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A fabric bank is trying to turn Brazilian fashion accountable and sustainable

The following is excerpted from Eco-Friendly and Fair: Fast Fashion and Consumer Behavior, by Mark Heuer and Carolin Becker-Leifhold (Routledge, 2018).

In Brazil (homeland of the case presented in this chapter), the National Solid Waste Policy (Brasil, 2010) – sanctioned in 2010 and still under implementation — is considered an environmental regulatory landmark. Like European policies, it also establishes waste prevention (reduction and non-generation) as a priority within integrated and participative waste management programs, with sustainable development as a basic premise. Nonetheless, it fails to provide the tools to achieve such goals.

Eco-Friendly and Fair Fast Fashion and Consumer Behavior book cover
One interpretation that might explain this is the legislation’s focus on waste, placing its scope of action at the end of products’ life cycles instead of the productive processes or the products themselves (Gonçalves-Dias, Ghani, & Cipriano, 2015). Thus, it lacks a more holistic approach to allow its insertion in areas where waste prevention can effectively be put into practice — namely, the stages of pre-production, product conception, production and distribution, where planning a product’s lifecycle would be possible. The Fabric Bank initiative goes beyond the reverse logistics recommended by the national policy (Brasil, 2010) — provided it makes no direct prescriptions for the textile sector specifically.

In textiles and fashion, reuse may be applied to materials, enhancing their durability or extending their life, as well as products, taking into account adaptability to different users along their life cycle. It may also be done as service design, connecting users through shared consumption, as in the examples of fashion libraries Lena, in Amsterdam (Lena, 2017), and House of Bubbles, in São Paulo (House of All, 2017) — both initiatives provide fashion products upon maintenance fees, defining rules for their use and conservation.

The initiative

The Fabric Bank has been operating officially since January 2015; at the time, the founder of the initiative had a stock of 800 kg of fabric leftovers, accumulated over 25 years of work as a set and costume designer. It started as a trade between profession colleagues until she took an entrepreneurship course and figured out its potential as a social business. After 1 year of existence, the initiative already had 150 account holders among private individuals, fashion designers, autonomous seamstresses, small apparel companies, a textile manufacturer and even a foot-wear company (Banco de Tecido, 2017; Folha de S. Paulo, 2015; Luciana Bueno, personal interview, February 19, 2016).

The idea to create an account system — just like a bank — aside from “hooking” the clientele, encourages the circulation of fabrics. Unlike a simultaneous exchange (quite popular for clothes in sustainability fairs in São Paulo), customers may deposit and withdraw at will or necessity. The deposits are made in fabric of any size and type; the material is evaluated and, if in good condition, is washed (if necessary), weighed and stored. This is illustrated in Figure 17.2.

The idea to create an account system, encouragING the circulation of fabrics. Unlike a simultaneous exchange (quite popular for clothes in sustainability fairs in São Paulo), customers may deposit and and withdraw at will or necessity.
The Bank charges a fee of 25% of the weight of each deposit, and the rest remains as credit for future withdrawals — also in fabric. Aside from that, there is the conventional shop operation, where fabrics are sold at a fixed price per kilogram — for customers with no interest in depositing. As stated by the founder, “fabrics are our product and also our currency” (Banco de Tecido, 2017). In addition to appealing prices, the Bank offers vintage and exclusive materials that cannot be found in traditional stores (Folha de S. Paulo, 2015; Torres, 2016).

The shop created by Bueno at her company’s office was the first and is, therefore, the head office of the brand. There are two other physical units, but the Bank’s business model consists of a web — not a chain, nor a franchise — in which each link is autonomous, as long as they all work towards the same purpose of circulating reuse fabrics. To structure the business expansion without losing its identity is a constant challenge, and the shops are an important part of this identity for accommodating the Bank’s diversity of account holders. They are also a very effective platform for marketing and promoting the initiative — Bueno calls them “the soul of the business.”

Another side of the initiative (a future plan already in progress) is to create a georeferenced online platform, where people and companies can make their fabric leftovers available for sale through a tag system with materials’ identification. Accounts, however, will continue to exist only at physical shops and not online. 

Shops operate in their own distinctive way, as shop owners do not choose the material available for sale. Since input cannot be predetermined (neither in terms of quality nor in terms of quantity), neither can the sales. That might present challenges in the long term regarding financial planning — although Bueno states that “no matter how organized production processes are, there will always be left-overs in the textile industry.” Because predictability is off the table, sales follow a “take-it-or-leave-it” dynamic – and with a standardized price (in money/kilo or kilo/kilo), there’s no bargaining, promotion or discounts. This way of operating accommodates also very small buyers, putting aside the inconvenience caused by closed packages or minimum purchase policies (Luciana Bueno, personal interview, February 19, 2016; Mizuta, 2016) — which encourage unwanted purchasing and consequent discard.

Among account holders are new small clothing brands based on slow or sustainable fashion, working with small-scale production, upcycling, online sales; they find in secondhand fabrics an alternative to the “usuals” organic cotton and poly-ethylene therephtalate (PET). Their strategy is to make limited editions of pieces according to materials availability. Another kind of account holder are people with hobbies that use fabric, such as patchwork, felting, making purses and wallets, whether for distraction and relaxation or extra income. 

Among account holders are new small clothing brands based on slow or sustainable fashion, working with small-scale production, upcycling, online sales; they find in secondhand fabrics an alternative to the “usuals” organic cotton.
The Bank also makes partnerships, and has two large partners — both working with sustainability principles. One of them sells, in consignment at the Bank, fabrics that were produced on demand but never retrieved; they are made from recycled trims from apparel companies mixed with PET fiber. The other donates fabrics left from previous collections that are dyed and finished using natural methods and substances; the emotional attachment of the designer led her to seek a better solution than simply discarding them. Aside from these two, a couple of small apparel producers from the districts of Bom Retiro and Brás make donations every 6 months or so.

As an inevitable downside, the Fabric Bank also generates waste. Bueno and her associate noticed that the shape of the remnants influences the buy — square or trapeze gain preference over non-geometrical pieces — so they trim the fabrics to make them more appealing to customers. Trims resulting from this process that are in good condition but too small to be sold at the shop go to Projeto Arrastão, a non-governmental organization (NGO) located at the district of Campo Limpo (Southwest of São Paulo), which promotes development in poor communities in the region through education, professional capacitation and income generation (Luciana Bueno, personal interview, February 19, 2016; Folha de S. Paulo, 2015).

The innovative business model and possibilities in the textile industry

The Bank’s first year consisted in the validation of the business model and recognition of the importance of this line of work for the textile industry, although it had no profit – only in February 2016 did it reach a break-even point (Mizuta, 2016). The initiative was one of the 10 finalists in the Ashoka and C&A Foundation’s Award “Fabric of Change” in May of 2016, among the most innovative businesses in the textile industry in the world (Mizuta, 2016; Trindade, 2016).

The initiative has been met with great acceptance in the market, bringing inspiration to big and medium apparel companies. Usually, these companies launch small lots within collections and wait for the market response to the pieces to define whether or not to continue their production. In this field, keeping costs low is key, although this path presents controversies: cheaper fabrics need to be imported (usually from China), and that process requires time and planning, so for it to be worth the while, fabrics are bought in large scale. If products’ market response is negative, companies are stuck with big volumes of unusable material for quite some time. In avoiding inventory as an efficiency measure (just-in-time strategy), companies end up stocking supplies, which brings about storage costs. In the same way, apparel brands occasionally have fabrics made exclusively for their collections — which are also imported in large scale. Because of the constant innovation required by the fashion industry, what is left of them cannot be used in following collections for 5–6 years, or sold secondhand for one and a half (they become immobilized). When storage space becomes a problem, companies sell them to big wholesale stores at very low prices. The Bank gives an opportunity to reduce these losses, selling the surpluses as well as the exclusive fabrics at higher prices, and after only a year and a half (in the case of the exclusives).

However, not all materials can be reintroduced in the market as second hand or remnants, as is the case for a few knitted fabrics. Their composition imparts to them low resistance and poor integrity after cut, so they are much more likely to join the waste flow in pre-consumption stages — and the Fabric Bank only accepts them in large pieces. Furthermore, pieces of garment manufactured using this kind of material tend to wear out easily, having a short lifespan, so to work towards waste prevention in the fashion industry might entail avoiding these materials altogether.

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