What if the fashion industry functioned like an ecosystem? In the way a plant grows with the help of sunlight, eventually decomposes back into soil and serves as a building block for future life, so too could our shirts, shorts and shoes.
That’s the premise of a new report by the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which asserts that it’s time to evolve the apparel industry to work with nature rather than against it.
Let’s review the go-to "butterfly diagram," which illustrates the basic material flows in a circular economy. On the left is a "biological cycle" in which organic matter such as food moves back into the system through processes such as composting and anaerobic digestion. On the right is a "technical cycle" in which everything else from petroleum to precious metals are reused, repaired or recycled and their value is infinitely retained. In theory.
It’s a pretty picture that many of us are working to bring to life. In reality, it’s nearly impossible to keep some of these distinct loops from overlapping, intertwining and creating a mess of contaminated materials unfit for either side of the diagram.
Consider the pesky and pernicious problem of microfibers. About 60 percent of textiles are made using "technical" fossil fuel-based synthetic fibers, known for shedding thousands of teeny tiny threads with each wash. Polyester textiles account for roughly 35 percent of the microfiber plastics that enter oceans — and they have escaped into waterways, animal intestines and even raindrops across the world.
In other words: we have "leaky loops."
So, if apparel manufacturers, brands and consumers can’t entirely keep fibers and threads out of the environment, why not re-design for the expectation of leakage?
An alternative approach to apparel imagines an industry operating in a fully "biological cycle." Fashion supply chains mimic energy flows within the environment, boost biodiversity, build soil, support communities and clean up existing pollution. Polyester is replaced with fully compostable fibers, either regeneratively grown, synthesized using agricultural waste or produced using fermentation. Manufacturing is distributed, regional and measured against planetary boundaries. Fashion functions as a part of the ecosystem.
During tumultuous times such as these, I find a bold vision like this one incredibly refreshing. While it may be outlandish, we need forward-looking ideas to accelerate the shift from a linear to a closed-loop and regenerative system.
This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Circular Weekly, running Fridays. Subscribe here.