Consumption isn’t the enemy. Dumb consumption is

It’s no secret; Australia has a growing textile waste problem. But what we don’t often talk about is the positive outlook when it comes to the design students and teams who are creating garments with a view to a second, third and even more lives.

Before I continue, I must state a clear and personal point of view that guides my own thinking in this area: consumption is good.

Through the products and services that it creates, it provides jobs, incomes, social purpose and stable societies. The issue that we have had, and increasingly realise, is that our consumption is based on linear principles; make, use and dispose, and this has accelerated beyond a sustainable model.

We now need to think about ‘smart’ consumption and how we will continue to provide the benefits that manufacturing and service roles create, but pivoting the design and construction of those products to circularity principles, including reuse and remake.

When I started to get seriously involved in the recycling and sustainability area, and especially as an ex-retail CEO, I often heard the refrain, ‘we need to consume less’, which really confused me.

At a micro-level, businesses need to grow year on year and at a base level that involves either raising prices ahead of costs or selling more ‘stuff’.

At a macro-level, the population continues to grow and so consumption, in aggregate, will increase.

Boards and CEOs want to be good corporate citizens, as they are human and have morals, but to advocate for a declining revenue line to save the planet is a difficult paradox for businesses to get their heads around, and rightly so.

This thinking took me down the path of ‘how do we increase ‘smart’ consumption and reduce ‘dumb’ consumption’?

Can circularity drive revenue increases?

There are several great thought leadership pieces out there which I would encourage all to have a look at. These include Nike’s Circular Design Guide and IDEO’s The Circular Design Guide, which are thought provoking and great roadmaps for action in this area. They give great insight into the actions that can be taken to drive circularity into design.

I can already hear small-to-medium sized retail businesses, rightfully saying, ‘look great ideas, but we are not Nike,’ and that they are having enough challenges merely driving enough revenue to cover rent and salary costs and the margin challenges of the relentless discounting cycle in retail.

I get all of this. I have been in retail for the past 33 years dealing with these issues day-in-and-day-out, so I am very sympathetic to your challenges.

What I would ask you to consider is how circularity can drive revenue increases. If well communicated and sincere, then the small incremental changes you make today will resonate with and be appreciated by your customers, who will reward you in the future.

This starts and ends with product design.

Think about retailers such as Patagonia, who even when they were relatively small and growing, made decisions about their environmental impact. These decisions still ring true today and have gained them a global reputation for sustainable retailing and increasingly circular principles.

You will be rewarded by your customers for adopting smart design that allows quicker and easier recycling and allows today’s textile waste to become tomorrow’s raw material and resources.

Start with changing your buttons

To demonstrate how design improvement is happening today to aid tomorrow, let me quote a couple of examples from my own area of textile recycling.

When we receive shirts and jackets from uniform suppliers or retailers for separation and recycling, we have to remove all the trims, including buttons and zips, so the downstream outputs of recycled polyester and regenerated cellulose aren’t contaminated (a lot of buttons are made out of nylon, which would contaminate the polyester).

We are now working with several clients on a range of design projects to make the separation process easier and more effective, and in turn make the recycling of end-of-first-life products easier and more effective.

These include ideas such as sourcing virgin polyester buttons for garments so they can be recycled without separation, to more complex ideas such as using retailer’s own recycled polyester output to make recycled polyester buttons and trims, which would reduce their carbon footprint even more.

These are relatively simple design changes, but when applied to the thousands of garments they produce, it means we can offer more effective textile recycling and turn more of today’s garments into valuable resources for tomorrow.

This is a great example of the saying that ‘the secret of true genius is not complexity, but simplicity’. These are design teams making real changes for the future.

So, to change the future, start with changing your buttons!

Adrian Jones is co-founder of BlockTexx.

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