The Circular Economy Requires Industry-Wide Collaboration to Succeed

Image: “Shifting to a circular system” panel with Ellen MacArthur, founder of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Wendy Schmidt, president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, moderated by Lewis Perkins, president, Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, Copenhagen Fashion Summit

“There are a lot of these conferences and they can be interesting but if people don’t come out of them committed to doing something, you haven’t used the energy in the room,” said Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which invests in new processes and approaches to material use.
She was speaking at the fifth edition of the annual Copenhagen Fashion Summit, held May 11 at the Danish capital’s Koncerthuset, where key players from some of the world’s biggest brands had gathered to address the most critical issues facing the industry and planet.

And as pointed out by Eva Kruse, president and chief executive of the event’s organizer, Global Fashion Agenda, the previous four installments hadn’t exactly sparked a massive change in the industry.

“We’ve been trying every time to put across a message, to get people to commit and engage, and we never succeeded,” she said, reeling off a few well-meaning action plans that apparently never went further than the stage. To that end, this year’s summit was aptly themed “commitment to change” and urged brands and retailers to take a leadership role in accelerating the fashion industry’s transition to a more circular system. Think: less take-make-waste, more restorative and regenerative; an approach that aims to reduce waste and resource consumption by designing products that can be broken down and recycled at the end of their life cycle.

It’s something that Dame Ellen MacArthur is laser-focused on developing. Her eponymous foundation, launched in 2010, has focused on building a circular economy for plastic packaging and recently announced a new initiative for textiles. It’s also working with McKinsey & Co. to develop an analysis, slated for a fall release, that will map out a fact-based vision for this new system.

“Right now our economy is predominantly linear. We take a material out of the ground, we make something out of it and at the end of that product’s life, the majority of it gets thrown away,” said MacArthur. “That’s never going to win in the long term. There’s a challenge in making [the circular economy] happen but there’s a massive opportunity in switching from being extractive and consumptive to being restorative and regenerative.”

But because the circular economy requires a paradigm shift to move from theory to practice, it will never come to pass without collaboration.

“There are elements of circularity within the fashion industry that you can begin to do on your own,” MacArthur said, “But there’s also a real need for an understanding of the system, of organizations that play within the system, and not just the brands themselves, but the fiber manufacturers, the fiber re-processors… It needs that dialog around the table with everyone talking about it,” added MacArthur.

Not to mention, it’s only once a brand begins its own take-back program that it realizes what can and can’t be re-processed or recycled.

“And you can’t necessarily reprocess that product on your own,” MacArthur added. “You need the mass, you need the industry standard, you need that material to be collected by many organizations to come back into the system so it can be identified and valorised.”

Using the plastics economy as an example, she said that even the biggest plastics producer in the world knows they comprise a small percent of the whole industry and that to tip the scales requires getting everyone—retailers, manufacturers, chemical companies, waste processors, governments—on the same page.

Schmidt agreed. “We have search engines now, we have technologies that allow us to share data and we believe that open sharing of data generally makes everybody smarter and better,” she said, adding that it makes sense to share data transparently and create a database of safe materials and chemicals that’s searchable by everybody.

“Secret sauces are still going to be there but we need to set the menu correctly so the ingredients on the list are good ones, said Schmidt.”

As MacArthur put it: “Work out what success looks like, and we can do that, and then collaborate to make it happen.”

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator’s Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.