Not What It Seams is a free, fortnightly newsletter that unpicks the latest in fashion and sustainability. It was created with the average shopper in mind to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability. If you enjoy this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running! 💌
Maybe it’s just me but when a fast fashion brand releases a “sustainable” collection, I treat it as an admission that the rest of their clothing range is pretty shit for the planet. Such greenwashed campaigns are supposed to distract us from the fact that these same brands pollute, waste and exploit but we’re smarter than that. Today’s case in point is the I-don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry news that ASOS have released a micro circular collection that isn’t circular at all. Yep, you read that right.
Sophie Benson has already penned an exceptionally well written article on this topic - likening the collection to “putting a plaster on a broken leg” - which I’ll try my best to summarise here.
This collection may have been two years in the making, following ASOS’ 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit commitment to train all ASOS designers on circular design by 2020. And train all designers they did in a programme ran by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Then in May, ASOS partnered with Make Fashion Circular, a collaborative, cross-industry initiative fostering circularity.
ASOS’ “circular” collection is comprised of 29 trend-led pieces which challenge the “misconception that circular and sustainable clothing can’t be fashionable”. Attached to each oversized and 90s-inspired item is a QR label that, when scanned, links to information on how each product was made. If I may interject, I’m not sure that trends and circularity are that obviously compatible. Designing temporarily trendy clothes that, in the current climate, go out of style pretty quickly places unnecessary strain on a circular system that must repair or transform. Maybe a simpler solution is drastically cutting back on production levels and creating timeless, classic staples - of course, a solution ASOS & co will never be fond of.
But I digress. To define circularity, ASOS turned to the three foundations of the circular economy, as outlined by environmental charity the Ellen McArthur Foundation: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Using this as a starting point, ASOS then developed eight circular principles of its own:
Zero waste design
“What’s the catch?” I hear you ask. Well, in order to be considered circular, each piece within the collection only had to meet at least two out of the eight principles. That’s not how circularity works. If we imagine that a circle is made up of 8 equal, interdependent pieces - each piece representing one of ASOS’ circular principles - and we take away 6 of those pieces, what are we left with? An uneven line. A linear design process where a garment is made, briefly used and then disposed of.
As Sophie writes, “the three foundations of the circular economy inherently work in tandem with each other. If you don’t design out waste, you don’t keep products and materials in use. If you don’t tackle pollution, you can’t regenerate natural systems. You cannot regenerate natural systems if you don’t keep materials in use because you constantly tap them for virgin resources.” All 8 pieces of the circle, then, are needed and it’s not for ASOS to pick and choose what they want.
The biggest loophole is that ASOS has not committed itself to closing the loop, a key component of circularity. While their fabric may be easily disassembled and recycled, ASOS takes no responsibility for post-consumer waste. Nope. No take back scheme, no repairs service, no money off your next purchase for returning a garment at the end of its lifecycle. The onus is once again placed on us, which means that while these garments could be swapped, sold or upcycled by those that are nifty with a needle, they could just as easily join the other 350,000 tonnes of used clothing that end up in a UK landfill each year.
Criticisms aside, something has to be said about the potential good that could come from this highly published collection. We could see a domino effect and, when implemented properly and fully, ASOS’ circular principles could be a force for good. Maybe we’ll see more brands follow suit, brands that are determined to get it right this time. Or we’ll see brands mimic ASOS with another half-assed attempt at circularity to cash in on the “trend”. Who knows?! What’s certain is that ASOS currently has no intention to rescale its entire business plan along circular lines. Nor will they require vendors on their marketplace to adopt circular principles. Rather, they want to lead by example, so they should probably start doing that first!
In other news…
The Levitt report found that Boohoo knew of the “endemic” problems in its Leicester supply chain. The independent review was commissioned following the publication of Labour Behind The Label’s damning report and a Sunday Times investigation which found that garment workers in Leicester factories were labouring in sweatshop conditions without adequate hygiene and social distancing measures. Boohoo have accepted the review’s recommendations and apologised for failing to “match up to the high expectations we set for ourselves”. Despite this scandal, Boohoo’s sales have continued to surge, which is a telling sign that we need more than consumer action. We need robust government legislation and codified safeguards for global garment workers.
“Stop lecturing women about ‘sustainable’ fashion” is a bad take and here’s why. When we talk about making sustainable fashion “more affordable”, why do we prioritise the western woman’s questionable “right” to pretty, affordable clothes over a garment worker’s human right to safe employment? And when did societal pressures to look nice take precedent over a dying planet?! The fashion industry is, among other things, classist and sexist and the global working class are its most vulnerable victims. But it is not classist and sexist to critique a system that is made profitable by the middle and upper classes or to educate women about making more sustainable choices. Fast fashion has undervalued the true cost of our clothes. While a £5 dress might seem cheap, it comes at a heavy cost for cotton farmers who are dying prematurely, for the children forced into garment factories, for the local community’s polluted rivers, for the planet. The democratic illusion of fast fashion is just that: an illusion. Until everybody in the global supply chain has fair and equal access to fashion, women in the global north are not entitled to an endless haul of clothes (and that’s not even addressing the blatant issue of overconsumption).
Fashion Weeks returned in their revised half physical show, half online format. In place of a traditional runway, Moschino staged a cinematically shot puppet show, complete with an Anna Wintour marionette. It was joyful and playful, as fashion should be. While virtual and digital fashion might prove the next frontier in sustainable fashion, Tamsin Blanchard believes that “Fashion Week is no longer about sustainability; it’s about survival.” Meanwhile, an XR protester gatecrashed the Dior runway, brandishing a neon sign that read “we are all fashion victims”. Hilariously, executives initially thought it was a planned part of the show. The rebellious act formed part of Extinction Rebellion’s revised Fashion Act Now campaign which is calling on the fashion industry to address its culture of excess.
Other brand updates and recommended reads:
Following a unanimous rejection of the Fixing Fashion report in 2019, The Environmental Audit Committee have renewed its inquiry into sustainable fashion.
World’s garment workers continue to face ruin as fashion brands refuse to pay $16bn. During the cancelled orders crisis, apparel buyers are using the force majeure clause as a deadly weapon against garment workers.
Nobody’s Child is the first third-party retailer to debut as an online brand partner on the M&S website - but is Nobody’s Child really a sustainable brand? Following consecutive years of difficulty on the high street, the move is intended to massively boost M&S’ profits and growths - an ambition, I would argue, that doesn’t align with their self-proclaimed principles of sustainable fashion.
I’ve long had my suspicions about sustainable fashion directory, Good on You, and feel ever conflicted by their decision to join forces with Afterpay, a buy now, pay later platform. Yes, it will likely increase the profile of ethical brands and, yes, it could enhance the accessibility of sustainable garments buttttt it does run the risk of promoting getting into debt for clothes you don’t necessarily need.
Boohoo, Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing were each individually sued and accused of inflating the original price of their garments to deceive customers into thinking sale items were deeply discounted.
By Megan Crosby debuted their latest made-to-order collection, Blooming Chaos. Pretty fabrics and silhouettes aside, my favourite part was their cost breakdown of each garment which reveals the true value and skill behind every creation.
While lessons are to be learnt about the misappropriation of religious culture, Rhianna’s Savage x Fenty show was a masterclass in diversity and inclusivity.
Following the Lucy & Yak controversy - which saw them performatively ally themselves with the plus-size community - I would really recommend listening to this episode of gal-dem’s podcast, featuring the queen, Aja Barber, herself. Similarly, I implore you to watch this IGTV by Sancho’s co-founder, Kalkidan, which explores the white saviour complex in ethical fashion.
Prosecutors in Paris are reviewing a complaint containing claims of rape and sexual assault against Gérald Marie, former European chief of Elite Model Management, dating back decades.
Step by step, luxury brands have adopted the fast fashion model, with Covid-19 set to complete the shift, argues Liroy Choufan.
I’ve been meaning to dedicate a whole newsletter to this topic for a while but I really enjoyed this video by The Sustainable Fashion Guru on the role fashion influencers play in promoting overconsumption (spoiler alert: they’re very complicit).
Paying homage to the memories and meanings stitched into our clothes, Lauren Bravo has revived her Wardrobe Stories column for rental and swapping platform, Nuw. To kick off the series, Lauren reminisced over a vintage cape that, for over a decade, has accompanied her in her travels and long-term relationship.
As companies try to cut down on costs to boost economic recovery, they are more likely to indulge in greenwashing, reports Shamani Joshi.
Asian rivers are turning black. And our colourful closets are to blame.
Sian Conway argues that Lost Stock is symptomatic of fashion’s billion dollar accountability problem.
According to Compare Ethics’ latest report - Building Consumer Trust in Sustainability - just one fifth of customers trust brand sustainability claims. Greenwashing, it would seem, has taken its toll.
Ruth MacGilp investigates whether direct factory-to-consumer selling is the answer to fashion’s overconsumption problem.
How much more would you pay for a sustainable T-shirt? A new survey found that Gen Z will pay 50% more for something sustainably made, but older shoppers are less interested.
Clothes mountains build up as recycling breaks down under Covid-19 curbs.
Gen Z is using fashion TikTok to battle climate change. Eliza Huber asks will it work?
What is circular fashion?
Circular fashion is an intuitive alternative to the traditional linear take-make-use-dispose model. Circular fashion, by contrast, seeks to extend the lifespan and functions of garments for as long as possible. Rather than being thrown away after one use or minimal wear, circular fashion creates a regenerative closed-loop system in which clothes are continually repaired, reused, renewed, recycled and repurposed into other products. Circularity takes place at every stage of the industry, from sourcing and transporting, to manufacturing and marketing, all the way through to product disposal. In practice, this looks like minimising textile waste and pollution and regenerating materials into new resource streams at the end of their lifecycle.
The only way to implement a fully circular fashion economy is to decouple economic growth from the depletion of resources. In other words, we need to move away from a system that thrives on the exhaustion of natural resources. The true environmental benefits of circular fashion, therefore, can only be realised by radical cuts in global production and consumption rates - which is exactly why ASOS’ circular collection is a mere drop in the ocean.
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running!
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