Venkata: Take the circular economy on your shopping spree

Fashion and the earth improve their relationship with the circular economy.

by Uma Venkata

One of these days we’ll wake up to some 65 degree wonderland of cloudless skies — which means a wardrobe change. To suit the occasion, whatever was lost over the winter usually means a new purchase.

Clothes matter. They matter to the people who wear them because they promote a personal image; they matter to those who make them, whether it’s for artistry, or more often, working conditions; they matter to the earth because “fast fashion” pollutes it so badly.

Contrary to what fast fashion proves to us, most people seem theoretically averse to buying clothing that both the consumer and manufacturer publicly expect to break down within months. But if I were to buy only clothing that I know will stand the test of decades, I’d have to pour in time and money that just isn’t tenable for my little college budget. So since we can’t dedicate our entire wardrobes to local boutiques and très haute couture, we can at least keep something significant in mind: circular economy.

Circular economy is known as CE for short. The thesis of CE is to produce goods that live cradle-to-cradle, rather than cradle-to-grave. One way to illustrate it is that consumers either use a product, or use it up. I use up a bottle of shampoo; once it’s out, I buy a new one. I use a rug; sure, I’ll get it steamed to spruce it up, but the rug furnishes my house indefinitely.

Kai Johnson is a sophomore studying bioproducts and biosystems engineering and apparel design; in a master’s class in science, technology and environmental policy at the Humphrey School, she looked closely into CE through the lens of clothing. Her research revealed that fast fashion produces excessive waste at every step in the production process, from fiber to garment — only to be amplified by the sheer frequency of times it is produced, per month, to satisfy the fast-fashion consumer. The result is, as consumer bases grow and fashion gets faster, waste from fashion only increases, which only threatens the earth more.

There are ways to ameliorate it, both on the side of the producer and that of the consumer. For example, the producer can optimize every stage of production — including sustainably and minimally treating fiber and fabric, and using software like OptiTex to arrange cutouts on the fabric to create an absolute minimum of scraps. We the consumers, though, have a vast array of methods at our fingertips to support sustainable fashion. (And continue to look good.)

Levi Strauss has a company-wide goal to use completely sustainably-sourced cotton by 2020, which significantly reduces their water usage; Patagonia’s Worn Wear program recycles perfectly good, steeply discounted products after a little patching up. Fibershed is a network of local fiber producers who use the “soil-to-soil” approach for sustainability “through strategic grazing, conservation tillage and a host of scientifically vetted soil carbon enhancing [sic] practices,” which also dramatically reduce water abuse. An online “free repair manual,” iFixit, offers tools and instructions to fix all your own electronics. Thrift stores sell gems. And remember, tailors and cobblers still exist, and they work all kinds of magic. A tailor just resurrected my gorgeous, ’90s, Guess cocktail dress for $36.

As its residents, we all are responsible for keeping the Earth in good condition. And as humans with garments, the responsibility doesn’t disappear. The quickest way is to buy sturdy, staying-powered clothes — and take care of them.