One of fashion’s more influential changemakers doesn’t live in a traditional style capital nor a booming city like Shanghai. Instead, Ellen MacArthur runs her eponymous foundation from the Isle of Wight, a picturesque island about three hours south of London.
The location hasn’t hindered the reach of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — a non-profit devoted to hastening the shift to a circular economy — on the fashion industry. However, MacArthur, who made her name as the fastest person to sail around the globe, didn’t set out to transform the garment sector’s linear production model. The organisation’s early work focused on plastics, but after learning that a garbage truck worth of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second, the foundation turned its attention to solving fashion’s circularity challenges, drawing the attention of companies like PVH, Burberry and Stella McCartney.
MacArthur’s light bulb moment came when she was sailing in the Antarctic Ocean and saw how fragile the environment was. She focused her attention on the plastics industry before turning her eye on fashion.
“It wasn’t until we started to work on plastic packaging… that we felt we should take on textiles because there were many parallels,” MacArthur tells Vogue Business. “60 per cent of clothing is plastic anyway.”
This month, MacArthur released manufacturing guidelines for making jeans more environmentally friendly. Lee, Tommy Hilfiger, the H&M Group and Gap have all committed to rules that include minimum wash viability (jeans must be good for at least 30 home washes) and easy traceability.
Earlier this year, MacArthur also launched a project with New York’s local government to establish over 1,000 recycling drop-off points for used garments. The charity is also consulting with Chinese authorities on a project that will apply circular economy principles to urban areas in Asia’s largest economy.
In a recent interview, MacArthur discusses how sustainability became a hot-button issue for fashion and how marketing departments are key to the future of the circular economy. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To what do you attribute the industry’s recent interest in sustainable practices?
I think there’s that feeling within the industry that we are all part of one big system. Ten years ago, that was not the case, and people were more fragmented in their silos. What we learned [earlier] with plastic packaging is that you can only truly change the system when you work together.
What are the best practices you’ve identified for fashion’s shift to the circular economy?
We’ve identified the three main points. First, it’s about shifting business models to make sure garments are worn more and used more. Second, it’s about making garments with safer renewable materials, so switching from non-renewable sources to renewable materials. We’re very used to hearing about renewable energy, but not so used to renewable materials. It’s very similar; we need renewable energy and renewable materials. The third element is about making sure old clothes can be turned into new through design, being able to recover the textiles or the fibres or the polymers.
You’ve focused a lot on making clothing better. But on the consumer end, there’s also the demand for something new.
There are different business models to enable garments to be worn more. That’s about providing the service of looking good, how you want to, and how you can be creative with it. The speed of the resale clothing industry is phenomenal. Rent the Runway has a valuation of over $1 billion, and the estimated value of the secondhand sale market will be $41 billion by 2022. But “secondhand sales” is not a good way to articulate it. There’s cleverer terminology to use, and brands are the best at marketing. There is a significant shift in that direction that we are seeing so how do those brands harness that?
Clothing can also be designed for a circular system. There’s a lady in Italy who is making T-shirts out of milk protein, and they are beautiful, like silk. Who is creating non-toxic clothing with orange fibre? It’s not just about a business model; it’s about designing for a system.
Fast fashion — the convenience of being able to change your look — can seem like a Western luxury. Similarly, when you talk to lesser developed countries, they are saying Western countries have enjoyed these luxuries for 50 years.
Obviously, emerging markets could continue how we have. But in most cases, it won’t be possible because of the constraints on resources. Or they could be more intelligent about it, not go down the linear path but go straight to circular. We’ve done one study on India, and there are massive economic opportunities. You could say, “We’re being told we can’t develop in a linear way like the Western world has” but why would you want to? You are going in with a system that can’t be developed long-term.
When you’re a consumer though, that $10 fast fashion shirt is always going to be appealing.
I think you need to look at the big picture. You have to ask that question: “If we continue down the linear path, what is the cost?” versus taking the circular path. From the studies we’ve looked at, the linear path continuing is not an option. I think C&A produced a circular designed T-shirt that came out at $7. Done at scale, we’re not talking about something that’s ridiculously restrictive. Part of the cost is going to be in the reprocessing, and we’re already seeing that conversation in the plastics packaging industry. The collection service doesn’t exist in emerging markets; there’s a massive leakage. When that value is reassigned, it can be recovered.