising on durability and recyclability? Or is it better to use virgin cotton, with a higher material impact?  

Using virgin materials presents its own range of issues. A core tenet of circularity is using regenerative, non-toxic materials—such as organic cotton, which is grown without harmful chemicals that contaminate air, water and soil. Yet this is in short supply. 'Only a tiny sliver of the cotton grown in the world is organic—less than 1%,' Sancho says. 'You see so many brands that have targets to use 100% sustainable materials but it just doesn't match up with what we have the capacity for, globally.' Demand from other brands is likely to drive up production, but converting all farms to organic practices worldwide isn't possible. A focus on more sustainable materials isn't enough by itself.

Pursuing circularity will entail certain tradeoffs—and will require looking beyond just material sustainability. Source: Circle Economy

Clearly, going circular is complex. Based on G-Star's experience, Sancho noted that failing to look at the big picture is a huge mistake for brands embarking on their sustainability journeys. 'There's a lot of focus on materials today. But it's not just about materials, or just about design—it's the whole system.' For most of brands, a lack of knowledge about the nitty-gritty, often highly-technical details of circular economy is still a huge hurdle: that's why working with experts in the field that can train employees and get everyone on board—management and marketing as well as team members tasked with sustainability—is crucial.

To really reach ambitious targets, everyone has to get on board to transform hardwired linear systems: governments, brands, customers and more…

What it comes down to: it's incredibly challenging to go circular in a linear world, where the necessary logistics, infrastructure and mindset aren't yet in place to support the transition. While the technology needed for fibre-to-fibre recycling exists, investment from key industry players has been sluggish—preventing scaling at the pace we'd hope to see. Regulatory support is also lax: 'We're not going to get far without government support—we need to see more extended producer responsibility schemes, more taxation, more funding—and stricter standards that will set the bar for brands that aren't taking action.'

The ultimate challenge: 'We need reliable sorters and recyclers that can carry out processes at scale,' Sancho explained, 'and they need to be available in the right markets, because we don't want to create more impact by shipping recycled materials around the world before the production process even begins.'  

Using post-consumer 'waste' to fashion new items also poses a challenge in this arena: until now, most recycled materials have come from post-industrial clipping waste from the factory floor, which is often collected, sorted and recycled within the country of origin. Launching consumer take-back programmes opens up the question of where sorting, recycling and reproduction should take place—and unless consumers get on board fast, it's likely there won't be enough engagement to truly scale denim-to-denim cycling. 'We need them [customers] too,' Sancho says. 'So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive—but this kind of interaction is still coming from a relatively select group. For programmes for repair, recycling and resale to be successful we need our customers on board just as much as we need support from government and other industry players.'

We all know the prisoner's dilemma: two prisoners, separated by guards, are both personally incentivised to turn the other in—but the biggest collective benefit comes from both staying silent. In other words: the biggest reward comes from cooperation. It's a lesson the industry would do well to learn: for the infrastructure and technology critical to circular fashion to scale, other brands need to commit—and customers need to cooperate.

Collaboration is key: for a full denim-to-denim closed loop to become a reality, everyone needs to be on board. Source: Circle Economy

What's next? Steps for brands looking to up their sustainability game

'We're all still learning,' Sancho notes. She's stressed before that overcoming knowledge barriers will be brands' biggest challenge—but this doesn't excuse inaction. 'Don't be afraid to do anything because you don't know enough—jump in head-first and learn throughout the process or we'll move too slow. With circularity it's hard to find a "perfect answer"—it's always going to be better to do something than nothing.'

'So far, progress throughout the industry has been too slow,' she quips. But in spite of the challenges ahead, G-Star remains optimistic: customers are beginning to ask more questions and are turning a more critical eye to their consumption. Anecdotally, it seems that the onslaught of covid-19 has sparked a collective shift in priorities, prompting a so-called 'new frugality': people are shopping less, or are at least increasingly questioning what they do buy. Qualities like durability are being seen as increasingly attractive. Is this the end of unfettered consumerism? Generation Z and Millennials are certainly driving a change: the majority of these consumers are eager to buy from sustainable brands, and most are willing to pay more to do so.

One aspect of going circular may be simpler than we thought: mindset. When asked which one factor could make strategies like resale, repair and recycling work at scale for the industry as a whole, Sancho didn't immediately call on government regulation or bolder collaboration. 'The most important thing is understanding that this is important—given the fashion industry's impact, we don't have any other choice.'

Want to start your circular journey? Work with us

Going circular in a world built for linearity can be overwhelming—but it must be done. Brands looking to go circular can work with Circle Economy's Textiles Team to train their teams on circular design and circular business models, and determine the strategy and approach that is best for their product, customer and brand. Get in touch here.

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