Opinion piece on Primark

That Primark is going to become more sustainable does not remedy the fact that their clothes are produced and consumed like hot cakes.
September 9, 2021, Weekend Knack

Those who know me, know that I have a positive attitude. A friend recently told me ‘you always find the silver lining’. In all honesty, that is not really a voluntary choice. What we see happening in the world regarding the climate issue and the lack of timely action by society worries me. Every day I ponder the future. And the more I read, the more I know and the more restless I become as a result.

I have been studying sustainability within the fashion industry for several years. Whenever the words “Primark” and “sustainability” appear in the same title in a newspaper, I find that only one association flashes through my mind: “greenwashing”. Actually, I don’t want to click through at all. But I do anyway. Primark is now going to make sure that the clothes you buy can last longer. In the future, you will be able to wash a sweater more than five times; we’re going for no less than thirty washes ladies and gentlemen. Wait, let that sink in for a second: five – washes.
The fact that Primark is going sustainable does not alter the fact that clothes are produced and consumed like hot cakes.
Okay, silver lining, staying positive, we’re going to thirty washes anyway and that’s a good thing. The quality goes up, which means that the clothes might be recycled at the ‘end of their life’ (because you can’t recycle low quality textiles). And then it comes. Good news, because you are also not going to have to pay extra for the sweater that you can now wear for more than one season anyway. In other words, the cheapest sweater on the website remains six euros, the most expensive twenty-two. At first glance, this seems like a positive development. A second proof that Lidl is right with the new ‘Zaam’ campaign: “because sustainable does not have to be expensive”. An idea I want to be able to fully support: that sustainability is for everyone, not just for those who can afford it. And I believe it can be done, but not without government interference. Working with and in Flemish fashion companies, I know all too well that choosing the sustainable variant of the fabric, will undoubtedly cost you more than the less sustainable variant. And the same goes for the social side of things, or as journalist Lucy Siegle puts it: ‘Fast Fashion isn’t free. Someone, somewhere is paying’.
Clothing at six euros, that's as much as a 'Whopper' at Burger King or a 'Pumpkin Spice Latte' at Starbucks. So how can we expect people to see clothing as a consumer good and not a consumable good?
Okay, silver lining, stay positive, maybe Primark has found the golden formula to be able to offer a sweater for six euros… that can last for thirty washes… and where no one was exploited… and where the environmental impact was minimized in the production process. Unfortunately, a sustainable approach consists of more than the promise to increase quality, pay fair wages by 2030 and introduce more sustainable materials. Sustainability is also thinking about the value we place on clothing.
Six euros, that’s as much as a “Whopper” at Burger King or a “Pumpkin Spice Latte” at Starbucks. How can we expect people to see clothing as a use good and not a consumable good; if we place the same value on something that is consumed within 15 minutes than on something that should last for years? Are we going to think twice whether we really like something, will wear it enough and cherish it before throwing it in our shopping basket if it costs six euros? Or do we go for three different colors because we are not 100 percent sure? After all, those three sweaters only cost one Super Supreme at the Pizza Hut.
And that’s exactly the problem: we produce and consume clothes like hot cakes. When we talk about this at the bar (yes, we talk about this at the bar, you should try it too), the question always is: “but there is still so much poverty, we must not lose sight of the group of people with less financial resources”. I completely agree, and without being able to give a direct answer to this complex question, I would venture to say that Primark’s annual seven billion euro profit does not come out of the pockets of overnight visitors to Brussels South. There is a slightly greater chance that this money comes from those who leave the store each month (or week) with four or five bags.

And what about those who gave me (and all of us) hope by organizing climate marches and demanding a better future from the generations who ruined it for them. The youth. They are going to do things differently. They are the courage and hope when the top of the mountain still seems very far away. And then another clever headline caught my attention: “Why is the younger generation buying ultra-fast fashion?” Yes, you read that right: ultra-fast fashion. Earlier this year, the platform ‘Shein’ overtook Amazon on Apple Store to become the number one shopping app in the United States. The Chinese retailer (which ships to 220 countries), is one of the most visited fashion websites in the world. Through data analysis of online trends, the retailer capitalizes on exactly what is popular at the time in order to (copy,) produce and offer it immediately. Whereas fast-fashion companies like Zara used to make headlines because they launched hundreds of new styles a week, Shein now breaks this record with as many as 2,000 new styles a day. So-called “hauls” – videos distributed on social media channels like TikTok – show “unboxing videos” that proudly demonstrate how to order a lot of clothing at rock-bottom prices.
Can these small, conscious companies guarantee that everything is 100 percent good for people and the environment? No, they can't, but neither can the multinationals, so don't let that fool you.
Okay, silver lining, stay positive, there is a very large group of people – especially among the young – who do not want to contribute to this crazy system on purpose and who do want to do better. I believe Rutger Bregman when he says that ‘most people are okay’. These are the people who ask me at the bar: ‘But what can I do? And how do I know what to buy? Every company today says something about sustainability, even Primark has a whole report, so how do I know what’s right?’ And there I am again with my bland answers that don’t give you a checklist on a silver platter to pierce the lies. If only it were that simple. But I try my best to say something anyway and end the conversation on a positive note. Start by thinking twice before you buy something: do you really need it or are you so in love with it that you are sure you will take care of it and not get tired of it too soon? Try not to get caught up in the system of “more and more” at ever lower prices if you are able to pay for something of quality at a smaller company. Maybe you can support the local economy by consciously buying something Belgian or choose a company or designer that has done research into sustainability and circularity from the start.
I was raised with the idea that you should 'never forget to use your common sense', and I believe (somewhat naively) that most of us have that common sense.
So can these small companies guarantee that everything is a 100 percent good for people and the environment? No, they can’t, but neither can the multinationals, so don’t let that fool you. I was brought up with the idea that you should ‘never forget to use your common sense’, and I believe (somewhat naively) that most of us have common sense. Just try to do some research when you want to buy something new without blindly walking into the biggest shopping street or ordering the same jacket in five sizes from an online shopping platform. In this way you avoid that the four brand new coats you sent back are simply burned or end up in the landfill (yes that happens). Platforms like I Buy Belgian, Close The Loop or COSH can already give you some direction.
In addition, try to dig a little deeper once in a while. There is not always time to read up on every topic (food, transport, energy, clothing, etc.), but start with a conversation in a bar or a documentary (such as The True Cost) and read past the title of an article.
Finally, ask questions to the store staff or brands via an email or chat system. Working with Belgian fashion companies on this topic over the past few years, I dare say hand on my heart that behind many brands there are also real people who are virtuous. It is usually not easy and it is a long road, but the will to sincerely do better was never as great and present as it is now. And there always will be the silver lining.

That one push. That one glimmer of hope.

Opinion piece on COVID, fashion & sustainability for Sarah Vandoorne.
June 12, 2020
Words. They are quickly written and even more quickly said. Sometimes we attach too little importance to them; or in my case too much. If you ask me about the current crisis, what I think about it and what I think the future will look like, I am afraid to speak my mind. Quite frankly: putting them on paper in black and white terrifies me.

When you asked me to “briefly answer these three questions for your series”-which to me is a best case, worst case and most realistic scenario for the fashion industry after corona-you no doubt had no idea what war you were unleashing in my head. Of course, like everyone else, I pause to reflect on this alienating situation and reflect on the future. But writing down my ideas in a simple ‘question and answer formula’ is not the same as musing about them with my husband during the daily aperitif. Because let’s be honest: nobody knows what the future will bring.

Words. They play an important role in this crisis. We use them to comfort each other from a distance or to congratulate on paper. I listened in amazement to the new words that emerged; each one hauntingly beautiful and just hauntingly at the same time in their layering. ‘Huidhonger’, ‘whatsapperitief’, ‘balconversatie’, ‘toogviroloog’. They illustrate what we want to and can’t do, what we creatively bridge and how we yearn for the truths and certainties we thought we had before.

Words. The ones you use the most or that are most important to you depend on where you were born, how (and if) you make money, who your parents are, whether you are a parent yourself, and whether your health allows you to lie awake over anything else. I haven’t done much complaining in the past few weeks. There’s a simple reason for that. The words ‘poverty’, ‘illness’, ‘fear’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘cold’, ‘hunger’ or ‘survival’ do not dominate my daily life.

The words that do dominate here are ‘slowing down’ and ‘reflection’. These words often surface in my ‘bubble’ – in conversations with colleagues, friends and family, or in the articles, webinars and podcasts that come to me daily. And if I do try to formulate an answer to your question “How I hope the fashion industry can change after Corona?”, I hope these 3 words are the base for it.

We have known for some time that the fashion system faces great challenges. That was true even before Corona. The pace at which the industry must run is unsustainable; not ‘sustainable’ in the long run. We saw much earlier that there are ever greater and pernicious challenges surfacing throughout the chain. More and more designers are undergoing creative crises due to the constant pressure of the ever-shortening seasons. The system of mass production (and consumption) is depleting our resources and mercilessly testing the limits of our planet. We also have known for a long time that this same system takes its toll on the producing countries, where textile workers are underpaid and produce under inhumane conditions clothes that we (often without thinking about it) degrade to rags when a new color or print is ‘in fashion’.

It is very painful to see that a lot of fashion companies are now in an extremely difficult position and there are a lot of bankruptcies looming. I don’t want to make light of that: my heart bleeds when I think of the people behind the brands who have put heart and soul into their own business. But I cherish hope that the ‘shit’ that is now heading our way, can be the manure to finally grow towards a better fashion system. Designers and companies called earlier to seize this moment to review the fashion calendar and reboot the system in a different way. With more de-stressing. With perhaps a little less, and somewhat slower, but a little better and with the space to breathe. With the space to market creations that respect boundaries of the planet and the people on it.

‘I cherish the hope that the “shit” that is coming at us now can be the manure to finally grow towards a better fashion system.’

So best case scenario, Corona is now the catalyst that was needed to redefine the industry. Worst case scenario, we miss that opportunity and choose to remain stagnant and literally go further backwards. If we do not succeed in making a real effort now.

How Technology Influences the Circular Economy

Chapter written in 

‘Technology-Driven Sustainability

Innovation in the Fashion Supply Chain’ (Palgrave, 2019) – with Nina Bürklin

Over the past decades, the fashion industry has become one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world. Throughout the whole value chain, from production to usage as well as with regard to disposal of clothing, there’s a huge impact. Nevertheless, advancements in modern technology have served to develop innovative solutions to enhance a circular economy leading to waste reduction, design for longevity and service offerings.

The study at hand is the first to closely investigate the concept of a circular economy based on a holistic seven-stage framework. Combining conceptual foundations with multiple case studies, it contributes to a further understanding of sustainable development through technological innovations.

This chapter contains a multiple case study approach based on the seven-stage Close The Loop framework established in 2015 (resources, design, production, retail, consumption, end of life and systems thinking/sustainable entrepreneurship). Thus, each phase in the cyclical process is discussed conceptually and further illustrated through best practices from a database of more than 350 innovative cases in fashion. Lastly, concrete managerial implications for hands-on strategies to be implemented in fashion are derived.

Results depict the current status quo of technology in fashion and propose the implication of diverse innovations to foster a circular economy. These can range from 3D-virtual prototyping in order to save resources up to block chain systems to increase transparency along the whole value chain. Further findings include the use of technology to create a stronger bond between consumers and their clothing to avoid quick disposal of their items.

Global Fashion Summit 22

Reflections on the Global Fashion Summit: the annual summit hosted by the Global Fashion Agenda aka the place to be if you’re working in the field of sustainable fashion.
There’s a dual feeling attached to my attendance at the Global Fashion Summit this year.

After two years not being able to go out, listen and talk to people, I really looked forward traveling to Copenhagen.

The annual summit hosted by the Global Fashion Agenda is the place to be if you’re working in the field of sustainable fashion. Major companies and industry leaders talk about the changes we need to improve the broken system we’re in. And we need that, urgently.

When the opening keynote from CEO Federica Marchionni started out with the words: “It’s time to move the discussion from ‘why to act’ to ‘how to act’ I got excited. Perhaps too excited.

I’ve attended the summit for years and even though events like this and the discussions on stage are relevant and necessary, it feels as if not much has changed in the past 5 years and we’re still talking too much and acting too little.

The main messages we hear on stage remain the same:
•we need to act – NOW
•we need to collaborate – alliances are necessary
•we’re not going fast enough
•we need to change a broken system

The reality is:
•we needed to act five years ago,
•the collaborations we have, often are still too scattered with too many projects and alliances working next to (and competing with) each other,
•it’s hard to speed up the transition and
•a systems change is something that – at this point – seems a bridge too far.

Or to put it in the words of GFA’s board member Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen:
The more things seem to change, the more they remain the same. We are trying to innovate a broken system. We're not changing the system, we're changing the contours of the system within the boundaries.
There’s a dual feeling attached to my attendance to the Global Fashion Summit this year.

It felt good to talk to people in the hallways and to feel that they too struggle. We struggle being present in a beautiful Opera House in Copenhagen, talking about what needs to change over a warm cup of coffee, whilst at the other end of the world, garment workers are suffering every second. 

I wanted to share these thoughts because it’s easy to share inspiring quotes and impactful numbers on social media. Showing how we’re trying to improve. But I think it’s equally important we share our struggle. My experience working with people in sustainability is that they have the heart in the right place but often get demotivated by the slowness and ‘hugeness’ of the work that needs to be done.

I’m happy that in the hallways of the Copenhagen Opera Hall, we were able to share these thoughts and feelings and got the possibility to motivate each other to keep on going and not to give up. Even if we struggle.

Future Fabrics Expo 22

Article for Fashion United on fabrics that make the fashion industry more sustainable.
This year the ‘Future Fabrics Expo’ blows out ten candles. For a decade now, you can visit London every year to discover the latest developments in sustainable fabrics. Curious about the highlights? We are pleased to list them.
The tenth edition of the Future Fabrics Expo took place on 28 and 29 June in London.

Future Fabrics, what?​

That the fashion and textile industry contributes quite a bit to the climate problem is no secret. The fabrics that are used by the industry to make clothes often have a huge environmental impact. Cotton and polyester together account for about 80 percent of the clothing we wear, according to Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber and Materials Market Report 2021. Cotton requires an enormous amount of water (and pesticides) to grow, resulting in the drying of lakes and disappearing of nature and biodiversity. The production of polyester, on the other hand, requires a great deal of energy. Moreover, this material is made from oil and thus also contributes to the depletion of this non-renewable resource.

More and more brands and designers are therefore looking for better alternatives to the most commonly used materials. And that is where the Future Fabrics Expo comes in. It is the largest expo dedicated to sustainable and responsibly produced materials. You can find both commercially available fabrics and discover the latest innovations.

Inspiration from nature

Many of the innovations that are currently in the development stage take their inspiration from nature. Italian company EMM, for example, has developed a synthetic alternative to leather that is partially (20 percent) made of olive stones, a by-product of the olive oil industry. The base of the material consists of recycled cotton. Bananatex ®, in turn, is made from the Abacá banana plant. This textile is manufactured without pesticides, fertilizers or extra water and has made a lot of progress since its launch in 2018, with a ‘Cradle to Cradle Gold’ certificate last year as the icing on the cake.
Emm synthetic leather with olive stones

Deep in the sea…

Fabric Sourcing Consultant Annet Sunderman specialized in sustainable textiles in recent years and has, for example, already worked with Bananatex ®. She indicates that innovations like this are important for the industry. “Besides fibers like these, I see especially a lot of developments with algae at the fair this year. I really believe that we can expect a breakthrough in that pretty soon.” She refers primarily to ‘Seacell’, a patented material made from seaweed from the fjords and cellulose from sustainably managed forests. “It’s really tremendously soft to the touch, but it’s still pricey.” And with that, Sunderman immediately identifies one of the tricky points. More sustainable materials often have a higher price tag, which is currently delaying their breakthrough. On the other hand, regular fabrics are also rising in price. Cotton, for example, is becoming increasingly scarce with the well-known financial consequences.

Waste becomes raw material: how about recycling?

Not only the ‘bio-based’ solutions are represented at the fair, also recycled materials remain important in the race to use less ‘virgin’ (new) fibers. Besides a lot of recycled fabrics which you can find in the hall with commercially available fabrics, you can also get to know a lot of new projects in the innovation corner. ByPell® – the company that collects waste from tanneries to make recycled leather – is just one example. Recover™ draws on more than 70 years of recycling experience to offer a range of solutions for cotton.
ByPell ® recycled leather
Recover™ recycled cotton

So, tomorrow we’re all green?

Innovations take time. That is the case for every industry. A whole number of players at the fair therefore come back year after year to show progress. And the sector does progress, but for a lightning-fast industry like fashion, the pace sometimes seems slow. It therefore requires a different mindset from buyers and designers: taking the time to explore and test new materials is crucial.

Lieve Vermeire, Sustainability Manager at listed Belgian lingerie company Van de Velde agrees: “The expo gives a good overview of what is already commercially feasible and scalable and what is still in the early stages of research in terms of material innovations. The combination with the seminars, which highlight highly relevant themes, also provides an update on the current state of things. Visiting the expo is an inspiring and motivating boost in the search for how we can have a more positive impact as a company.”

Sustainability in your company: where to start?

Author of the guide for creative entrepreneurs: where to start with sustainability? (Flanders DC)
If you’re in business in the creative industries today, you better be ready for tomorrow. In this guide you can find all the basics on sustainable entrepreneurship and CSR. It helps you if you have no background or idea where to start. It offers links to relevant tools and inspirational articles to get you started.  

Close The Loop

Co-author of the Close The Loop-platform of Flanders DC (in cooperation with Circular Flanders).
In a circular fashion industry, designers, producers, retailers & consumers are challenged to take the whole life cycle of a garment into account. Flanders DC and Circular Flanders guide you through the principles of this sustainable way of working.
Loading new posts...
No more posts