Is fashion finally ready to cut overproduction? #866


H&M, Reformation and Zalando have joined The Fashion ReModel, a new initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to help brands ‘make money without making new clothes’.

How can brands make money without making new clothes? That is the question posed by a new initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), launching today at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen.

The Fashion ReModel invites participating brands to scale up circular business models such as rental, resale, repair and recycling, while curbing the production and consumption of new materials. The hope is to “decouple revenue from the production of new garments, advancing the long-term journey to make a circular economy for fashion a reality”.

Following a consultation with more than 80 industry stakeholders, EMF has set a roadmap for the project, to try and maximise impact. In the first year, participating brands will tackle climate and nature impact evidence, and finance metrics (policy will come later). To take part, brands have to commit to increasing the percentage of their revenue derived from circular business models over the next three years, reporting progress to EMF annually. There is no shared baseline for this: brands have set their own ambitions and shared them with EMF, but these will not be disclosed publicly for now.

Arc’teryx, Reformation, Primark and Zalando are among the first to commit. Notably, the H&M Group has signed up alongside three of its brands: Weekday, Cos and Arket. Former CEO Helena Helmersson made headlines back in 2022 when she announced plans to double the group’s sales from 2021 to 2030, while simultaneously halving its carbon emissions from 2019 to 2030. This left many in the industry dumbfounded; Helmersson told Vogue Business that circularity would make this target a reality, but the industry was — and still is — far from delivering circularity at scale.

The industry’s backing of EMF’s initiative suggests the tide may finally be turning. A second group of brands is already in talks to join the programme, according to EMF fashion initiative lead Jules Lennon. She hopes it will see similar growth to the foundation’s previous demonstration project, ‘The Jeans Redesign’, which started in 2019 with 16 organisations and ended in 2023 with over 100.

Progress on decoupling financial growth from the use of finite resources is long overdue. Luxury retailer Selfridges was the first to set concrete targets in this area, but others have been sheepish about acknowledging the high rates of overproduction undermining sustainability efforts. Meanwhile, academics estimate that fashion would need to curb new clothing production by 75 per cent before 2030 to bring its footprint in line with planetary boundaries. Fashion’s ability to do this has already been called into question, as it struggles to meet already low emission reduction targets.

Brands have had to overcome several barriers just to sign up [to The Fashion ReModel], because this gets to the heart of the business and challenges how businesses traditionally measure success,” says Lennon. “The biggest barriers to start with will be figuring out how scaling circular business models helps us reach net zero and science-based targets. Also looking at financial metrics and identifying common language for that, defining what success looks like and over what time scales you can expect a return on investment.”

Part of the challenge is getting brands to disclose the full picture, not just the positives. According to Fashion Revolution’s 2023 Transparency Index, 38 per cent of brands are transparent about their efforts in developing circularity initiatives — such as advanced recycling methods beyond reuse and downcycling — but 88 per cent refuse to disclose production volumes.

In this context, is a voluntary scheme like The Fashion ReModel enough? EMF has set up a technical reference group (as yet unnamed) to represent broader stakeholders and hold brands to account. The project has also been endorsed by multi-stakeholder groups including the Global Fashion Agenda, the British Fashion Council, Textile Exchange, Wrap, Fashion for Good and Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).

Lennon says EMF is under no illusions: this project is simply a starting point, and much more will need to be done to solve fashion’s sustainability woes. “Demonstration projects are not about solving everything all at once, they’re about getting started, building confidence, showing other actors in the system what is possible, and increasing the minimum bar over time,” she explains. “Of course we need to go bigger and faster.”

Below, industry experts react to the initiative and share their hopes for its execution.

Liv Simpliciano, policy and research manager at Fashion Revolution

The fashion industry’s waste problem has unfairly made sacrifice zones across the globe — the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Dandora dumpsite in Kenya and Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, to name a few. While it’s essential for big fashion to prioritise circularity, it’s crucial to recognise that this effort has long been underway in waste-receiving countries. Affected stakeholders with lived experience must be at the centre of these discussions, otherwise it will be a failure. A substantial transfer of wealth is imperative, directing resources towards communities impacted by waste in receiving countries to mitigate the existing harm and enhance their resilience. Any circularity efforts that fail to acknowledge and rectify past damages, only reinforces the status quo.

Mostafiz Uddin, founder and CEO of Bangladesh Apparel Exchange

It is welcome that this issue is getting further exposure, but we must guard against too many initiatives and not enough action. Brands are under lots of pressure right now and the reality in the current business model is that they need to keep increasing sales to remain competitive. Resale at scale is not hugely profitable as things stand. While the initiative is light on detail and practicalities for now, it’s clear that a joint effort is needed. Brands can’t make this happen alone because they don’t control the human ecosystem. It should be a much wider approach, including national governments and the UN.

Vanessa Barboni Hallik, founder and CEO of Another Tomorrow

Explicit commitments to decoupling a viable economic future for fashion from rising production volumes are essential. This type of transformation has precedent, notably in the car industry where both resale and service or repair make up significant revenue across the major names. I would start with a concrete question: taking 2023 as the reference year, how could each brand make the same amount of profit with 20 per cent less new garment production as a starting point? A tremendous amount of waste comes from misproduction, effectively the making of clothing no one purchases. Addressing this is a crucial part of the equation, otherwise you continue to throw resources down the drain, which is a tragedy when we are far exceeding our planetary boundaries. In some respects addressing this root cause is more challenging than building on new business models and designing for circularity as it requires deep, data-based, industrial supply chain innovation.

Faith Robinson, head of content at Global Fashion Agenda

One of the biggest barriers preventing fashion from existing in a circular economy is the complexity of the collaboration models needed to support new business models. Global Fashion Agenda has also learnt from its circularity work in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, that it is important to respect the nuanced contexts of each region and not to assume a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ when it comes to applying circular systems in different parts of fashion’s global value chain. Waste sorters in the informal sector are experts on circular economy and critical stakeholders — their insights need to be acknowledged as fashion refines its strategies.

Graham Forbes, global plastics campaign lead at Greenpeace USA

Only time will tell if this initiative results in meaningful corporate and government reform, or if it becomes another vehicle for rebranding the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels and complicity in the global plastics crisis. The biggest barrier is greenwashing — the extent to which participating brands rely on false solutions such as flimsy sustainability claims and recycling, or take meaningful steps to shift away from fundamentally broken business models. This initiative needs to go beyond marketing departments and deliver real corporate reforms and public policies that prioritise reuse, redesign, rental, resale, repair and remaking. They already have the answers. It’s just a matter of doing it.

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