With creative and perseverance, these entrepreneurs are proposing a new mindset for discarded clothes and textiles
The linear model of extracting, producing and discarding, increasingly faster and in increasingly unjustifiable volumes makes less and less sense in accordance with predictions of inconsistent natural resource flows in the not so distant future.
A quick look at the numbers proves that there is something wrong with insisting on the Fordist mindset in the fashion industry. According to a survey by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an English organization established in 2010 with a mission to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, about $500 billion is lost every year in garments that are barely used or recycled. The equivalent of 1 truck of textile waste is discarded worldwide per second.
Even before hitting the store shelves, waste begins in seaming: about 20 to 30% of fabrics are discarded in the piece cutting process. Even the most efficient garment factories, which feature automated processes, can’t lose less than 10%. According to data from Abit — Associação Brasileira da Indústria Têxtil e de Confecção (Brazilian Association of Textile and Clothing Industry) in 2017, only in Brazil 170 thousand tons of textile waste was estimated.
Concerned with such volumes, European governments are beginning to grasp the fashion industry, and its waste, as a problem that must be addressed. France is considering banning the disposal of fashion products. In the United Kingdom, a fee on every fashion item sold by the largest and most profitable companies was considered — value would be one of many ways to make brands responsible for post-consumer products.
Seeing gaps in the industry, and uncomfortable with resource waste — natural and financial — , a range of new businesses are exploring the beginning of what can become a mindset transformation when it comes to creative processes and business models, driven by the concept of reusing as much as possible. Ahead of enforced legislation, brands and designs voluntarily seek to minimize an old and, until now, much-despised problem: the fashion “waste”.
While most brands struggle to accept that post-consumer waste is also the company’s responsibility, turning up their nose at the upcoming legislation, some creative people are showing that it is possible to practice upcycling, even on a large scale. It is not simple, but with imagination, goodwill, collaboration, creativity, and investment reducing waste is an achievable goal.
One of the examples is Banco de Tecido (“Fabric Bank”), a pioneering initiative by Luciana Bueno, which decided to focus on a widespread problem on clothing making: the leftover fabrics of fashion collections.
The Banco de Tecido initiative works like a mixed-economy business: the account holder brings in the fabrics that are no longer useful to them for exchange — earning a credit equivalent to 75% of the total amount. The other 25% is for the Bank’s business maintenance. Whoever wants to buy, without exchanging, can also do it. The price of one kilo of fabric is R$ 45 (around US$ 13), regardless of the material, it can be pure silk or a simple mesh.
The idea came from Luciana’s personal experience with half a ton of fabric leftover from her production as a set designer and costume designer. “When trying to solve this problem, I found that it was a network problem. My first fear was: ‘damn, the fashion network is wild. Will it accept me?’ And we’re only here growing because there is a demand”, she says. With five years of existence, Banco de Tecido currently has 1,100 account holders in the city of São Paulo alone — with customers ranging from the seamstress who takes two buses to get to the Bank’s physical space in Vila Leopoldina, in São Paulo, to established brands.
Luciana focused on the leftover fabrics, a problem that happens because of poor planning, the possibility of buying excessively, and the industry’s lack of responsibility for its waste. She saw the potential of turning fabric into currency. Meanwhile, different initiatives are following other breaches in the production network. Like, for example, overstock of past collections or the piles of clothes that will end up in clogged charity markets that are unlikely to have a second chance.
Mirella Rodrigues is behind Think Blue, a brand from Rio de Janeiro that creates from the good old jeans, one of the most produced items in Brazil. In college, the designer had the first contact with the fabric and noticed contrasting issues: jeans is a very sturdy, very polluting and easily disposable fabric. “I noticed how many pieces they had in the thrift shop I used to go to in the North Zone, and then I thought: ‘why am I going to create more clothes with new jeans if there is a lot of them scattered around, abandoned?’”, she explains. Combining the versatility and strength of the fabric, Think Blue emerged three years ago to work with jeans with a different outlook.
The pieces are made one by one, with a broader range of possibilities than Mirella would have in a linear production model. “I already know the colors I have, the weight of the fabric, the trim. In upcycling, you can work with your creativity all the time”, she says. To make her audience aware of the importance of rethinking fashion processes, Mirella discloses the amount of water used in each garment, how many pants it took to create it, and how many hours it took the seamstress to cut and sew it.
For Agustina Comas, founder of Comas, the insight came after many years working in the industry, and especially from her experience with men’s tailoring. Created in 2015, Comas produces in cotton, circular knit, linen, and denim jeans with clothing that does not reach the conventional market due to minor defects. “Sometimes it’s stains, holes, cutting problems. And we ask: why can’t a defect become an effect? Agustina has been working with upcycling since 2008, but it was when she left her job at Daslu that she began to think of a substantial fabric recycling project.
The inspiration for her clothing design comes from what Agustina calls design by constraint. “It’s not something you start from scratch. ‘Oh, I want to create this, so I go after the fabric’. In our case, with our upcycling technique, we talk about conserving the frozen knowledge of the product, that is, how I will solve this problem using the material in the best way ”, she explains. The limitation creates a creative exercise that Agustina loves. With the fabrics in hand, comes the challenge of building a brand language, with all the products produced after panning shirts flooding stocks somewhere.
Using raw material that is delivered to the company, instead of panning specific items is something that challenges the entire production process of project Re-Roupa (something like Re-Clothing in Portuguese) — created by Gabriela Mazepa in 2013, a time when upcycling was seldom discussed in Brazil. With the purpose of creating new clothes from old clothes, extending their life cycle, the project works in its particular time and space. “We have to deal with these edges along the way because we can run out of raw material midway, or we may need to make bolder fabric fittings, and the workforce isn’t equivalent, because it’s not a simple way to make clothes”, says Gabi.
The inspiration for her clothing design comes from what Agustina calls design by constraint. “It’s not something you start from scratch. In our case, with our upcycling technique, we talk about conserving the frozen knowledge of the product, that is, how I will solve this problem using the material in the best way ”, she explains.
The ability to use what is on hand enables the designer to work on a wide range of projects. Since just over a year ago, Gabi has been working with FARM for the re-FARM project, responsible for giving new life to the thousands of clothes parked in the stocks from this brand from Rio de Janeiro. Gabi also signs costumes for artists and theater, as well as managing her brand, with a shop-atelier space open to the public at Santa Cecília neighborhood, in São Paulo.
To imprint a little more agility in production and make the business viable, each brand working with upcycling seeks to create its methodologies, which end up being a mix of serial production processes with handiwork. “I understand I cannot use a single methodology. We work the pieces one by one, but we figured out a way to use a cutting machine, for example. Our quantities are variable but steadily increasing”, explains Gabi. Recently, Re-Roupa delivered the production of over 1,500 pieces to Farm.
Agustina, alternatively, says that she developed the Comas method of “Old school Upcycling”, which involves various processes and techniques. “We have the datasheet, the recipes, the measurement tables, but it’s still a handicraft job, mainly because we don’t sew the pieces serially”, she explains. The clothes are sewn from beginning to end by a single seamstress, and the strips of fabric are delivered cut one by one in the small workshops. The technique helps to optimize production.
Besides, she can also apply the same mindset to other “leftovers”. Oricla, Oricla Ponta de Rolo and Caquinhos fabrics started from there. “We create and produce [Oricla] from the edges, the side edges of the shirts. With Oricla Ponta de Rolo, we take the ends of the roll that remain as leftovers after doing the “Enfesto” process (when a fabric is placed on the table for cutting)”, she explains. The piece of fabric is usually sold by the pound. With the “Caquinhos” line, Comas also works with circular knitting, in which it takes the knit leftovers and joins them, creating a new fabric.
Prototyping and piece cutting processes are the biggest challenges for Mirella. She points out that when working with a small team, helping and suggesting ideas to solve problems is limited, but it is nonetheless an enriching process from start to finish. “I have the privilege of exercising my creativity. I’d rather have challenges like this every day than cut the same 50 pants”, she states.
How to maintain and grow brands and projects that rely on a less robotic structure and are built with more human hands, in a scenario dominated by linear thinking, volume, scalability, and speed of fast fashion? Truth be told: it is not an easy task.
For Gabi Mazepa, the processes of testing, making mistakes, and losing money are natural and individual to each company. With Re-Roupa, she balances expenses with in-company consulting and workshops, without relying solely on her brand sales. Augustina also bets on workshops for interested people and partnerships with larger brands. Comas has been at SPFW along with Fernanda Yamamoto and made the first test working with a large factory, Souza e Campos. Increasing and optimizing production to reach more people and generate profit is a time-consuming mission.
Luciana realizes that her most significant challenge in bringing the Banco de Tecido solution to a growing audience is the lack of funds. “In social or environmental businesses, actually in all of them, sometimes the purpose of the scale is not to be gigantic, but to reach more [people].” For her, the lack of investment culture in Brazil is a limiting factor for the scalability of new small and medium enterprises. “I am doing it, but I am doing it in the way and pace that a small business allows me.”
It is essential to highlight that scale and amount of financial contribution directly affect the final price of the product in stores. Today, low prices are made possible by, among other things, volume. The more you produce and the more access to the means of production, the cheaper it gets. For those who are challenging this productive logic, this is a bottleneck that, to be overcome, depends much more on collaboration between various links in the productive network, than on a simple effort to produce more and lower prices. “Any solution has to be networked, including from small and medium businesses with large ones”, says Luciana.
Being inserted into a logic, trying to transcend it, also has its social gains. Banco de Tecido account holders, for example, work in an environmental collaboration, which is also a social one. “The [Bank] system offers a way to improve production, productivity, and pricing”, says Luciana. In this way, micro and small entrepreneurs may have greater autonomy and access than the industry, which operates on the scale of the thousands, does not offer them.
Mirella bets on the dissemination of information about her products on her website and social networks as a way to, first, value the work of the fashion production network and secondly, to alert to environmental responsibility. “They understand that clothes do not spring up in front of us. There are humans behind the clothes and valuing them is paramount to me”, she says.
Gabriela evaluates that Re-Roupa often enables the first contact of many people of the productive network with this new mindset, way beyond employees and clothing cooperatives. The workshops are a tool for something bigger, like working together with strangers and challenging yourself manually. “Sewing is an ancestral activity, somewhere in our cellular history we’ve done it”, says Gabi.
The reasoning logic of upcycling is also a positive balance for Agustina. “This part of disseminating ideas in workshops is a vital part of the company today”, she says. By capacitating critical thinkers, not action repeaters, the customer comes to understand how the product is made, its cost. Those who are trained to work on this new model learn to think in a non-robotic way.
It is in a changing fashion market that upcycling is opening its way to promote more profound dialogues than merely “recycling” clothes. “We are actually looking to rethink consumption, the extraction of virgin resources, to rethink people’s relationship with clothes,” says Agustina.
Changing the movement is not easy in a production chain that has been operating since the eighteenth century in the linear and capitalist system. But as Luciana warned, this system is being questioned in all areas and has now reached the fashion and textile industries. It is a process that has no return and is swaying from micro to large companies.