Johann Bödecker is the CEO and founder of Pentatonic, a sustainable design and technology consultancy firm. He’s seen the gamut of sustainability fiascos in his career. His favorite example, he says, was hearing about a ski jacket making its way to Tanzania, thanks to donation efforts.
“A 3XL sized ski jacket in Tanzania. Really?” he says. “That encapsulates what is wrong today.”
It’s examples like these that have motivated him to push the apparel industry to be more calculated and nuanced in their approach to “sustainability.” While donating used clothes can be a worthwhile effort, they’re not always landing up where they need to, or finding a new home. Plus, the bigger issue is that we are producing more clothes today than we ever have in history (an estimated 150 billion new items every year!): so recycling and repurposing efforts just cannot keep up with increased production.
Bödecker and Eileen Fisher are calling on brands to not only read their new 128-page report titled, “HEY, FASHION!” but also connect with one another to find solutions and move towards circularity.
The report was authored by Pentatonic and is part of the Eileen Fisher Foundation’s mission to support the apparel industry as it confronts the climate crisis. Both, Bödecker and Fisher, though are keen to point out that this is not just about a report.
“The big news here is that this is definitely more than a report. It’s actually research that we did to build a platform to connect all the players in the supply chain. Anyone can help in fashion, from the consumer to the waste collectors,” says Bödecker.
“I love the idea of taking a white paper and making it interactive,” Fisher adds. “It really would be great if the big players in fashion read the report. That would be the first step. But what we really want is to encourage some change. We, at Eileen Fisher, are just a drop in the bucket. We’re one middle size company. We cannot do it alone. It’s so important to wake the industry up to the possibilities out there. People are not connected currently, or don’t have time to do the research to connect and explore these possibilities. So this information is being presented in a really snackable format with the hope that it inspires the industry to make changes.”
The problem in fashion extends beyond the clothing we dispose, donate, or attempt to recycle, she explains. “We also have to pay attention to the textile waste pre-consumption.”
Fisher points out that 25% of garments are never sold — just end up in landfill or as donated goods to countries in the global south. Another 12 percent of good materials, or virgin fabrics, are left on the cutting room floor. Fisher hopes that the industry can help stop some of this wastage at the source. Plus, she adds, that only 14% of polyester is recycled, despite a growing interested in recycled fabrics.
“Reducing consumption and making recycling more efficient— both need to happen together,” says Bödecker. “When drafting the report, we looked at whether these goals can be married to the financial goals of the industry as well. We believe it can. Especially with new legislation coming in, encouraging brands to move in this direction.”
There have been three noteworthy legal moves in recent months: in New York, in the European Union, and most recently in California —- all in an effort to reduce the textile industry’s waste, create more transparency, and support ethical sourcing.
Fisher and Bödecker want to capitalize on this momentum, aware that sometimes mandates like these ultimately force change. So they’re aiming to put problem solvers of the fashion industry at the center of their newly created platform.
“If 96% of emissions stem from the supply chain in fashion, how do we reduce that? This report, and the platform with it, highlights the possible solutions, and the people making it happen,” Bödecker says.
Part of the challenge for brands is determining which certifications and standards they want to follow. But this is becoming harder. For instance, in recent news, the Higg Index came under scrutiny as to whether or not it can truly be considered a fair, or shall we say, gold standard for assessing the sustainability quotient of a fashion brand.
“With third party certification, we ideally need two third parties to create objectivity and legislation to help guide it. It’s very hard with sustainability because the consumer is not so educated and you have to make bold claims to get consumer’s interest,” Bödecker says.
“Under the hood, some companies are doing much more than others though. Some are 80% there. Some are only 20% there. Yet they’re making similar claims. So there will be a rude awakening when that unravels. We’ve seen this happen in food and nutrition. It’s going to happen in fashion also. Hey Fashion was designed to arm everyone with the open questions that aren’t answered, and help consumers make a better judge for themselves.”
One of the big debates in the fashion industry has been between the use of natural fibers versus recycled synthetic materials. “Let’s get all virgin poly out. That’s the first step,” Fisher clarifies. “I think we can all agree to that.”
After that, Bödecker explains that it gets more nuanced because in certain scenarios a recycled polyester can be more sustainable than a natural fibers and vice versa. Microplastics, which have been at the core of polyester debate, can be managed, he says: “About 80% of microplastics can be avoided by pre-washing garments before they make it to the consumers, and then the remainder can be controlled by using filters on home washing machines. The thing with microplastics is that they’re a global problem. But when you think about cotton production. The impact of that is much more local to poor communities who are exposed to the toxins involved.”
So which is better or worse? It really varies case by case. “One thing I think everyone agrees on though is that we should not blend natural and synthetic fibers because that makes recycling it much harder,” he says. “And when you look at athleisure, this gets complicated. Because a lot of people who prefer to wear athleisure are actually concerned about the environment, but their clothing of choice perhaps doesn’t support it.”
The industry needs more investment in recycling, materials science, and innovation to help solve some of these challenging problems, Fisher notes — something she says is not happening rapidly enough. “It’s happening in other industries, but it’s not happening as much in fashion. We need to move capital towards these issues.”
Fundamentally, both hope that this report sparks a conversation amidst industry players to fill in these gaps, discuss the detailed ramifications of their choices, and explore more eco-friendly ways of production. The report will be supplemented with social media content that will roll out over the next two months to reach a wider audience of consumers. In the meantime, the full report can be viewed for free online.